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.

People seemed surprised to see us in New York City last week for BookExpo. With our own new bookstore just a bit over 3 months old, we did feel a bit like new parents leaving an infant for the first time. The difference is that we’ve been with our staff every inch of the day since set-up, so it was time to engage with the industry and be a part of the exciting Vital Bookstore project on the convention floor.

So many booksellers asked us to tell them about our experience and discoveries. Mark and I both had a similar response: “We knew it was a lot of work. Boy is it a lot of work!”

More than 20 volunteers joined the Story & Song Bookstore Bistro staff to help us unpack and organize 12,000 books plus cards and toys.

Last July we found a property we thought had potential. August we made an offer, then spent the rest of the month preparing our SBA (Small Business Administration) loan application and list of supporting documents from our existing business and personal lives. Contractors filled our time in September and October. On October 11 we got the keys and with permits and such, our contractors started in November and finished the day the fixtures arrived in mid-January.

There’s a lot to do. It all takes time. And, the work has just begun.

February 10 we opened for business. Then, the tasks changed completely. The focus moves from setting up to managing daily operations.

We were both in constant motion for at least six weeks. At the store training staff, receiving the back orders and non-book items that took more time than we expected. We were exhausted at the end of long days. And, there were still so many things still on the list that needed to be done.

The funny thing is that all of these tasks need to be done whether you have a 1,200 square foot store or a 5,000 square foot store. If you have a smaller store it may take you relatively less time, but the “To Do” list looks the same. Stock register cash, bookkeeping, social media and publicity, scheduling events, buying books, answering requests from authors, replenishing greeting cards, running Z tapes and starting it all again the next day.

Read through this and we hope you get the sense that bookselling is a complicated business regardless of your footprint. Now that we’re ringing sales, hosting events, and keeping the store stocked, it’s been non-stop … and we have had years doing this for others and are familiar with retail management and the book industry.

If your dream is to open and run a successful bookstore, do yourself a favor and take your time to learn, prepare, get training, set things up properly, and be ready for an amazing launch. It’s stressful enough when you schedule each phase of your start-up and give yourself some wiggle room for things to go wrong (because many will).

So, our advice remains the same … learn about your new industry and career, avoid imposing more stress with high start-up expectations, and make sure you continue to breathe as you work through the long list of things to do to turn that dream of your bookstore into reality.

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.

We’re not thinking about ebooks here (ebook sales have plateaued and have been on decline for many months), but information technology as it powers bookstore operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager's laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager’s laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our dining room is transformed into our central area for setting up and learning how to effectively use our computerized bookstore management system. We’ve always said it is good to give yourself time. Now, it has become even more real.

Until now, I really never thought of the “To Do List” just for the setting up the system. It’s actually quite lengthy…

  • Set up store information for customer receipts
  • Enter departments, sections, and media (formats) to organize your inventory and determine how you want to analyze sales and inventory turns
  • Go to Edelweiss, where the publisher catalogs are managed online, to establish category mapping so you can import title information and have each book be automatically assigned to its proper category
  • Learn how to import book data from Edelweiss and your wholesalers
  • Develop customer loyalty programs so your system tracks customer purchases and helps you automate perks (no punch cards in today’s bookstore!)
  • Enter vendor account information (after you’ve opened your accounts!)
  • Lean to create purchase orders
  • Test electronic ordering (which is the best practices of our industry)
  • Learn to receive inventory so on-hand quantities are updated when you press the magic button
  • Understand how to research books using book industry databases (not amazon.com), find books customers want to buy from you, and put those on an order
  • Develop discount categories, add your staff discount and apply them only to the appropriate product departments
  • Establish security levels for various staff positions
  • Learn how to ring up a sale
  • Understand how to run a Z tape to close out sales for the day, then reconcile that for your bank deposit
  • Set up proper back-up procedures

And I haven’t even gotten to the accounting interface! The meeting with our CPA is Monday.

A computerized bookstore management system is essential to connecting to the book industry’s massive title databases and inventory detail, and this is where our systems go so far beyond Square or the generic POS systems. We are data-driven because each week we have thousands of new books released and our inventory is always fluid.

After a busy month of learning and testing our system, it’s clear that this effort requires planning, a keen attention to detail, and time before you go “live”.

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.

It’s the week of Thanksgiving and I welcome the opportunity to take a deep breath from the long list of things that still need to be done before launching Story & Song Neighborhood Bookstore Bistro.

Today I was at the shop while the electrician was wrapping up. Dan worked a very long day, was covered in dust from the acoustic tiles and sheetrock, and was ready to embark on a 40 minute drive back home. Yet he took a moment to let me know a few things about the audio lines, then to tell me just what a “cool thing you’re doin’ here.”

Small Business Saturday Banner jpeg

I’m grateful for:

Dan and the fact that he’s telling others about this bookstore where you can come listen to music.

Our contractors showing up during a holiday week.

Our banker gave us an update today and said how much she was excited about seeing the bookstore once all of the renovations are completed.

Successful electronic order transmissions to both book wholesalers for our pop-up bookshop this Saturday.

David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, and his wonderful piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “Our Love Affair With Digital Is Over.”

