People seemed surprised to see us in New York City last week for BookExpo. With our own new bookstore just a bit over 3 months old, we did feel a bit like new parents leaving an infant for the first time. The difference is that we’ve been with our staff every inch of the day since set-up, so it was time to engage with the industry and be a part of the exciting Vital Bookstore project on the convention floor.

So many booksellers asked us to tell them about our experience and discoveries. Mark and I both had a similar response: “We knew it was a lot of work. Boy is it a lot of work!”

More than 20 volunteers joined the Story & Song Bookstore Bistro staff to help us unpack and organize 12,000 books plus cards and toys.

Last July we found a property we thought had potential. August we made an offer, then spent the rest of the month preparing our SBA (Small Business Administration) loan application and list of supporting documents from our existing business and personal lives. Contractors filled our time in September and October. On October 11 we got the keys and with permits and such, our contractors started in November and finished the day the fixtures arrived in mid-January.

There’s a lot to do. It all takes time. And, the work has just begun.

February 10 we opened for business. Then, the tasks changed completely. The focus moves from setting up to managing daily operations.

We were both in constant motion for at least six weeks. At the store training staff, receiving the back orders and non-book items that took more time than we expected. We were exhausted at the end of long days. And, there were still so many things still on the list that needed to be done.

The funny thing is that all of these tasks need to be done whether you have a 1,200 square foot store or a 5,000 square foot store. If you have a smaller store it may take you relatively less time, but the “To Do” list looks the same. Stock register cash, bookkeeping, social media and publicity, scheduling events, buying books, answering requests from authors, replenishing greeting cards, running Z tapes and starting it all again the next day.

Read through this and we hope you get the sense that bookselling is a complicated business regardless of your footprint. Now that we’re ringing sales, hosting events, and keeping the store stocked, it’s been non-stop … and we have had years doing this for others and are familiar with retail management and the book industry.

If your dream is to open and run a successful bookstore, do yourself a favor and take your time to learn, prepare, get training, set things up properly, and be ready for an amazing launch. It’s stressful enough when you schedule each phase of your start-up and give yourself some wiggle room for things to go wrong (because many will).

So, our advice remains the same … learn about your new industry and career, avoid imposing more stress with high start-up expectations, and make sure you continue to breathe as you work through the long list of things to do to turn that dream of your bookstore into reality.

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.

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.

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.

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, 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.