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Starting a bookstore in the era of Amazon

 Posted: 2:00 AM August 09, 2013

In an era of e-books and Amazon.com, who would be crazy enough to start a bookstore?

Wendy Welch and her husband did just that, embarking on a seemingly quixotic mission when they set up shop in Big Stone Gap, Va.

In the middle of an economic recession. In a small town faced with a dying coal industry.

Welch chronicles the couple's adventures in "The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book."

After Welch leaves a soul-stifling government job, she and her husband buy a rambling old house in Big Stone Gap.

They have no experience running a bookstore, but intend to live upstairs and turn the downstairs rooms into a used book shop.

Refusing to go into debt to launch the shop, the two raid their personal book collections to stock their new business.

They end up with books of questionable salability on the shelves — such as "Crocheted Finger Puppets" and "Morphology of the Folk Tale" — and still have a minuscule inventory.

Their mad scramble to find books to sell becomes a crash course in business, market research and marketing. Welch hits the local garage sales, amassing 10-year-old Harlequin romances and Danielle Steele novels.

"The shelves grew fat on these unsellable space-takers until I wised up," Welch writes.

She begins chatting with garage sale-holders, and learns that residents are interested in horror, Christian romances, Westerns, science fiction, fantasy and other genres in short supply at her book shop.

Welch also begins to realize that the time and gas money she expends on her garage-sale hunts are barely worth the investment.

One day, after noticing that the yet-to-open shop lacks enough science fiction, Welch phones her sister to beg for her science fiction collection.

Welch bemoans the shop's lack of inventory and her pragmatic sister suggests a business-saving idea. Give potential customers credit for future purchases when they turn in their unwanted books at the shop.

A friend gives the couple unlimited access to her photocopier in exchange for book credit, and the couple are soon blanketing the town with fliers about store credit for trade-ins.

The floodgates open, and eventually the shelves are full enough for the shop to open.

Opening day is a huge success, with community members filling the store and Big Stone Gap's mayor welcoming them to town.

Then all is quiet, with only a tiny handful of customers coming in each day.

The couple read a blood-chilling business formula that predicts their used book shop's annual income based on Big Stone Gap's population will be $1,000 per year.

They pull out all the stops to broaden their reach, with Welch's husband resorting to handing out promotional bookmarks outside a Walmart superstore two towns over.

The rest of the story about how the couple eventually build a solid base for their bookstore and become integral members of the community is an inspiring and touching tale.

"The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap" is available at the Ashland library and through local bookstores. It's also available at Amazon.com, although you're likely to feel awfully guilty if you go that route.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.


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