“Have you lost your mind?” they keep asking. “A BOOK store, in HALE, Michigan . . .” one naysayer remarks after overhearing my news. She doesn’t ask me if I’ve lost my mind, but I can tell that the thought is crossing hers. There was a book store in Hale before, she tells me. Evidently it was in the building that the new Curves now occupies, which was a tackle shop before that.
And yet . . . I AM opening a book store in Hale. I have plans, goals, and dreams. But I’m not a dreamer. I know that the population of Hale, Michigan is about 4,292 (according to halemichigan.net), that the economy is in rough shape, and that, according to the radio news this morning, Michigan is into its sixth consecutive year of job losses. Some would call that sobering news; others might say it’s a reality check. Have I lost my mind?
No. I can’t think of a better time to open a book shop. I believe in what I am doing. I believe all of the clichés. I believe that books take you places, that reading opens doors, that books introduce you to new friends, that those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it, that education is the answer, that writing is an art, and that books are beautiful. I believe that reading makes a difference, that it matters, and that it is essential. Those beliefs may not substitute well for working capital, but they’ve been enough to start with.
I’d like to tell you that I’ve been planning this for decades—you’d be more optimistic about my odds—but truth be known, I’ve been selling books online for all of about a year and a half now. At one time, for a long time, I thought I would be teaching Reading or English or Literature—in fact, from the sixth grade on, that’s also what everyone else thought I would do, and what I went to school for. And yet, here I am—buying and selling books instead of lecturing about them. How did that happen? The only honest answer would be by accident. We could call it fate, and it would sound better, but either way, here’s the story.
We moved back to my husband’s home town when he retired from the Army. The home that my father-in-law left to us is beautiful, and it is a gift that will give our children roots—a place to call home. We finally have a front and back yard—six acres of yard—but our new house is considerably smaller than the town home we had been renting in Virginia. We had almost three thousand square feet of “stuff” and now, just over one thousand square feet of home. We had to think about what we could do without and what simply was not going to fit.
There were several boxes of books that my children had enjoyed when they were younger, but no longer read, and just as many boxes of my own books that I figured I could live without. I didn’t want to throw them away, so I donated some and decided to sell some online. I made my selections, completed a self-taught crash course in Internet commerce, and ventured into the world of online auctions.
What fun! Many books sold quickly, and I found that I really enjoyed the process—everything from choosing which books to list, to photographing and describing them, to corresponding with book lovers, to shipping books off to their new owners. Before I knew it, I found myself BUYING books to sell online, and the fact that I had initially thought to DECREASE the number of books that we had in the house suddenly became very, very ironic.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was becoming an online bookseller. A “quick stop” at a roadside estate sale sealed the deal. I had already stacked several books in a pile, at $1 each, and was glad to have found such interesting books at a great price, when the gentleman having the sale walked up to me and said, “You can have them all for $20.” All? Of course I took him up on his offer, and began to load several boxes and trunks of books into my husband’s Geo (it gets great gas mileage, he would want me to add here:). Walking back toward the boxes, I realized that the homeowner was coming out of the house with still more books, and was loading them into a wheelbarrow to transport them to the little green car. About six hundred books later, give or take a few dozen, I squeezed into the driver’s seat with just enough room to see, steer and change gears.
Some time ago, I handed her an older book that I thought she’d enjoy, and watched as she checked over the outside of the book and then promptly flipped to the copyright page. When she told me it was a first edition, I just smiled, and she rolled her eyes. Ugh! Teenagers aren’t supposed to know, or care about this “stuff” she told me. I’m pleased to say that although she loves to read, she also loves books. She appreciates them as physical objects, as history, as art, and I’m very proud of her when I see how gingerly she handles the older, more delicate volumes that sometimes come our way.
