On Opening a Bookstore Part One

Minding My Business: On Opening a Bookstore; Part One

Every one of us will reach a point in our lives when we need to set aside our childish notions of fantasy, when we’ll need to find our place in the system, to recognize the reality of our situation, and to accept our role for what it is—in short, we’ll need to “grow up.”

Are children still asked, “what do you want to be, when you grow up?” Outside of the context of the self-gratifying, twisted, dark humor, of a belittling adult, of course. “I want to be an Astronaut!” Do you remember when you wanted to be an astronaut (the astronaut being the universal [insert dream job here] default)? I wanted to be a writer, and then I wanted to be in the NBA, and then I wanted to be an oceanographer, and then a marine biologist, and then a psychologist, and then an entrepreneur, and then I just didn’t want to be homeless.

We’re living in a society today were wanting to be a doctor or lawyer is on par with what wanting to go to the moon was thirty years ago. It’s not necessarily because the framework of blue- or white-collar work has changed—like many people want to believe—it’s because our mindset of the framework of blue- or white-collar work has changed. And some of you will argue what the difference might be, and maybe there will be little difference, eventually, but right now the difference is still considerable.

I was being honest when I said I wanted to be a writer, and a professional basketball player, and an oceanographer, and a marine biologist, and a psychologist, and an entrepreneur; I was led to believe that being a writer wasn’t a goal realistic of my time (that’s an interesting thought if you actually digest and or dissect it), ‘a goal realistic of my time.’ For me, each subsequent life goal was a step down from the last. To be a marine biologist would require less effort than the effort that it would require to be an oceanographer; and to be a psychologist would require less effort than to be a marine biologist, and so on and so forth. And that’s how many of us will weigh our dreams. However, of every dream that I would ultimately neglect the two that I believed were most worthy my time: the first, still, was writing, although I was led to believe it was the most fantastical—perhaps my dream of playing in the NBA was just too absurd to take seriously, or to play in the NBA was more realistic than being a writer—and the second was opening my own bookstore. And the goal of entrepreneurship would, of course, be the best “realistic” alternative.

What do we think people mean when they say something, “isn’t practical,” or that “it’s a waste of time,” or “not realistic of your time?” There were people who wanted me to believe that to be a writer wasn’t a realistic use of my time. “Don’t waste your time,” don’t waste my time doing what? Developing my interest and skills to actually pursue what I’m passionate about. Why not? My time is the only thing that will make the pursuit of being a writer plausible because it’s not that being an oceanographer or a marine biologist or psychologist would require too much effort, it’s that I didn’t have the passion to pursue those efforts. It does not feel like effort when you are pursuing a passion. Any idea or goal that you devote your time to will become realistic. We are all making an effort anyway, and usually for pursuits that we have no passion for. I didn’t say that I wanted to be James Patterson or Stephen King (because I don’t, and I wouldn’t…), I simply said, I wanted to write; the most fantastical element of the dream isn’t the goal, the process is. It really is that simple; happiness is little more than the conviction to apply individual effort in the direction of our dreams.

But I believed them, everyone that implied, or flat out told me, that I should choose—or aspire to—a career that was practical, and so I went a different way. I stumbled into retail. I started working for Borders Books, Music, and Café when I was 18, and my experience there would carry me, and it did carry me for nearly twenty years. I worked for three different corporate book retail companies, and for two retailers I worked in multiple stores. I worked in an independently owned bookstore—where I learned most of what I know about the industry—and then I opened my own small bookstore, and when I had to close my store down, I built a website and I started selling books online, and I intend to reopen my store.

What follows is a brief retelling of my experience opening, and then the process of reopening my store.


Working in bookstores for as long as I did was the alternative to my alternative, of owning a bookstore, and to writing. The idea of opening my own store came to me when I was working at Borders, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ After working in different bookstores across the country my focus started to narrow, and I started to develop a real idea, an image, and eventually a business plan.

You see, although my passion is for writing, I do love books. Books, for me, elicit a visceral response. The feel of-, the smell, even just being near books inspires me, and I believe that they awaken something inside all of us that is far more fragile, far more exceptional, and far more important than many of the things that we might value today. We might reread a book from our childhood that reawakens memories or feelings we haven’t known in decades where we might find a momentary reprieve from our stress and our worries, and we feel something indescribable when a book has the authors signature, when a book is a first printing, or when we read an inscription from a person and to a person that we’ll never know. There’s no tangible, or even logical reason for it. The value we assign to a book is entirely sentimental, and yet we continue to find value there. People are still talking about a world where eBooks have killed the print industry, even though eBooks found the height of their popularity more than a decade ago and the book buying and selling is still very much alive. In fact, there are more independent bookstores opening every year now than there have ever been. Whatever the reason, the energy, the power that books have over us, we can feel it, and it can be shared and added to our own. I don’t like to sell books for the sake of selling books, there’s no lasting impression there for me. I sell books because they are an imprint of our emotional selves, collectively waiting, and sometimes extremely patiently, to be opened, and to open our minds and hearts, in a very tangible way, both intellectually and viscerally.

