I hate it when I leave things in hotel rooms. On this last trip, I left my phone charger in the room. So I headed to the office supply store, grabbed an inexpensive replacement and went to the check-out counter.

A lovely young lady smiled, took my item, and then said, “Ah, the old fashioned kind. I haven’t seen one of these in a while.”

I’m not sensitive about my age, but this comment stung. But why? She wasn’t rude in her tone of voice and her comment was honest … the plug was not the duo USB/electrical plug, it was a simple electrical plug. The “old” kind. The young woman was simply unaware that her comments could be received as, “You must be totally unaware that nobody uses these anymore. Are you clueless? Why are you wasting your money on this thing?”

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Customer service training is ongoing. We all can benefit from reminders to avoid words that judge and use words that help.

Communication is complex and it may not take much for a customer to take things in a way that was unintended. That’s why I immediately thought why many bookstores train their staff not to comment on customer purchases. Instead, they’re trained to talk about other things, like asking if any of the items are gifts and need gift wrapping, asking if the customer found what they needed, sharing information about the store’s newsletter list or inviting the customer to the next event.

Now that we’re in the heat of the presidential campaigns in the U.S., this serves as advice to reinforce with all staff. It’s easy to avoid language that can appear judgmental by focusing on simply being friendly and helpful.

The dream of owning a bookstore can be so strong and most people we encounter have spent years following different career paths and one day acknowledge that the bookstore dream just won’t go away.

In our years of working with people in career transitions into bookselling, we see a variety of wonderful skills and talents people have acquired. Stephanie was an attorney. Jeff was a journalist. Melissa was a CFO. James taught college literature. Rachel was a library director. Susan was an oncology nurse.

So how do you decide to make the career leap of your dreams?

Nina George's lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a "literary apothecary."

Nina George’s lovable main character, the owner of a book barge, refers to his bookshop as a “literary apothecary.”

I read from #Nina George’s new book, #The Little Paris Bookshop, during our most recent workshop because the gist of what makes a successful bookstore was perfectly articulated.

Jean Perdu owns a floating bookstore, a barge that travels the waterways of France. We travel along with him, encountering the various customers and learn their stories, needs, dreams, and woes. After a grandmother, mother, and girl leave the barge with their purchase and went on their way, “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

Smart people can learn retail management. You can’t really learn to be kind and generous.

Take inventory of your skills and look inward to identify the telling aspects of your character. If you love multi-tasking and enjoy a varied day with a mixture of conversations with people and completion of tasks, bookselling can be the right career move for you.

Bring your love for people and your interest in matching their needs and wants. But don’t minimize the importance of learning the business skills. Both are necessary.

Last week during our full week workshop, we discussed book industry trends and talked about the future of reading and interest in bookstores. In this high tech world, it seems we still thirst for something real: real conversation, real friends, real book recommendations, real books.

Silicon Valley's Face In A Book has doubled its size.

Silicon Valley’s Face In A Book has doubled its size.

One of the past Paz grads came to mind, Tina Ferguson, owner of Face In A Book in Eldorado Hills, California. Tina’s husband is a Facebook employee and as parents immersed in the technology industry, Tina acknowledged that her friends were limiting screen time and encouraging their children to have their face in a real book. Today, Tina has just expanded her store. Business is strong and she’s having a wonderful time owning a bookstore.

By the cover of the Lands’ End catalog that arrived last week, it’s not those of us in the book industry craving quality time to think and interact. The headline of the Lands’ End catalog reads, “Rule #1: unplug. There is no rule #2. QUALITY. TIME.” The image chosen for the catalog is a family gathered around a picnic table in the yard.

Today’s world is demanding. We are pulled in many directions and our gadgets demand our attention throughout the day. How nice to unplug and have an authentic experience.

Reading a book. Talking with others about books. Browsing bookstores. Those are truly authentic connections.

Listen to National Public Radio and you never quite know how your life might be affected. This week Diane Rehm interviewed Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism: the Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World and what lingered for me was the value meditation has in changing anything.

