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Opening the Door: A Not-So-Sentimental Education

During the early 1990s, a friend of mine spent a year working for an indie bookstore while seriously exploring the possibility of opening her own bookshop in New England. She had money, experience as a librarian and business acumen, but she ultimately walked away from the prospect. And that was during the pre-chain, pre-Amazon golden-ish age of independent bookselling.

Who stays and who walks away now? This was one of several questions I posed to Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman--of Paz & Associates: The Bookstore Training & Consulting Group--who facilitate a workshop retreat, Opening a Bookstore: The Business Essentials, and partner with the American Booksellers Association to provide training for people interested in entering retail bookselling.

"For the past five or six years, the ABA has placed a great priority on education for booksellers, with content related to all aspects of the business," said the Kaufmans in an e-mail interview. "Our goal, on the other hand, is to reach prospective store owners early in the decision-making process, so that they're on the right track from the moment they open their doors rather than having to dig themselves out of a hole."

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I've noticed that many new bookstore owners seem better prepared for their entry into the business than their peers were a decade or more ago.

The Kaufmans agreed: "Before the advent of the 'information age,' we suspect that many booksellers opened stores with a Field of Dreams attitude--if you build it, they will come. With a great deal at stake, our trainees realize how much they don't know; they see the number of indie bookstores that have gone out of business and want to know why. They hope to avoid the same mistakes and preserve their hard-earned investment. Most have never owned or managed a retail store of any kind, let alone a retail bookstore, and see the importance of training for a new chapter in their career. They understand that you can easily buy anything you want online, and are aware that a retail bookstore needs to give customers a compelling reason to get out from behind the computer and come shop at the local bookstore."

The majority of their workshop attendees "are career-changers, having come to a point in their lives when questions like 'Is that all there is?' arise, and they're motivated to live out a dream before they run out of time. Every so often, we'll see 'emerging leaders' (the under-40 set), yet funding seems to be the greatest challenge here. One constant is the number of dreamers who get disillusioned when they find out the amount of time, effort, and money required. Retail is retail: the hours are long, your feet get tired, and there's very little margin for error."

The path from wild idea to actually opening that front door is more perilous than ever, and the "need to be better prepared is most evident when looking for funding sources, as lenders require more and more--collateral, credit history, experience, etc. There are even some landlords who expect sketches of a store design before they will approve a tenant. The chains provide a consistent look, but landlords of quality properties want to be assured an independently owned business will be just as serious about creating an attractive sense of place that will contribute to their development."

A hard road can sometimes be a hard sell. The Kaufmans noted that "over the past seven years, some 1,850 people have contacted us for information about opening a bookstore. Of that number, 1,025 took another step by minimally investing in their education. A bit more than 20% attended a workshop, and we estimate that 50%-60% of workshop graduates have gone on to open stores."

To foster more interest, they are using their blog "to promote the business opportunities that the media just doesn't see. We've also been in touch with the major newspapers and magazines to encourage them to tell the other side of the story. Opportunities do exist and several successful indie bookstores are now for sale, in search of new owners. These are businesses with an existing loyal customer base, revenue stream, and profits that are enriching the lives of people in their communities, employing residents and contributing to their local economies. Indie bookselling is part of the 'long tail.' "

One aspect of the process that hasn't changed is the questions prospective booksellers ask: How much will it cost? How long will it take? How much can I earn? Can my community support a bookstore?

"But more people now want some specifics about how they can make it work without losing sleep at night," according to the Kaufmans. "There is one question that comes up, especially after we focus on the financial dynamics of the business and the potential return on investment. We've had people ask, 'Why bother?' Our goal is to ensure that prospective booksellers make informed decisions based on understanding the risks, the potential rewards, and all that it takes to succeed.

"We do use 'formal education' to refer to retail training in bookselling," they added. "Our focus is not to repeat training someone can easily find elsewhere, like understanding how to write a business plan or the critical elements of marketing. Our training is specific to retail bookselling. We emphasize the realities of retail and the nuances of the book industry, combining the two and placing it in context of today's economy and consumer."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1267.


Opening the Door at Battenkill Books: The Plan

Everyone knows that opening a bookstore is more complicated than just filling the shelves, hanging a sign out front and unlocking the door. Whether everyone knew that 15 or 20 years ago is debatable, but the new and prospective indie booksellers I've met during the past couple of years strike me as a much more business savvy crowd than many I encountered during the 1990s. They know the stakes; they do their homework; they harbor fewer delusions.

