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.

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.

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.

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.

You, too might be getting these calls … they begin with a woman who, for the first few seconds, seems real, even likable.

She has a little giggle and wants to know if you’re on the line. She sounds like she could be you neighbor or maybe your hairdresser calling to confirm your appointment. But, then you realize the voice was carefully crafted and is recorded.

Networks of computers make calls and capture customer information in today's world of digital marketing.

Networks of computers make calls and capture customer information in today’s world of digital marketing.

Mark and I both have been on the receiving end of these calls lately. Initially, they are amusing, until you realize you’ve been tricked. Telemarketing has never really had a great reputation, but with a large volume of calls, the response must be enough to keep them calling. What a way to do business.

Companies are investing big money in technology to form customer relationships. It seems our business executives are enthralled with technology and all that it can do. It feels a bit like the era when IT consultants told publishers the future was in electronic books. Money and attention from traditional channels were redirected towards technology. The initial response was promising, then the sexiness wore off. Many readers have already returned to the authentic, real, printed book.

I think of the executive who is skeptical about the focus on technology, but likely over-ruled by the technology believers at the board room table. When so much of our lives already involve gadgets and screens, will people grow to prefer immediate, perfect automated responses to human interaction? Or, will we search for some level of human interaction with others who are not family, co-workers, or neighbors?

Marketing now encompasses a growing number of strategies. In the end, it’s our decision about what is best for our type of business and what feels appropriate for our customers. An ad in the community theatre’s program, your personal letter to customers in your store’s newsletter, your contributions to social media, personal conversations with customers in the store … a valuable mix for today’s world.

Like most of life, balance is best. And in bookselling, still skewed towards authentic, not recorded, connections.

This week’s headlines in the book business is Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos book. Some cheer, others uphold the First Amendment. It’s messy.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

While our First Amendment protects free speech, publishers are faced with way more submissions than they could ever publish, so choices are always being made about what manuscripts make the cut. Often times, celebrity wins out because of the expected return on investment. In many cases, like this one, it’s simply about business.

When Simon & Schuster decided to offer a $250,000 advance, the executives likely did their due diligence to understand that Yiannopoloulos was edgy and would offend many. As the editor of Breitbart News, he’d been in the spotlight for some time. So was his bad behavior on social media. Obviously, Simon & Schuster did not realize that he would be so controversial that author Roxanne Gay, offended by Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Yiannopoloulos, would withdraw her forthcoming book and that some booksellers would boycott the publisher, cutting frontlist orders.

Decisions have consequences.

Do publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, even language of hate and hurt? In the United States, absolutely.

Do authors, booksellers, and readers have the right to protest? Absolutely.

The book industry is a business, but many of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of ideas and the written word have limits. When so many worthy manuscripts never pass the editors desks, it’s hard to understand why resources would be used to publish words that contribute to the dark side of humanity.

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.

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.