I can’t even begin to explain what it’s like to live with a few thousand books on bookshelves that are six feet long and six feet high in a home that has just over a thousand square feet of living space. We put them wherever they would fit. We were walking sideways down our hallway, which was now lined with bookshelves. Every available shelf, cabinet and storage area in our home was packed with books. I’d go out scouting, come back, catalog each book, put it in a poly bag, label it, and find a home for it on one of the numbered shelves. It worked . . . for awhile.
As my inventory increased, I began offering my books for sale on many popular venues such as Amazon.com, Alibris.com, Tomfolio.com, IOBAbooks.com, and others. I found discussion lists for booksellers, subscribed to Fine Books & Collections and other trade resources, and immersed myself in the book world. I was busy, but I didn’t feel like I was working. The process of becoming a bookseller seemed to have a momentum all its own, and I felt like I was doing something that I was meant to do.
My new business seemed to be a perfect fit, but it wasn’t fitting well into our cozy home. My family began to feel that they had been overrun. We had to clear the table of books, boxes, invoices and the stuff of bookselling before we could sit down to dinner. My business calls were often interrupted by my beloved barking dogs, and visitors to our home would stare, quizzically, at the huge bookshelves and stacks of books that we had learned to live with. I knew that something had to give—and soon. I considered all of the options and costs, and finally settled on buying a small building in another location.
Without a lot of money to put down, and with few properties in my price range, the search was discouraging. But things have a way of working out. I found a small home in town, right off the highway, on just over an acre, and it was zoned commercial. It was a fixer-upper, and I didn’t have much to invest, but the owner and realtor worked with me, and I was able to buy my first house. My one bedroom house with an attached garage soon became an office, inventory storage and shipping area, and warehouse.
I loved going to work. As I continued to learn about the used book market and online selling, new opportunities came along. I was awarded a scholarship to the Antiquarian Book Seminar in Colorado Springs, and at some point during that incredible week I knew that I wanted to have, had to have, an open book shop. A few months later I attended the Great Lakes Booksellers Association Trade Show, met many authors, illustrators, publisher’s reps, librarians and others in the field, and I was even more certain. But how was I going to make it happen?
My little house was perfect for online selling, but I wouldn’t be able to afford the renovations needed to open the doors for customers. It simply wouldn’t have met the building codes. The commercial properties that I looked at were too expensive and those that I could afford were too far from my home and would require expensive renovations. As significant as all of these factors were, they weren’t nearly as prohibitive as the fact that I didn’t have the 20-30% to put down on a commercial property. Add the fact that I was a “start-up,” and the picture looked pretty bleak.
I considered renting, and made several calls. Rents were high, and I knew that I had to keep my monthly expenses down or I wouldn’t make it. Right about the time that I started to get discouraged, I stopped by the consignment shop that I had purchased books from in the past. I was surprised to find the consignment shop gone, and a “for rent” sign in the window. Figuring I had nothing to lose by asking, I wrote down the number and drove back to my office. I took a deep breath and dialed. Minutes after that, I handed the “for rent” sign and a check for my first month’s rent to my new landlord. Turns out the property is owned by someone that I already knew from subbing at the schools. She and her husband were very supportive of my plans for their building, and very generous in helping me to make my dream a reality. They have given me the freedom to make their building my own, and I am grateful for that.
A few hours later I was driving back to the building with my set of keys. There were a few drawbacks, but I felt that they were outweighed by the advantages—and the SPACE. The biggest drawback is location. The building is on a side road, which means that we aren’t visible from the main road, even though we could throw a rock and hit M-65—one of the major highways going through this area. Railroad Street is a strange bit of road that curves behind the bank and post office, so advertising is going to be critical for us. Foot traffic in winter in Michigan isn’t the most common sight, and I know that we are going to have to get the word out. I have ordered direct mail postcards, and will begin with a smaller, targeted direct mail campaign and follow that with a radio spot. Our biggest season is several months away—when the tourists will head this way to enjoy the many lakes around our area. I plan another ad campaign in early June to let the “snow birds,” as we tend to call the folks who head south for the winter, know that we are here.
