When you’re planning a business, your thoughts are filled with dreams and ideas. It’s fun to think about what you’ll carry, who will shop at the store, and what people will want to buy. These become the foundations of the business plan and you make so many decisions based on these assumptions.

And then you open the doors.

So now that we’re at the 90-day mark, here are some of the surprises we’ve had along the way. Some pleasant, some not so much, yet all of the lessons are valuable.

Mother’s Day books and gifts enjoy the focal point display at the main entrance. Customers need help finding the right gift.

Retail shortfalls become bookstore opportunities. We keep hearing the business news report that retail is in significant decline due to online shopping. While that may be true for many kinds of retailers, it has not proven true for us. Greeting cards are in such demand we scramble to keep the pockets full. Quality products are in short supply. Some people want higher quality than what cheap goods just got off-loaded on a freighter from China. New baby gifts are hot in our grandparent market.

Gifts can make you a destination. One of our customers came to the store to buy her husband a 75th birthday present. She purchased a $160 globe that revolves with power from any light source. Our fourth order for these gloves has been sent in so we have more for our Father’s Day display. People often don’t think of buying a gift far in advance. While some of these gifts are for children’s birthday parties, many are for “big” birthdays, weddings, and graduations … life’s big moments.

Uniqueness sells. I never expected to have so much product on consignment. Yes, we do have some local books on consignment, but in support of our theme of “the art of living,” we initially brought on five local artists and hung their art throughout the store. Friends make beautiful pottery, so we set a breakfast table and paired it with cookbooks and fabric runners and napkins made by a neighbor.     My dear friend’s Kanzashi pins (the Japanese fabric folding) tell a beautiful story. All of these items are one-of-a-kind. In an era of mass production, uniqueness sells.

“Shop Local” awareness is greater than expected. Yes, there are people who come in and take a photo of books and our shelf-talkers, but this is rare. Many times each and every day people comment how happy they are that we have opened Story & Song and they will be shopping at our store because they want us to succeed. Still, we have “Shop Local” messages in the store because we know that consumer education is ongoing.

“New” doesn’t matter as much as we think. In the book business, we’re constantly trying to keep up on what’s just off the press and in the news. While this matters with some books and authors, it plays a very small part of what sells on any given day. People want and need you to point out worthy books and special items. When you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to find it online. Carry what you and your staff love and want to sell.

Be open to a greater vision, one that goes beyond books. We are a bookstore, yet we are also about quality gifts, wine, concerts, conversation, and art. In a small market like ours, people are hungry for a more interesting experience and our business needs income from all of those areas to be sustainable.

It’s been fun (and exhausting) and I’m feeling the surprises along the way will always keep things interesting.

This past Monday, we submitted our large opening order to our wholesaler and a second order to a remainder dealer (for bargain books). The volume count just topped 11,000 and there will be a last minute order to catch the newest titles on the bestseller lists as January is also a big month for new releases.

A bookstore of just over 2,000 selling square feet can fit this many books. And, there is a lot of data about what books are available, what’s on the bestseller lists, which books just won awards, and what is currently selling in U.S. independent bookstores. That’s the good news.

The bad news is there is a lot of data about all kinds of books. While doing our planogram made it clear how many books we’d need to fill the shelves, selecting the titles was time consuming.

Our shelf-talker introduces Sweet Pea, the little New England sheep that began as the star of a self-published book.

Our shelf-talker introduces Sweet Pea, the little New England lamb that began as the star of a self-published book.

How time consuming? Susan Savory, our Paz & Associates colleague who develops opening inventories for our clients, has always estimated that it takes her about 100 hours, but this also depends on the size of the bookstore. That’s a lot of time. With Mark and I joining in on the selection, we went way over 100 hours.

Now, I know first-hand why it takes so long. It’s tedious, it’s detailed, and, it’s important. Inventory is the single biggest cost of owning any retail store.

When you’re selecting titles, it goes beyond the numbers. It’s about the people who live in your community, those you especially want to be enchanted when they shop in your store, and it’s about the character of the store and the special aspects of your region.

Imagine that each title on the spreadsheet requires a decision. You want each to resonate in your market because you need them all to sell … and hopefully within three to four months so you can reach your inventory turns target.

Tomorrow we’ll do our second pop-up shop, the last one before we get busy with the process of setting up the store. Last time, some of the new National Book Award winners we stocked didn’t sell out. How could this be, we wondered. The truth is that people need help making decisions. They need more information.

