“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”