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.

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.

We’ve been wearing roller skates for months as first there was so much to do to launch the bookstore, now we’ve focused on shifting to organizing daily operations. Every day is over-flowing with things to do.

Mark and I have been thinking a lot about Tom Warner these last several weeks. Tom and his wife Vickie Crafton were one of our earliest trainees in the 1990s. After full careers in the textile industry, they purchased Litchfield Books. Tom said he wasn’t going to spend his retirement playing golf; he wanted something that would keep him invested in life. Each time we would see them at industry gatherings, Tom would ask us, “Why didn’t you tell me I’d have to work so hard?” Then, he’d add, “And I’ve never enjoyed my work as much as I do now.”

Tom died a few years ago and yet his stories live on. When we’ve come home exhausted from the day, we too acknowledge that there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing at this stage in our lives.

Here’s the counter-balancing moments to all of the administrative work:

  • children who draw us pictures or write notes on the blackboard in the play area
  • everyone who makes an effort to tell us and our crew just how much they love the store and how glad they are we have opened
  • when customers make the bookstore a stop for visiting friends and family
  • customers on the other side of the county who purchase from our website because they want to support a local business
  • our amazing crew who are over-qualified and beautifully devoted to making Story & Song a friendly and welcoming place
  • customers who tell us they found out about the store from a friend, hairdresser, or neighbor
  • 130+ people who show up to listen to and sing along with the local ukulele band
  • a sell-out concert two weeks before Harpeth Rising arrived to do our grand opening finale
  • a staged reading of “Looking For Normal” which prompted everyone to ask big-picture questions about society and our own biases
  • children who love telling us about what they like to read
The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

We are tracking above our sales projections, yet we’re still working relentlessly to fill the events calendar with reasons people should come into the store. Buying the opening inventory was one huge project and now we are working hard to transition into buying new releases for the coming months. Every day the interruptions keep us from getting things done, but saying “hello” to a customer who has come in with a neighbor is too important to miss.

In the next blogs we’ll be writing more about what we’ll call the “transition period” … the time when you’re switching between opening the store to operating the store. It’s another unique chapter on this path of developing a sustainable bookstore business.

Yet in the meantime, it’s important to take off the roller skates, stop, and breathe in the sweet moments that enrich each day in the bookstore.

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.

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.

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.

The dream of owning a bookstore can be so strong and most people we encounter have spent years following different career paths and one day acknowledge that the bookstore dream just won’t go away.

In our years of working with people in career transitions into bookselling, we see a variety of wonderful skills and talents people have acquired. Stephanie was an attorney. Jeff was a journalist. Melissa was a CFO. James taught college literature. Rachel was a library director. Susan was an oncology nurse.

So how do you decide to make the career leap of your dreams?

Nina George's lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a "literary apothecary."

Nina George’s lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a “literary apothecary.”

I read from #Nina George’s new book, #The Little Paris Bookshop, during our most recent workshop because the gist of what makes a successful bookstore was perfectly articulated.

Jean Perdu owns a floating bookstore, a barge that travels the waterways of France. We travel along with him, encountering the various customers and learn their stories, needs, dreams, and woes. After a grandmother, mother, and girl leave the barge with their purchase and went on their way, “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

Smart people can learn retail management. You can’t really learn to be kind and generous.

Take inventory of your skills and look inward to identify the telling aspects of your character. If you love multi-tasking and enjoy a varied day with a mixture of conversations with people and completion of tasks, bookselling can be the right career move for you.

Bring your love for people and your interest in matching their needs and wants. But don’t minimize the importance of learning the business skills. Both are necessary.

Last week during our full week workshop, we discussed book industry trends and talked about the future of reading and interest in bookstores. In this high tech world, it seems we still thirst for something real: real conversation, real friends, real book recommendations, real books.

Silicon Valley's Face In A Book has doubled its size.

Silicon Valley’s Face In A Book has doubled its size.

One of the past Paz grads came to mind, Tina Ferguson, owner of Face In A Book in Eldorado Hills, California. Tina’s husband is a Facebook employee and as parents immersed in the technology industry, Tina acknowledged that her friends were limiting screen time and encouraging their children to have their face in a real book. Today, Tina has just expanded her store. Business is strong and she’s having a wonderful time owning a bookstore.

By the cover of the Lands’ End catalog that arrived last week, it’s not those of us in the book industry craving quality time to think and interact. The headline of the Lands’ End catalog reads, “Rule #1: unplug. There is no rule #2. QUALITY. TIME.” The image chosen for the catalog is a family gathered around a picnic table in the yard.

Today’s world is demanding. We are pulled in many directions and our gadgets demand our attention throughout the day. How nice to unplug and have an authentic experience.

Reading a book. Talking with others about books. Browsing bookstores. Those are truly authentic connections.