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with our thoughts and leads to new mindfulness and way of being

Mattieu Ricard, author of Altruism, says change begins with us

During the conversation, Mr. Ricard noted the link between meditation and our neurological wiring. A commitment to thinking differently, and using meditation as our dedication to the effort, can bring amazing results.

In our work with bookstore turn-arounds, it’s become clear that the obstacles to turning financial losses to business sustainability are deeply rooted negative beliefs, mostly about money, profits, greed and business. Lump them all together in a negative light, and we limit our capacity to create a healthy business.

Here are some positive beliefs that can help guide daily activities in creating a sustainable business:

* My awareness will help guide a positive outcome.
* I seek to learn how to prioritize my work so that I give the bookstore the best and most important things it needs.
* My ongoing learning will help me broaden my awareness and strengthen my ability to lead the business.
* If I want a different outcome, I am willing to rethink my routines.
* Our profits indicate that we are making magical connections with our customers; that they choose to buy from us confirms when we are paying attention and making wise choices.
* I am part of the business community that values people. Our presence provides healthy places to work and honors reading and lifelong learning.
* Our profits are what allows us to continue to contribute to a healthy local economy.

We often refer to the “Art and Science of Bookselling” because both are necessary for sustainability. For some, the art comes easy and the science, not so much. Expanding our insights and learning skills begins with mindfulness and openness.

I marvel at American booksellers for their tenacity and I envy European booksellers for the support they get from their countries.

From big box stores to Amazon, they’ve stuck to their principles even when predatory pricing presents tremendous hurdles to sustainability. Today’s op-ed piece in The New York Times by Pamela Druckerman offers a perspective for American reader on just how some European countries are supporting their locally owned bookshops for the sake of “biblio diversity.”

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service ... and fabulous coffee too.

The Watermill in Aberfeldy, Scotland offers a beautiful selection of books and great service … and fabulous coffee too.

First, countries have witnessed there’s a lot to be lost when mega corporations sell below cost for the sole purpose of driving out competition:

“The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 ‘Lang law,’ named after former Culture Minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 percent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online.”

Yes, books are protected because they are not “potatoes”. Books are ideas. Putting ideas into the hands of just a few corporations is scary.

Placing a cap on discounting limits predatory pricing as a competitive advantage. This is a game-changer. and provides a different dynamic for European booksellers and readers. This supports small business. It also says books and ideas are valued.

In the U.S. we have to continue to out-smart and out-wit the mega corporations by changing the rules of the game and competing on ways that are local, authentic, human, and about the in-person experience.

Yesterday was the last day of our five-day workshop retreat dedicated to Owning a Bookstore. This morning, I woke up thinking about all of the smart, creative, inquisitive people who have had the idea of owning a bookstore that “just won’t let go.” From those who intend to buy an existing bookstore to those already thinking about a location, from those who needed to fill in the blanks for writing a business plan to those trying to decide if owning a bookstore was right for them at this time in their lives, everyone contributed a creative spark to the idea of developing a bookstore concept for today’s world.

Learn how to open a bookstore

Spring graduates of Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials

Book people are quite amazing, but many have never worked in retail store let alone own a retail business. Together, we immerse ourselves in the details of bookstore retail management, weave in the realities of the marketplace, examine human needs and behavior, identify the opportunities for a bookstore, develop strategies around our own communities and leave with insights on how to manage and grow this new business.

What was true for someone new to retail management and new to the book industry turned out to even be true for someone who had spent seven years working in a bookstore. In an email this morning, one tenured bookseller who came to consider opening her own store wrote, “I can’t get over all the information we received and think it’s the only way to go if you are considering opening a bookstore.”

If you’ve had a desire to own a bookstore that “just won’t let go,” know you are in good company. Because of the investment and skills required, be careful. Do your due diligence. Study and learn about best practices instead of acquiring outdated routines and habits. Take your time and plan to succeed in what could be a wonderful new chapter in your own life.

In the latest book industry news, Barnes & Noble has announced that it will be close more than 200 stores over the next decade. While some in the mass media are sure to see this as further evidence of their predictions that the printed book is dying, I see it as a smart corporate business decision that will open doors of opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Quaint places to gather, rest, and connect make a great community.

