A terrific startup story from Patrick Saine of Blue Plate Books
Thanks a bunch for the post Patrick and best of luck.
A Recipe For Starting A Used Bookstore
Yesterday, I picked up the key for a strip mall storefront that I hope to transform into a
profitable used bookstore. The store, cleverly named Blue Plate Books, aims to serve up a
healthy helping of books at affordable – ‘blue plate special’ – prices. Our byline? “Feeding
Your Need to Read” This bookstore has long resided first in the back, and now more recently
in the very front, of my mind. The key in my hand should convince me that yes, Virginia,
the bookstore is real. So before this dream of a second career transmogrifies into the harsh
reality of a daily job, I thought I’d try to remember how I got here.
I’ve been actively working on making this a reality for almost 2 years. My recipe: Start with
one slightly burned out health care worker. Mine was a detail oriented ophthalmic
photographer (he took pictures of eyes). He’d loved books,
collected many, and had even written a few. He’d always been devoted to his career and to
his patients. But 25 years of going full speed ahead on a daily basis was starting to take its
toll. Suddenly, the stars made a right hand turn, angling toward alignment. His boss
changed positions, and the new boss was not for the better. His two children were just
completing their undergraduate degrees (translation: a respite from college bills). And his
wife was recruited to a better position in a significantly warmer state (Virginia is due south
of New Hampshire). He began to think that his very late 40’s would be a once in a lifetime
opportunity to make a new start. He’d always wanted to run a bookstore…
Back to the recipe: Sprinkle liberally with education. My first plan of attack was reading.
Helen Hanff’s romantic ’84 Charing Cross Road’ was balanced with the practical ‘Complete
Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore’ by Dale Gilbert. Series of books included three works
each by the Ahearns and the Goldstones. These intriguing reads were balanced by the
always boring database and business software how-to manuals.
Following Frances Bacon’s personal advice (“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready
man; and writing an exact man.”), I went to summer camp for used booksellers.
While both terrifying and exhilarating, the highlight of
The Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar was not freewheeling a bicycle down the twisty
summit road of Pike’s Peak the Saturday following the conference.
The highlight was also not (although it suited me
fine) getting up at the crack of dawn each day for an early start to the seminar, then
returning back late (11:00 or so) with your head crammed full of important grand schemes
and minor details you won’t want to forget. For me, the best part of the seminar was
hearing about other bookseller’s experiences. One man shared that he had closed 3
different used bookstores in the last 3 years. He was there to find out what happened so he
wouldn’t be forced to close his next venture quite so quickly. A women talked about what
and how she was selling on the internet; and wondering why she just wasn’t making any
real money. And the instructors generously shared stories about their failures alongside
equally enlightening successes.
For the binder that holds together the above ingredients, I suggest experience. I sought this
out in two ways: via discussion and by procuring a minimum wage job with a daily start
time of 6AM. I asked questions of every bookstore owner I met: what worked? What
suggestions do you have for a newbie? What was your worst mistake? I asked friends and
neighbors: what are you reading? What is the last great book you read? What’s your
favorite book? I queried myself: What do I need to accomplish in order to succeed at this?
What can I do today to move forward – even if just a little bit.
One of the suggestions by the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar faculty was to obtain a
job in a local used bookstore. They suggested that it would be a good way to find out how
things really worked. Since that wasn’t possible in my community, I found a position at the
local big-box-bookstore: Borders. My IPT position (Inventory Processing Team) required me
to report before the sun rose and take a 90% pay cut, based on my previous salary. It
meant getting a raise so small that my just-out-of-college daughter laughed at it. At least
being a member of the Inventory Processing Team sounded impressive. Until you learn
what it really means. My job involved swapping out magazines from the newstand,
unloading archive boxes, and putting books on shelves. But the people I worked with were great.
And it was a very useful learning experience. I saw firsthand which of the books I placed on
the shelf sold, and which got shipped back to the publisher. I learned to relate with
customers and find them books when all they gave me to go on was “I think it had a yellow
cover”. And I learned that the price of a book is really only based upon what someone else
is willing to pay. More than once I witnessed the self-same title sold at list price from
Borders’ shelf while being deeply discounted in their bargain area, and then sold for almost
free at a local garage sale.
To mix with the above ingredients, take one part basement and fill with books. Wait, make
that most of the basement. While I worked at Borders, I also worked at obtaining stock.
Depending on who I asked, a minimum of 4 to 6 to 10 thousand books would be needed to
start my store. So every penny that Borders paid me, along with any funds from various
freelance photography gigs, were channeled into the bookstore fund. Buy books, clean
them, sort and box them. Wait – be sure to leave a path between the boxes so we can still
get to the washing machine. What did we live on? I’ve lucky in that our modest lifestyle of
the last 2 years has allowed us to make ends meet using just my wife’s salary (Thanks
Honey!). Trust me, we are both looking forward to some income from this store.
But that won’t come until we actually open. And that won’t come until after the movers
arrive today to transfer the boxes and the bookshelves to their new home in the strip mall.
As I help them pack their truck, my experience at Borders will come in handy. And then,
once the truck pulls up in front of the storefront, I’ll use my new key to literally open the
door on a new chapter in my life. Wish me luck with Winchester Virginia’s newest
bookstore: Blue Plate Books.