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Small Business Profile: Skylight Books

Artsy indie bookstore expands, grows sales, beats the odds.
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Seeking advice from fellow booksellers, incremental growth and timely communication with creditors are among the plot points in the success story for Skylight Books, a popular leftist-leaning and artsy bookstore in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, says Kerry Slattery, general manager and co-owner.

When it is the perception that many independent bookstores are unable to compete with the giants like

Barnes & Nobles

(BKS) - Get Barnes & Noble, Inc. Report

and Crown Books, the 12-year-old bookstore that champions countercultural subjects and the "more off beat writers and film makers" recently completed the expansion of its store in early August, from a modest 2,000 square feet to 3,100 square feet of selling space.

Slattery describes it as a gradual growth: "We set aside funds for store improvements, but only to grow incrementally, until we needed to absolutely go to the next step."

And then the opportunity came up for a space next door. "At the time, we were feeling overcrowded, and we definitely needed to better display the inventory that we had." In the two weeks since the expansion, the store has increased sales, even though the inventory remained the same, she says.

Arts-related books including architecture, film, theatre, graphic novels and a magazine section welcoming the breathing room, easily occupied the new space.

The bookstore last year grossed 1.6 million dollars.

Without much money in the beginning, "we were very economical about the money that we spent, the amount of staff we hired; we tried to keep it all very simple," says Slattery.

Her goal then was to have the best and smartest staff -- even though it was small, and to have the smartest selection of books -- even if they didn't have many.

"People came because it was curated, and selection seemed to be right for the neighborhood. That's the clue," says Slattery who describes the neighborhood as a "busy, urban, walking neighborhood, with a diverse population of people."

Seek Help

The store opened in 1996 on the site of another bookstore that had been there since the 1970s. "They were knowledgeable about books, but not about business," says Slattery.

She has found there to be an extraordinary amount of mutual support among independent booksellers. First when she reached out to successful book dealers for advice, and more recently through the efforts of the American Booksellers Association who increasingly provide useful resources, including business seminars and other resources for the independent bookstore owner.

"We just debuted a program this last three months called, a way to reach the public better, a marketing initiative for publishers, for the public and for us to have resources that we can share with one another."

When she was still a novice, Slattery sought mentorship from two legendary booksellers, longtime former general manager of A Different Light, Richard LaBonte, in San Francisco, and Margie Ghiz, the longtime owner of Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, Calif.

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"I consider one of biggest strengths is not being afraid to ask others for help." She made her way to San Francisco, to meet LaBonte. "He shared everything. Had me follow him around for three days, and showed me every piece of information that he could."

"Was it sensible to get into the book selling business? I said, 'Of course not, but the best in things in life are not sensible'," LaBonte recalls telling her. "I talked about my philosophy of books and my philosophy of staff management. I had her stock shelves, do inventories, order stock electronically, and host a reading, all the bits and pieces."

"The way to succeed is to plug oneself as firmly into the community as one can," adds LaBonte. "It was definitely a community-rooted store, and when she opened it they came flocking back because they missed the one that had been there before, and she took that as the base. The community events she sponsors and her fabulous energy have made it one of the major smaller independent bookstores in the country."

Loud and Clear

A piece of advice she remembered from Ghiz: "Don't water down your message. Keep to your convictions."

And when it comes to the events that they host, she does do not shy away from controversial authors. "Just after Sept. 11, when Americans were fearful of talking about anything political, people felt comfortable to come and talk in our store," she says.

Among their upcoming lineup of readings, they will be featuring Wafaa Bilal, the Iraqi American artist best known for his work Domestic Tension, where he lived in a gallery for a month and was shot by paintballs interactively by Internet users watching from a Webcam. The show had been recently banned from a university in New York.

Contact Creditors First

Slattery offers an early good business tip: When she needed to order books on credit at the early stages, she says: I learned to keep in touch with all the publishers before they called me." She created a system using faxes and filled in the blanks.

"And we got everybody current, and everybody stuck with us and was fine. The biggest thing is being in communication with them before they contact you."

Growing Breed

An actress by trade, she went into the book business as a second career. Now at age 64 she remarks on a growing number of women who are over 60 who are major booksellers in this country. "At so many of the major bookstores in the country you have smart females who are over 60 who are vital, lively business women who are not thinking of retiring anytime soon, and that's very exciting, because in the business world, that's not so usual."

"They are often on the forefront of innovation as well. They are not frail old ladies." As examples, she mentions Carla Cohen of

Politics & Prose

in Washington D.C., Roberta Rosen at

The Book Stall

in the Chicago area and Joyce Meskis of

The Tattered Cover

in Denver.

"They have been in the forefront of first amendment issues and other cutting-edge issues, they are not sitting back and running a cute little bookstore, they've created major places," she says.

Genia Gould is a freelance journalist based in New York City and the publisher of a community newspaper, WG News + Arts, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.