Bookstore Owner Turns a Page by Asking Customers to Spend More

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.

About Kristine Hansen

A Wisconsin-based freelance writer, Kristine Hansen contributes business stories to many food and drink trade journals, as well as CNN.com, and blogs about mindful travel at Psychology Today. She also dishes out advice for writers at The Writer Magazine about running a successful writing business.
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6 comments
Jeff Snell
Jeff Snell

While endearing as this story is the economic facts remain that most niches go through cycles of locally owned to big box retailers owning marketshare.  Some may argue more move towards big box never to return.  As a business broker I've seen this in wine stores, book stores, stationers, wall paper stores, etc.  Books are a commodity and if all you are selling is books you don't have long to live. There has to be an experience (starbucks) or other products/services.  I won't lament having to tell my kids what book stores were any more than I will having to tell them what buggy whips were.  Times change.  It's not always a David vs. Goliath story.

Michael Rolph
Michael Rolph

Bold. Brilliant. Hats off to Arlene for developing personal relationships with her customers, and having the courage to leverage those relationships when everything was on the line. GREAT find Kristine. Thanks for sharing.

SrihariYamanoor
SrihariYamanoor

Please step into a bookstore, wherever you are and whoever you are. Buy something, anything. Otherwise, you will have to explain to your kids what they used to be!

mmaule
mmaule

Arlene is a true gem in our community. She supports local writers, has a exceptional shop ou name it, she does it. 

I am so proud of her. 

Jan Snyder
Jan Snyder

It makes me happy to see a small business owner think outside the box, as the customers for help and succeeds in today’s economy!  Woohoo!!! Have a great day......

 

Jan Snyder - Personal Banker - Fidelity Bank  

 

Lori Elliott Webster
Lori Elliott Webster

Inspiring to many of us small retailers who are struggling!  It seems to go against the usual business practices of always presenting your business as successful, but in these days of so much big-box competition, educating your community on the values of shopping at local, independent businesses is a good thing.  I have been known to answer posts on online news blogs in a defensive manner when someone is maligning mom & pop shops, but have never wrote a letter to any newspaper editor.  Hoping those replies don't construe as too strident, but then again, someone has to stand up for all of us!