Friday, May 16, 2014

So you think it's easy?

I'm talking about bookstores today, instead of writing.

One of the most insightful writers out there about the Indy writer movement is Hugh Howey.  So I've been reading his blog.

Recently, he posted how he'd like to open a bookstore in the small town he lives in.

He then listed about 10 or 15 things he'd like to do; from the usual suspects of a coffee shop and readings, to things like a reading room, and classes to teach writing, and so on.

So I commented on perhaps he might want to get the bookstore running first, before adding all these other things.

Oops.  His obsequious followers (what's up with that?) came down on me -- one accusing me of being a "book snob" and the others saying not to stomp on their dream.

So I'm going to come at this argument from a different direction.

How many of you think running a bookstore is easy?
How many of you think running a bookstore is lucrative?

Let's start with the first question.  In some way, these dream-wish stores, promising the moon in extra services, are being dismissive of the basic work of running a bookstore.

If you want to do a GOOD job of running a bookstore, it is already a full time job just doing the basics.

To start with, assume that running a bookstore is a full-time job.  Just for starters, you'll be open at least 48 hours a week, and someone has to clerk those hours.  Assuming you're making enough money to pay for that clerk, you'll probably dealing with customers for most of those hours.
Which means ordering, stocking, researching, cleaning, record keeping, etc. etc. etc.  and on and on, and all the things it takes to run a bookstore will probably be outside those 48 hours.

So let's assume you are really really lucky and are making enough to have an employee help you.

But at first, you'll probably be doing most of it.  The majority of the clerking, as well as all the rest.  So lets assume, if you really just keep it to basics -- a 60 hour week.

I'm honestly not sure who is supposed to making the coffee and serving the food and all the rest.

Now -- think about adding all the extra services.  Figure out how you're going to pay for them.  And look ahead and ask yourself if you can continue to do it for 2 years, 5 years, 10 years.

Remember -- the 60 hours running the store, PLUS having the extra hours for signings, and the health inspections (cleaning!) and the broken machines and the occasional disastrous employee and the Great Recessions and...well, trust me, things will get complicated and hard even if you keep it to basics.

Everything you do has to paid for -- time and space are relativistic to the money spent.

If you manage to do everything you promise --and over-promising is the worst thing you can do -- then you are headed for burnout most likely.  Because once you've set up that model, you can't go back on it.  You're committed.  Not just now, but in 5 years, 10 years...etc.  It'll be exciting at first -- but years later it will be a job.

The second question -- how many of you a think a bookstore is lucrative? -- this really plays into all the above.  But in a small town -- say like Bend, or the town Hugh is opening in -- there is probably enough money for a Mom and Pop business -- maybe Mom and Pop and a part-time or -- if you are really lucky, two part-time employees.

Thing about a Mom and Pop business is -- they are a Mom and Pop business because that's all the money you're likely to make.  Paying the employees probably brings down your income to a lower level than you are going to like.

Again, project into the future, and realize that amount of money may never significantly change  (unless you think bookstores are more likely to be more lucrative in the future, instead of less...)

I guess I'm saying "Why do you think this isn't already a full time job?"

If it was lucrative or easy, both Hugh Howey's and Bend would have an Indy bookstore, but we don't...

I believe it is still possible for Bend to have an independent bookstore, if it is centrally located, does a good job on stocking books, and all the other basics of running a bookstore.

Then, when you've done all that, you can decide what else you want to add to your 60 hour less than high paying week...

Our basic mantra when we opened the Bookmark was "Keep it Simple."  And that has worked.  Even with just carrying used books and nothing else, Linda can feel overwhelmed by the process at times...

I believe that the reason I'm still in business 30 years later is because I've winnowed it down to basics.  Doing the basic job of doing my job at modest pay and avoiding burnout.

Oh, and Hugh Howey?  You can probably forget about being a full-time writer...


Duncan McGeary said...

In other words, just running a bookstore is a full time job. You can't do it as a "hobby" unless you can afford to lose money.

Unknown said...

Running any small business from scratch is a full-time job. Seat-of-pants, mom-and-pop -- is not the Harvard Biz School model. You are spot on, Duncan, about these super basic, nuts-and-bolts facts.

In the bookstore example, the coffee shop, book signings, writing classes, etc are wonderful for a 5-year or 10-year plan. But definitely back burner for startup time.