books: 25 Lessons Learned From Opening a Bookstore with Annotations

Via my pal George, a list of 25 Things I Learned From Opening A Bookstore.

Firstly, good on her for following through on the impulse to open a shop.
Countless people over the years have waxed eloquent on the theme of wishing they had my job, predominantly well turned out professional folk with expensive shoes and conservatively cut jackets.  All more in love with the perception of the job (lounging on a daybed behind the counter with the store cat in your lap, idly flipping the pages of a leatherbound copy of  The Iliad while engaging in witty repartee with the uniformly pleasant, highly educated clientele) than the reality (endless sifting, sorting, shelving & disposing of the looming cliff of {mostly crappy} books perpetually threatening to topple over and crush your dreams).  They're kin to the sorts that enjoy eating out and so think it would be swell to open a restaurant.

Consciously choosing the high road, I smile indulgently rather than falling about laughing uncontrollably.

Secondly, as a used book dealer of 20-odd years standing, I can't imagine opening a bookshop cold.  The retail stuff isn't hard, but stocking a shop well *is*.  Even today, with the internet spraying its torrent of data from every available informational orifice, a good bookstore requires a certain depth of understanding on the buying end.  It's the idea of the curated experience- you can't just make a list of the top selling books in a category, stick them on the shelf and expect it to work.  You need those top sellers, certainly, but it's what you fit around them that will make or break your shop.  A used book dealer is an intellectual magpie- they haven't read every important book on any given topic, but they know the titles, they know the serious publishers, they know the strong authors and a thousand other trivial details that inform the mix of titles in sections diverse as Diet & Nutrition, Eastern Art and Meteorology.

I'm part of the last generation of 'real' used book dealers, pre-internet, who learned the business under the tutelage of an old school book dealer, who learned it in turn from an older school book dealer, and on into the distant past.  The boss learned from legend of the business Moe Moskowitz, of the eponymous Moe's- in fact, our buying counter came from the original Moe's, before they moved into larger quarters.  I've spent afternoons looking up titles in Books in Print...the 15 volume physical edition.  If someone were to ask me for Aherns or Bradley, I'd know what they meant.  All repositories of knowledge that have been largely usurped by the hive mind of Amazon.  Which isn't entirely a bad thing- research is definitely more convenient on a computer- but a certain texture of knowledge is lost.

Anyway, some of my comments on some of her comments:

1.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.  Treat the money you budgeted for shelving as found money.  Go to garage sales and cruise the curbs.
2.  While you're drafting that business plan, cut your projected profits in half.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.
Along these lines, global furniture titan Ikea recently redesigned their iconic Billy bookshelves to reflect changes in what consumers are storing on their shelves.

5. If someone comes in and asks for a recommendation and you ask for the name of a book that they liked and they can't think of one, the person is not really a reader.  Recommend Nicholas Sparks.
  My first customer of the day asked me for a recommendation, and when queried on her tastes said "I'm not really sure what I like...."   While I can't in good conscience suggest Nicholas Sparks to anyone, I understand the impulse.

7.  If you put free books outside, cookbooks will be gone in the first hour and other non-fiction books will sit there for weeks.  Except in warm weather when people are having garage sales.  Then someone will back their car up and take everything, including your baskets.

You should never put free books anywhere but the recycling bin.  A free box creates a certain impression and generates certain expectations about your shop that as a proprietor you should be wary of propagating.

9.  No one buys  self help books in a store where there's a high likelihood of  personal interaction when paying.  Don't waste the shelf space, put them in the free baskets.

Untrue.  Our self help/psychology section generates a fair amount of revenue. Even in a smaller shop with a different focus there are perennial sellers that you would be well served to stock- Deborah Tannen, John Gray, Norman Vincent Peale, any addiction/recovery stuff.  There are always salable books in ANY section- if you have a section that isn't performing lay the blame on your buying, not the subject.

12.  People buying books don't write bad checks.  No need for ID's. They do regularly show up having raided the change jar.

This is true, although somewhat less relevant in the modern age of teenagers wanting to buy quarter books with their debit cards.  But in the history of the store, we've had fewer bad checks than years in business.  And only one was the result of intentional fraud, all the rest were made good after a phone call or two.

 16.  Most people think every old book is worth a lot of money.  The same is true of signed copies and 1st editions.  There's no need to tell them they're probably not insuring financial security for their grandkids with that signed Patricia Cornwell they have at home.

Again, true.  Disabusing people of these notions is one of the less salutary aspects of my job.

22.  Even if you're a used bookstore, people will get huffy when you don't have the new release by James Patterson.  They are the same people who will ask for a discount because a book looks like it's been read. 

I've actually never had anyone get huffy that we didn't have the latest thing, but people expecting discounts because "this book looks old" are legion.

 14.  More people want to sell books than buy them, which means your initial concerns were wrong.  You will have no trouble getting books, the problem is selling them.  Plus a shortage of storage space for all the Readers Digest books and encyclopedias that people donate to you. 

This is true today, but for most of my career the quest for stock was an endless grind.  Years ago you'd have to wrangle and haggle with people about payment for a buy- lately, they're as likely to say "ah, you can just have them!" as deign to take a trade slip, the thought of carrying them back to the car outweighing the perceived value of the books.

In my early days at the shop we had a weird scrounger named Baum who would come by every month or two with boxes and boxes of fairly solid books, which he would only sell for cash, and for which he demanded 20% of the cover price as payment.  Our situation with regards to stock was such that the boss indulged him, and they'd spend most of an afternoon wrangling over the sale, the boss entering prices on our printing calculator, Baum pouring over the resulting tapes and ominously tapping at perceived discrepancies with yellowed, splintered fingernails.

Today, we'd laugh him out of the shop.  People leave better books with us every day than he ever brought in.

Strange, unsettling days to be a bookseller.

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