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.

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.

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.

If you’ve been following the business news on the many retail store and chain closings in this first part of the year, it may seem like good news for start-ups, but not so much.

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

Live music sponsored by the Centre Street merchants of historic Fernandina Beach, FL

The closings still appear to be about two main shifts: 1) away from big-box footprints, and 2) and to online shopping for products that can be considered commodities.

Are books commodities today? Well, to some people … those who know what they want, want it fast, want it at the best available price, and don’t value the in-store experience of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Yet the competitive advantages for indie bookstores is generally about a thought-filled selection, staff recommendations, mindful displays, events, and that special feeling of being in a sanctuary for those who read, value local businesses and their contributions to culture and the local economy.

Indie bookstores tend to do best in Main Street destinations, not big-box developments and strip malls. These are quaint villages and clusters of cafes and shops that offer unique merchandise and a delightful browsing experience. These are places people love to linger, meet up with friends, and enjoy the moment. Their rents tend to be higher because they are tend to always in demand.

So, while the new vacancies in malls and strip centers are many, the over demand will likely not push rents lower in Main Street locations.

It’s still true that much of a retailer’s success is about location. While the big-box spiral down continues, this is an opportunity for Main Street merchants to regain local business by showing there are a lot of things you simply cannot get while shopping online.

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.

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.

The political season “got to me” this past week. I’m politically engaged both locally and nationally, so for months I’ve been watching campaigns and debates, listening and reading commentary, and taking note of the nuances of this campaign season. But, as the negativity and dysfunction escalated, I hit an emotional wall.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don't buy "stuff", we buy for the story.

A simple purchase of a bracelet by Laura Grierson was a reminder that we don’t buy “stuff”, we buy for the story.

While I often visit etsy.com to see what artisans are creating with books and with reading-related themes for our bookstore design work, this time I found myself using the key words, “prayer beads”, which is how I found Laura Grierson, a jewelry artist and metal smith based in Southern California.

Perhaps a bracelet with spiritual properties would bring peace to these moments. I remembered how my mother, who lived through much tragedy yet had her misgivings about organized religion, would say the rosary. I went surfing online and discovered Laura’s artwork, learned her story, and bought a bracelet.

Inside my tiny package that arrived just a few days before my birthday, I discovered a small hand-crafted note that read, “Dearest Donna, Please enjoy wearing your mama bracelets as much as I enjoyed making them for you! Many many blessings. LOVE + LIGHT, Laura”

As someone who has spent a career connected to retail, my work has been guided by why we buy. I’m convinced most of us no longer need more stuff.

We buy stories that connect us.

My purchase is more than another item in my material world. It’s a story, a connection, and shared humanity. For Laura’s customers, her story and personal touch shows in everything from her initial email expressing gratitude for your order to the lovely gift that is hand-packed with a hand-written note.

As I write this blog, I’m wearing Laura’s bracelets. They’ve connected me with another person I didn’t know before last week. And, the mindfulness reflected in the bracelets is reminder that goodness and kindness are present in this world.

Where we shop and what we buy matters … perhaps more than ever.

Last week during BookExpo America, which was held in Chicago this year, we took a retail field trip to visit five Paz workshop grads who have recently opened or purchased existing bookstores. What a delightful way to spend the afternoon.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks is a purely delightful neighborhood bookstore you want to visit because it feels so good to be there.

RoscoeBooks has been in business for two years and is surpassing financial projections. Owner Erika Van Dam sensed her neighborhood wanted a real indie bookstore, and, she was right. As soon as you enter the space, you know this store is staffed with people who love books because the very first bookcase is filled with staff recommendations. Travel throughout the store and you find staff recommendations everywhere. No matter your age, the children’s department is such a draw with its colorful mural. At 2142 W. Roscoe Street, RoscoeBooks is the center of the neighborhood with a friendly space loaded with delightful reads.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

These chairs at City Lit Books invite you to sit and relax.

City Lit Books is a few short blocks from the Logan Square train stop and in the center of a most desirable Chicago neighborhood. Residents can walk to a poetry open mic night, author event, or simply to sit in the comfy chairs by the fireplace and pick out some new books to read. We love to see staff recommendations, meet booksellers who are authors themselves, and especially love seeing displays of customer recommendations. Teresa Kirschbraun has created a community hub for readers and writers, poets and dreamers of all ages.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

Esther preps for a special event at Read It & Eat.

We couldn’t wait to see Esther Dairiam’s Read It & Eat, a culinary bookstore with a full kitchen for hosting amazing food-centric events. Esther did a fabulous job choosing colors and finishes to dress up the historic space at 2142 N. Halsted Street. The air was filled with a delicious aroma as Esther was prepping for the next day’s special event. We browsed the selection of books … everything you’d ever want to know about food for home cooks and restaurant professionals.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

Portraits of famous authors were drawn by an artist on staff at the iconic Women & Children First Bookstore.

The iconic bookstore Women & Children First was purchased by employees Sarah Hollenbeck and Lynn Mooney last year and they have been busy making their own mark. The whole store has gotten a fresh coat of paint, the children’s department has come to life with a new carpet and colors, and we loved the series of hand-drawn portraits of visiting authors that were created by a talented artist on staff. We applaud Sarah and Lynn for stepping forward to keep this store alive and well into the future and are thrilled that this next chapter in their lives includes owning a beloved business. You’ll find them at 5233 N. Clark Street … remember to check the events schedule if you’ll be in town since they often host the major authors on tour.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Hardcover bindings cover a focal point wall at Volumes BookCafe.

Our last stop was Volumes BookCafe at 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Sisters Kimberly and Rebecca George have created an invigorating bookstore that invites you to order a glass of wine as you shop and leave with a great cup of coffee once you’ve found your next great read. We loved the delightful touches in the store … book art created with used book pages and covers. In the kids area, a small family could snuggle up in the seating area and read together.

Travel Chicago and it’s easy to see there is no shortage of creativity when it comes to developing an indie bookstore. Bravo, new bookstore owners! Your neighborhoods and communities have very special places to gather because of your bookstores!