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

And then you open the doors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve been wearing roller skates for months as first there was so much to do to launch the bookstore, now we’ve focused on shifting to organizing daily operations. Every day is over-flowing with things to do.

Mark and I have been thinking a lot about Tom Warner these last several weeks. Tom and his wife Vickie Crafton were one of our earliest trainees in the 1990s. After full careers in the textile industry, they purchased Litchfield Books. Tom said he wasn’t going to spend his retirement playing golf; he wanted something that would keep him invested in life. Each time we would see them at industry gatherings, Tom would ask us, “Why didn’t you tell me I’d have to work so hard?” Then, he’d add, “And I’ve never enjoyed my work as much as I do now.”

Tom died a few years ago and yet his stories live on. When we’ve come home exhausted from the day, we too acknowledge that there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing at this stage in our lives.

Here’s the counter-balancing moments to all of the administrative work:

  • children who draw us pictures or write notes on the blackboard in the play area
  • everyone who makes an effort to tell us and our crew just how much they love the store and how glad they are we have opened
  • when customers make the bookstore a stop for visiting friends and family
  • customers on the other side of the county who purchase from our website because they want to support a local business
  • our amazing crew who are over-qualified and beautifully devoted to making Story & Song a friendly and welcoming place
  • customers who tell us they found out about the store from a friend, hairdresser, or neighbor
  • 130+ people who show up to listen to and sing along with the local ukulele band
  • a sell-out concert two weeks before Harpeth Rising arrived to do our grand opening finale
  • a staged reading of “Looking For Normal” which prompted everyone to ask big-picture questions about society and our own biases
  • children who love telling us about what they like to read
The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

The Kooks, our local ukulele band, drew a standing-room-only crowd. People want connection and community.

We are tracking above our sales projections, yet we’re still working relentlessly to fill the events calendar with reasons people should come into the store. Buying the opening inventory was one huge project and now we are working hard to transition into buying new releases for the coming months. Every day the interruptions keep us from getting things done, but saying “hello” to a customer who has come in with a neighbor is too important to miss.

In the next blogs we’ll be writing more about what we’ll call the “transition period” … the time when you’re switching between opening the store to operating the store. It’s another unique chapter on this path of developing a sustainable bookstore business.

Yet in the meantime, it’s important to take off the roller skates, stop, and breathe in the sweet moments that enrich each day in the bookstore.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.