The Birth of a Used Bookshop

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reports on the birth of a book store. From where I sit today, 21 days after the idea was first conceived, the future looks like a maze of unanswered questions. As I go along, I’ll describe how I figure things out, and then share the results. First, though some background.

Some thirty years ago, for several years, I helped run a used book and record store in Carrboro, N.C. The rent was $200 a month and we sold many books for a dollar and most records for two dollars. We kept the money in a shoe box, didn’t take credit cards and we never had a telephone.  We had lots of websites – and the spiders who built them.

All that makes me an experienced bookseller, but one with practically no useful expertise. Still, the idea of going back into the stacks had been poking around my mind for several years, and last month I noticed an empty storefront in downtown Pittsboro, N.C., near where I live. What appealed to me about the store site was that it’s a corner building with windows on two sides and a long wall facing traffic coming into town on which to place a large sign. And the driveway that runs along the side goes with the building, with space in the back for four cars, giving me control of eight parking places. The building has the look of a small cottage with stuccoed walls that I will paint in a yet to be determined color. Inside, are 1,220 usable square feet, plus a small bathroom. It was once a law office, so there are several walls of built-in bookshelves.

Why Pittsboro, N.C.? This is the seat of a rural county of some 60,000 souls, located 16 miles south of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and 35 miles west of the state capitol, Raleigh. There are 9,000 people within a five-mile radius of the store, and 47 percent of adults hold college degrees. There hasn’t been a bookstore here since Charles Kuralt’s brother Wallace closed his in the mid-80s.

My wife learned who owned the building, and she called to see if it was available. The owner was a genial old country lawyer, slow-talking like Andy Griffith and past the age of worrying about small details, like listing or advertising his building. He was perfectly happy to rent the building, and I suppose would have been perfectly happy not to. I guess he knew that eventually someone would call him. In any case, the rent is $850 (first payment due October 1) and I got a two-year lease that we settled during a relaxed conversation that ran for an hour, most of which concerned matters unrelated. That was three weeks ago today.

So, on the morning of July 16, my wife and I opened our eyes with an empty building on our hands and only a vague idea of how to fill it and even less of a clue of what happens if we do fill it. The one thing of which I am certain is that there’s a lot to do before October, when I hope to open. I’ve organized my tasks into three categories: 1. Paperwork; 2. Equipment; and 3. Stock.

The paperwork seems easiest: Licensing and registering with local and state government, meeting fire codes and sign ordinances, setting up accounts with utilities and choosing a bank, naming the store, designing a logo and developing an internet presence. As for equipment, I need to find or build shelving, furniture and signs. Perhaps the most daunting job will be figuring out software and hardware for inventorying the books. In the 80’s I tried to memorize where every book in the store was. I doubt that would be the best system today. I’ve found four or five companies that have the software, but I still don’t know how I’ll figure out what to use.

Stock mostly involves finding books to sell and buying them; also anything else that I might want to sell in the store, which includes vinyl records, CDs, DVDs and audio books.  Maybe coffee. Maybe book collecting supplies. Maybe record collecting supplies. I’m open minded. In the old days I used to buy books at yard sales and library sales. Nothing has changed there. But now there are 100 new postings for books on Craigslist every single day, though almost none of them seem worthwhile. I think I am going to have to learn about homeschooling, since that genre seems to occupy a large percentage of the listings. Of course, I have my own collection, perhaps 1500 books; I’ve never counted.

A week ago last Monday, I found a Craigslist ad announcing a store closing in Cary, N.C. I drove the 30 miles to investigate and later that day I had negotiated to buy out their stock, some 20,000 books at 15 cents each, and 25 bookshelves. Then two days ago my father died. Now I am off to Massachusetts for 10 days to be with my family. I’ll let you know next time how the big sale unraveled and how we arranged the realities of life around the necessities of business.

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