It would seem that I have ignored the location, location, location rule, but not entirely. Remember that little one bedroom house I bought for my office? With hard work, integrity, exceptional customer service, and perhaps a bit of luck, I hope to eventually build a new shop, with a parking lot, on that acre and a quarter. That property just happens to be right off of M-65. I think of it as the future home of Perfect Pines Books & Gifts. It’s very likely that our son will be in college by the time that happens, but it’s good to plan ahead. Until then, that cute little house will be home to my online inventory. For the meantime, I have decided to keep the books separated. I will be working on cataloging my online offerings as time permits here in the store. Everything that I need for imaging, packaging and shipping will be here, so all I will need to do is stop by the “little house” on my way to the store to pick up books to be shipped that day.
But back to the advantages. I have half of the downstairs, and all of the upstairs. In this area, this is a HUGE retail space. The other half of the building is shared by a barber shop and a salon. Strange as it may sound, our two “halves” are connected by a large bathroom. (We have to be sure to lock BOTH doors when we are . . . hmmm . . . powdering our noses.) The layout of the building has made for some interesting visits while I have been getting ready to open. The stylist next door is very enthusiastic about the store, and she has brought several of her customers over to meet me, and to get a preview. I have to chuckle when I remember meeting several of her clients while they were in various stages of a perm or color, and I was covered in paint, wood stain, sawdust, packing peanuts, or a variety of other pre-opening “outfits.”
Speaking of pre-opening, there was a lot to do, and as always, I was a bit impatient. I painted, sanded and stained shelving, made lists, contacted suppliers, opened accounts, signed up for a NxLevel business course offered by the MSU extension, networked with other booksellers, and learned as much as I could about an open shop. At the same time, my husband was building shelves, display windows, and a front counter. Even the kids pitched in. Our son loaned his train table to the store, and later designed the track layout. Our daughter helped to move, stock and price books, and offered suggestions on the layout of the store.
Fortunately, I had just attended the annual Great Lakes Booksellers Association Trade Show, and I had met several distributors, vendors, and publisher’s reps there. One of my first contacts was with Baker & Taylor. I liked their “First Call” program, and felt that it was very small-store friendly, so I decided to order my new books from them. Antioch was an early contact as well, and I was pleased to stock their wide variety of bookmarks, journals and book accessories. I was already familiar with Dover Publications, and I really like their selection of coloring and activity books, so it wasn’t long before I set up an account with them. Finding giftware was a bit more of a challenge, but I was able to locate a few different suppliers. Our Name is Mud, a company that offers interesting ceramic giftware, was a nice find. Things were coming together.
So here I am. My shop has been here for one week today (since opening the day after Thanksgiving), and so have I. I’m here on Monday, take a day off on Tuesday, and then open again Wednesday through Saturday, 10 to 6. We’re closed on Sunday. So far, it’s just me. Laura Smith, owner, operator, cashier, stocker, merchandiser, accountant, bookkeeper, sales associate, customer service agent, custodian, buyer. This “job” is many things, but it is never boring. It has been an exciting week. I haven’t set any sales records, but I am even more convinced that I made the right decision. I had my first “official” sale—a copy of Fast Food Nation—and my first dollar is framed. I’ve already been offered books to buy, and I am starting cards for customers that prefer to trade books for store credit. Feedback about the store has been very encouraging, and everyone who has stopped in has signed up to enter our drawing for a signed book of their choice from our available titles. They’ve shared their addresses so that I can send them our newsletter. They’ve bought Christmas gifts for their loved ones. They’ve complimented the store, and they’ve made helpful suggestions. So far, my favorite comment has been, “We’ve really needed this.” Me too.
I still don’t necessarily feel “ready,” or “done,” but I am beginning to believe that I might never feel that way. There is always more to do—more that could be done. Right now that list includes hiring my first employee, finishing the upstairs which will house the majority of our used books, and getting our sign put up on the roof. We have some beautiful art pieces in the store that are made by a local scroll saw artist, and he has generously offered to make a sign for us. Frank, my husband, is upstairs now, building more shelves. Our home is just about emptied of my inventory, but it will be a little while before we have all of the books moved over from the little house. It’s a work in progress, but I’m okay with that. My customers don’t seem to mind, either. They seem to like the idea of watching the store grow and change.