Quaint places to gather, rest, and connect make a great community.

For many of us who have spent time in corporate settings, the decision makes perfectly good sense. When big-box stores were all the rage, B&N seemed to be opening stores in communities large and small. Even into the ‘90s, those big boxes were filled with lots of books – not necessarily a greater selection of books within a subject category, but multiple copies of the same title just to fill all that shelf space. Because publishers offered quantity discounts and additional co-op funds, retailers like B&N got a better deal the more they bought. That not only resulted in a huge outlay of cash, but they often returned 30 to 40 percent of that stock (indies average 11 percent returns) when it didn’t sell through in a timely way. Imagine the labor costs of ordering, receiving, shelving, and returning books. Then add the freight costs.

Enter the 2008 economic crisis, followed by the growing acceptance of e-reading, and their retail strategy proved unsustainable. The company held long-term leases with suffocating overhead, and had devoted more and more space to marketing e-books, where the profit margin was considerably less than it is with print books. If ever there was a time to change course, this is it.
Without Borders and now with B&N exiting many markets, opportunities await the entrepreneur. The Pew research has shown that avid readers who read electronically are still buying an equal number of printed books. People still love to hang out in bookstores, because that’s where they discover great new books to read. In growing numbers, people are joining the “indie” movement and prefer to shop locally. Publishers and authors still need face time with readers. Consumers still long for meaningful “third places” to feel connected with others. Buying a book online makes it a commodity; but books are so much more than an addition to a shopping cart.
If you’ve dreamed of opening a bookstore, but have been scared away by the mass media yet again proclaiming that books and bookstores are dying, think again. Corporations who once dominated a niche market are now shifting their resources, leaving opportunities for indie entrepreneurs.

The idea for the Bookstore Make-Over Contest as a way to celebrate our 20th year in business stemmed from one core belief: the future of retail bookselling is about creating a remarkable in-store experience, something authentic and palpable that you can’t get with a click.

The railing opened the entrance and the stairway to the lower level.

Last week we applied the finishing touches at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, MO, the amazing indie bookstore with a fun and funky personality and a fabulous reputation for staging events. Early in the week, Dennis Jakovac with St. Louis Stair & Wood Works was in to install a beautiful new wrought-iron railing. Rather than have customers feel crowded the moment they entered the store, we chose to add a little breathing room by opening up the entrance to the staircase … and encourage customers to come in, take a deep breath, linger, and be prepared for delicious book discoveries.

The front of any store is key real estate – especially to the right of the entrance – so we rearranged the bestsellers and new releases for fiction and non-fiction. Fixtures were moved, painted “junktique” tables were added, and we filled the focal point tables with books “of the moment.”

The Children's Department now has a space of its own.

The children’s section had been stuffed into a corner along a back wall beyond hardcover fiction, but it was not a place you’d want to linger. This entire department was moved to the back of the store where the far wall was painted a beautiful blue and a wrought-iron chandelier was added to catch the eye and help identify this special area.

Adjacent to the children’s department, we created a section called “Comforts of Home.” Cookbooks, a top selling category with high inventory turns, was expanded to two cases and two feature tables. Gardening, interiors, crafts, and etiquette are also grouped in this area.

At least four oversized island cases, one bulky table, a number of cardboard dumps, and a few wire spinners were removed from the sales floor. Their presence was unnecessary given stock levels and they impeded the flow of traffic through the store. Because of their height and heft, the extra fixtures created visual barriers as well – they were simply in the way, contributed to the clutter, and needed to go.

Magazines surround the Cash Wrap at Left Bank Books

Magazines that relate to news and current issues face the Non-Fiction new releases.

Magazines sales at the store had been on the decline, just as they are nationally. So we clustered art and design magazines on one side of the cash wrap facing those sections and relocated the weekly magazines that report on world affairs to the cash wrap side that faces the front of the store and new non-fiction. That way, they’ll get noticed by the customers who shop those topics.

Gifts and non-book items (terms we much prefer than “sidelines”) had been clustered on tables in the far corner of the store and completely lost. The solution was to cross-merchandise those items throughout the store where they would make for delightful discoveries.

