If I Only Knew Then ... What Not to Do When Opening a Bookstore

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As Oscar Wilde once said, experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes. And let's face it, you won't find a business owner who doesn't have a lot of ... experience. Whether it's underestimating start-up costs, partnering with your (former) best friend without a legal contract, or overstocking the shelves, rookie errors come in all shapes and sizes.

With that in mind, Bookselling This Week asked a number of independent booksellers who opened in the past few years to tell us what they would do differently if they were to open a storefront again. Our query was based on a Bookseller-to-Bookseller Forum posting by Megan Collins-Hed, whose store, The Last Wordsmith Shoppe, will open in North East, Pennsylvania, on August 1. The result is an insightful kind of panel discussion, where booksellers, as is often the case, shrugged aside ego to provide newbie indies with sage -- and hard-earned -- advice on what not to do when starting a bookstore.

Garrad Bradley of Imagine Atrium in Jersey City, New Jersey, which opened in December 2006, told BTW that he would "have taken more time to find the area and location that I felt 100 percent comfortable with, instead of feeling rushed and stressed out about getting into a space and getting the store open by a certain date -- in this case before Christmas," he said. "At the time, I was worried about loan and other expenses that I needed to start paying so I figured I needed to open the store quickly so I could start making money to pay these expenses."

Susan Fox, owner of Red Fox Books in Glen Falls, New York, also said she wished she had taken more time. "In retrospect, though, I think there would have been glitches and missteps no matter when we opened," she added. "You can prepare and prepare for it, but until those doors open and there are real customers standing in front of you, you really have no idea what's going to happen. Our store is constantly changing and growing, but we only understand that now that we've been in business almost two years. You've got to start somewhere."

Nena Rawdah of St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, Oregon, which opened in June 2005, agreed with Fox. "All your research and planning will go out the window as you get to know your customers. Let them guide you, while you focus their interests and requests into a coherent vision. Your responsiveness and involvement with your neighbors will pay. Be ready to do some things that may seem off-the-wall: One of our most successful out-of-store activities is a regional Pirate Festival that happens a few blocks away every year."

If she were to do one thing differently, Rawdah stressed she would not make the mistake of partnering with a good friend without a legal contract. "I would tie any partner, friend or no friend, in the absolute most ironclad contractual language I could find to prevent that person from doing irresponsible fiscal harm to the business," she said. "And I'd expect the same in return. If I'd done that in the first place ... a 12-year-old friendship might still be going." Or, she added, she might have been a little more patient, saved for a couple more years, and opened on her own.

"Other than that," Rawdah continued, "our mistakes were small, but all stemmed from insecurity over being a small bookstore and not having everything [in stock]."

Without question, most respondents noted that they would not approach their inventory in the same way if they were to start up again.

In the Booksellers Forum, Deb Hunter of Chicklet Books in Hillsborough, New Jersey, noted: "Don't feel you have to stock every genre/title suggested by well-meaning customers and friends," she wrote. "Remember that it is your store ... yet be open-minded enough to add sections as needed."

"I'd buy fewer bookshelves and get more floor spinners filled with product from publishers/sideline companies," said Ann Burlingham of Burlingham Books in Perry, New York, which opened in January 2006. "And I definitely didn't give us enough storage room -- there's a reason most retail has so much backroom space!"

"If I were to open a storefront again, I would have done a lot of things differently!" said Paula Ingram, the "owner/manager/only employee" of Empire Books, Inc., in Frankfort, Illinois, which opened in August 2006. "I would not have stocked as many categories and would have just stuck to the basics: fiction, old classics, mysteries, and lots of children's books. Trying to stock as many categories as my competitors was my first mistake."

Imagine Atrium's Bradley advised: "When purchasing start-up inventory, buy only minimum quantities of everything (you can reorder if needed later). For smaller bookstores, don't buy more than one copy of any book for your shelves at startup, unless it happens to be a popular title that many people in your area may be reading.... There's no need for a smaller bookstore just starting out to have boxes of excess book inventory not on the shelves." He added that ordering just one copy of a book allows booksellers to control their start-up inventory expenses more wisely and have a greater variety of book selections.

St. Johns' Rawdah said she wished someone had "hammered home" to her "the importance of good inventory over ideal surroundings.... We spent more than we should have on fixtures and not enough on inventory, without ever achieving the 'perfect' retail environment.'" She added: "We've become really good at leveraging our location (in a hub city within a day's UPS of Ingram Book Company's Roseburg warehouse) to get people their books quickly while being realistic about the difference between a neighborhood store and a mega box."

The issue of money, of course, loomed large in bookseller responses, either in the way of miscalculating start-up capital, advertising costs, discounting, or foot traffic, and the resulting cost of these errors.

In the Booksellers Forum, John Schoppert of King's Books in Tacoma, Washington, wrote that it's crucial to have enough capital to "at least ... last out a year." Schoppert also cautioned against spending on newspaper ads: "Not enough bang for the buck. Instead, write letters to the editor (and include your store's name!), send the newspaper story ideas (newspapers love bookstore stories....)." Let other local businesses in the area "know you're out there, offer them a coupon or something," he said. "Get connected with business groups in town. Business cards. Stick them wherever you see a bulletin full of them, and even places they're not."

"When I was opening the store, I thought a lot about getting it open on time and not enough about making sure people knew there was a new bookstore opening in the area," said Empire Books' Ingram. "I just assumed that word-of-mouth would be enough, and it isn't!" She added: "Advertising is key!"

"I wish I had the luxury of really knowing (as opposed to doing preliminary research and guessing) how important foot traffic in and around the store is and the specific amount of foot traffic you need to sustain a business in a city location," said Bradley. Most people who walk into a given bookstore do not purchase anything, he reported. And of those who do purchase something, a minority spends large amounts of money. "If I had been able to really pick a bookstore owner's brain about what specific foot-traffic numbers translate into sales and the challenges of drawing people to a location that is not on an immediate high-traffic block, I would have put more emphasis on resources and focus on this."

Burlingham would have invested more money into signage, she said. "I still need more signs out front."

At St. Johns, Rawdah told BTW, "We thought we would never, ever offer routine discounts. After all, that's what the chains did to try to kill us all ... but judicious discounting has worked out well, giving us a way to grab and hold the attention of newcomers in a neighborhood that's seeing a lot of change."

In the Booksellers Forum, Mary Beth Nebel of I Know You Like A Book in Peoria Heights, Illinois, warned new booksellers: "Don't do a grand opening until you've been in business at least three to four weeks." She suggested inviting friends to a soft opening. "Ask them their honest opinion about what is good and what needs improvement."

Finally, don't take staffing too lightly, a few booksellers cautioned. "The biggest challenge is always staffing," said Kathleen Millard, manager, of Elm Street Books in New Canaan, Connecticut. "Finding strong team players who will be engaged in the business, when the compensation is low, is always difficult."

"Finding good employees who fit the environment and had the skills and personality needed to work in the environment" was a big challenge, Bradley said.

Of course, mistakes are inevitable -- a new store owner can only try to minimize errors and learn from them when they do happen. Said Rawdah: "In sum: Be smart about your planning ... but most of all, trust your customers and let them make your bookstore." --David Grogan