So, we got busy writing shelf-talkers and grabbing reviews. While we as booksellers make decisions on what to buy and why … customers need information too. Now, we have personal notes about why the books are interesting, heart-warming and worthy.

Even though buying the opening order became tedious and tiring, we ended each day talking about some of the remarkable books and authors that were part of our day. Their stories, research, artwork, and writing talent enrich our days.

We can’t wait to share all of this with our community.

Wendy Werris, a writer for Publishers Weekly magazine, wrote a “Soapbox” editorial that described her short bookselling experience working at Barnes & Noble. I closed the issue after reading her piece and let out a big sigh.

As technology has changed the way we work and live, we’ve seen the number of new books published exponentially increase. At one point a wholesaler mentioned we have more than 3 million books in print. Now, no one ventures to even utter a number, but I did hear that we’re at least at a clip of 2,000 new books per week. Yes, per week.

Indie booksellers are not only affected because the store size is finite, but there’s only so much time in the day to review publisher catalogs and industry news. How to keep up is an ongoing challenge.

Every book on this table display at Chicago's RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Every book on this table display at Chicago’s RoscoeBooks comes with a recommendation.

Yet investing time and energy in buying just to return is wasteful. It’s wasteful for the bookstore, for the publisher, for wholesalers, and for the book industry.

We want the best books for our community in the bookstore. Recommendations from sales reps is tremendously valuable; Above the Treeline helps; and spotlights from the American Booksellers Association (IndieNext) and regional booksellers associations help us focus our investment of time and inventory dollars.

In Wendy’s soapbox piece, you get an image of booksellers unpacking books from boxes, then gathering them up and boxing them back up for return. Every day, like the movie Groundhog Day, the task is the same.

Where’s the bookSELLING?

Our true north is with investing in the books we want to introduce to our community. Our work is to ensure when a book leaves the store, it’s not leaving through the back door on its way back to the publisher, but through the front door, in the hands of a customer who will enjoy a great read they have discovered at our bookstore. Selling means a focus is on aligning marketing, merchandising, and staff handselling.

When there are so many books and so little space and funds, we need to make sure our true north is reflected in the books that grace our shelves. Unlike corporate chains, we’re not in this business to buy and return books. When we care about great writing, a good story, and exceptional research, we will work to make sure those works are discovered. Sales, profits, and sustainability follow.

Last week during BookExpo America, which was held in Chicago this year, we took a retail field trip to visit five Paz workshop grads who have recently opened or purchased existing bookstores. What a delightful way to spend the afternoon.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks has been in business for two years and is surpassing financial projections. Owner Erika Van Dam sensed her neighborhood wanted a real indie bookstore, and, she was right. As soon as you enter the space, you know this store is staffed with people who love books because the very first bookcase is filled with staff recommendations. Travel throughout the store and you find staff recommendations everywhere. No matter your age, the children’s department is such a draw with its colorful mural. At 2142 W. Roscoe Street, RoscoeBooks is the center of the neighborhood with a friendly space loaded with delightful reads.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

City Lit Books is a few short blocks from the Logan Square train stop and in the center of a most desirable Chicago neighborhood. Residents can walk to a poetry open mic night, author event, or simply to sit in the comfy chairs by the fireplace and pick out some new books to read. We love to see staff recommendations, meet booksellers who are authors themselves, and especially love seeing displays of customer recommendations. Teresa Kirschbraun has created a community hub for readers and writers, poets and dreamers of all ages.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

We couldn’t wait to see Esther Dairiam’s Read It & Eat, a culinary bookstore with a full kitchen for hosting amazing food-centric events. Esther did a fabulous job choosing colors and finishes to dress up the historic space at 2142 N. Halsted Street. The air was filled with a delicious aroma as Esther was prepping for the next day’s special event. We browsed the selection of books … everything you’d ever want to know about food for home cooks and restaurant professionals.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

The iconic bookstore Women & Children First was purchased by employees Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney last year and they have been busy making their own mark. The whole store has gotten a fresh coat of paint, the children’s department has come to life with a new carpet and colors, and we loved the series of hand-drawn portraits of visiting authors that were created by a talented artist on staff. We applaud Sarah and Lynn for stepping forward to keep this store alive and well into the future and are thrilled that this next chapter in their lives includes owning a beloved business. You’ll find them at 5233 N. Clark Street … remember to check the events schedule if you’ll be in town since they often host the major authors on tour.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Our last stop was Volumes BookCafe at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Sisters Kimberly and Rebecca George have created an invigorating bookstore that invites you to order a glass of wine as you shop and leave with a great cup of coffee once you’ve found your next great read. We loved the delightful touches in the store … book art created with used book pages and covers. In the kids area, a small family could snuggle up in the seating area and read together.

