by Janet Geddis of Avid Bookshop
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a startup bookstore owner, it’s that all the time estimates you think are givens are so completely wrong. Some “difficult” steps were a breeze; other “quick” items on the to-do list took upwards of six months. I have learned a great deal about myself in the process, too: I have reserves of patience I never realized were at my disposal. I have stamina and drive and the ability to see long-term benefits when it comes to a goal I find worthwhile and meaningful: opening and running a successful independent bookstore.
There are a couple of naysayers out there (mind you, only a couple—that I know of, at least) who have scoffed at me and figured I was all talk since I have been at this for over three and a half years and still don’t have a physical storefront to speak of. Luckily there are many more positive people who realize that starting a business completely from scratch takes a lot of work and cannot come together in a jiffy. These people, many of whom are my current online store customers, have emphasized what I am doing right: taking my time, getting to know the industry, getting to know a lot of people in my city, and networking like crazy. I’m laying down roots and getting educated, not content to while away the hours twiddling my thumbs until I can have a lovely shop to call home.
All that said, I want to reach out to you fellow prospective booksellers and encourage you to take the time you need. The powers that be will certainly throw big hurdles in your path, but you’ll find your way around them if this truly is the business you want to be a part of. Patience really pays off if you can use your time wisely. Get to know your prospective customers by asking them what they want in a local bookstore. Evaluate other stores nearby (indies and chains alike) and figure out some things they’re not doing well (or not doing at all) so you know what niches need to be filled. Meet with teachers, with parents, with professors, with kids, with your book club—ask them what kinds of books they buy. Find out if your prospective customers are interested in buying e- books. Read about the industry. Join trade associations and local business alliances; start attending workshops. Ask veteran booksellers for tips.
Most people reading this blog know that owning a bookstore is not the most easygoing work. You do not simply rest with your feet up on the counter, a book always in hand as the bookstore cat purrs on your lap. Bookselling is hard work, and you’ll be doing yourself and your future customers a favor if you really look into all that it takes to run a business.
There are lots of ideas and recommendations out there, but I’ll tell you the three things that have helped me the most—by far. In my opinion, these steps are absolutely necessary for anyone who is serious about opening a store. (In future posts I will explore each of these tips in more detail—stay tuned!)
1) Join the American Booksellers Association. Once you’re a member, sign up for the free conferences (especially Winter Institute & the Day of Education at Book Expo America at the end of May each year). Explore the member resources on their website.
2) Sign up for the Paz & Associates program, “Owning a Bookstore Workshop Retreat.” I avoided this step for about a year, thinking that whatever I could learn from a week-long workshop in Florida I could also learn on my own, Googling information for hours on end. WRONG. Thankfully, I listened to the ABA and veteran booksellers who repeatedly told me to attend the “How to Open a Bookstore” workshop and learned so much. I also made a lot of important industry connections, all of which have played out to really get me started on solid footing.
3) Connect with your community. Just because you can’t open your doors this moment doesn’t mean you have to sit back and twiddle your thumbs until it’s time to sign a lease. Your schedule is going to be completely insane in the first few months of your brick & mortar store, so take advantage of these somewhat more laid-back days to lay some groundwork. See if there’s a local chapter of AMIBA or BALLE in your town, and get involved with them. Buy local initiatives are growing like crazy, and it will behoove you to jump on board. You’ll network naturally with other local business owners and learn some things about what it’s like to do business in your town. Read up on why buying locally matters (some favorite resources of mine are IndieBound.org and Stacy Mitchell’s incredible book Big-Box Swindle).
To all the prospective and current booksellers out there: what steps have you found most successful? What steps would you skip if you had a second chance? Is your list of tips similar to mine?