Bookstore Owner Turns a Page by Asking Customers to Spend More

by Kristine Hansen on March 28, 2013
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Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill., knew her independent bookstore was in trouble and needed to start a new chapter. It was the summer of 2011, and the store had just celebrated its sixth anniversary.

“We were at a pretty critical point with cash flow,” says Lynes, who works at the store with four part-time employees. Closing the store’s doors for good would be the easy answer, but she wasn’t ready to cave in just yet. “I said to my husband, ‘We can’t do that.’”

So, Lynes took a risk. She mailed a letter to 500 loyal customers, asking them to buy more. She told them that, if they didn’t, she might have to close. She made a specific request: Either spend an additional $35 each month or buy a $100 gift card. Support poured in, and Lynes was able to stay in business.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently caught up with Lynes to chat about how she saved her small business.

ISBB: What did you write in the letter?

Lynes: I was very careful about how I phrased it, which is that we had no more to give. I didn’t want people to feel like they were being coerced. I have a lot of gratitude for the community, and I wanted to come from that perspective.

We had just lost a longtime, family-owned stationery store across the street from me. They were forced to close, somewhat immediately. You could tell, over the years, as Walmart and Office Depot came in, how much they’d struggled. People were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we had no idea.’ So many people were upset that they didn’t know about the store’s demise and there wasn’t something they could have done.

What inspired you to take this kind of action?

From the outside, perhaps everything looked OK, but things were actually really tough. Every small business walks that line. We increased awareness about what it means to run a small business.

There had been another bookstore in this town. As Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Sam’s Club came to nearby Crystal Lake, the owner of that bookstore would write letters to the editor of the local newspaper that were scathing. It was very difficult to shop there. The majority of the time, I would stop in and nobody would say hello. A lot of times, people panic, and they forget to ask, ‘Am I serving the community I want to be serving?’

Did this campaign strengthen your customer base and increase profits?

Yes. The result was pretty amazing. The people who received it started spreading the word on Facebook and other social media. Then it kind of took a life of its own. As a result, we really increased awareness.

Kristine Hansen is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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