Travel Chicago and it’s easy to see there is no shortage of creativity when it comes to developing an indie bookstore. Bravo, new bookstore owners! Your neighborhoods and communities have very special places to gather because of your bookstores!

Yesterday’s news was filled with stories about shopping during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The Nightly Business Report examined the results in context of industry trends due to technology and customer expectations.

NBR used the term “blurring” to describe why Black Friday has become more cyber and Cyber Monday has become more physical. First, many consumers are beginning their holiday shopping earlier, this year by November 10, due to promotions and discounting. So Black Friday is just more of the same promotions, less compelling. Cyber Monday has become less important because people no longer need to wait to get to work for access to high-speed internet. They’re buying online any time.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

With technology supporting the ease of online shopping, what is the future of indie retail? It’s all about the experience.

These elements that create a memorable experience become not just more important, but essential:

Store design that makes you feel good, a space that is uplifting

Displays that are irresistible and offer delightful discovery

Selection that is manageable, interesting, and exudes quality

Fully present and genuinely helpful assistance

And when it comes to gifts, the complementary gift wrapping can be the simple, obvious amenity that seals the deal … the extra something that is beautiful, makes things easy, and is offered in the spirit of joy and shared delight.

Then, add Cider Monday (thanks to bookseller Willard Williams of The Toadstool Bookshops) and the Indies First promotion on Small Business Saturday (thanks to the American Booksellers Association) and the experience just got more rich and personal.

When corporate retailers will continue to blur the shopping experience by deluging the marketplace with special offers, let’s focus on the importance of creating a special experience. The authenticity of the personal and in-peerson has tangible value in a world immersed in faster, cheaper “stuff”.

I guess it all started with my mom, a single mother raising two girls without a lot of resources, she learned to fix things. The local hardware stores, like local bookshops, were pressed to show their competitive advantages when the big box stores multiplied in towns everywhere.

Hackney Hardware in Dexter, Michigan - what a delightful experience!

Hackney Hardware in Dexter, Michigan – what a delightful experience!

Today, I love going to not just any hardware store, I love ACE Hardware stores. While in the Ann Arbor area recently, I visited Hackney ACE Hardware in Dexter Michigan. The stores are independently owned and operated and while they vary in their selection, all the ACE Hardware stores I’ve visited seem to show friendliness you can only find in a neighborhood business.

While I was walking along Main Street in Dexter, I came across a storefront with kitchen goods and toys visible from the sidewalk. Hold everything! I went in and headed right for the beautiful tabletop display. Where am I?

When I peaked around the corner, I could see I’d entered the hardware from a second entrance. I stumbled into a feature display of absorbent dish cloths. Some were imported and others were hand-crocheted with all cotton yarn. There were natural cleaning solutions for every household chore on an endocarp display. I’d never seen the brand before.

Near the cash wrap was a wall display of favorite soda pop and on the cash wrap counter was a display of Chuckles, those sugared jelly candies. How fabulous is that?!

The store was clean. The staff was friendly. The merchandise ranged from staples to wonderful discoveries. I found a few things to buy.

After my friends found me in Hackney Hardware and we were ready to press on, we walked and discovered a barber shop at the corner. The barber was inside cutting hair and talking with a few other men.

What a delightful experience on Main Street. When I’m in Dexter, I’m going back to Hackney’s Hardware.

Today I’ve been watching all of the regional bookseller associations report their weekly bestseller lists. Go Set a Watchman remains at #1 for Fiction, even the skeptics from my book group agreed to add a lunch discussion so we could get in a conversation while the book has been grabbing attention everywhere.

There’s a saying in the book business that all publicity is good publicity.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

Even though Harper Lee’s book has been widely criticized and some people have complained they’ve been duped that the book is new, the country is curious. To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic and sadly, the story of equality and racism is still unfolding.

In bookstores across the U.S., the conversation is happening … about racism, great novels, sequels and prequels, what makes a classic, humanity, hope, and why we need literature.

Controversy is fine. It signals that we’re thinking critically about a lot of things. Authors and books offer us these opportunities to keep searching, learning, evolving. Books bring us out of our lonely corners and connect us with what is meaningful.

But first, we have to buy the book and be part of the conversation.

May books continue to make us uncomfortable about our unfinished work, and prompt us to change and grow for the better.

