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.

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.

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.

I guess it all started with my mom, a single mother raising two girls without a lot of resources, she learned to fix things. The local hardware stores, like local bookshops, were pressed to show their competitive advantages when the big box stores multiplied in towns everywhere.

Hackney Hardware in Dexter, Michigan - what a delightful experience!

Hackney Hardware in Dexter, Michigan – what a delightful experience!

Today, I love going to not just any hardware store, I love ACE Hardware stores. While in the Ann Arbor area recently, I visited Hackney ACE Hardware in Dexter Michigan. The stores are independently owned and operated and while they vary in their selection, all the ACE Hardware stores I’ve visited seem to show friendliness you can only find in a neighborhood business.

While I was walking along Main Street in Dexter, I came across a storefront with kitchen goods and toys visible from the sidewalk. Hold everything! I went in and headed right for the beautiful tabletop display. Where am I?

When I peaked around the corner, I could see I’d entered the hardware from a second entrance. I stumbled into a feature display of absorbent dish cloths. Some were imported and others were hand-crocheted with all cotton yarn. There were natural cleaning solutions for every household chore on an endocarp display. I’d never seen the brand before.

Near the cash wrap was a wall display of favorite soda pop and on the cash wrap counter was a display of Chuckles, those sugared jelly candies. How fabulous is that?!

The store was clean. The staff was friendly. The merchandise ranged from staples to wonderful discoveries. I found a few things to buy.

After my friends found me in Hackney Hardware and we were ready to press on, we walked and discovered a barber shop at the corner. The barber was inside cutting hair and talking with a few other men.

What a delightful experience on Main Street. When I’m in Dexter, I’m going back to Hackney’s Hardware.

I think we’re at a tipping point in developing alternatives for affordable retail space …

Mark and I recently visited Nashville, our former home town, and loved traveling East Nashville, a community blossoming with home renovations and new cafes and retail stores.

While Nashville is known as a creative community … home of the Southern Festival of Books, Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books, plus all of those creative songwriters and composers who come from all over the world to contribute to the world of entertainment.

IMG_0131What we stumbled across was The Idea Hatchery, a cluster of small spaces near a major intersection. The flyer we picked up began with the headline:

“Start a Small Business in East Nashville”

Then continued, “The Idea Hatchery is”

* A community of small independent businesses hosted in 8 individual buildings.

  • An arrangement of buildings that have footprints of 168 sf, 256 sf, and 320 sf.
  • An opportunity to experiment and to share ideas with other small business owners.

The Idea Hatchery offers:

  • 1 year leases with no limits on renewal.
  • Reasonable rents with pro-rated utilities…”

Check out the gallery of photos and just imagine all of the cool things people discover when they visit.

New models are surfacing. They focus on collaboration, synergy, and creative energy. It’s an exciting era for indie businesses.

We celebrate each new opening of an independent bookstore. Shelf-Awareness, ABA’s Bookselling This Week, and Publishers Weekly all do a good job of announcing new store openings. It’s interesting to learn how a dream has become reality, but sometimes a single photo can tell us that we’ll soon see an announcement of the store closing.

One of the common pitfalls in opening a new bookstore is understanding the financial dynamics of a bookstore to get the business plan assumptions right. The margins in the book business are tight, and metrics, like inventory turns are essential to clarifying what sales need to be in order for the business to grow beyond break-even.

While no one wants to lose money, it’s surprising when a new bookseller will say, “I can’t afford the time” to come to a workshop to learn the business that will require thousands and thousands of dollars to launch.

Our response is, “can you afford NOT to?”

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

Lean inventory levels will need sluggish sales and struggle to keep the bookstore afloat.

The photo we’re featuring has been modified to post in this blog, but it’s one of the photos that indicate the bookseller has opened on “a wing and a prayer”, driven by a dream, but uninformed and positioned for early failure.

All retail businesses are based on the buying and selling of goods. Inventory turns is a key metric that measures the productivity of our inventory. You take your inventory at its retail value and multiply it three to five times to forecast your annual sales.

The key question then becomes, “Is this enough?”

We recommend that a full and interesting selection of books and non-book items should run about $125 per square foot at its retail value, $75 per square foot at cost. The inventory in this photo appears to be at about $15 per square foot at cost.

Launching a dream for a bookstore is a wonderful contribution to community, but only if the story of this new business continues. It’s painful for everyone when a dream crashes. Those of us in the book industry want to see more success stories. The margins are tighter in the book industry than other forms of retail.  It pays to learn the complexities of the book industry and the basics of retail management before you dive right in.

Some bookstores are well worth the drive. We were having lunch with friends who were telling us about their summer travel plans when I discovered we have a habit … we can’t help but associate a city with one (or more) indie bookstores. Going to Chicago? Oh, you’ve got to visit The Book Stall at Chestnut Court and don’t forget RoscoeBooks and the new Read It & Eat. One of my book group members texted me from Jeff Kinney’s new bookstore, An Unlikely Story, and attached a photo of her husband and granddaughter.