I mentioned last week that I'd been asked how Connie and Chris Brooks prepared for their entry into the business as owners of Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y.; how they had learned about the intricacies unique to retail bookselling, and what led them to believe they could be successful.

They didn't take any formal bookseller training, relying "primarily on our own research and backgrounds," said Connie. "Chris already owns a small business and has an MBA, so his experience in particular was very important. It is important to note that we took over a smaller existing store with a 24-year history in our village. We began drafting a business plan (nights, weekends, and coffee breaks) in January 2009, then presented it to a counselor at the Small Business Development Center in Albany, N.Y., in May for feedback. We had a relatively complete plan to present to two loan officers in June 2009, and opened our doors November 1, 2009."

She added that from the beginning they "knew we had a community of readers and one that would be inclined to support a small, independent bookstore. Analyzing census data and incorporating it with a book buying behavior study and an NEA report on trends in reading confirmed this in quantitative terms. We used some planning tools like a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis and Porter's Five Forces Model of Competitive Analysis. These are instructive. Guess what our top 'Weakness' was? 'Lack of experience running a retail operation.' It also shows up as a 'Barrier to Entry' to the industry in our Competitive Analysis."

Geography also played a significant role, since "the nearest big box bookstores are 45 minutes away and the nearest brethren indies are about 30-40 minutes away," Connie said. As part of their preparation, they took "recon" trips to bookstores in the region and discussed "what was good about each and what we would use or change if it were our shop. We took a map, outlined how far we would drive for a good bookstore and started adding up the population in that area, their income, and (based on the studies noted above) what they could be expected to spend on new books. Along with a conservative estimate of the market share of that total new book spending Battenkill Books could expect (i.e., versus online sales and regional competition), we arrived at a first year top line revenue figure."
They assumed "cost of goods sold to be 60%, based on buying from distributors to start, which brought us to our gross profit," said Connie, noting that by checking anticipated expenses "against ABA's Abacus as a rough guide, we had a handle on our pro-forma income and expenses."
On paper, the numbers didn't work initially, she admitted, and only with "a lot of thought and revision" did they begin to make sense. Ultimately it "came down to controlling expenses. If you take a look at the industry, that is what it is about. Gross profit is essentially fixed. So this is an expense controlled, cash flow business. We found a way to make it work on paper, by prioritizing spending on basic needs and areas that would support increased sales."
In an earlier column, I outlined how they handled the real estate aspect of this venture, but Connie said the "big splurge was on a computerized POS system that has paid dividends and will pay more as we use more of its functionality. I spent most of the months preparing to open the store learning the basics of running a retail operation--setting up tax exempt resale status, learning New York's labor laws, researching business, workers comp, and disability insurance, learning about sales tax, etc. I set up a relatively few accounts with book distributors, and am still very much learning on the ground how to run a bookstore."

Conceding that a course for future booksellers might have helped, Connie noted they "had no budget for it and little time. There are still terms that I don't understand and whole areas of the business that are as yet foreign (remainder buying, handling used books, how to make the most of a sales rep call, etc.), but I also am a believer that at some point you just have to take the plunge and get on with it--there are some aspects of the business that you can only learn by doing and over time."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1261.

Note: Photo by Leslie Parke, whose painting, "Moths," is on the wall behind the information desk.


Opening the Door at Battenkill Books: Part 2

"Some people are natural door openers. But most are not," wrote William H. Whyte in City: Rediscovering the Center. For Connie Brooks, owner of Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y., both kinds of people--and lots of them--must open the shop's front door to sustain her business. She knows she can't just wait for that to happen.

The entrance to a 21st-century indie bookstore has become a swinging door, with booksellers searching for ways to build community outside as well as inside their shops. For Connie, one of the most successful ventures thus far has been her collaboration with the Curiosity Forum, a joint venture with Hubbard Hall and Open Studios of Washington County that hosts a wide-ranging series of events, including lectures, slide presentations, documentary film screenings, author events, demonstrations/workshops and interactive artist events.

"The Curiosity Forum was started by local artist Leslie Parke, who is also the driving force behind the Open Studios of Washington County organization/event," said Connie. "She'd had a residency at Giverny, and when she returned to Cambridge she was asked to speak about her experiences, and so the first Curiosity Forum was born. Right when I took over Battenkill Books, she was looking to reinvigorate the series, and I was gung-ho to start planning author events. We also partner with Hubbard Hall, a local nonprofit arts organization, that allows us to promote the events to their membership, as well as to the bookstore’s growing e-mail database."

