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.

Bookselling is a unique profession in so many ways, but one that truly stands out is just how many people dream of having their own bookstore. We’re talking people spending years visualizing their bookstore, identifying books they’ll sell, and dreaming of the store filled with people who come to enjoy a heart-felt conversation.

This contribution to our inner lives and the inner lives of our neighbors and friends is one of the main reasons people get into the business. It’s also a big reason people choose to become booksellers after retiring from other careers.

Happy 20th anniversary to the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, New York!

One of our friends and colleagues in the book business is celebrating 20 years of being in business. The river’s end bookstore (yes, all lower case) in Oswego, New York was created by Bill Reilly who came to us when he had just retired from the New York world of magazine advertising. He was ready to relocate in upstate New York and begin a new chapter in his life.

Bookselling became his new career.

Since that moment, Bill has helped transform Oswego’s central business district in his corner space that makes a big impression when you drive into town. Bill added momentum and energy, enthusiasm and ideas to the business district. He has worked in collaboration with the university, local schools, and charitable organizations to help build community around books and ideas.

Twenty years ago, the space needed a real transformation since it was an historic building that had been used as a clothing store for years. I remember the shag carpeting, fitting rooms that needed to be demolished, and a drop-ceiling that was a throw-back to the ’70s when heating oil prices soared.

Bill wanted to have a beautiful bookstore that the locals would appreciate. He wanted to lift up the downtown district. He wanted to make a difference.

He certainly has accomplished this.

Bill’s wife Mindy joined the business after she retired from the university after working extra hours in the bookstore since it opened. Together, they have hosted authors, helped schools, worked with the university, and worked hard to live the dream.

Today, Bill and Mindy celebrate twenty years of bookselling and we are thrilled that their son Emile will carry on the tradition.

Bookselling, although demanding and challenging, can offer such rich rewards. For many, it starts with a dream and then can lead to making a difference. What a way to spend the next chapter in life.

Congratulations, Bill and Mindy and the booksellers at the river’s end bookstore! You have lived your dream in a beautiful way.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Our work has become even more clear during this presidential campaign. We need to step up our advocacy for the values and qualities that make us decent human beings who contribute to the greater good of the world.

Yesterday, as I was preparing dinner, I listened and watched Michelle Obama’s comments during a campaign presentation. She was right, this was not the time for a typical speech. These are not normal times.

Our work grows more important.

Our work grows more important.

Over the summer, I’ve been reading the publications from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable of our society.” For years they’ve produced a publication entitled Teaching Tolerance. The letters from teachers, Q&A responses about challenging situations emanating from this campaign season, and the heightened concerns teachers have for children has been chilling. Stories of playground behavior and language illustrate that children see, hear, and are affected.

On TV and radio, children have heard the spewing of hateful, disrespectful language and incitement of violence. And, we as adults have needed to discuss this because it is simply unbelievably surprising and sad.

We are better than this.

The effort needed to counter-balance these destructive words seems to grow in importance with each new day of the campaign.

Booksellers have a perfect audience with every story time and an opportunity with each little customer. I grew up with Captain Kangaroo and remember learning to say “please” and “thank you” and saw how a captain in a big mustache would be kind and civil with a little bunny rabbit. My storybooks taught me those same lessons.

The work to right this ship is immediate and probably ongoing. The media will need to continue to report the news, but we can work to be models and safe havens of civility and respect.

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.

It’s been a busy week in a very good way. We’ve gotten inquiries from people in sizable cities that have only had second tier chain bookstores after the departure of Borders and Barnes & Noble. And, we heard this new store update from Jay Jackson, co-owner of Absolutely Fiction Books! with his wife Becky:

“People were waiting for us to open the doors, several people told me they almost cried when the first building deal fell through, they are emotionally invested in the Bookstore and make up our core fans. For them it’s not just a place to buy books it is a dream come true, Their dream.”

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

Perhaps it is true that we only recognize the value of what we had when it is lost. The residents of Lufkin, Texas once upon a time had a Waldenbooks. Becky worked there and was devastated when it closed. For years, she mourned the loss of the bookstore. Others did too.

When we can buy anything online, why do we miss any retail store?

Bookstores are special places. Yes, it’s the books and the staff and the smell of coffee and the comfy chairs. And, it’s so much more than that.

In the U.S., we have experienced a mind-bending political campaign that has brought about a series of shockingly new lows. Insults, bullying, the deliberate spread of misinformation, the lack of apologies and basic courtesy. The dark side of humanity has shown itself without shame in a country we thought stood for high ideals and personal responsibility, especially from those who wish to become our national leaders.

For months now, this dark side is the center of every media story. As a result, the campaign makes its way into casual conversations. People are upset for a lot of reasons.

That’s why when Becky Jackson puts fresh flowers out in the bookstore on Fridays and mentions it on social media, customers come in just for a look, a dose of something beautiful and refreshing. Then, there are books on the tables and shelves that are symbols of civility.

Bookstores ground us. They connect those who value facts, seek knowledge and common ground, want to engage in meaningful discussion and make the world a better place. It’s a place where people honor one another, even when they disagree, with courtesy and respect.

It’s no surprise customers of Absolutely Fiction Books! became emotional when they learned an indie bookstores would be opening in their community. Yes, it’s retail, yet a symbol of civility. May the flurry of new bookstore openings continue. We need bookstores for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world.