Store of the Week: The Book Shelf in Winona, Minnesota

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The Book Shelf in the southeastern Minnesota town of Winona has been open since August 2002, when Chris Livingston started the store with his wife, Mari.

Before relocating to Winona from Seattle, Livingston was the regional manager of 12 electronics stores, the largest of which was 52,000 square feet. Now master of Book Shelf's single 3,000-square-foot space, he is fulfilling his long-held desire to operate a small-town bookstore.

Starting the store with no experience in book retailing, Livingston relied on the American Booksellers Association's guide to opening a bookstore and on assistance from other booksellers. In the spring of 2002, prior to the store's August opening, he attended the trade show of the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association -- now the Midwest Booksellers Association -- and networked extensively with area booksellers. "Every bookseller I contacted was very happy to take my calls and answer questions about the business," he explained. Now, as a member of the MBA Board, Livingston passes on his knowledge to newer booksellers.

Although his previous experience gave Livingston a background in customer service and marketing, it did not prepare him for some of the unique challenges that book retailers face. "My experience in the electronics business did not always translate to the book business in which the merchandise is pre-priced," he said. "The terms of sale are not determined by the buyer and the purchasing factors of negotiation, volume, and placement that I was used to did not apply to books. I was also limited in my product knowledge -- only reading certain types of books. I realized that I had to diversify [my reading], and now I enjoy many different genres."

Chris Livingston

As a regional manager for a very large corporation, Livingston was required to meet sales goals and minimize overhead costs, but he did not have to monitor cash flow or keep the store's financial records "That's a very difficult part of the job," he told BTW.

Last fall, Livingston took over 1,300 square feet from a neighboring store to expand The Book Shelf to its current size. With the increased space, the store quadrupled its children's section, so it now makes up one-half of the total inventory. The store also began selling textbooks, mostly used, to compete with the campus bookstore of Winona State University.

The Book Shelf features two reading series a year in conjunction with the university, featuring university press titles, poetry, and other events of interest to the academic community.

Livingston explained that the Book Sense program features prominently in his store. "Our use of Book Sense stuff is huge," he said. "Shoppers are hit with Book Sense everywhere they go in the store. The first thing you see when you walk in is the Book Sense Bestseller List. We also have the top six titles from the four main lists. They are on display before the new releases. The first two islands are Book Sense Picks."

The Book Shelf is selling Book Sense gift cards, and Livingston has been pleased with the results. He noted that the store's "sales have increased to cover the cost of the cards.

"We also use the Book Sense lists for our ongoing local advertising. [The magazines] use the design of the list, including jacket images and the quotes, to build our recurring ads." --Nomi Schwartz