Once your dream becomes reality, you have made a stark right turn. Your vision is now central to your “To Do Today” list. You go from thinking about things in a general way to making them actually happen.

We’ve now entered our third month of being in business. Looking back to the planning and set-up stages, it’s now even more clear what new store owners need to get right from the very beginning. Our work with clients that have been open a few years reveals the kind of difficulties that can surface later on when it’s harder to change what’s already firmly in place.

These are the biggies, in no particular order.

Choose a computer management system that works in the book industry.
The most pain we see is when someone has bought a generic POS system because the screen is sleek or the system is most affordable. Now that I am the one ordering and returning books at this stage of our start-up, I see just how time consuming it is even though we import title data from book industry sources.

Be kind and gracious to all authors and have a system in place so you can make inventory and marketing decisions.

Know how you will accommodate self-published authors.
Self-published authors will make a beeline to you. How will you handle people who approach you every day and want to tell you about their book … or their sister-in-law’s series of children’s books? Know if you’ll take books on consignment (and learn how to do that) and how self-published authors who live in your community (and don’t) fit into your plan for inventory, programs and events. You won’t find much time to get things done if you are constantly taking time out to have ad hoc conversations with self-published authors, so have materials ready. Here’s our web page that allows them to tell us about their work and their ideas for helping us sell (not just stock) their book(s).

 

 

 

Be present on the sales floor.
Your competitive advantage is that you are a neighbor running an independent business that has invested in the community. Be visible to customers who want to thank you for opening. Be visible to staff who are watching how you greet and interact with customers. Show staff what to do when they’re not busy with customers. Answer the phone. Write shelf-talkers. Restock the supplies at the cash wrap. Clean the restroom. You are setting the pace and the tone.

Present a full and rich selection.
As it’s been said many times before, you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. You’ll learn a lot about how to shape your selection once you’re open and see what people are requesting and buying. Yet from the beginning, your selection can spark tremendous word-of-mouth marketing, your most genuine and valuable way to get new customers. Spark that momentum with the best books and gifts and toys and cards you can showcase from day one.

Some things are hard to change once routines have been set, behaviors have been established, and opinions have been formed. Prepare for a successful launch and you’ll spend less time reacting and more time enjoying the amazing bookstore you’ve been dreaming about for so long.

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.

With Small Business Saturday the perfect opportunity to remind people of your start-up and the importance of small business to the local economy, why not do a pop-up shop?

Start-ups do pop-ups for a variety of reasons, mostly for visibility and the opportunity to learn from your customers while you’re still making critical decisions about your selection, programming, etc.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

A pop-up shop allows you to learn from customers and begin learning store operations.

We learned the importance of being mindful the “intense” opportunity. In a limited amount of time you will arrange tables, merchandise your selection, set-up cash register operations, handsell books, ring up sales and gather customer information.

Then, when it’s all done, you’ll box up what’s left, haul everything that’s left back home, close out your register, look at what sold, and let all those customer conversations sink in.

It’s trial by fire.

At our pop-up on Saturday, the good news was people showed up! Our location is a destination, people aren’t just going to stumble upon it. Marketing was key so we sent out an email promotion, posted it on social media, and put signs up on the road beside our tiny Amelia Park Town Center.

Friends and neighbors came; they wanted to buy. Although the internet connection worked via our cell phone to the laptop so we were able to accept credit cards, the receipt printer decided to take the day off.

So, here’s what we learned:

  • Your troubleshooting and stress management skills you’ve built throughout your career will help you push through anything that comes your way. (We electronically ordered from both wholesalers with one failed transmission that led to duplicate shipments. Two books arrived damaged.)
  • Present a bit of everything you think you’ll carry in your store, then see what sells. The wholesalers offer non-book merchandise, so try out some things you think might sell.
  • Talk with people about what they like to read and tell them you’ll carry books those kinds of books.
  • Books change lives and people want to tell you their stories. Listening is such an easy way to build a relationship.
  • Say a few words about why the book the customer has picked up is noteworthy or special; show them beautiful books; tell them about what you heard the author say in a radio interview. People buy stories and beautiful things.
  • People will be incredibly patient and kind. These are your neighbors and they want you to succeed.
  • Some people will want something you don’t happen to have that day. Write it down and go find it and order it for them. They will be wowed by your interest and  initiative. When you make it easy and go the extra mile for someone, you are gaining a fan.

Pop-up Bev Pat JeffFor me, the technical aspects of running a store on an off-site laptop, getting all of the electronic parts to perform and learning all of the operational aspects from creating a purchase order to receiving books, selling and running the close-out report provided a training ground.