Just what is it about these stores people rave about? The entries on Yelp are love letters. Locals are proud they have a great indie bookstore in their community. The stores are listed in travel guides.

Here’s my list of three things. There are no numbers since all of these things are important and the truly great stores are way above average on every one.

* Passion for wonderful books with strong impulses to tell others about a really great read. From product to people, this can’t help but shine through.
* A full and thought-filled selection. Show me something I’ve never seen. Surprise me. Help me find something for someone I love. Make me smile.
* Offer a warm and friendly atmosphere. From people to place, the bookstore feels good: welcoming, comfortable, peaceful, engaging.

When we’re asked to do a business valuation for an existing bookstore or potential buyer, we look at Yelp, review their social media sites, and look through the store’s website. We see the passion, sense of place, and warmth in everything they do. A bookstore destination grows out of love.

No wonder people will drive out of their way just to visit. We need these places in our lives.

While in New York City for BookExpo America, we used a window of time before the convention began to slip into the flagship Macy’s store on 34th Street. There was a cover story on “Macy’s magic” in the Delta Sky magazine and we were ready for a retail field trip.

Macy's flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

Macy’s flagship store in New York City, an American institution.

The iconic store has been featured in films and is beloved for its Thanksgiving Day parade tradition. In touring the store, it’s clear that Macy’s has embraced many traditions while keeping the store fresh and exciting.

For booksellers and all retailers, Macy’s is a model. Here are a few of the lessons we took away:

Keep Building On Your Reputation
Macy’s has been the fabric of New York City and is known throughout the world. The windows are kept fresh and interesting. Displays are constantly changing. The staff is friendly, happy, and helpful. The old creaky escalators still take you floor to floor. Their signature event remains the anchor of their marketing plan.

Cater to Your Customer
We walked by the kids shoe department and saw the adjacent display of skate boards in really cool colors, stacked up high ready for loads of summer fun. Macy’s knows people stay for hours and hours, so they’ve added food and beverage service in strategic places. Macy’s understands many of their customers are tourists. Near one of the main restaurants is a display of Macy’s branded merchandise, from dog bowls to t-shirts and tote bags that connect their logo with artwork they commissioned.

Create a Delightful Escape
The store is a destination. It sparkles. It smells good. There are beautiful displays everywhere you look. The graphics make the store feel alive with real people. Signage helps you find things. It’s a happy place. You can Macy’s online, but if you can, you want to go into the store.

In today’s retail, most department stores have had a tough time competing with online shopping. Not Macy’s. They embrace the art and science of retail and have created an American institution.

I am fascinated with the Every Door Direct tool developed by the U.S. Postal Service. Designed for use by small businesses for planning door-to-door marketing, it turns out this is quite a valuable resource for prospective business owners.

very Door Direct Mail allows you to analyze your market by postal carrier route

Analyze your market by postal carrier route for detailed information on neighborhoods within a community

Here’s how it works … Go to the home page at https://EDDM.usps.com and enter a zip code you want to explore. Using the menu options below (Route & Residential), refine your search. Use your mouse to hover over different carrier routes and you’ll see demographic data appear on the screen describing who lives there.

This resource is perfect for:
Obtaining much more detailed demographics than by zip code or market analysis that takes a random 1, 3, and 5 mile radius around a particular address

Identifying neighborhoods and even streets that would be best for your new business

Collecting data for your business

Gathering marketing information to use later as you target your promotions

And, it’s free and available to you right now.

If you’re a visual person like me, it’s great to see the map, clip and save sections, and use the tables to choose the routes and tabulate population totals.

Market research has never been this fast, easy, or valuable.

How is it that independent bookstores have not disappeared even though plenty of people predicted they would fall by the wayside like the record stores?

Harvard Book Store asks, "Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore".

The staff at the Harvard Book Store asked, “Tell Us Why You Love Our Bookstore”.

A Harvard Business School professor joined us during our one-day workshop at this year’s Winter Institute, the annual conference sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, with the goal of finding out why independent booksellers are so resilient.

It seems each decade members of the media find one more seemingly compelling reason that sparks the demise of the bookstore. Yet booksellers are creative and collaborative. They care and share and hang together in tough times. When booksellers put all of the energy and creativity together, something amazing usually results.

This is why independent bookstores are thriving, even in a digital world.

The first ever National Independent Bookstore Day was held on Saturday with great fanfare from coast to coast. In this morning’s issue of Shelf-Awareness (a free daily newsletter about the book business), we learned about the parties, events, decorated cakes and wine and locally crafted beer, the readings and signings, and the fun that took place in indie bookstores.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015.

The first-ever National Independent Bookstore Day was sponsored by the American Booksellers Association May 2, 2015 and the celebrations took place in communities across the country.

 

Celebrating community at independent bookstores… what a great reason for a party.

Booksellers are thinkers and dreamers, entrepreneurs and business leaders. When the majority sees difficulty, indie bookstores are busy finding a way to turn the challenge into an opportunity … and building community, having fun along the way.