It’s summer and that means time for vacation. Even though we have a permanent staff schedule, each week the schedule feels like a bowl of spaghetti with shift swaps happening left and right.

With our bookstore bistro we have further complexities … some booksellers also can work the cafe, but not all cafe staff can work the retail floor.

The aprons go on when we enter the store and we’re always ready to help out on the sales floor when necessary.

It would be lovely if coverage for all vacations, illnesses and surgeries, family visits, and special occasions could all magically work out. Unlike the 9-to-5 world, part-time staff will love working in the bookstore yet will always have something else as their number one priority. Opportunities for trips surface. Retirees can require a lot of time off to visit (or host) family and friends. College students sometimes can’t get the schedule they want at school and aren’t available when you need them most. Parents with children can have a slew of events they cannot miss. Then, cold and flu season hits.

The reality of owning a business is that in the end, it’s up to you to make sure all hours and tasks are covered. And some days, that’s easier said than done.

As we often work later than intended, cover shifts when we’d rather get back to business development, and spend more time arranging schedules, simply covering all of the open hours can be a challenge. And this can be a major factor for some who are thinking about the possibilities of owning a bookstore. If dropping everything for the business isn’t something you can do often, something will suffer as a result. In the end, we can understand why it’s so challenging to get to everything on our “To Do” list.

Ramping up a business to reach a level of revenue and net profit that allows you to build a core staff and even add some management-level positions. What a worthy goal that allows you to reclaim some of your time and be able to focus on the things that matter most to the sustainability of your business while the daily tasks get done.

Until then, long days where you are pulled in a variety of directions will be the norm. It’s exhausting. Yet unless you have unlimited funds to subsidize your start-up until you reach sustainability, most booksellers are moving fast and furiously, on their feet, constantly learning and juggling.

The glorious benchmark is to have even a handful of staff members who can take on important tasks so when it’s your time to take vacation, they’ll be the one filling in for you.

I hate it when I leave things in hotel rooms. On this last trip, I left my phone charger in the room. So I headed to the office supply store, grabbed an inexpensive replacement and went to the check-out counter.

A lovely young lady smiled, took my item, and then said, “Ah, the old fashioned kind. I haven’t seen one of these in a while.”

I’m not sensitive about my age, but this comment stung. But why? She wasn’t rude in her tone of voice and her comment was honest … the plug was not the duo USB/electrical plug, it was a simple electrical plug. The “old” kind. The young woman was simply unaware that her comments could be received as, “You must be totally unaware that nobody uses these anymore. Are you clueless? Why are you wasting your money on this thing?”

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Communication is complex and it may not take much for a customer to take things in a way that was unintended. That’s why I immediately thought why many bookstores train their staff not to comment on customer purchases. Instead, they’re trained to talk about other things, like asking if any of the items are gifts and need gift wrapping, asking if the customer found what they needed, sharing information about the store’s newsletter list or inviting the customer to the next event.

Now that we’re in the heat of the presidential campaigns in the U.S., this serves as advice to reinforce with all staff. It’s easy to avoid language that can appear judgmental by focusing on simply being friendly and helpful.

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”.

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.

After spending three very full days with Jeff Kinney’s crew to prepare for the opening of An Unlikely Story, a bookstore cafe in Jeff’s hometown of Plainville, Mass., we toured the store together to admire the work that had been accomplished and learn more about the inventory selection.

What evolved was a beautiful conversation about why we so love to spend time in bookstores.

Mealtime fun! Many of these items came from Fred & Friends, "Airfork One", "Dinner Winner", and "Mealtime Masterpiece" paper placemats were some of our favorite picks.

Mealtime fun! Many of these items in Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore cafe came from Fred & Friends, “Airfork One”, “Dinner Winner”, and “Mealtime Masterpiece” paper placemats were some of our favorite picks.

Early on, when we began developing the non-book inventory, Jeff asked us to look for items that represented: “quality, imaginative, unique, not overly expensive, not pretentious.”

We watched price points (staying under $20) and looked beyond the typical items carried in the bookstore. Thinking about the people who live in the Plainville area, we searched for items that provided for “Family Fun” and items kids could purchase with their allowance money.

The goal is to make customers smile.

Birthday party items on display in the "Family Fun" section at An Unlikely Story

Birthday party items on display in the “Family Fun” section at An Unlikely Story.

Fun and weird books were put on display (otherwise found in the depths of the “Reference” section). Brightly colored journals (“Little Book of Awesome” and “Thoughts & Doodles”) prompt us to plunge into the creative side. Retro bicycle bells and “Mr. Bill” dolls went onto the Father’s Day display table. Colorful socks with amazing graphics filled an entire endcap at the far turn of the traffic path. And a whole side panel was devoted to birthday party fun.

When Jeff and his family came into the store to see how we were coming, our best initial feedback came when we overheard the boys say, “Wow!” and “Cool, look at this!”

As the team gathered to talk about the next step – officially opening the doors – we discussed what it really is that we want to accomplish. We agreed it’s about how we make people feel when they are in the bookstore.

Most of us in the world of book selling don’t think of us as salespeople and that’s a good thing. While owners and managers are clear that the store doesn’t stay in business unless there are sales, inspiring a purchase (and making the numbers) happens in the most subtle ways in the bookstore. And the best booksellers don’t have the kinds of personalities we typically think of for people in sales.

A display of Ann Patchett's personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

A display of Ann Patchett’s personal recommendations at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

Last week while we were visiting Nashville, where in the late 1980s and early 1990s I managed the beloved Davis-Kidd Booksellers, we stopped into Parnassus to say “hello”, get some new photos, and shop. A conversation with Nathan, one of the Parnassus booksellers who previously worked for Joseph-Beth (the indie chain that purchased Davis-Kidd), led to my purchase of one more book … and was a reminder of what qualities make for a really great bookseller.

The conversation began when I picked up a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel Lila and commented to Nathan about how much my book group enjoyed Gilead. Nathan said he loved Robinson’s new book and then asked what other kinds of books I loved to read. When I explained that I absolutely adore reading “novels in letters” and thought Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard did not get the notice it deserved, the heart of book selling magic began.

Nathan introduced me to the novel The Light and The Dark by a Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, a novel in letters! I’d never heard of this novelist and would not likely have discovered it on my own. Nathan went to get a copy of the book and placed it in my hands. And then he told me about the letters between the two characters, the historical background, and what makes the book memorable.

I added the book to my pile.

This is book selling at its greatest. One reader connects with another by asking questions, listening, sharing what they’ve read or know about that may be of interest.

Is it selling? Sure. But it’s mostly about caring about others and wanting to share the remarkable experience of reading a really great book.

Bravo, Parnassus! And thank you, Nathan.