My colleagues, the good souls who own independent bookstores

The countless members of the community who have gone out of their way to tell us how thrilled they are that we’re opening a bookstore, then ask when we’ll be open.

Small Business Saturday

Thanksgiving

And I’m grateful to have Mark as my partner in life and in business. It makes a difference when you have support for your values and priorities.

If you’ve embarked on a dream to open a bookstore, may you always take a moment to refresh your energy by taking note of the reasons to be thankful for the opportunity to do something rewarding and enriching with your time, energy, resources, and talent.

Booksellers who know we’ve helped people in the start-up phase for years have asked what we are discovering about the process now that we’re in the midst of our own start-up.

One thing requires two others be prepared in advance. It can feel like a wild maze.

One thing requires two others be prepared in advance. It can feel like a wild maze.

Mark and I comment every day, “why is this so hard?”

Everything seems to need to be done at least twice, especially if the government is involved.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very much an advocate for the many things that are done for the collective good. But yesterday, Mark and I both were ready to pull our hair out over what should have been crossing one simple thing off our list.

After delivering a few orders to the Post Office, we decided to drive forty-five minutes into Jacksonville to get an electronic fingerprint for our alcohol license application. Our first attempt, in our own County was thwarted when even though the sign read, “Electronic Finger Prints $10 each,” they don’t do the kind of fingerprints we need. “You have to go to Jacksonville for that.”

So, we after checking online to see where to go, we decided to use our afternoon to finally get this done. When we found the address, we parked, fed the parking meter, then ascended the 20 steps to the front entrance to read the sign that read, “Closed, please use Liberty Street entrance”. So we got back in the car drove around a very big block, navigated the parking lot, fed the other meter, and went inside.

After telling the officer at the front desk of the Police Station we were here for fingerprinting for an alcohol license, he said “They’re closed. Veterans Day.” I replied, “It’s not Veterans Day.” He said, “They’re closed. Veterans Day.”

Nothing on the website indicated they’d be closed that day. Since the Post Office and the banks were open, we thought we could quickly fit this in and get it done. Nope.

So, we decided to visit the new IKEA store since we’d driven all the way into the city. I’m still trying to process that experience and will write about it at some point.

In the meantime, the fingerprints task is still on the “To Do” list for next week, which is necessary before we can submit our business license. The workman’s comp insurance policy is in place, the business insurance policy is too. Both are needed for the overall business license application, which should be submitted with the sign permit application.

And, we’re not even located in the historic district, where there is another list of prerequisites.

Good thing we’ve got a nice supply of strong coffee. We’ll have a full pot going Monday morning. But we’re not going to Jacksonville on Monday, it’s Veterans Day weekend still. Better wait.

 

We’ve been quiet because we’ve been busy. After giving up all hope of ever being able to find a suitable and affordable space for our very own bookstore, a space went on the market in July. This month we purchased the property and now hold the keys.

For years, we’ve told people about the plethora of items that need to be addressed during the start-up phase and how this all takes time. Countless times I’ve said, “Make sure you take your vitamins and wear your roller skates!” Now, we’re heeding this advice.

Construction drawings for the renovations went to City Hall for review this week. When will we be open? That's a good question.

Construction drawings for the renovations went to City Hall for review this week. When will we be open? That’s a good question.

We begin our blog entries to document our process so others can have a sense of how even a small-scale bookstore start-up requires so many decisions and requires a whole team of advisers to avoid the pitfalls. Each decision usually relates to two factors: time and money.

Our Story & Song Bookstore Bistro is a hybrid concept that includes retail and food and beverage service and The Second Story for Art & Creativity, a second level with books, art on consignment, hands-on creative areas, and a gathering space for lectures, concerts and jam sessions, discussions, a reader’s theatre, and story time. It’s a reflection of the interests of our community and ours too.

You’d think the start-up phase would be fairly straight-forward: Buy a building, build it out for your needs. Sounds simple. It isn’t. Although we met with our City officials in a pre-construction session, the questions only multiplied. Did the space need a sprinkler system added? How did the “change in use” translate into new building requirements? When was the building constructed and what code changes have happened in the meantime? Is the space “grandfathered” in or will you need to comply with all of the updated requirements?

Keep in mind before you lease or purchase a building, what happened in the building before matters. So does any updates to the code and all of the changes you’ll need to make to accommodate your business. It’s important not to make assumptions, but to check in with your city or municipality to have the space assessed.

We know first-hand some factors that can make the space a “no-go”. We once investigated a space in our Historic District that had been occupied by the same tenant for the last thirtysomething years. It turns out the space would require over $100,000 in improvements to meet current codes. Our bookstore build-out would be in addition to these upgrades. The landlord was unwilling to make the necessary investment in her own building.

Today our construction drawings we submitted to the City for review. We’re told the review and feedback (hopefully approval) can take two to six weeks. Our contractors are in place, the signs are up in the window, and the community is excited.

When will we be open? All we can tell our eager friends and neighbors is the truth … so much right now is outside our control. We’’ll open a pop-up shop during the holidays if we don’t have our certificate of occupancy.

In the meantime, there’s much to do to acquire the restaurant and liquor licenses, and develop the opening inventories which will require weeks of concentrated effort.

I take a deep breath and visualize the store fully stocked with beautiful books, cards, toys, gifts, art and our community.