If you’ve been following the business news on the many retail store and chain closings in this first part of the year, it may seem like good news for start-ups, but not so much.

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

The closings still appear to be about two main shifts: 1) away from big-box footprints, and 2) and to online shopping for products that can be considered commodities.

Are books commodities today? Well, to some people … those who know what they want, want it fast, want it at the best available price, and don’t value the in-store experience of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Yet the competitive advantages for indie bookstores is generally about a thought-filled selection, staff recommendations, mindful displays, events, and that special feeling of being in a sanctuary for those who read, value local businesses and their contributions to culture and the local economy.

Indie bookstores tend to do best in Main Street destinations, not big-box developments and strip malls. These are quaint villages and clusters of cafes and shops that offer unique merchandise and a delightful browsing experience. These are places people love to linger, meet up with friends, and enjoy the moment. Their rents tend to be higher because they are tend to always in demand.

So, while the new vacancies in malls and strip centers are many, the over demand will likely not push rents lower in Main Street locations.

It’s still true that much of a retailer’s success is about location. While the big-box spiral down continues, this is an opportunity for Main Street merchants to regain local business by showing there are a lot of things you simply cannot get while shopping online.

Whether I’m reading the news from the National Retail Federation or listening to the nightly business news, it seems so many retailers are struggling. Blame the internet, overhead, or too much space, but retail is challenged.

Yet the news coverage of indie bookselling is quite the opposite. Travel magazines and any publication that spotlights a community will often call out area bookstores right along with the cafes and diners that celebrate local foods.

As students of retail, it’s interesting to explore the similarities and differences … notice the trends and spot the opportunities.

Business investors like to assess “scale”, referring to economies of scale and extra profits that come with volume and shared overhead. Growth is a constant expectation as are efficiencies realized from new uses of technology.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Main Streets and independent businesses are the spiral up for our economy and quality of life.

Corporate strategies have their place. So do the ideals, practices, and values of independent businesses.

In an opinion piece entitled “The Myth of Main Street” published by The New York Times, Louis Hyman stated, ”Small stores are inefficient” and added that shop local campaigns and vibrant downtowns are elitist. The tagline to the article reads, “Don’t listen to President Trump. Going back to the good old days will cost us.” A month after reading this piece, I’m still saddened by the narrow view of “costs”.

For decades, the U.S. has received an endless flow of cheap goods from other parts of the world that have filled the Wal-marts and dollar stores across the country. The issues regarding worker abuse and the harm inflicted on the environment have been well reported, yet those costs don’t enter the equation since we’ve been on a spiral down in terms of services jobs and low wages, only increasing the demand for cheap goods.

Independent businesses and booksellers for sure are about the spiral up.

Serve your community, offer quality that is difficult to find in most corporate retail stores, answer the phone, be there to assist customers with recommendations, host programs and events that bring the community together, then

buy with increased accuracy because of first-hand market knowledge, utilize just-in-time inventory efficiencies, increase wages and share profits, keep Main Street alive and lively. Most importantly, contribute to the local economy.

Efforts that contribute to the spiral up happen every day on Main Street. There’s a tangible difference between cost and value.

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.

This month we were fortunate to get to an item that’s been on our “Bucket List” for some time … visiting New Zealand. You might recall that the city of Christchurch had a nasty earthquake in 2011. Homes, churches, and businesses were severely damaged and tourism stopped.

Christchurch is on the rebound and the future now looks exciting as the city and the people have taken a mindful approach on how to rebuild.

In the meantime, the shops and restaurants are open!

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake - in a shipping container.

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake – in a shipping container.

We visited Re-START, a brilliantly conceived outdoor retail space consisting of temporary buildings made from shipping containers. When you walk into one of the shops you’d just think you were in a small space … the walls are painted, light fixtures are up, the HVAC works, and it’s business as usual.

Restaurants were serving people who were seated at bistro tables inside containers and on surrounding space.

The whole idea lends itself to authentic charm. Make lemonade out of those lemons!

Visiting Re-START is a reminder that especially after a catastrophe, we need places to gather, eat, and shop. Cafes and shops are symbols of normalcy; they are places people crave when their worlds have been turned upside down.

Small businesses have always been known for their resiliency, and the Kiwis proved that great new ideas can come from necessity.

I think we’re at a tipping point in developing alternatives for affordable retail space …

Mark and I recently visited Nashville, our former home town, and loved traveling East Nashville, a community blossoming with home renovations and new cafes and retail stores.

While Nashville is known as a creative community … home of the Southern Festival of Books, Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books, plus all of those creative songwriters and composers who come from all over the world to contribute to the world of entertainment.

IMG_0131What we stumbled across was The Idea Hatchery, a cluster of small spaces near a major intersection. The flyer we picked up began with the headline:

“Start a Small Business in East Nashville”

Then continued, “The Idea Hatchery is”

* A community of small independent businesses hosted in 8 individual buildings.

  • An arrangement of buildings that have footprints of 168 sf, 256 sf, and 320 sf.
  • An opportunity to experiment and to share ideas with other small business owners.

The Idea Hatchery offers:

  • 1 year leases with no limits on renewal.
  • Reasonable rents with pro-rated utilities…”

Check out the gallery of photos and just imagine all of the cool things people discover when they visit.

New models are surfacing. They focus on collaboration, synergy, and creative energy. It’s an exciting era for indie businesses.