I am so glad to have an open shop. I love selling books online, and will continue to do so, but there is something about handing a book to someone that can’t be described. I’ll try anyway. Have you ever lost something, been sent to find something obscure, or couldn’t find something that you really needed or wanted? You know that feeling that you get when you finally find it, when someone hands it to you, or points it out to you? “Here it is.”
There really isn’t a way to describe the feeling I get when I find a book for someone. They come in, they browse, and maybe hesitate before they say, “I have been looking for such and such, but you probably don’t have that, it’s an old book.” They have heard “we don’t have it” a few times already, and perhaps weren’t even going to bother asking. It’s out-of-print. I check my inventory, and I don’t have a copy. BUT, I have learned a few things from other booksellers about finding books, and I am blessed to have a network of booksellers, via the online world, who are always glad to help in the search. They do this, often, with only a “thank you” for compensation. Have they lost their minds? No. They get it. They want to be a part of “here it is.” Because of them, I can stand all by myself at my new front counter and say, “I don’t have it in the store, but I am pretty sure that I can find it for you.” It might be “we” that gets it for her, but in either case, suddenly there is hope that it can be found. My job is to help people find it. I get to say, or help another bookseller say, “Here it is.” I love that.
What is IT? Well, this week it has been a Dottie West biography, a book on baseball card values, travel guides on the Southwest, and a memoir written by the daughter of a Marine Corpsman, among others. Those I got to look for, but many customers were able to find what they were looking for on their own. The new Stephen King book, for instance, and chubby Christmas board books for a new grandson, a cookbook devoted entirely to cookies, blank books for journaling, large print books and audio books for customers struggling with vision loss, a bookmark with a horse on it for a granddaughter, historical romances, an out-of-print book about plants, and many more. It’s a joy to find a book for someone, and it’s a joy to help them make their own discoveries.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s more. My customers have a great deal to offer, and they are willing to share. They know their authors, their favorite books, their subject areas, and their history. There is a lifetime of knowledge in each customer that comes into my store, and I can learn so much from them. Everything that I learn makes me a better bookseller, much of what I learn makes me a better person.
This week I’ve welcomed a new mom and her three-week-old son to my store, and offered them the rocking chair to sit in while grandma shopped. I’ve talked with high school students that I have “subbed” for, and learned of their career goals and aspirations. “Do you have any medical books?” one young man asked me. “Why medical books?” I ask, and the learning and sharing begins. This process is repeated over and over again, every day. “What kind of biographies do you like to read?” “Military books in general, or is there a particular area that you are interested in?” “How old are your grandchildren?” “Are you a collector?” “Did you read his first novel?” “What did you think of that series?” “Will this be the first time you’ve traveled to the Southwest?” “Who is your favorite author?” “Are you a beginning gardener, or are you looking for books intended for more advanced gardeners?” “What type of cooking do you most enjoy?” “How old are the children that you want to teach origami to?”
Where were we? Oh yes. The questions. You’re opening a BOOK store . . . in HALE, Michigan? With the economy such as it is? When two out of three new businesses fail? When it seems like kids today would rather play video games than read? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Have I lost my mind? No. I may lose some money, that’s always a risk, but I am of sound mind. As for the risk, much to my dear husband’s dismay, I accept that risk, and I know that I may well become a statistic. I might join the ranks of “start-ups” that failed. I can live with that. Why? Because of the other questions.
And then there is the other column—the one where the “cons” go, and just one question. What if I fail? I guess I just have to believe that if I fail, I’ll be in good company. In the meantime, there IS a book shop in HALE, Michigan. “Here it is.”
Laura Smith operates Perfect Pines Books & Gifts out of Hale, MI and can be contacted at http://www.perfectpinesbooks.com.