Monday, March 3, 2008

So You Want to Open a Bookstore

In the three and a half years that Jenn and I ran a bookstore cafe in Brooklyn, we met a lot of people who wanted to do the same thing. Sitting down with a cup of herbal tea and some chocolate chip cookies, listening to Miles Davis on the stereo, and looking out at the fountain in our garden, customers would remark on how relaxing it must be to work there. There were many great personal satisfactions to running Indigo Cafe & Books in those years. We met a number of authors we admired, and thousands of book lovers. We looked forward to seeing our “regulars,” and became good friends with some. (We even went to Paris to visit the jazz trombone player who used to live upstairs.) But overall, it was not a relaxing existence. Consider the numbers. Let’s say you sell 500 books in a month, at $20 each. That’s $10,000 — but given the skimpy discount you get from book distributors, you keep only $4,000. Out of that $4,000 comes the rent, the phone and electricity (both charged at a higher rate because you’re a business), the cleaning lady, the counter staff, the musicians you hired for a special event, and the toilet paper in the bathroom. Keep in mind that you’ve already spent tens of thousands of dollars to renovate the space, buy furniture, and fill the bookcases with books. Soon you discover that the only way you can break even is to fire your helpers and do all the work yourself. So six days a week you put in a 12-hour workday that might end at 10 or 11 at night, when you gently urge the last customer toward the door, start the dishwasher, pull down the security gate, and trudge home. One day a week the store is closed, but you spend most of the day catching up on paperwork and going through publishers’ catalogs. You can help boost your bottom line by selling remaindered books, where the profit margin is much better, or other items like mouse pads, candles, incense, pastries, and coffee. But you will have to sell a lot of these things to make up for the fact that selling new books (without the sweetheart deals that the big chains get) is inherently unprofitable. If you’re thinking seriously about opening a bookstore, you should read Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties, which makes many of these points with wit, force, and numbers. If you go ahead anyway, know that you are doing your part to save Western civilization — but don’t expect to make money.

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