Left Bank Books front of store fiction display

Fiction, the bestselling section in the store, gets a focal point display filled with important new releases.

Most gratifying about the project were the customer comments we heard while wrapping up the make-over. “I’ve been coming here since the 1970s,” one customer noted. “The changes are remarkable and give the store a lively feel.” A family quickly made their way to the new children’s department where the kids grabbed some books and sat on the bench in front of the display window. The mother commented, “Wow, look at the new space for kids’ books!”

After all of the pieces were in place, do-owner Kris Kleindienst wrote, “With Paz’s expertise outside perspective we were able to finally achieve a beautifully thought-out, relevant, unique and gorgeous new feel to our store without sacrificing our identity.”

Left Bank Books Focal Point "Junktique" Table

Repurposing tables and stacking them gave us more focal point display space. Here's a spotlight on poetry.

It’s remarkable what a new vision, some paint, rearranging fixtures, regrouping sections, adding a few unique tables in key spaces, and some cleaning and clearing can do! You’ll find more photos on our Facebook page … and in the autumn issue of our free e-newsletter, indie bookstore entrepreneur.

There has never been a time when offering an enriching, rewarding sense of place has been more important. Let’s keep giving our customers reasons to say, “Let’s go to the bookstore!”

Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri is the recipient of the Bookstore Make-Over Project sponsored by The Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates to celebrate their twentieth anniversary serving independent bookstores. Seventeen bookstores from across the U.S. entered the contest.

“Our goal was to select one project that would help illustrate affordable solutions to issues that many bookstores have in common,” noted founder Donna Paz Kaufman. “Left Bank Books provided the perfect combination of opportunities,” she added. In the store’s application, owners Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele commented, “Frankly, it’s looking really tired at this point and the layout does not work for us at all anymore.” In addition to their design and merchandising expertise, Paz & Associates will contribute $2,000 for upgrades and materials, with labor provided by the store.

The design group at Paz & Associates will address display windows, the front of store experience, traffic flow throughout the space, focal point displays, signage and promotional messaging, the “Wow” factor for creating word-of-mouth marketing, and event staging. The project has an October 15 completion date. Watch for updates on this blog!

During the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in New Orleans last month, there were high spirits — even before the first cocktail party. From the moment booksellers began arriving in the city that embodies strength and resilience, everyone began comparing notes: 2011 finished with a roar, some stores up as much as 48% in sales over 2010.

Watchung Booksellers

Watchung Booksellers, a successful neighborhood bookstore capitalizes on great service, an amazing inventory, and an inviting atmosphere

After the demise of the Borders chain, many readers sought out local indie bookstores. The American Express Small Business Saturday promotion helped educate cardholders about the value of shopping locally. And, physical books make wonderful gifts, especially when recommended by a savvy bookseller for that hard-to-please relative. All of these factors helped fuel the positive momentum.

During the conference, even more reasons for optimism surfaced. The new Verso Advertising survey indicated that while e-books have gained popularity, about 50% of people have no interest in reading on an electronic device. For avid readers who have adopted e-reading, the survey showed that they plan to purchase the same number of print books as electronic books this year. Books are a part of our material culture and the demand for printed books is not going away.

Publishers were at the convention with heart-felt support. From small presses to large publishing houses, representatives were there to give us the inside scoop on debut authors and exciting new books. It’s the glue that binds us and what gives indie booksellers an incredibly important role in the world of books. Indie booksellers, because of their passionate recommendations – that are not predicated on any computer-generated algorithm – help introduce new authors and break-out works. Without indies, we might only get to see those titles now stacked high on the floor at the warehouse clubs, or be able to sort through the kazillions of e-books online, few of which get much marketing support due to the quality of the writing.

Indie booksellers are now talking of expanding the number of locations, redesigning their current stores, and expanding events. They are changing the complexion of their inventories, spotlighting wonderful books and other fun items that reinforce the community’s character and make it fun to come to the bookstore to shop. It’s been a long haul, but people finally seem to be over the fascination with big box stores. They understand the importance of strengthening local economies, and want to find peace, comfort, and a truly good read from their locally owned bookstore.