Monday, April 16, 2007

My Used-to-Be Indie Bookstore Dream

How many of you have dreamed of some day owning or operating a small bookstore of your own? If they are honest with themselves, I doubt that there are very many book bloggers or book blog readers who haven't squirreled that idea away as something to return to when their finances and free time will allow them to turn that acorn into the real thing. It's something that's been in the back of my mind for years, something that I saw as a way of really enjoying retirement from the corporate world while earning a few bucks for my pleasure. Unfortunately, now that "retirement" has suddenly slapped me in the head, that little acorn seems to have rotted instead of sprouted into the dream I was hoping to live.

While the day of the small independent bookstore may not yet be over, I find the odds to be so heavily in favor of failure that I almost certainly won't be risking any of my savings in an attempt to live my bookstore dream. I've seen several such ventures open and close in the last two years just in my section of north Houston and, while some of them did appear to be under funded from the start, they seemed to fail more often than not because of the high rents charged to them when their original leases expired.

But thankfully, some brave folks do seem to be surviving, if not necessarily thriving, in their own quests to live the dream.
Back in the dim, distant days of 1997, Amazon.com was just getting its feet wet. That same year, three ambitious Manhattan business people entered waters not easily survived. Cliff Simms, his wife Dorothea von Moltke and Chris Doeblin opened a book shop - Labyrinth Books - near Columbia University in New York City.

Statistics can help to put this bold move into perspective: In 2006, 97 new independent booksellers opened shop in the United States - and more than 100 independent bookstores closed.

Indy proprietors are delighted that the gap is closing.
...
The new shop didn't go over too well with Yale University, since it introduced direct competition to its designated Barnes & Noble bookseller. Even without Yale's support, Labyrinth Books has weathered the storm. Soon, it might even reach profitability.

Though a balance sheet scripted in black ink would be nice, co-principal Dorothea von Moltke admits that although it has taken a while to find their footing, business is on the ascendant.

To von Moltke (Yale College '90), "New Haven is a town with rhythms that you have to figure out. Working with the Yale calendar and around events in the city is something we've been working on."
...
Katie Trumpener, an English and comparative literature professor at Yale, supports independent booksellers such as Labyrinth Books.

"With a chain bookstore, somebody far away is choosing, somewhat generically, what books will be available to people based on whatever has sold elsewhere," asserts Trumpener. "The independent bookseller has an independent frame of reference and is going to be gearing its stock much more closely to the local community. That is important in providing a framework with books that people might never otherwise come across."
I honestly do believe that independent bookstores provide a service to their communities that none of the big chain bookstores are capable of providing. In order to survive, independents will have to become part of the community, not just a storefront that rents space there. It is all about service, community goodwill and being much more than just a retailer. My local Barnes & Noble makes an effort in that direction but will forever be limited by what the corporate powers will allow. Now if I could just find a couple of rich partners to bankroll me...

21 comments:

  1. Oh, I've gone weeks and weeks thinking that I should just toss all my other career plans aside, attend an MBA program and get started on that bookstore. I mean really - is there anything better than working around books, surrounded by people who share the same passion as you? If that's not heaven, I don't know what is.

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  2. Don't give up the dream, Sam. As soon as I'm rich, I'll gladly bankroll you... of course, I'd have to be a partner in the whole thing. ;-)

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  3. Get rich soon, Partner. The clock is ticking... :-)

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  4. Ah, I've spent a lot of time on the bookstore dream right down to what sort of vegan treats will be served at the cafe because there has to be a cafe. But I am not a wild risk taker and unless I win the lotto jackpot I'm afraid the dream will remain just that. It is good to know others have found ways to succeed though.

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  5. I'd love to own a bookstore. I worked in an independent bookstore for about ten years and loved it. Unfortunately they closed--could no longer compete--you know the story. The chains are fine if you have nothing else, but I think they will never be the same as an independent in terms of service and staff knowledge. I used to love talking to customers about books--I can't think of a time a staff member at a chain has ever talked to me about books!!! A pity! I might as well be buying milk from the grocery store!

