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.

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.

Yesterday’s news was filled with stories about shopping during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The Nightly Business Report examined the results in context of industry trends due to technology and customer expectations.

NBR used the term “blurring” to describe why Black Friday has become more cyber and Cyber Monday has become more physical. First, many consumers are beginning their holiday shopping earlier, this year by November 10, due to promotions and discounting. So Black Friday is just more of the same promotions, less compelling. Cyber Monday has become less important because people no longer need to wait to get to work for access to high-speed internet. They’re buying online any time.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

With technology supporting the ease of online shopping, what is the future of indie retail? It’s all about the experience.

These elements that create a memorable experience become not just more important, but essential:

Store design that makes you feel good, a space that is uplifting

Displays that are irresistible and offer delightful discovery

Selection that is manageable, interesting, and exudes quality

Fully present and genuinely helpful assistance

And when it comes to gifts, the complementary gift wrapping can be the simple, obvious amenity that seals the deal … the extra something that is beautiful, makes things easy, and is offered in the spirit of joy and shared delight.

Then, add Cider Monday (thanks to bookseller Willard Williams of The Toadstool Bookshops) and the Indies First promotion on Small Business Saturday (thanks to the American Booksellers Association) and the experience just got more rich and personal.

When corporate retailers will continue to blur the shopping experience by deluging the marketplace with special offers, let’s focus on the importance of creating a special experience. The authenticity of the personal and in-peerson has tangible value in a world immersed in faster, cheaper “stuff”.

This month we were fortunate to get to an item that’s been on our “Bucket List” for some time … visiting New Zealand. You might recall that the city of Christchurch had a nasty earthquake in 2011. Homes, churches, and businesses were severely damaged and tourism stopped.

Christchurch is on the rebound and the future now looks exciting as the city and the people have taken a mindful approach on how to rebuild.

In the meantime, the shops and restaurants are open!

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake - in a shipping container.

Scorpio Books was among the retailers and restaurant owners to re-open after the earthquake – in a shipping container.

We visited Re-START, a brilliantly conceived outdoor retail space consisting of temporary buildings made from shipping containers. When you walk into one of the shops you’d just think you were in a small space … the walls are painted, light fixtures are up, the HVAC works, and it’s business as usual.

Restaurants were serving people who were seated at bistro tables inside containers and on surrounding space.

The whole idea lends itself to authentic charm. Make lemonade out of those lemons!

Visiting Re-START is a reminder that especially after a catastrophe, we need places to gather, eat, and shop. Cafes and shops are symbols of normalcy; they are places people crave when their worlds have been turned upside down.

Small businesses have always been known for their resiliency, and the Kiwis proved that great new ideas can come from necessity.

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.

Publishers Weekly does such a good job in reporting on research that affects the book industry and their recent snapshot on today’s educational e-book market prompted me to think about how the results will affect the sale of print books in bookstores as students become familiar with using e-books.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Quoting from the 2014 School Library Journal “Survey of E-book Usage in Schools,” PW notes that 66% of schools across the country currently offer e-books, a 10% increase over the previous year. The portion of children who have read at least one e-book has increased steadily over the last five years.

There are issues galore that the educational community are grappling with: the digital divide; the cost of ongoing investments in technology, tech support, and staff training; selecting and sourcing e-books; plus providing the format that is best for the student and the subject being taught.

If we look to the future, it appears that the number of ways we can read will expand. Being able to read has always been important to success in life, now technical skills will be needed to access information.

It’s interesting that booksellers whose spouses work for Apple and Facebook note that families with roots in the field want their children to read print. They want their children to be well-rounded and able to focus on reading without distraction. Many limit “screen time” and look for ways to maintain a healthy attention span when there are many temptations for digital escape.

What will the students of today prefer as they age? My call is that those who have a balanced diet of reading electronically and reading in print will be proficient in researching and skimming information as needed for tasks. When it comes to reading for fun, turning the pages of a print book will be a break from technology, offering a sensory experience during those cherished moments for quiet adventure.

As we hear and see the horrific stories of oppression in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and the growing number of countries being dominated by ISIS, it’s not only the physical brutality that is disturbing, but the limitation of education and free speech that dampens hope for the future. China limits internet access. After World War II,   we hoped we’d seen the end of government suppression of ideas. Not so.

Today, in the U.S. in the year 2015, two recent polls conducted by the Newseum Institute and the Harris Poll report that the number of people who think there are books that should be banned completely has grown from 18 percent of those surveyed to 28 percent. The polls also indicated that one third of Americans do not know what the First Amendment is.

Here is the language:

First Amendment – Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It would be interesting to compare the results of these polls to those who measure how many Americans know about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms.

The American Library Association reported that there were at least 311 books either challenged or removed in schools and libraries in 2014. Some of those books include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and others.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

Every day, booksellers in the U.S. stand for our freedom to read. Banning books is a dangerous act that opens up a very slippery slope.

We’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week from September 27 through October 3. Read the list of frequently challenged books and the reasons why they have been challenged. Learn about the American Booksellers for Free Expression.

If we want to remain a free and open society, let the people decide for themselves what ideas and stories are worthy. Allow parents to be the ones to screen what their children read. While some unsavory, even hateful ideas will make its way into print, the greatness of the American way of life that government not limit the free flow of ideas. It’s the foundation of who we are and this freedom is worth preserving.

Spread the word. Read a banned book.

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.

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.

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Books and bookstores can help set the foundation of positive change.

As the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in response to conversations that were revisited after the tragic shootings at the AME Church in Charleston, the book world eager awaits  the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Bookstores and libraries across the United States are sponsoring read-a-thons of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, a beloved story of honor and injustice in the deep South … and the heroism of one man in the face of blind and violent hatred.

Let our reflection and conversation about hate, racism, and progress continue.

When people who have worked for decades in other industries think about opening a bookstore, it can be difficult to explain just how important a bookstore can be by stocking and recommending books, choosing books for displays and writing shelf-talkers to help readers understand the value of a book, and sponsoring events to stimulate dialogue and encourage people to think and interact in ways that go beyond their daily lives. Bookstores, like Left Bank Books after the riots in Ferguson, can offer a safe place to question, learn, and heal.

It’s been said that our positions have become polarized in part because we don’t connect with people very different from us. Suburban sprawl brings together people of the same economic standing. Children grow up going to schools that are homogenous and socialize with children who look and begin to value the same things.

Books get us outside our own limited worlds, regardless of where we live, work, worship and play. Bookstores help us connect in real-time, face-to-face. What a foundation where we grow as individuals and affect positive change in society.