The Best Time to Open a Business?

Another nugget of insight from one of Canada’s premier used bookstores Fair’s Fair of Calgary, Thanks George . Please take a moment to visit Fair’s Fair.


Google and Microsoft started in times like these.

I remember hearing in the mid 1980’s that the best time to open a new business was during a recession and, being a mostly-unemployed electrician at the time I took the leap and opened the doors of the first Fair’s Fair October 13th, 1988 with 7300 books.

Knowing nothing about business … or books either for that matter – I spent many solitary hours in a 4300 square foot basement used book storage space (it was supposed to be a sales outlet) located on a main thoroughfare – only one block outside the local community’s shopping area. There was plenty of time to spend learning about business and books. And I bought books – as many and as often as possible.

Six months later a lady who was visiting from Thailand ventured into our shop and said “I have travelled all over the world and this is the best bookstore I have ever been in!” I was shocked because even then I had a vision for what a book business could be – and knew we were nowhere near it.

Now I realize what she was reacting to was how well organized our inventory was and how neat and clean and well lighted the store appeared compared to what most other used books stores were presenting to the world at the time.

After that people who visited the store would often say as they were leaving “I’ll be back.” When I told that to another used book store operator they told me that was not something they were hearing.

Now, in all humility, after 20 years in business we hear both phrases often – but we do not take anything for granted – and there are about twenty of us continuously working toward my vision of what a book business could be.

A book store should be developed primarily to serve its own community.

Local entrepreneurs who think selling books on the internet is somehow feasible seem locked in a fool’s game. On the surface it looks like Amazon, ABE and eBay may be providing a valuable service to readers but their success is a house of cards dependent upon local booksellers doing all the work for them while they take their ever increasing commissions off every sale. Now Google is getting into the act as well and some are predicting the demise of the retail book business as a result of their money making scheming.

I recall being at a book convention in Chicago about ten years ago listening to independent booksellers complaining about Barnes & Noble and Borders Books chain stores wiping out the small book stores. Within a week or so I saw statistics indicating book buying had increased dramatically with the advent of the superstores.

We are now seeing it with the auto industry – for years it was the Japanese auto industry that was eating into their markets and causing them pain but they were lockstepped in their old ways of doing business and complained rather than innovated.

The natural tendency of mankind seems to be to work toward a goal, reach it and then start to relax and take it easy. In the overall time period of evolution we are still at the amoeba stage but we should still be astute enough to have observed that nature abhors any state of equilibrium. As soon as it detects such a state decay sets in.

There will always be someone brighter than the rest of us coming along with a plan to scoop the cream off the top of any enterprise. But remember, there is a lot more milk in this world than cream. In this case the milk represents all the real work that still needs to be done to really serve customers.

I have learned it is best to get excited when problems crop up because a growing business is always changing and it will always be difficult – that takes out all the competition who are looking for the easy path and forces all the survivors to innovate and provide the better service customers deserve.

You might be surprised to hear that 2008 was a banner year for us – sales advanced by 17.24% and customers by 28.67% and the first quarter of this year sales improved by 10.7% over the first quarter last year. Next year we plan to open 4 more stores.

My computer programmer said he thought our business was recession proof but I told him that during previous downturns we had suffered life everyone else. I think the difference we are experiencing now is a result of two things – 20 years of working to improve our business model and having 4 high visibility stores keeping our name in front of the public.

Success in the book business requires more work than brains and for that I am truly thankful.

George H – Fair’s Fair, Calgary, AB.

5 thoughts on “The Best Time to Open a Business?”

  1. I love this story! I just opened my bookstore 3 weeks ago. I have a grand total of 600 used books at this point and various new books stocked in my store. Business “boomed” the first weekend due to friend and family, then took a nosedive the following weekend. Last Tuesday I didn’t have one customer! I wanted to go home and cry. I planned how I was going to tell everyone it just didn’t work out. Then last weekend I had a handful of customers each day and Sunday I had my first repeat customer who continues to tell me how wonderful the store is. Today, Tuesday, I had four customers. It’s growth, slow and steady. Though it may be much too soon to tell if I’ll still be here in a year, stories like yours encourage me to keep working hard and learning everyday.
    Thank you,

  2. All I can say George is that with your attitude of customer care and your look to the future you will continue to have a successful business. Your website is really great too. Clean and user friendly. Keep up the good work and service to your community. You and yours are an inspiration to many. Those who are not inspired can search through your self help section…

  3. Thanks for your support everyone.

    Christina – I remember those days with 0 to 3 customers finding their way into my basement haven, fondly now. But I knew, even then, a gross margin consistently in the 80-85% range was (almost) a guarantee of success in the long run – as long as I could continue to pay the bills every month while still buying every resaleable book that was presented to me.

    If I had known at the time it would take me 7 1/2 years before I could start taking any money out of the business on a regular basis I’m sure my common sense would have told me to quit. Thank God I didn’t – because 2 1/2 years later I had my first heart problems and when my doctor told me I shouldn’t work anymore I was surprised to learn the constant reinvesting in the business had put me in a position where I was assured a very nice income for life (as long as I continue to keep a watchful eye on the business).

    If you need an income then this is a very tough business to get off the ground but if you stick with it and put as much money as you can into your inventory I have no doubt you will enjoy a very happy life – and one day you may even be prosperous in money too!

    All of us are on the yellow brick road with the tin man, the straw man and the cowardly lion as our constant companions.

    prying1 – thank you for picking up on how important serving and enjoying the customers in our business is to the business. Most books stores operators never clue in to that factor – partially because they got in the business because they love books but mostly because the vast quantitities of books take us over and make everything else just a blur.
    If you never get to the point where you can hire someone else to help with the work then it is hopeless to find much time to devote to customer care – and I think that is what any retail business has to shoot for.

    Good luck to all.

  4. Now is a great time to open any physical business, provided you can get the funding because the real estate market is down. You can get great deals leasing space or even buying. People are looking for low-cost entertainment options these days instead of taking long expensive vacations and spending frivolously and I see firsthand an increase in interest in books.

    And of course, the personal touch of an independent bookseller with personal knowledge of the inventory and tastes of the neighborhood is something that most book lovers realize they will never get from a minimum wage B&N employee or a random Amazon review.

  5. I think time never goes wrong. Business can start at any time, if you have the passion, you know what you are doing, who is your client, then you have the products and go live…

    It does not guarantee business will succeed even in a very good economic condition.

    Just keep things on you site, which people love, target them and do your marketing, and you will won the match.

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