Stacking up

One of the major changes we have made in store is to the backend systems. When we bought it, the store ran on ancient point of sale software and two even more ancient PCs (two because neither PC was capable of running both the point of sale software and a web browser at the same time). The software was stored on the PCs, meaning that work on the stock and reporting could only be done in store. We didn't have a functioning inventory system (although we did have a full stock list).

Processes otherwise were somewhat haphazard too. Lots of notes written on small pieces of paper. Some notebooks with receipts and notes stapled in, hand-written comments and updates, and many crossings-out. A credit system stored in a ringbound folder.

We wanted to reduce the effort required to run the store day to day, systematise our processes so everyone could do the same thing consistently, and enable more people to be involved (including people who are not physically in store). Since the previous systems had the virtue of being very cheap, we expected to spend a bit more on overheads as part of the change.

This is the technology we now use in our marvellous bookstore.


  • At the heart of it is the point of sale system. We use Vend, a great system made by a New Zealand company. We pay $150 a month for unlimited products (one peril of secondhand bookstore is a lot of unique products: we have 22,000). The system runs in the cloud, so I can look at sales or products or reporting in real time when I am not in store, and Julie can do the same from New York.

  • We use Google Sheets (free) for adding, moving, changing and deleting stock in Vend.

  • For task management and collaboration, we use Trello (also free). We have divided the things to do up into ten boards (like Customer requests, Communications, Instore, Stock, Strategy, and Admin). On each board we put cards for tasks to do on the lefthand side in an inbox, and as tasks are progressed the cards are moved to the right towards completion. Each week I move cards from the Inbox to Todo to reflect what I want to do next, remove cards that are done, and tidy up the boards. Anyone working in store can easily figure out what to do next by just looking at the cards, and we can all leave notes on them to show progress.

  • Our website is built using Squarespace. It was super easy to set up and links directly with Facebook (the only social media that we use). This means that updates from the store go to the site and to Facebook at the same time, with traffic coming back to the site. For conversations with customers and advertising, we use Facebook, email, text messaging and the telephone.

On smaller things:

  • We use Dropbox for file storage (free for a modest level of storage). Our files are arranged in folders with the same names as our Trello Boards to keep things easily organised.

  • We use Xero for accounting ($50 a month). We can easily see where we are at at any time from anywhere, and it makes it simple to collaborate with our helpful accountant.

  • We use Zoho Creator ($100 a year) to track our 800 collectible books. Zoho is easy to use to make a form-based system from a single spreadsheet. We put the collectible book listings on ABE, a second-hand book search engine.

  • Our domain names are managed with Discount Domains. Our email comes through Google ($5 a month).

  • I use Typora (free) for writing in markdown, a delightful way to compose, shorn of the complexity of Word or Google Docs.


  • We retired the two ancient PCs and now run the store on a single Google Chromebook (which gives us a lot more deskspace as well as all the other benefits). I have my computer in store when I am there too, since it is faster and it is easier to use for some things.

  • We have unlimited VDSL from Vodafone plus a couple of excellent WiFi access points that make it simple to offer decent WiFi for customers and for our own use.

  • We have a landline phone so people can call us. I call people back on my mobile because it is already paid for (and of course mobile is the only way to text).

  • I got rid of the fax machine :-)

  • We have an EFTPOS terminal. It is ugly (why must these things be so badly designed?) and it has two cables (one for power, one for Internet) that get in the way. A few more words on payments in the next blog post.

Adding up

This table compares what the store used to pay a month in technology overheads with what we pay now.

Item Then Now
Point of sale $0 $150
Internet $160 $160
Collectible books$0$10

You can see that we are spending nearly $3,000 a year more than we used to on technology. There are some upsides. It is easier to manage the store now than it was (especially adding, editing, changing and deleting books). Vend is far superior to the software we used to use for reporting too. We can check on progress remotely and share information in ways that were impossible with the previous system. Our website is functional where the old one was not.

There is no shortage of options for the future. We have our collectible books online through ABE. One thing that is often suggested to me is to make all our books (not just the collectible ones) searchable online. To do this we need pictures of the covers and we would need to format the information we have on each book consistently because otherwise search is going to be a bad time. But computers and free online book databases make this at least possible to think about. Chatbots are cool.

The temptation for someone who works in tech is always to sprinkle some more technology on things. With the well-functioning processes and systems we have now, our main problem remains foot traffic. So in my view, we are better to focus on solving that next.