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.

We’re not thinking about ebooks here (ebook sales have plateaued and have been on decline for many months), but information technology as it powers bookstore operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager's laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our bookstore management system is on the manager’s laptop in our dining room while we set up and learn the many ways it drives store operations.

Our dining room is transformed into our central area for setting up and learning how to effectively use our computerized bookstore management system. We’ve always said it is good to give yourself time. Now, it has become even more real.

Until now, I really never thought of the “To Do List” just for the setting up the system. It’s actually quite lengthy…

  • Set up store information for customer receipts
  • Enter departments, sections, and media (formats) to organize your inventory and determine how you want to analyze sales and inventory turns
  • Go to Edelweiss, where the publisher catalogs are managed online, to establish category mapping so you can import title information and have each book be automatically assigned to its proper category
  • Learn how to import book data from Edelweiss and your wholesalers
  • Develop customer loyalty programs so your system tracks customer purchases and helps you automate perks (no punch cards in today’s bookstore!)
  • Enter vendor account information (after you’ve opened your accounts!)
  • Lean to create purchase orders
  • Test electronic ordering (which is the best practices of our industry)
  • Learn to receive inventory so on-hand quantities are updated when you press the magic button
  • Understand how to research books using book industry databases (not amazon.com), find books customers want to buy from you, and put those on an order
  • Develop discount categories, add your staff discount and apply them only to the appropriate product departments
  • Establish security levels for various staff positions
  • Learn how to ring up a sale
  • Understand how to run a Z tape to close out sales for the day, then reconcile that for your bank deposit
  • Set up proper back-up procedures

And I haven’t even gotten to the accounting interface! The meeting with our CPA is Monday.

A computerized bookstore management system is essential to connecting to the book industry’s massive title databases and inventory detail, and this is where our systems go so far beyond Square or the generic POS systems. We are data-driven because each week we have thousands of new books released and our inventory is always fluid.

After a busy month of learning and testing our system, it’s clear that this effort requires planning, a keen attention to detail, and time before you go “live”.

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.

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.

First is was just the business news, now, the general media is covering the struggles of the retail sector. Retailers are struggling. Stories of corporate restructuring and store closings and the impact on employment figures have, for good reason, caused increasing alarm.

It’s interesting that we have one major shift happening today: online shopping has become so easy that people are open to shopping for all kinds of products, including groceries.

Unless there is some obvious benefit to shopping at a bricks-and-mortar store, shopping online can be seen as a way to save time. Need something? Place the order and expect it will be at your doorstep almost momentarily.

Technology makes shopping efficient and many appreciate not having to use time to perform the mundane duties of daily life.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

And this is where bookstores are the outliers in this story of retail suffering. Most indie bookstores are doing quite well now that the economy has improved, many booksellers say they are even thriving. At first glance, it appears counter-intuitive or a suspicious attempt by the bookselling industry to show that everything is just fine.

Shopping for books is not like shopping for diapers. Browsing for books is not a routine, mundane “task” for people who love books and savor their time to read. It’s a reward, a treat, a welcome break from noise, screens, interruptions, and distractions.

We have needs and longings that transcend what we can get from a website. Some people will never shop online for groceries since that’s where they experience the pleasure of choosing peaches or selecting from new brands of Italian canned tomatoes. It’s also where they run into their neighbors.

People go to a bookstore for quiet time. They come to be with other people. They come for conversation and sometimes entertainment. Book people come so see what might tickle their curiosity or make them smile. We can sneak it elements of beauty and comfortable seating and you can almost hear the “ahhh…” in response. It feels good. Walk around and the books speak to you. Don’t know what to read next? No worries, just look around. And, we’ll also offer a friendly “hello”, which is also an invitation to let us know what you need.

Booksellers are outliers in this store of the suffering of general retail. The unfolding is nuanced. There is more than one story within the transformation of the retail sector.

We fully expect that more shopping will morph to online activities. And, we fully expect bookstores will continue to do well. So will coffee shops and little cafes. These places fulfill human needs … they help us balance life, refresh and renew, connect, and feel joy. That makes bookstores outliers in today’s retail environment.

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.

While the headline is positive, dig into the details and you’ll see the nuances. While many of us are reading (even reading more as we age), there are a significant number of people who are not reading books at all.

The most recent Gallup poll released January 6, 2017 … “Rumors of the Demise of Books Greatly Exaggerated” … indicates that older adults (aged 65 and older) are reading more than they did in 2002 with 85% now reading one or more books a year (up from 68%).

91% of young adults report reading at least one book in the past year.

Those in the middle years (aged 30 to 64) who reported they have not read a single book in 2016 is a whopping obama_read_poster_01111739%.

Why this matters is that this is the age group raising children, seeing them from birth through the college years.

If they don’t see us reading, they won’t see the value of reading.

From presidents to mayors, school principles to parents and grandparents, young people watch us. We are their role models.

The future of reading, depends on making sure our actions match our words.

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.

Like many others who a part of a book group, my book group has become a vital part of my life. Having spent decades in the book business, it’s also been a fascinating portal into not only what others love to read (and why), but to see how they prefer to read.

Over the last decade, I’ve seen several of my book group friends switch to e-books. Each month, I bring my print volume.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

This week, one of the e-book pioneers told me she’d recently read a printed book and is going back to print. “What is it that is drawing you back to print?,” I ask. Without specifics, my friend and neighbor explains that, “it’s a totally different reading experience … it’s more real and it’s simply a better experience than reading on a screen.”

Even though she has all of the Amazon perks from being a long-time Kindle user, she’s limiting her e-book reading to travel. Otherwise, she’s going back to print and buying those books at our local indie bookstore, who hosts my neighbor’s knitting group.

The IT professionals forecasted that e-books would be the dominant format by now. What clouded the judgment was the fascination with technology as innovations were radically changing our lives. Now, there’s been time and space to compare both experiences. And, people are choosing what feels best and most rewarding.

With a six percent growth in unit sales January through June of this year versus 2015, my neighbor is not alone. Reading is more than accessing type immediately.

Print books are a beautiful invitation to shut out the distractions that surround us and enjoy the weight of a good story or immerse ourselves in the topic we choose.

Not that readers who have been reading e-books will choose to return completely to print, but readers are acknowledging the reading experience is different … and better … with print.