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.

When you’re planning a business, your thoughts are filled with dreams and ideas. It’s fun to think about what you’ll carry, who will shop at the store, and what people will want to buy. These become the foundations of the business plan and you make so many decisions based on these assumptions.

And then you open the doors.

So now that we’re at the 90-day mark, here are some of the surprises we’ve had along the way. Some pleasant, some not so much, yet all of the lessons are valuable.

Mother’s Day books and gifts enjoy the focal point display at the main entrance. Customers need help finding the right gift.

Retail shortfalls become bookstore opportunities. We keep hearing the business news report that retail is in significant decline due to online shopping. While that may be true for many kinds of retailers, it has not proven true for us. Greeting cards are in such demand we scramble to keep the pockets full. Quality products are in short supply. Some people want higher quality than what cheap goods just got off-loaded on a freighter from China. New baby gifts are hot in our grandparent market.

Gifts can make you a destination. One of our customers came to the store to buy her husband a 75th birthday present. She purchased a $160 globe that revolves with power from any light source. Our fourth order for these gloves has been sent in so we have more for our Father’s Day display. People often don’t think of buying a gift far in advance. While some of these gifts are for children’s birthday parties, many are for “big” birthdays, weddings, and graduations … life’s big moments.

Uniqueness sells. I never expected to have so much product on consignment. Yes, we do have some local books on consignment, but in support of our theme of “the art of living,” we initially brought on five local artists and hung their art throughout the store. Friends make beautiful pottery, so we set a breakfast table and paired it with cookbooks and fabric runners and napkins made by a neighbor.     My dear friend’s Kanzashi pins (the Japanese fabric folding) tell a beautiful story. All of these items are one-of-a-kind. In an era of mass production, uniqueness sells.

“Shop Local” awareness is greater than expected. Yes, there are people who come in and take a photo of books and our shelf-talkers, but this is rare. Many times each and every day people comment how happy they are that we have opened Story & Song and they will be shopping at our store because they want us to succeed. Still, we have “Shop Local” messages in the store because we know that consumer education is ongoing.

“New” doesn’t matter as much as we think. In the book business, we’re constantly trying to keep up on what’s just off the press and in the news. While this matters with some books and authors, it plays a very small part of what sells on any given day. People want and need you to point out worthy books and special items. When you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to find it online. Carry what you and your staff love and want to sell.

Be open to a greater vision, one that goes beyond books. We are a bookstore, yet we are also about quality gifts, wine, concerts, conversation, and art. In a small market like ours, people are hungry for a more interesting experience and our business needs income from all of those areas to be sustainable.

It’s been fun (and exhausting) and I’m feeling the surprises along the way will always keep things interesting.

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.

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.

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.

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.

With the U.S. presidential election now decided, many of us have witnessed the protests across the country, learned that schools have called in counselors to help students cope with the results, and ourselves felt heightened emotions of sadness and concern for the future of our country.

As booksellers, we have always carried books that help us understand our world and heal our inner lives. We stock books to help parents help their children through grief and fear, books that foster self-confidence and prompt critical thinking.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Today, those books are needed more than ever. Hope for healing our lives, communities, country, and world will help us crawl out of bed and feel there is something we can do to contribute to a greater good.

A few weeks ago, I went to a TEDx event and ended the day feeling hope and optimism. All of these smart, loving people had done remarkable things in their seemingly ordinary lives and stood on stage to tell their stories. And, it was astounding that these remarkable human beings are my neighbors. It was a reminder that good people are doing good work every day.

TED talks and events remind us we are still learning … and we can keep learning from one another. At our TEDx event in Jacksonville, Florida, regular breaks were structured so we would interact with others and talk about the presentations.

Through dialogue, we connect and learn from one another. Everyone emerges enlightened. We learn to listen with openness, respond with civility and respect, and acknowledge one another in a human way when we are face to face. And, being together reminds us we are not alone on this journey.

The events we host in bookstores can respond to this need, providing more time and space for interaction, questions, and discussion.

We can be inspired to rethink our events to expand opportunities for two-way conversation. Book discussion groups, a featured local speaker with theme discussions, conversations after author talks, panel discussions … any program that opens the floor for interaction and exchange will allow us not only to feel engaged and connected, but will expand our world with other views and ideas.

We can bring people together to foster dialogue and connection with a higher purpose.

Last week, thirty people representing twenty new independent bookstores gathered for Bookstore Boot Camp. Most were in the planning stages. Some were exploring whether bookselling would be the right next step in their careers. All of us were deep into the business of bookselling.

Author Jeff Kinney inspires the newest indie bookstore owners during Bookstore Boot Camp.

Author Jeff Kinney inspires the newest indie bookstore owners during Bookstore Boot Camp.

We took the Bookstore Boot Camp on the road this time, traveling to Massachusetts to take a field trip to An Unlikely Story, the bookstore opened in 2015 by Jeff Kinney, author of the fabulously popular Wimpy Kid series. Also, the retailer that won the Specialty Store Silver Design Award from the Association for Retail Environments.

We expected this would be a special Boot Camp, but you never can actually predict the magic of the moment.

After touring An Unlikely Story by Deb Sundin, the store’s General Manager, we were invited up to Jeff Kinney’s studio where he welcomed us to “Wimpy World”. All of us delighted in seeing the life-size graphics from the Wimpy Kid series and the colorful and creative space where Jeff writes, draws, and navigates the worlds of book publishing, film-making, playwriting, licensed products, and now, bookselling.

We had entered a place where children are honored and the biggest success is defined as the time when a child learns to read for the fun of it. Given the millions of Wimpy Kid books that have sold in dozens of languages around the world, Jeff has enriched many lives.

As we were winding down our visit and Jeff congratulated everyone and wished them well, he offered these heart-felt words: “there’s nothing more sacred than putting a book into a kid’s hands.”

Heads nodded, “Yes”.

Later in the week when we were wrapping up the workshop and discussing our next steps, our youngest colleague … a twenty-something who said she came because she wasn’t clear what to do with her career … said she’d found clarity: Bookselling.

Success can be defined in so many ways. In bookselling, success is often measured by finding your tribe and performing sacred acts.