A Bookseller's Appeal for ABACUS

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I bought my bookstores 13 years ago without any business training. I had worked in, and then managed the stores for several years, but apart from that, I was, let's face it, an English major. I had a boss who drew fascinating diagrams on tablecloths in restaurants, teasing out numbers and ratios in a dizzying stream of consciousness, and I absorbed some of those insights, but when I came to be responsible for the business I sometimes felt that I was relying wholly on rules of thumb dimly remembered from a dozen different sources. My rent seemed like a lot of money. Was it too high? How much money should we spend on advertising and marketing? Should I wean myself off the distributors and try to buy more books directly from the publishers? Years before we had set up non-returnable accounts with the publishers. Was that still the right way to buy?

I think it was that first year, or maybe the second, that I filled out an ABACUS report. I remember that it was with some dread that I plugged in numbers, because the words of the expensive accountant that my lawyer made me hire were still ringing in my ears -- "I would not recommend that you buy this business." I had paid his fee, hustled him out of there before the bankers arrived, and bought the business anyway, but had remained secretly fearful that he was right and I was wrong. Now this report would spit out an actual bottom line, and I would be stuck with the truth. Is it serious, Doc?

The report did spit out a bottom line, and it even went one better -- it showed me, side by side with my numbers, the bottom lines [in aggregate] of hundreds of other similar bookstores, so one could see in an instant where one's profit, and one's losses, resided. Literally. I was relieved that my business was in fact sound, but also saw very clearly on which threads its success dangled. Yes, my rent was too high, but not by much, and only at one location. My employee costs were much higher than for other bookstores, but our lower cost of goods, attributable in part to our mix of new and used, and partly to our taking advantage of non-returnable discounts, really helped offset the difference. Our advertising budget could, and probably should, be higher -- perhaps a fun new ad campaign was in order -- and we could afford it. And this was just the first year. Every year since I have been not only eager to do my numbers -- a good refresher on the past year in and of itself -- but have been on pins and needles waiting for the full report that shows how we line up against other businesses, and how our efforts to improve our situation have fared.

Just one example: Being familiar with my business through my years of ABACUS participation meant that when I listened to Avin [Mark Domnitz, former ABA CEO] preaching the 2% solution I understood immediately what he was driving at -- more than that, I knew what I had to do and how to do it. This helped us A LOT through a few tough years, and continues to help keep us on track once things eased up.

ABACUS is unique. It mines real numbers from real stores that are like my own. These are numbers I can use. These are numbers you can take to the bank. Does any other industry have this resource, so painstakingly maintained over so many years?

I would like to make a personal phone call to every bookseller in our association, urging them to please, go sit down with a few financial documents and give your fellow booksellers an hour that might help them keep their business. And if this appeal doesn't work, I may have to make those calls. So just do it. It is a seriously good business practice.

Amy Thomas
President for Life, Pandora's Books Inc.
Pegasus and Pendragon Books

All ABA member bookstores can participate in the ABACUS survey by submitting their financial data in a convenient -- and totally secure -- online survey form. Completing the survey should take about an hour -- and all information provided is kept strictly confidential. The deadline for participation in ABACUS 2009 is midnight on August 15.