“It must be nice to own a bookstore…”

“It must be nice to own a bookstore and be able to sit around and read all day. Sometime, when I retire, I’d love to open a bookstore.”



If I had a quarter for the number of times I’ve heard that comment expressed to me in a jovial manner by a well-meaning customer, I’d have enough money to buy that Robert Crais 1st edition of “The Monkey’s Raincoat” that I’ve been wanting for the last 10 years. Yeah, I’ve been on a smart-ass private detective kick for quite awhile now. Spenser, Elvis Cole, Travis McGee. Okay, McGee wasn’t actually a detective; he was a “Salvage Consultant,” but you catch my drift.

I always nod politely and say “Yep. It’s great.” Who am I to shatter their illusions?

To date, books read in bookstore by me: 0. I got into the business in 1997 when I purchased the family bookstore. I ran it in fits and starts as an absentee owner while I pursued my other interests including my vision of the ultimate used CD store, which was semi- successful for a number of years until I stumbled across a dark, musty corner of the World Wide Web (ah, the 90s jargon still flows) that included an inhabitant called Napster. “If internet connection speeds ever get faster than this 2400 baud modem I’m running,” I pontificated to bemused youths, “the CD store will become extinct.” They scoffed at me and my notion of free music, despite the fact they were often inclined to shoplift.


The demise of my CD store was hastened by the abrupt departure of my two bookstore employees. Abrupt meaning I fired one of them and the other departed before the ax fell on her. I folded up my CD store tent, sold it to the first sucker I could find, and went and stood in my 667 square foot used bookstore, looked around and said those words that may someday may be etched on my headstone: “What in the hell am I doing?” To this day, I still sometimes stand in my now 2,500 square foot used bookstore and mutter: “What in the hell am I doing?” These days, however, I have a much better idea.

Being involved in the book business is a battle. E-books hammer away at you, tablets suck up reading time, 800 cable channels draw away eyes from the printed page. Disposable income is siphoned off to things that didn’t exist in 1997. Attention spans seem to be shorter.

I think all of this as the well-meaning customer is still nodding politely at me, a half-smile on his face as his mind drifts to a nice comfy chair, one of the better novels of Irving Wallace, and maybe a nice cat, who charms the customers into spending their hard-earned cash on James Joyce’s Ulysses, or perhaps some novel by Nevil Shute or maybe that wonderful novel by Taylor Caldwell, the one about the Captains. Or the Kings. Or something like that. The well-meaning customer doesn’t realize how much my utility bill is a month, and by quick calculation my churning mind spits out a bookstore factoid: At $3 per unit, I would have to sell 1600 copies of Shute’s “On the Beach” to cover my utility bills for a year.

My reverie is interrupted as he adds the kicker. “Yep, I like to read. I think owning a bookstore would be the best.” “Well, I like to eat and I sure like a cold beer,” I reply, “but that doesn’t mean I should open a restaurant with a bar in it.” I didn’t actually say that, because the customer has already drifted out the door. It’s just one of those things when you have the perfect comeback, but it arrives about ten minutes too late to say.

For all those well-meaning customers and book lovers out there who’s dream is to open their own bookstore, I have a bit of advice here and there on the strategies, the stupid ideas I’ve had, which credit card machine to use, the importance of having somebody with a brain reading your lease before you sign it, and other such odds and ends and I will definitely share those with you in the future. But now, before you start buying a cat, let’s get the real first question answered: “Is this going to be my hobby or my damned job?”

If the answer is hobby, the pressure is diminished. It’s a little extra cash, maybe you buy a little shop with your retirement or lottery winnings, and you can mingle with book lovers and discuss the merits of the books of Proust and scoff at Barbara Cartland. Actually, I do a bit of that as well, but only in hushed tones with serious young men. If that’s your goal, some of the stuff I’ll talk about will still help you. A number of times you’re going to say “Dang it, Louise, that guy thinks we should spend $2000 on a sign. He’s plum loco. Where’s that cat run off to now?” Hang with me, I’ve got other less expensive notions.

If your answer is my damned job, I’ve got thoughts galore to share, both general to retail and specific to the book business, specifically the used book side. We’ll also discuss some new book ideas as well. Oh, the Taylor Caldwell book, “Captain and the Kings” is a damned fine historical novel and a spiffy TV Mini-Series. Great characters, settings and finely written. But it’s over 800 pages and you can’t get it at Walmart. We’ve sold one copy in ten years. Never saw that customer again. Until next time, bookstore owners, both actual and potential, I leave you with this:


“Through the glass doors, I could see Ellen and Janet in the living room, Ellen with her arms squeezed across her chest, Janet making an explanatory gesture with her cigarette, Ellen shaking her head, Janet looking disgusted. I thought of great teams from the past: Burns and Allen, Bergen and McCarthy, Heckle and Jeckle. I took a deep breath, smelled jasmine, and kept going.” Robert Crais “The Monkey’s Raincoat”

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  • I had to laugh out loud at the title of this post. Yes, it’s something I’ve heard countless times since taking over the management of a family-owned bookshop.

    The irony of the whole thing is that I read less books now than I did before embarking on this bookshop journey. I have far, far less time to stop and smell the roses. And my mind is constantly calculating, planning and scheming (oh yes!) on how to maximise profits. It’s a hard cold bottomline-driven world out there – cosy bookshop or not.

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  • Agreed with all the above – I also read much less now than I did before owning a used bookstore, and have NEVER read a book at the shop. Being interrupted every 30 seconds doesn’t help either, My favorite question is always: “Have you read this (book)?”. Are you doing a survey? And walking around my shop telling me all about my books is unnecessary. The follow up question of “what book do you recommend?” tempts me to answer “Oh, Anne Rice’s Beauty’s Punishment is a great read…..”, though as a gift for your Mother it might put you in the doghouse. Or maybe not?

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  • I truly enjoyed your post. I’m also reading other bloggers posts and anyone else who wants to comment on owning a bookstore. It still has not deter me and I’m in the process of buying a bookstore. It will be a hobby, at least from the beginning, but once I retire from my “good government” job, I don’t know if you can continue to say that after the furlough debacle, I will at least be able to live off that money. God willing. I want to fulfill my life long dream of owning a bookstore. I know it’s going to be hell in a hand basket, but what a journey. I cannot wait. With people like you helping me, I think I’m going to be A O K!!!

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  • Great post, and so true. I have a sign outside that reads, “Books & Tea.” At least several times a week, someone will drift in, smiling dreamily, and say, “Oh! My two favorite things! Books and tea! You’re so lucky!” When I thank them and ask what kind of tea I can make for them and are they looking for any book in particular, they say, “Oh, no, nothing for me right now — and I’m just looking….” I don’t think ANY of these self-described book-and-tea lovers have ever bought a thing! It’s gotten to be an in-joke here. [LIke the people who peer in the window, and then (I can hear them!) tell their friends, “Nah, it looks like just books in there… let’s go.” Yep. Just books. Who needs ’em?]

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  • Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.

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  • “The stars, McGee, look down on a world where thousands of 4-H kids are raising prize cattle and sheep. The Green Bay packers, of their own volition, join in the Lord’s Prayer before a game. Many good and gentle people have fallen in love this night. At this moment, thousands of women are in labor from the fruit of good marriage.

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