Wi14 Education: Thriving as a New Bookstore Owner

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At the “Thriving as a New Bookstore Owner” education session at Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attending booksellers heard from some of their colleagues who looked back at their first critical years as new bookstore owners.

Panelists Danny Caine, Brad Johnson, Angela Maria Spring, and Tom Nissley
Panelists Danny Caine, Brad Johnson, Angela Maria Spring, and Tom Nissley, who served as moderator.

The session on Friday, January 25, was recommended for booksellers who have been in business for five years or fewer. The panelists were Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas; Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California; Angela Maria Spring, owner of Duende District Books in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books in Seattle, Washington. Nissley, who will soon open a second store in Seattle, Madison Books, also moderated the session.

Caine told booksellers he fell in love with the business while working at Raven as he pursued his MFA degree in poetry at the University of Kansas. Eventually, after he expressed interest in buying the business, the store’s longtime owner offered him a price and Caine began doing his research: he looked the store’s sales as well as its ABACUS report and took the Paz “Owning a Bookstore” training workshop in Florida. Then, after six months of soul-searching, he finally decided to pull the trigger in August 2017.

The origin of his ownership of The Raven Book Store involved a bit of luck, Caine admitted. “Owning the store was financially attainable for me for two reasons,” he said. “One, the rent. I have a landlord who is just super interested in keeping a bookstore there, so our rent is comically low and I’m thankful for that every day. Number two, my owner was willing to seller-finance so I didn’t have to go to a bank. So basically the loan is coming from her and I just write a check directly to her every month.”

Caine made a few behind-the-scenes changes at the store, which used to be mystery-only, including streamlining the store’s point-of-sale system, instituting more budgeting and cash flow processes, and installing some new fixtures, but the biggest was improving Raven’s event program.

As a Midwestern store, it takes a lot of work to get noticed by New York publishers, said Caine, so he began by cultivating community partnerships with local organizations such as the Lawrence Public Library, with whom the store has partnered on six events to sell books by visiting authors. Now, he said, the store has a robust event profile to put on their one-sheet and show publishers at BookExpo and Winter Institute.

Overall, the transition of ownership was smooth, but not 100 percent perfect, said Caine. After meeting with all eight employees one-on-one, he decided to let two long-tenured employees go when it was clear that they were going to have trouble accepting authority from him and that their vision for the store did not match his. As a result, there was a bit of a backlash from staff and customers. 

“It blew over and now I have a staff that is much more aligned to my vision. Whatever you decide to do, you know best what your vision is, so just make sure all the changes you make and things you implement match that vision, even if it is hard at the beginning,” he told booksellers.

Caine also reminded new owners that once they have a staff of good, trustworthy people on hand, they should try to let go and delegate some tasks. “I made sure to lean really hard on staff. Learning to let go and pass responsibility onto my staff not only makes my workload manageable, it empowers them and it enables them to do a better job,” he said.

Spring’s story began with her work at indie and chain bookstores all over the country, including, in her home state of New Mexico, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Page One; in New York, McNally Jackson and Books of Wonder; and in D.C., Politics and Prose. After years of traveling for her husband’s work, Spring decided to pursue opening her own store back home.

“I always thought I wanted a store, but I never really wanted a normal store, and I had a lot of fear about being able to open one because I have a lot of student loan debt and I don’t have savings,” said Spring, who is also a poet, a journalist, and a member of ABA’s Board of Directors and Diversity Task Force. “But then the 2016 election happened and I really had to come to terms with a lot of things, with my own identity being a white-passing Latina, the state of our country, the way we need to talk about things, and also the fact that I’m very community-rooted…You kind of have to hit the bottom, to look at yourself and be like, who am I? What am I doing? What kind of bookseller do I want to be?”

Duende District started out as a pop-up funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2017, and since then, Spring has been able to build her own business model as a collaborative pop-up bookstore. Duende District is intentionally experimental and mission-based, she said, carrying almost exclusively books by people of color. Today, in addition to the original pop-up in D.C., now run by Nicole Capó Martinez, Spring works with other businesses to set up vendor-boutique bookstores, which entails creating curated Duende District shelves and collaborating to do events. So far, Spring has partnered with MahoganyBooks, Walls of Books, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Holy Moly in D.C., as well as Red Planet in Albuquerque.

