The book section of the de Young Museum, a fine arts museum in San Francisco

Why Books Belong in Museum Stores

October 17, 2016

By Stuart Hata

Why do books belong in Museum Stores? In an environment where every single sliver of profit margin and sales is vitally important to our businesses and museums, should books be given their fair space and representation in our stores? The answer is a resounding “yes!”

First, full disclosure – I owe my career to bookstores. Prior to my museum career, my first jobs were in the book selling industry. After a simple start as a sales clerk in a local bookstore chain during high school, I “graduated” to a book buyer for a national chain and mail-order business, and eventually became responsible for a multi-million dollar book business. And then, I stumbled onto the museum store profession.

Fortunately, my love for books combined with my love for museums as I soon discovered that most museum stores originated as “bookstores,” primarily selling exhibition and collection catalogues and a handful of postcards. As our industry developed, so did the books that we sold – from simple, black and white, staple-bound brochures to the well-designed, full-color museum publications, exhibition catalogues and related titles available in the variety of formats and price points we see today. Books and museum publications truly are the “backbone” of museum stores and should continue to be a core category for any museum store.

Not only do we directly fulfill our mission to educate the public by selling books in our stores, but books also document, represent and communicate our institution’s collections and programming for the sake of our cultural patrimony.

At the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, books greet our visitors at the front of each store location. The current exhibition catalogues, museum collection books and best-selling titles on display help to set the educational tone of our stores and announce to our customers that books are important.

The placement is also strategic from a sales perspective. By having the titles front and center as customers enter and exit the stores, our sales associates are able to use the books to speak with our customers about their museum visits and maximize purchases. Books are also featured throughout the stores, either in their respective category sections or cross-merchandised with other products. Most titles are “faced out” for maximum display and selling advantage. A bookseller once told me that if a customer picks up a book in their hand, the chances are 50% that they will purchase the title. We want to make sure every book has the highest opportunity to be picked up and sold.

In a world where bookstores are becoming increasingly rare, museum stores can help fill-in certain voids, such as offering local-interest titles in addition to mission-related tomes. Museums are, after all, connected to certain places, and most receive visitors from all over the country and world. In our stores, our section of local-interest “San Francisco” titles not only fulfills the interest and needs of locals and visitors alike, but it also helps to communicate the special place our museum occupies within our community.

Books also provide great opportunities for collaboration and partnerships both within and outside the museum. Within our institution, I work very closely with our publications department on title development for upcoming exhibitions and collection needs. The store has valued input on choosing the cover image, as well as determining specifications, including trim size, page count, retail price and print run.

Museum publications have become the bestselling category of merchandise in our stores, representing 10 to 15% of our total sales. As a result, our Publications department is our No. 1 vendor, and we are their No. 1 customer.

I’d like to acknowledge that we are not the museum store norm. We happen to be located in a city and region with a high amount of book lovers and tourists. Outside of the museum, we actively pursue publishing opportunities with external collaborators, particularly in the area of special publications, such as children’s and general interest books.

Our museum’s first children’s title, the award-winning “I Heart Art” guided activity journal, co-published with MSA vendor member Galison/Mudpuppy, was inspired by works of art from our collection with activities written from our education department. The book has been a best seller ever since it was published in 2014. hata_headshot-msa-2016We can’t wait for the MSA member-developed “I Heart Museums,” of which we are a participant, to be released next year. It will definitely be featured throughout our stores, and I am confident that it will be another best seller!

Books always have been a part of and should always belong in museum stores. Not only do they directly fulfill a museum store’s educational mission and bring in much needed revenue, but they also help communicate and emphasize the importance of museum stores’ to our institutions and communities.

Do you have enough books in your museum store?

Stuart Hata is the current MSA Board President and the Director of Retail Operations at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

3 replies
  1. Becke Bolinger says:

    As a long time bookseller before I took over management of our museum store, I agree that books are very important to our inventory. They still make up the majority of our sales. We have recently taken the step of joining our regional Independent Bookseller Association as an Independent Bookseller. (We have been a member as a academic press for years.) This gives us exposure in their marketing as well as giving us the opportunity to go to the association shows where we can see new items from many, many publishers. We can also take advantage of show specials that give us discounts up to 60% off the cover price.

  2. Tom Rechlin says:

    Stuart, thank you for this fine article. I can’t imagine a world without actual hard copy books. Museums can help fill the void!

    Thanks again,

    Tom Rechlin, Operations Manager
    RexTooth Studios
    153 Nash Creek Ln
    Bozeman, MT 59715
    (406) 599-1747

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