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  6. Stefanie, even though the odds are against success as an independent I'd be tempted to try it if I were more financially able to take the potential hit. I'm like you, not the biggest of risk takers.

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  7. Danielle, that's my biggest complaint about the chains...I know their floor plan better than many of their employees and I know for sure that I know more about their stock than the manager does. They are selling "units," not books.

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  8. Hey now, don't lump all the chain booksellers in that category.

    I may have some problems with the juvenile and computer sections every now and then, but I'm good on the rest of the floor. ;-)

    And if the customer's willing to acknowledge me as fellow book lover rather than just an extension of the computer, I'll certainly talk books with them.

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  9. I worry too much about money to ever run my own business. So I'd be happy just working in a bookstore. Sam, if you ever get that store opened up I'll send you my resume!

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  10. Me too, me too! It has always been my dream as well. When I win the lottery I will open a branch here in the UK and you guys can open yours!

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  11. Anne, you would be the exception to the rule, I think.

    I've been in "that" chain hundreds of times and have never had a conversation about books yet...nor have I ever overheard one.

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  12. Hey, Matt, I'll keep that in mind...but keep your day job for now. :-)

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  13. Maybe we can become parters and claim to be an international indie book chain...you can run the U.K. branch and I'll run the Texas one, a.book.in.the.life. :-)

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  14. I'm saving my money for that dream, too!
    Can I come to the U.K. and work for you, a.book.in.the.life?

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  15. Interesting....don't forget a bookstore does not have to be bricks & mortar: it could be a virtual reality bookstore on the net.
    You need to find a theme for the business. I am convinced there is room for niche operators in the market.
    Sam, I know you mentioned you are interested in the American Civil War,if you were to specialise in this area you could contact all the civil war societies, clubs etc to let them know you are there to serve their needs. Word soon gets around.
    Working from your garage costs would be minimal. The more I think about it the better it sounds :)

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  16. Nick, I've been seriously considering doing something similar to what you describe but I haven't pulled the trigger yet because I think that half the fun of owning a bookstore would be the face-to-face contact and conversation with customers that comes with the real thing.

    But, for financial reasons, a net bookstore is looking more like the way to go...you're right.

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  17. Sam...I can appreciate why you want to meet customers face to face; but let's face it you have to approach it as a BUSINESS. The biggest outlay in bricks & mortar is going to be rent. We are talking about big bux from day 1. It is going to be very tough on you and your wallet if things are not taking off from the very start.

    If you went the "virtual bookshop" route you could still attend book shows etc.
    Getting back to the Civil War: when these societies stage re-enactments you could contact the people in charge and get permission to set up your Civil War bookstand. I have read that thousands attend some of these shows, and each and every one of them has an interest in the Civil War!! Talk about a captive audience!! :)

    Let me be negative for a second. If the Civil War bookstore is not for you, you cannot make it pay,etc we have to think exit strategy: with a bricks & mortar addy you could have BIG problems getting out of the lease. With the virtual bookstore you just put all the books on e-bay and that's it done and over with.

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  18. All good points, Nick, and I get closer and closer to opening a "virtual bookshop" every day. I've researched the idea a good deal and, unless I go back to work at something near a full time schedule, I may very well do something like that before the end of the year.

    I really like your idea about combining the bookstore idea with my travels around the county for Civil War events and shows. It would be great fun to be able to do that...and to write off the expense of travel as a business expense. I have a couple of friends who do something similar and they seem to be doing quite well at it.

    I keep telling myself that this would be more than a "business," that it would be a combination business/hobby kind of thing. I'm not looking to get rich...more to have some fun in a hobby that pays for itself and adds a little profit for the effort.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  19. A bookstore is just that - a STORE, with BOOKS! Selling books online is all well and good, but where's the fun in it? You don't get to play with books on shelves and displays; you don't get to see a customer's face when the find the one book they've been looking for or discover a new one they didn't know they were looking for; customers can't peruse the merchandise and make sure they want what they're buying; etc, etc.

    It could be effective, I guess, but it wouldn't be the same.

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  20. "Virtual" is the key word, Anne, and sadly, "virtual" and "real" just don't mean the same thing.

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