I am fascinated with the Every Door Direct tool developed by the U.S. Postal Service. Designed for use by small businesses for planning door-to-door marketing, it turns out this is quite a valuable resource for prospective business owners.

very Door Direct Mail allows you to analyze your market by postal carrier route

Analyze your market by postal carrier route for detailed information on neighborhoods within a community

Here’s how it works … Go to the home page at https://EDDM.usps.com and enter a zip code you want to explore. Using the menu options below (Route & Residential), refine your search. Use your mouse to hover over different carrier routes and you’ll see demographic data appear on the screen describing who lives there.

This resource is perfect for:
Obtaining much more detailed demographics than by zip code or market analysis that takes a random 1, 3, and 5 mile radius around a particular address

Identifying neighborhoods and even streets that would be best for your new business

Collecting data for your business

Gathering marketing information to use later as you target your promotions

And, it’s free and available to you right now.

If you’re a visual person like me, it’s great to see the map, clip and save sections, and use the tables to choose the routes and tabulate population totals.

Market research has never been this fast, easy, or valuable.

We just arrived home from an on-site visit in a community that once had a Barnes & Noble bookstore. When the lease was up for renewal, B&N decided to exit the market, leaving millions of dollars of annual sales to customers up for grabs. In this case, our client, Thorne Donnelley of Liberty Bookstore, is in the midst of expanding his bookstore and revving up marketing to capture this gap in the local book market. Yet, what about all of those other communities now without a bookstore?

Libery Bookstore

Thorne Donnelley seizes the opportunity to capture the West Palm Beach, Florida market now that B&N is gone.

While there are people opening bookstores, there aren’t enough who have looked at the gaps and said “I will open bookstore in my community.” Many markets are now underserved, which often means the online Goliath get the business by default.

If you are thinking that then person to open a book store is you, here are some important considerations you may not be hearing from the media or even your own network of family, friends, and colleagues:

1. Print reading remains strong – According to research published in Publishers Weekly, ebook sales may level off at just thirty percent of the market, way less than the original predictions by IT professionals (who were self-serving in their forecasts). Seventy percent of book sales happens in print.

2. Younger people choose print too – When you think of kids growing up with printed picture books and those who fell in love with reading by devouring the Harry Potter adventures, there’s no surprise that many teens want to read in print. They’re using electronics for social interaction, but there is a perceived benefit to holding a book.

3. We need the balance between high-tech and high-touch – Many people go to a bookstore because it’s it feels like a sanctuary. People who work from home vocalize their need to be around other people. Most of us need a balance of time alone and time with others, for conversation and connection. Bookstores are third places and now that many communities are without bookstores, people recognize what’s missing.

Bookstores will not disappear if people keep asking the beautiful question, “Who will open a book store in our town?” If you’ve had dreams of opening a bookstore, but thought it was no longer a wise choice for your resources or time, keep learning and investigating the opportunities. A bookstore will meet the needs of readers to discover great books and give reasons to gather and talk about ideas. Bookstores fill that human need.

This week Books & Books made the news again, this time included in the article “38 Essential Miami Shopping Experiences”. One of the few U.S. indie booksellers with more than one location, Books & Books is a thriving business, driven by Mitchell Kaplan, a passionate entrepreneur. What makes a shopping district interesting and special? Indie retailers like Books & Books.

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach, 100% indie

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach, 100% indie

Aren’t we all really tired of strip malls with chain stores and the soulless expanse of the box boxes that fill our countryside? Seems so. When you think about what destinations are chosen for vacations and weekend get-aways, it isn’t the Holiday Inn at the Interstate next to the cluster of national chains. It’s the town with character, charm, personality of bistros, Bed & Breakfast inns, boutiques, galleries and shops with unique items.

This week I ran some errands in our little historic downtown in Fernandina Beach, Florida. The sidewalks were filled with people, especially in this week before Easter. It was lunchtime, so people were dining at courtyard restaurants and browsing through the indie shops. People were sitting on benches and others eating ice cream cones.

We love a special sense of place. It helps us feel human, connected, and a part of something greater than ourselves. You can’t get that at a national chain and you can’t get it online, but you can get it at an independent bookstore and cafes and shops that are locally owned.

We owe our gratitude to the business owners, like Books & Books who create these wonderful places that feed us in important ways.

It’s not that everyone has chosen to read e-books. In fact, when communities poll people for what they want, bookstores rank #1 or #2 for the most desirable businesses. Today’s issue of The New York Times tells the story of how rents have escalated to the point of eliminating the possibility of creating a sustainable bookstore business. If you see a wonderful community without a bookstore, chances are the same dynamic is what prevents someone from opening.

IMG_2813When people call and tell us they are so excited to have found the “perfect” location, we caution them to do the math to make sure that the rents are affordable for their bookstore concept. Most profitable bookstores have occupancy expenses in the range of 7 to 8 percent of projected sales. Occupancy is much more than rent and rent-related expenses, it includes utilities and maintenance too.

While rents dipped during the economic recession that began in 2008, prime spaces are always going to be in demand. With interest rates still low, it may be a good time to consider purchasing a building if you can’t find a landlord who is willing to offer reasonable rents.

Some people may take the leap that a lack of bookstores means a lack of interest in printed books, but this is far from the truth as 80 percent of the book business is still about physical books. If your dream is to open a bookstore, do your homework and make sure you don’t sign the dotted line without understanding how the rent will affect the store’s ability to reach break-even and beyond. Sometimes, this process can take months, but you’ll find the right answer with a bit of patience and a commitment to making sure you’re positioned to be successful in the space.