Buy the Book

Black bookstores may be the way of the dinosaur. Here's what retailers must do to survive and thrive.

will come from online sales,” advises QBR publisher Rodriguez. “Online, virtual bookstores can help [black booksellers] with inventory issues because you don’t actually have to have the inventory in stock,” he says of the way booksellers can set up a site but use a distributor to fulfill orders.

That’s the benefit that McGee hopes to reap with the launch of her new Web site (www.applebookcenter.com). “We’ll be able to tap into the stock of a larger distributor. We’ll be able to say we have 2.5 million book titles too.”

But putting up a Web site is not an inexpensive proposition. It can range from as little as $300 to more than $4,000 just to build the site and another $250-$300 a month to maintain it. If a retailer wants to include chat-room facilities for online author chats, the venture becomes even costlier. Even the big online bookstores such as Amazon.com have yet to turn a profit selling via the Internet.

Small store owners like Eso Won’s Fugate admit their venture into cyberspace retailing has met with little success. “It hasn’t helped very much in terms of sales,” Fugate says of his Web site launched in 1996. “But it’s been very helpful in terms of advertising. Authors have found us, as well as people who lived 30 or 40 miles away and didn’t know that we exist.”

Villarosa experienced a similar level of disappointment after putting up a Web site for Hue-Man in 1995. “I made $300,” she says. “Most African Americans aren’t buying over the Web. We’re more suspicious about credit card security,” she posits. So she advises that, for the time being, black bookstore owners consider cyberspace as a vehicle to advertise rather than a means for earning revenue.

MARKETING SPURS DEMAND
Traditionally black booksellers have operated as grassroots, community-based businesses that depended more on word of mouth than advertising to draw customers. But advertising is becoming a necessity for indies to hold their own against the chain stores.

“Many black booksellers don’t advertise because they automatically believe it’s too costly,” says McGee, who runs ads promoting her bookstore with newspapers, TV and radio stations. “We have customers who say, ‘We’re just seeing your name all the time,’ and I think, yes, because we advertise,” says McGee, who admits to spending more on advertising than most bookstores. “I’m closer to 10% of gross sales, where the average bookstore, according to ABA data, spends more like 2%.”

McGee advises, however, that booksellers with small budgets can still make an impact by looking for good deals and placing ads around key holidays such as Christmas, Kwanzaa, Mother’s and Father’s Day. She maximizes her own advertising budget by spending it with secondary outlets that give the best bargain in cost, audience size and demographics. For instance, instead of advertising with local TV network affiliates, McGee places commercial spots with Detroit’s cable carrier. “We’ve gotten ads on stations like the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Lifetime and CNN for as little as $10 a pop,” she says, noting that these

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