“I wanted to have as much opportunity as possible for other booksellers who are people of color to be in these positions, and for anyone who wanted to start a bookstore or a literary space and was facing the financial obstacles that I was facing, to find some way to do it even if it is not a typical brick-and-mortar experience,” said Spring, who hopes to eventually take her model nationwide. The third tier of Spring’s business model is consulting for other bookstores, both buying for them and helping with buildout.

Spring told booksellers that since the beginning, she has always been willing to see her model evolve, and it has. She recommended that aspiring booksellers “take who you are and your knowledge and the things you are good at and parlay that into whatever you want to be.” When it comes to dealing with competition, “take it as a good challenge to really hone the mission of your store. It just means you get to be more of who you actually are. Figure out what you do very well and hit that, hit it hard, and be joyous about it.”

In California, Johnson had worked at DIESEL, A Bookstore for years and was managing the store when the owners, who recently closed their Larkspur store and still own one other location in Brentwood, asked if he wanted to buy the store; they suggested he launch a crowdfunding campaign and ask community members to give him personal loans.

“That proved to be the easiest part of the process partly because the Bay Area is just swimming in money, but it also says a lot about the love that people had for those stores,” said Johnson, a former minister and academic. “We sold them on it based on the truth that this is a completely unnecessary thing we are doing. We wanted to make it as positive a transition as possible, so it wasn’t a matter of one of the owners being sick or under financial duress. We wanted to do it at a time and in circumstances where it would be a positive.”

Once funding was secured, Johnson attempted to re-establish the store in the same space but with different branding, so he changed the name to East Bay Booksellers, a moniker that focuses more on workers than just the store itself. DIESEL was a great brand, he said, and while some locals and staff thought it was a mistake, Johnson said he really wanted to create a new brand as an evolving concept based on the community’s relationship with the store.

“One of the good things about the store name change was that we got to tell our origin story for a year and half,” said Johnson. “We don’t do it as much anymore, but because it’s a positive story we got to tell [customers] that the community came together and made this cultural center into something a little bit different but mostly the same. And if we are successful at all enduringly, it will be because of that foundation that was there before.”

Johnson told booksellers he was glad that every member of the staff continued working there, including many longtime colleagues. One thing he did not anticipate, however, is the dynamic change once colleagues go from being peers to employees.

“It’s not, for me, a big difference because DIESEL didn’t really operate in a hierarchical way, but something naturally changes when you are the person paying someone. I tried to be very aware of that and be friends with people, but also you don’t want to be like Michael Scott in The Office. And so far, so good. It’s been two years and the staff is not flying out the door, the sales are what we expect, and all of the changes we made have been organic.”

For his part, Nissley bought his store five years ago after learning that the bookstore in his Seattle neighborhood was for sale. After a 10-year career at Amazon and writing a book, he was looking for a change, he said.

“It was not my plan even then to take over store but the more I looked into it, the more it seemed feasible and like something I would actually want to do,” Nissley said. “Now I’m about to open a second store. It kind of reminds me of what my wife says about pregnancy, that there must be some kind of natural internal drug that happens that you forgot how much it sucked the first time. But it actually hasn’t sucked. It’s gone as well as I could have hoped.”

Nissley took over an existing business, as did everyone else on the panel except for Spring; since buying the store, he has changed the name, hired a new staff, and given the space a partial makeover.

“One thing I would say, especially if you are a small store, is to think about what you’re good at; do not freak out about doing the other things,” said Nissley. “We do almost no events; it’s not something we have the space or the bandwidth for. We don’t have much of a social media presence, but I have a really good e-mail newsletter. That’s what I decided from day one to put a lot of my energy into. Don’t feel bad if you’re not doing everything other stores are doing. Don’t look at someone else’s Instagram feed and feel like you’re a failure because they have this cute dog come in every day. Learn from those people over time, but just nail what you do.”