We celebrate each new opening of an independent bookstore. Shelf-Awareness, ABA’s Bookselling This Week, and Publishers Weekly all do a good job of announcing new store openings. It’s interesting to learn how a dream has become reality, but sometimes a single photo can tell us that we’ll soon see an announcement of the store closing.

One of the common pitfalls in opening a new bookstore is understanding the financial dynamics of a bookstore to get the business plan assumptions right. The margins in the book business are tight, and metrics, like inventory turns are essential to clarifying what sales need to be in order for the business to grow beyond break-even.

While no one wants to lose money, it’s surprising when a new bookseller will say, “I can’t afford the time” to come to a workshop to learn the business that will require thousands and thousands of dollars to launch.

Our response is, “can you afford NOT to?”

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

The photo we’re featuring has been modified to post in this blog, but it’s one of the photos that indicate the bookseller has opened on “a wing and a prayer”, driven by a dream, but uninformed and positioned for early failure.

All retail businesses are based on the buying and selling of goods. Inventory turns is a key metric that measures the productivity of our inventory. You take your inventory at its retail value and multiply it three to five times to forecast your annual sales.

The key question then becomes, “Is this enough?”

We recommend that a full and interesting selection of books and non-book items should run about $125 per square foot at its retail value, $75 per square foot at cost. The inventory in this photo appears to be at about $15 per square foot at cost.

Launching a dream for a bookstore is a wonderful contribution to community, but only if the story of this new business continues. It’s painful for everyone when a dream crashes. Those of us in the book industry want to see more success stories. The margins are tighter in the book industry than other forms of retail.  It pays to learn the complexities of the book industry and the basics of retail management before you dive right in.

Some bookstores are well worth the drive. We were having lunch with friends who were telling us about their summer travel plans when I discovered we have a habit … we can’t help but associate a city with one (or more) indie bookstores. Going to Chicago? Oh, you’ve got to visit The Book Stall at Chestnut Court and don’t forget RoscoeBooks and the new Read It & Eat. One of my book group members texted me from Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore, An Unlikely Story, and attached a photo of her husband and granddaughter.

Just what is it about these stores people rave about? The entries on Yelp are love letters. Locals are proud they have a great indie bookstore in their community. The stores are listed in travel guides.

Here’s my list of three things. There are no numbers since all of these things are important and the truly great stores are way above average on every one.

* Passion for wonderful books with strong impulses to tell others about a really great read. From product to people, this can’t help but shine through.
* A full and thought-filled selection. Show me something I’ve never seen. Surprise me. Help me find something for someone I love. Make me smile.
* Offer a warm and friendly atmosphere. From people to place, the bookstore feels good: welcoming, comfortable, peaceful, engaging.

When we’re asked to do a business valuation for an existing bookstore or potential buyer, we look at Yelp, review their social media sites, and look through the store’s website. We see the passion, sense of place, and warmth in everything they do. A bookstore destination grows out of love.

No wonder people will drive out of their way just to visit. We need these places in our lives.

While in New York City for BookExpo America, we used a window of time before the convention began to slip into the flagship Macy’s store on 34th Street. There was a cover story on “Macy’s magic” in the Delta Sky magazine and we were ready for a retail field trip.

Macy's flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

Macy’s flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

The iconic store has been featured in films and is beloved for its Thanksgiving Day parade tradition. In touring the store, it’s clear that Macy’s has embraced many traditions while keeping the store fresh and exciting.

For booksellers and all retailers, Macy’s is a model. Here are a few of the lessons we took away:

Keep Building On Your Reputation
Macy’s has been the fabric of New York City and is known throughout the world. The windows are kept fresh and interesting. Displays are constantly changing. The staff is friendly, happy, and helpful. The old creaky escalators still take you floor to floor. Their signature event remains the anchor of their marketing plan.

Cater to Your Customer
We walked by the kids shoe department and saw the adjacent display of skate boards in really cool colors, stacked up high ready for loads of summer fun. Macy’s knows people stay for hours and hours, so they’ve added food and beverage service in strategic places. Macy’s understands many of their customers are tourists. Near one of the main restaurants is a display of Macy’s branded merchandise, from dog bowls to t-shirts and tote bags that connect their logo with artwork they commissioned.

Create a Delightful Escape
The store is a destination. It sparkles. It smells good. There are beautiful displays everywhere you look. The graphics make the store feel alive with real people. Signage helps you find things. It’s a happy place. You can Macy’s online, but if you can, you want to go into the store.

In today’s retail, most department stores have had a tough time competing with online shopping. Not Macy’s. They embrace the art and science of retail and have created an American institution.