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!

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.

We celebrate each new opening of an independent bookstore. Shelf-Awareness, ABA’s Bookselling This Week, and Publishers Weekly all do a good job of announcing new store openings. It’s interesting to learn how a dream has become reality, but sometimes a single photo can tell us that we’ll soon see an announcement of the store closing.

One of the common pitfalls in opening a new bookstore is understanding the financial dynamics of a bookstore to get the business plan assumptions right. The margins in the book business are tight, and metrics, like inventory turns are essential to clarifying what sales need to be in order for the business to grow beyond break-even.

While no one wants to lose money, it’s surprising when a new bookseller will say, “I can’t afford the time” to come to a workshop to learn the business that will require thousands and thousands of dollars to launch.

Our response is, “can you afford NOT to?”

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

The photo we’re featuring has been modified to post in this blog, but it’s one of the photos that indicate the bookseller has opened on “a wing and a prayer”, driven by a dream, but uninformed and positioned for early failure.

All retail businesses are based on the buying and selling of goods. Inventory turns is a key metric that measures the productivity of our inventory. You take your inventory at its retail value and multiply it three to five times to forecast your annual sales.

The key question then becomes, “Is this enough?”

We recommend that a full and interesting selection of books and non-book items should run about $125 per square foot at its retail value, $75 per square foot at cost. The inventory in this photo appears to be at about $15 per square foot at cost.

Launching a dream for a bookstore is a wonderful contribution to community, but only if the story of this new business continues. It’s painful for everyone when a dream crashes. Those of us in the book industry want to see more success stories. The margins are tighter in the book industry than other forms of retail.  It pays to learn the complexities of the book industry and the basics of retail management before you dive right in.

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.

Listen to National Public Radio and you never quite know how your life might be affected. This week Diane Rehm interviewed Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World and what lingered for me was the value meditation has in changing anything.

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with our thoughts and leads to new mindfulness and way of being

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with us

During the conversation, Mr. Ricard noted the link between meditation and our neurological wiring. A commitment to thinking differently, and using meditation as our dedication to the effort, can bring amazing results.

In our work with bookstore turn-arounds, it’s become clear that the obstacles to turning financial losses to business sustainability are deeply rooted negative beliefs, mostly about money, profits, greed and business. Lump them all together in a negative light, and we limit our capacity to create a healthy business.

Here are some positive beliefs that can help guide daily activities in creating a sustainable business:

* My awareness will help guide a positive outcome.
* I seek to learn how to prioritize my work so that I give the bookstore the best and most important things it needs.
* My ongoing learning will help me broaden my awareness and strengthen my ability to lead the business.
* If I want a different outcome, I am willing to rethink my routines.
* Our profits indicate that we are making magical connections with our customers; that they choose to buy from us confirms when we are paying attention and making wise choices.
* I am part of the business community that values people. Our presence provides healthy places to work and honors reading and lifelong learning.
* Our profits are what allows us to continue to contribute to a healthy local economy.

We often refer to the “Art and Science of Bookselling” because both are necessary for sustainability. For some, the art comes easy and the science, not so much. Expanding our insights and learning skills begins with mindfulness and openness.

How is it that independent bookstores have not disappeared even though plenty of people predicted they would fall by the wayside like the record stores?

Harvard Book Store asks, "Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore".

The staff at the Harvard Book Store asked, “Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore”.

A Harvard Business School professor joined us during our one-day workshop at this year’s Winter Institute, the annual conference sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, with the goal of finding out why independent booksellers are so resilient.

It seems each decade members of the media find one more seemingly compelling reason that sparks the demise of the bookstore. Yet booksellers are creative and collaborative. They care and share and hang together in tough times. When booksellers put all of the energy and creativity together, something amazing usually results.

This is why independent bookstores are thriving, even in a digital world.

The first ever National Independent Bookstore Day was held on Saturday with great fanfare from coast to coast. In this morning’s issue of Shelf-Awareness (a free daily newsletter about the book business), we learned about the parties, events, decorated cakes and wine and locally crafted beer, the readings and signings, and the fun that took place in indie bookstores.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015 and the celebrations took place in communities across the country.

 

Celebrating community at independent bookstores… what a great reason for a party.

Booksellers are thinkers and dreamers, entrepreneurs and business leaders. When the majority sees difficulty, indie bookstores are busy finding a way to turn the challenge into an opportunity … and building community, having fun along the way.

There’s nothing like a bookstore going up for sale to stir emotions. In today’s world of retail, many become worried that the store will close and the community won’t have this important anchor. Some will jump to conclusions that ebooks are ruining the bookstore business (far from fact) or worse, it’s Amazon’s fault.

