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The book is dead...long live the book...



Print is dead, the sages say, but don’t tell that to Shane Gottwals, the franchisor of Walls of Books. He began franchising his used-books store concept last summer, after developing four corporate stores from his home base in Warner Robins, Georgia.

Sales at first were dismal at the original 1,500-square-foot store operated by his wife, Abbey, in 2007. “The first year we had one day when we had sold one book for $3.97 the entire day. She was so depressed,”  he says. Gottwals still has scribbled notes from that time, when he was selling televisions and the couple’s goal for the store was to one day make $5,000 profit.

Shane and Abbey Gottwals

Shane and Abbey Gottwals believe Walls of Books, their used-books store concept, should be an integral part of every community.

Grabbing more space

But then the nail salon next door moved out and the Gottwals grabbed the space. They began perfecting the list of which books they absolutely had to have in stock, which today is a key piece of their strategy: no hodgepodge of books at estate-sale prices and in poor condition. Rather, they buy from a used-books warehouse armed with their list of must-haves.

They reached out to the press, which covered the story of an independent bookstore that was actually expanding, right when every store from Borders on down began closing. And by 2009, when the economy was tanking, “our business just took off,” Gottwals says.

“No matter what the economy looks like they’re always going to be entertaining themselves,” he says about his customers. “Spending $15 on a brand-new trade paperback at Barnes & Noble is a lot different than choosing us and buying the same book for $5 or $6.”

They built three more stores in short order, and then hired The Franchise Maker in San Diego to launch their franchising effort. One franchisee has signed on, in Tifton, Georgia.

Gottwals says inventory acquisition is key to the model’s success, as well as set procedures for both trading books and buying books. “We don’t do the dollar tables. We don’t do any of those estate-sale things, like buy 10 books, get 10 books free,” he says.

Gottwals says the reason so many bookstores closed is that starting in about 2000, too many opened and they occupied lots of real estate and employed lots of people before the rise of amazon.com and rampant price-slashing cut into profit margins. The biggest casualty of the bookstore chains was Borders, which in 2011 closed 600 stores after filing for bankruptcy.

King of them all

“And then the king of them all, the e-book comes in,” Gottwals says, but even that rising business (see related trivia questions on page 8) ends up boosting his used books sales, he says. “Someone might pick up the new John Grisham and download it on their e-reader, and then they say, ‘I’d like to read all the other ones.’ Instead of spending $5, $6 or $7, they come to us and get it for $2 or $3. The used-books industry is going strong.”

There are 10,800 bookstores in all in the United States, according to census data, down 12.2 percent from 12,363 in 1997. E-books captured $3.2 billion of the bookselling market in 2011, and that number is predicted to grow to nearly $10 billion by 2016, according to OEDb.

Gottwals, undeterred, hopes to build Walls of Books into a national brand. “There’s so many closing,” he says, “but I just don’t think the day of the bookstore is gone. A bookstore is part of the community.

“If you’re only getting your books from a box that says Amazon on the cover—we’re just not appreciating the culture of reading anymore,” Gottwals says.