Even with a pop-up, you have the opportunity to learn all of the things you’ll soon be doing on a daily basis.

From marketing to operations, it’s all good learning.

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.

This week’s headlines in the book business is Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos book. Some cheer, others uphold the First Amendment. It’s messy.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

While our First Amendment protects free speech, publishers are faced with way more submissions than they could ever publish, so choices are always being made about what manuscripts make the cut. Often times, celebrity wins out because of the expected return on investment. In many cases, like this one, it’s simply about business.

When Simon & Schuster decided to offer a $250,000 advance, the executives likely did their due diligence to understand that Yiannopoloulos was edgy and would offend many. As the editor of Breitbart News, he’d been in the spotlight for some time. So was his bad behavior on social media. Obviously, Simon & Schuster did not realize that he would be so controversial that author Roxanne Gay, offended by Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Yiannopoloulos, would withdraw her forthcoming book and that some booksellers would boycott the publisher, cutting frontlist orders.

Decisions have consequences.

Do publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, even language of hate and hurt? In the United States, absolutely.

Do authors, booksellers, and readers have the right to protest? Absolutely.

The book industry is a business, but many of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of ideas and the written word have limits. When so many worthy manuscripts never pass the editors desks, it’s hard to understand why resources would be used to publish words that contribute to the dark side of humanity.

The political season “got to me” this past week. I’m politically engaged both locally and nationally, so for months I’ve been watching campaigns and debates, listening and reading commentary, and taking note of the nuances of this campaign season. But, as the negativity and dysfunction escalated, I hit an emotional wall.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don't buy "stuff", we buy for the story.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don’t buy “stuff”, we buy for the story.

While I often visit etsy.com to see what artisans are creating with books and with reading-related themes for our bookstore design work, this time I found myself using the key words, “prayer beads”, which is how I found Laura Grierson, a jewelry artist and metal smith based in Southern California.

Perhaps a bracelet with spiritual properties would bring peace to these moments. I remembered how my mother, who lived through much tragedy yet had her misgivings about organized religion, would say the rosary. I went surfing online and discovered Laura’s artwork, learned her story, and bought a bracelet.

Inside my tiny package that arrived just a few days before my birthday, I discovered a small hand-crafted note that read, “Dearest Donna, Please enjoy wearing your mama bracelets as much as I enjoyed making them for you! Many many blessings. LOVE + LIGHT, Laura”

As someone who has spent a career connected to retail, my work has been guided by why we buy. I’m convinced most of us no longer need more stuff.

We buy stories that connect us.

My purchase is more than another item in my material world. It’s a story, a connection, and shared humanity. For Laura’s customers, her story and personal touch shows in everything from her initial email expressing gratitude for your order to the lovely gift that is hand-packed with a hand-written note.

As I write this blog, I’m wearing Laura’s bracelets. They’ve connected me with another person I didn’t know before last week. And, the mindfulness reflected in the bracelets is reminder that goodness and kindness are present in this world.

Where we shop and what we buy matters … perhaps more than ever.

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!

For years, the discounters have expanded their footprints and gained market share. Now, there’s a plethora of cheap quality everything in national chain stores and online outlets. Where do you find quality these days? What about unique and interesting?

I recently sought out to replace our old and fraying bedspread and it proved more costly and time-consuming than I ever imagined. Since we live in a warm climate and I’m of a certain age, I did not want polyester or any kind of fabric blend that included synthetics. A white cotton coverlet … shouldn’t be that difficult to find. After two tries online, with disappointment in the quality and return shipping in both instances, I waited until I was in a city with a department store where I could feel the fabric.

While online shipping can be a convenience, you have to know what you want and how to drill down to find it. Even then, you’ve got to trust your source.

Indies can win trust and loyalty by providing quality, uniqueness, and service.

Indies can win trust and loyalty by providing quality, uniqueness, and service.

We are now learning that convenience and cheap isn’t always what we want or need. I want business I can trust to be smart in their selections so I don’t have to plough through hundreds of items online.

I’m not alone.

This trust is why customers of indie bookstores are loyal. Venture into the bookstore and you know you can discover something good to read. Find a perfect gift when you’re on the run. Grab a fun card (that isn’t at the grocery store). And trust your bookseller will offer to help you need some help deciding. Add a smile and a “thank you for your business” and the whole experience is way more gratifying.

As Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has taught us, quality is better than quantity.

Indie businesses should play up the “smart” part of what they offer because it is a tangible competitive advantage when the hidden costs to “cheap” … our time, satisfaction, jobs, and our environment … are now becoming clear.