Lots of businesses go up for sale, but few get the emotional response as a beloved bookstore will when an owner is ready to retire or simply begin a new chapter in their personal lives.

If you are thinking of stepping forward to buy a bookstore, we recommend that you focus on these three important factors:

Identify what you are buying. When you close the deal, what will you receive? In addition to rights to the name and logo, what about the quality of the customer mailing list? Are there long-standing relationships with schools and other institutional accounts? Do you want everything in the current inventory? Books purchased beyond 12 months will not be returnable to the vendor; this “dead wood” should be valued at less than cost. Will you identify a price range for the value of the inventory so there isn’t a radical fluctuation in stock levels before you close? You should receive a list of what you are buying so there is clarity in what is transferred to you at the time of sale.
Understand the price. Retail businesses are typically priced in two parts: the value of the strength of business operations and the value of inventory. Ask about the asking price. Understand how the price was determined. If the owner hasn’t done a business valuation, you can have one conducted. Revenue, profits, cash flow, and the strength of business operations are studied to identify a reasonable price range.
Go for a “Win/Win” outcome. If the store has an excellent reputation in the community and the owners are beloved and involved, realize that a positive and smooth transition will help you be accepted as the new owner. By all means negotiate, but accept a price that is reasonable and feels fair to all parties.

There are times when we’ve seen bookstores go up for sale, but the seller asks a premium price that may justify all the blood, sweat, and tears involved over the years, but doesn’t reflect a justifiable or fair price. Sometimes it seems sellers will grab a price from thin air and hope someone will be willing to pay the price. It’s up to you to do your due diligence to understand what you’re buying, what it will take to operate and improve the business, and pay a price that makes sense and allows you to have some working capital to draw when you need it.

While owning a bookstore may be a dream come true, buying a bookstore should go beyond the emotional excitement to ensure you are making sound decisions before you sign the dotted line.

People often ask us to describe the kinds of people who are most successful bookstore owners. The answers may be surprising … the ability to master spreadsheets is not top of the list!

Susie Alexander, former B&N employee, opens Once Upon a Storybook in Orange County, CA. Her husband Norm and Curious George help during the recent Grand Opening.

Susie Alexander, former B&N employee, opens Once Upon a Storybook in Orange County, CA. Her husband Norm and Curious George help during the recent Grand Opening.

Love People – When you’re in the business of buying and selling books, it helps to know (and love) the people you’ll be serving. Great bookstore owners are involved in their communities, know a lot of people, and love listening to and learning from others. You can serve others when you understand their needs and desires.

Respect & Admire Authors & Illustrators – We are nuts about books. We devour them ourselves, always find a book to give as a gift, become wild evangelists for authors and books we’ve enjoyed, and look forward to conferences when we can hear from the authors and illustrators themselves. You can sell what you believe in.

Open to Ideas – Work and life begin to meld when you do what you love. You can be at the hair salon and get a really great idea to use in the bookstore. There’s an appreciation for great ideas and a knowledge that you can be inspired in the most unlikely places.

Eager to Learn the Business – Few people who open or buy a bookstore come from retail management backgrounds, but there are some business skills that are essential in this low-margin business where it’s easy to run out of capital and be unable to continue the dream. Successful owners don’t fly by the seat of their pants, but honor the business they’ve begun and learn to manage operations.

This combination separates those who “play bookstore” from those owners who rise to the top of their profession as successful stewards of their business.

I do love studies and when it comes to trends and young people, it’s fascinating to see how they like to shop, how they view themselves, and how that relates to the retail business. So when I saw the link to “Meet the Teens” from today’s National Retail Federation news, I had to go find out how things have changed since I was in my teens in the 1970s, hanging out with friends at the mall when I wasn’t working at my part-time job at one of the teen clothing stores.

Teens prefer shopping in-store

Teens still enjoy shopping in stores

Seems a lot has changed and some things have stayed the same…

Online shopping is part of the mix, but teens prefer to shop in-store where they can see the merchandise.

Facebook is “kind of dead” … so marketing is a moving target and social media venues are trendy.

Parents and part-time jobs are sources of income. Teens have money to spend.

Teens are less into doing what their friends do, but more into finding their own style (and voice).

When Young Adult Fiction has had such a boost in the last decade with debut authors and new authors writing hit after hit, it’s a wonderful moment to make sure teens and young adults find a home at the bookstore, come in to touch the books and soak in the good “space”, and find books that help them develop character and enjoy their leisure time.

Teens want to go out and shop. Let’s invite them in… and provide them the opportunity to connect for real with the world of ideas.