For Leslie, the partnership has been a logical and necessary evolution in a region that has numerous individuals and organizations--both for-profit and nonprofit--looking to draw interest from a limited audience pool. "As we go forward with a new paradigm, we cannot be competitors. We can only cooperate with each other," said Leslie, who meets regularly with Connie and Hubbard Hall's Gina Deibel and Deb Foster to consider programming suggestions. "We're really just the gatekeepers for the quality of the projects," Leslie added. "We're really trying to brand the area" so people see Cambridge as a destination for high quality events appealing to a variety of interests.

"I really can't say enough good about the partnership," Connie observed. "It is a tremendous amount of work to plan events, and with this approach it is a team effort. Hubbard Hall, for example, handles the press, since they are already set up for it and have the contacts. I am constantly meeting new authors, so I bring that to the table. The impact on the community is hard to measure, but we are averaging 30-45 attendees at each event, which for a small community is really great. And we’ve heard anecdotally that especially in this down economy people really appreciate that most of our events are free, which is drawing some folks out to events who would otherwise be quite isolated. We’re scheduling events into 2011, so I take that as a measure of success."
The community's influence upon the inside of the store is evident as well. Battenkill Books features a comprehensive local and regional book inventory, prominently displayed up front, and "We’re developing a real niche of books on what I call 'homesteading,' i.e., books on everything from building a root cellar to raising chickens to maple sugaring," said Connie. "We are absolutely passionate about the books we choose for the shop. We are a small indie (one full time, three part-time staff), but I like to tell customers, 'We don’t have less of everything, we have the best of everything.' You can come in to our store, and I think this is increasingly a relief for people, not be overwhelmed by choice. We may have a small crafts section, for example, but it is an outstanding one."
While Connie has already established a strong community base, the learning curve for any new indie bookseller is sharp and unforgiving. "We know we have a tough path ahead of us to make this work," she said.

After last week's column, I was asked what sort of formal--or informal--retail bookstore training Connie and Chris Brooks had before embarking on their venture, and what made them think they could be successful.

It's a great question. I posed it to Connie. Her response was detailed and intriguing. I'll share it with you next week, and perhaps it will open up a general discussion about how booksellers currently entering the business prepare to take that indie leap.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1255


Opening the Door at Battenkill Books: Part 1

For a new bookstore, the word "open" has two connotations. First, you open your business, and then you hope all of your careful preparations will entice readers to open your front door and come inside. The first opening is celebratory; the second will be an ongoing challenge as long as you own the shop.

Yes, I concede there are other crucial openings--customers open books that intrigue them and then, ideally, open their wallets--but we'll stick to the first two examples this week.

Last November, in the small upstate New York town of Cambridge, Connie Brooks and her husband, Chris, opened Battenkill Books. Since then, many locals and tourists have opened the shop's front door and entered, as I did this week, to meet Connie and explore her beautiful bookstore.

The first question any bookseller is likely to have when meeting someone who has chosen to enter the trade is basic: Why?

Connie said the path "that led us to the bookstore is as much about the path that led us to Cambridge." They had attended college in the region--Connie at Skidmore and Chris at RPI. They lived in Japan for a time, "and then London--a bibliophile's dream, of course. I've worked in marketing and fundraising. We moved to Cambridge four years ago--we were very consciously leaving suburban Connecticut behind and embracing a life outside of that rat race. Chris runs his own small engineering firm, and he primarily works with farmers in Vermont on sustainable energy (growing oil seeds to turn into fuel, for example)."

Then "this beautiful but neglected building went up for sale in the center of the village. It had been empty for the better part of the past 30 years. This was the depths of the recession, and we are crazy. So we bought it, and then started dreaming about what the first floor retail space could contain. Battenkill Books, as it was then, was being run by two ladies already in retirement. It was small, cramped, and had limited hours. We felt there was potential to expand the business. We felt in our hearts that the community could sustain a larger store. We started talking to the owners and one thing led to another. For me it is a dream come true. I love books, always have, and I also dearly love the social aspect of the job. And Chris and I are absolutely intrigued by the business side of it all as well--we love the challenge of making this work."

Growing up in the Berkshires, her hometown bookstore was the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass., which became part of her inspiration for this new career. "I am also a great lover of libraries--their intimacy and style and grace--and in some small way I want our store to give that feeling to people; there can be such a feeling of comfort in a bookstore, and many of our customers remark on it."

