Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Realities of Running a Family-Owned Bookstore

I decided to run a few errands this morning after it became more apparent that the bulk of Houston's flooding problems are going to remain 15 or so miles south of us for at least another day.  We do expect more rain tonight and every day for the next ten days, so I tried to knock out a bunch of stops in one morning.  

My last stop was for a visit with the new owner of Copperfield's Books (located right next door to my eye doctor's office), a bookstore I've shopped in off and on for more than twenty years.  This is, in fact, the store I had at one time hoped to buy from its original owners when I finally retired and could devote my time to running something like my own bookshop.

As it turns out, the original owners of the bookstore pretty much ran it into the ground after the death of one of the owners, but when it became available for purchase I was asleep at the wheel and missed the opportunity of buying it.  Now, after a rather frank conversation with the new owners, I get the feeling that missing out on the purchase may not necessarily be a bad thing.  Real book people, and you know who you are, are relatively rare and hard to find in these times of instantaneous social media and portable movies, music, and games.  And when we recognize each other, we chat.  It's as simple as that, and that is exactly what happened this morning at Copperfield's.

What I intended to be just a quick look around the store I haven't visited in two years, turned into a 45-minute conversation about the indie book business in Houston and what it is like for a family to tackle the turnaround of a once successful bookstore that had been allowed to hit rock bottom.  The new owners have done a remarkable job already, no doubt about it, but the store they bought was in such bad shape that it had nowhere but up to go if it were going to keep its doors open.  (That's why I had not been there for two years - it was "ratty." to say the least.)

The store was closed down for a month when the new owners took over so that they could give the place a good scrubbing down before they almost completely changed the old floor plan.  Shelves were place in a more library-like configuration and sections were organized into more customer-friendly categories.  New furniture was brought into the store so that a cozy little reading room could be located in one back corner.  Countless boxes of books were finally opened and shelved rather than being stacked behind the counter for months at a time.  Inventory was finally computerized (that project is, I'm told, about 70% complete now) and the store established an online sales presence to move its more expensive books.  Money was spent on advertising, and the store seems to be putting special effort into working with local bookclubs and in stocking all the "required reading" books that the local schools demand from students each year.  (In fact, I'm told that during the school year selling required-reading books is the lifeblood of the whole store.)

So things are looking up for Copperfield's Books.  The store is making a little money and the advertising is paying off by making the neighborhood more aware that there is a little bookstore tucked away in the center of a strip center.  (Part of the store's problem is that its front is only wide enough for a sign that says "BOOKS."  There is simply not enough room to get the bookstore's whole name on its main signage.  And, as the store butts up against businesses with much larger floorspace, it is hard to spot it even when driving around the center's parking lot.)

But the success of the store ultimately depends on a factor that I believe has put more independent bookstores out of business than any other single factor involved: how much the landlord demands for the next year's rent.  What has made the Copperfield's turnaround a relatively quick one, too, is the fact that this is very much a family business, one run by parents, children, and grandchildren.  This is a business in which each generation knows its role and is willing to play it in order that the business can be grown and kept in the family for generations to come.  

But it is not easy.  Most of those working at the store have full-time jobs and can only work at the bookstore after their day jobs are done.  Even the kids working at the store are still in middle school all day long.  (I particularly love the fact that the YA section of the store is being managed by a middle school student who has read the entire Harry Potter series five times.)  So the bulk of the store's hours, most of which occur before school and day jobs are completed, are covered by only a couple of people.  Try to manage vacation time, doctor's appointments, etc. when a store has to be unlocked at the same time every day and you begin to get an idea of how demanding running a family bookstore really is.

But the family is making a go of it - at least for right now.  And at the rate North Houston's indie bookstores have disappeared, I'm pulling for them to do more than survive; I'm hoping that they will thrive and grow (even to picking up the remainder of the original floorspace lost by the original owner to a neighboring business).

And...I'm thinking that maybe it's too late for me to begin such a project on my own.  Maybe the dream really is over.


  1. Sounds like the new owners are making a good comeback. I hope it continues!

    1. They are certainly off to a great start, Stefanie. I'm really hoping they beat the odds. Surviving their first year in business is probably the best indication that they might just make it.