As with any new indie, connecting with the community has been a key factor from the start. Thus far, she said the response has been excellent. "Within a few weeks, Joe Donahue of WAMC had invited me to be on the Roundtable's Book Picks show. A parent approached me about starting a book club for third and fourth graders in the store after school. I have a customer who brings me homemade cake on nights she knows will be slow, to keep my spirits up. I quickly teamed up with two nonprofit organizations and we've been partnering on an event series called the Curiosity Forum, and that has really taken off. In one weekend, I had two events--one at the Bog, a local watering hole, and the other at the Farmer's Market--and sold the same number of books in both locations."

Connie noted that the best aspect of bookselling for her has been "our regular customers. I've gotten to know some really extraordinary people who I consider friends." The worst, naturally, is "the long hours. Small is beautiful, but it also is grueling. I'm often over at the building on Sunday nights putting in a book order for Tuesday morning delivery. I work on the website and e-mail newsletters at night after we've put our son to bed. I'm the bill-payer, the IT department, the HR department, etc. I laugh out loud when someone calls and asks for accounts payable. 'Yup, you've got her!' "

Next week, more on Battenkill Books, including its successful Curiosity Forum program. And yes, for those of you keeping score at home, not only did I open the front door of Battenkill Books, but I opened my wallet and purchased a book while I was there.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1250


On Not Handselling May Sarton's Books

"It came to me one night that it had to be something useful, needed, and close to home, something I could invest in and make grow, something I could control for a change. That night I began to dream of a women's bookstore, a bookstore which would be not only a place for buying books, but a meeting place, a welcoming refuge where people could browse and talk. Maybe there could be a fireplace and a table with comfortable chairs around it. As soon as I began to imagine this I realized it was exactly what I must do and I did not sleep a wink, my head was so absorbed in thinking and planning."--May Sarton, The Education of Harriet Hatfield

In all the years I worked as a frontline bookseller, I never handsold a single book by May Sarton. Not one. Of course, there were hundreds--thousands--of other authors whose work I didn't handsell, but Sarton is a special case. I should have been handselling her books because at one time in my life I had absolutely loved her work.

Then, somehow, I forgot about her.

My negligence--unforgiveable it seems to me now--has come up because I am re-reading Sarton for the first time in three decades, and Harriet Hatfield's bookstore is just one of many things I realize I've been missing.

When I was in my late 20s, I discovered Journal of A Solitude, which set me off on a Sarton reading pilgrimage. Although her journals--The House by the Sea, Recovering, At Seventy--were favorites, I also loved many of her novels--Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, The Small Room, A Reckoning.

I thought less of Sarton's poems then, but probably didn't try hard enough. She called poetry her "most important" work, and given that Virginia Woolf was among her early fans, I think I was just dead wrong about them. Lately I've revisited the poems, with more positive results. Maybe I'm ready now.

There are many people who don't read May Sarton; I hesitate to add "anymore" because her readership was always small, if devoted. She understood what it meant to be an uncategorizable author. She often bristled at labels that might have garnered her more attention--woman writer, lesbian writer. Her readership has been young and old, male and female. In an interview, she once said, "it is a mistake to believe that I'm not read by men. More and more I hear from men.... People think of me as a woman's writer but that is not really true."

She could be mischievous in acknowledging her place in the literary world, as in this passage from The House by the Sea: "It is very hard to see oneself in the hard light of reality through someone else's eyes. Auberon Waugh in the Evening Standard in London opens a long sneer of a review of Crucial Conversations, 'May Sarton is an American lady of 63 who has been writing novels for 36 years without anyone paying very much attention.' That is the truth; yet it made me laugh, it is such a caricature of how I see myself."

I've decided to pay attention to Sarton's work again. During my initial encounters with her books when I was young, I felt she was speaking directly to me. That is a special experience for any reader. Now that I'm nearly the age Sarton was when she wrote The House by the Sea, I've been stunned by how much it still speaks to me, if in a different tone.

Sarton would understand, having said, "people don't read the journals to discover me; they read the journals to discover themselves." What she might have hoped is that the journals and novels would lead me to rediscover her poetry. I'm trying. There is so much to read--an astounding 50 books in her bibliography. And I'm just getting started... again.

If I could handsell her work now, I would. Maybe that's what I'm doing here as I contemplate Harriet Hatfield's bookshop moment: "I had to laugh at myself for thinking I could embark on such a venture with no business experience whatever, but it felt like an instinct as powerful as a cow's instinct to eat grass. That is what made me laugh, the certainty that I was at the same time a little crazy, no doubt, and absolutely right that this was the adventure for me, godsent, in fact. Hatfield House: A Bookstore for Women was the name that came to me after dawn."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1245