            I started selling books outside of the context of working in a bookstore online through Abebooks, Alibris, and Biblio.com. I created accounts and uploaded a few dozen books; books that I had collected after shopping in used bookstores and going to estate sales, books with value that many bookstores don’t realize they have, or that many people might want to get rid of. I’ve found books in used bookstores that cost me a few dollars and that are worth a thousand dollars. I found a signed, first printing of Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner that I bought for $12, and it’s worth $1,200. I travel a good bit, and every time I go somewhere I stop inside the used bookstores; I learned, fairly early in my experiment of selling books online, that a book’s value might increase depending only on the region that it might be sold. You might find a first printing of any one of Cormac McCarthy’s books in a bookstore in Washington D.C., for $8-10, and then resell it in the Southwest for twice what you bought it for. There are “tricks of the trade,” that I started learning when I first considered bookselling as a career, and not just a job. Some bookselling sites are better than others, and while some sites, such as Abebooks—which used to be the “go to” site for book collectors—have sold out to the commercial books industry, there remain others, such as Biblio, that have, not only, withstood the test of time, but that continue to develop, and to help the industry evolve, in a manner worthy of a seven century old tradition. I’m grateful for Biblio (a privately owned website based out of Ashville, North Carolina).

It was while I was working at Op. Cit. Books in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that I started writing then what would become my business plan for Wardrobe Books. I could see my bookstore in my head as if I were walking through it. I could hear the weathered wood floors yield slightly to my weight as I walked through the doorway, and I could see, and smell, the long, oak tables stacked with books as I wandered through my store. I could see and feel everything as I sat researching and writing my business plan every evening for months. At the time, my early mornings were donated to my ex-girlfriend and getting her two kids ready for, and then taking them to school, before I would go to work at the bookstore in Santa Fe. My ex-girlfriend would pick her children up from school and spend a couple of hours with them in the afternoon, until I got off work, and then she would go into work, waitressing at a fine dining restaurant. And then I would spend my late afternoons, and evenings, guiding the kids through homework, preparing and serving dinner, and then putting them to bed. After the kids were asleep I would get comfortable in my favorite chair adjacent to our bay window in the living room that looked out over the rose park off Galisteo, and I would get lost, and then reemerge in my bookstore. The wood floors moaning beneath my feet, the unmistakable scent of old books, floor to ceiling bookshelves, and couches, chairs, and small tables; where there would be patrons relaxing with a book, or their laptop, a deck of cards, and chatting, with a hot cup of tea cradled in their palms; there’s faint music overhead—you would notice it, and then as you slipped into the escape of the first few words on the first page of the book in your hand the music would fade away as quickly as you are enraptured by story, and then, as you stopped reading and gripped the book tightly between your fingers, you would catch faint sound of music again. I worked on my business plan a few hours every night and for a few months, after putting the kids to bed, and until my ex-girlfriend came home from work. It was the best part of my day.

At the time, many people believed print to be a dying industry, I was writing my business plan in 2012, just before the world was supposed to end. The belief was that digital books, and eReader’s, would reinvent how people read books. Many people, even ten years later, continue to share that sentiment; that’s not exactly a thought that ages well with time, it’s a trend that either passes or it doesn’t. I believe that it’s safe to say that after more than a decade of humoring the belief that books are no longer relevant, that clearly, books are not going anywhere. Regardless of whether Borders, or the unfortunate joke that Barnes & Noble Booksellers has become, are.

I taught myself as much about the bookselling industry as I could, and as much about business, and business strategy as I could, and my education has been ongoing since. I would ask myself a single question, “Where do I want to open my bookstore?” I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so I, of course, started to teach myself as much about Santa Fe demographics as I could (and that question would lead me to others, Who is my customer base? If I open a specialty bookstore—mystery/thriller, science fiction/fantasy, children’s, literary—would that affect this/anything? What about marketing, advertising, inventory, supplemental inventory, distributors, supplemental income, repeat business, employees, taxes, insurance, permits, payroll, and not least of which, financing). Every question, every answer, and every factor invited a new rabbit hole, and a new challenge. After a deep dive into marketing and demographics I learned that although it was important to learn about every foreseeable and relatable angle, that most required little more than a basic understanding. When you can explain to yourself the basics of how taxes, for example, might affect your involvement in business before you get distracted by Facebook then it’s time to move on.

I learned, for example, that because Santa Fe, New Mexico does not have a corporate bookstore chain anywhere in the city does not at all mean you should quickly find the most reasonable lease and hope for the best. Santa Fe does have 40 bookstores for every 100,000 people (the population of Santa Fe is less than 90,000); there are only five cities in the whole of the United States with more bookstores per square mile. Unless I wanted to specialize in something that no other bookstore offered, where would that leave me? And once I answered that one question as completely as I believed I could have, I moved on to another question.  We decided, my ex-girlfriend, two of her three children, and I, to look into other parts of the country to open my—our, my—bookstore. I asked myself, then, what I thought the most important question to ask was, in this situation, and I decided that it was, “who buys books? And why?” I looked for states and cities with the greatest number of college graduates, because college graduates make up for, not only, the largest percentage of readers, but also those most likely to have the greatest disposable income.

I also started to familiarize myself with the Small Business Administration website (sba.gov), especially the Business Guide and Learning Platform the site has available. The website was inspiring enough, at the beginning, to influence me to attempt the Small Business Administration route to acquire a business loan. Many banks have an SBA representative working the branches, nearly independent of the bank, although using the same avenues, unfortunately. If you are opening a business and require startup capital and you’re unable to find that capital independently with help from friends or family or known investors, then I strongly recommend not using a bank, try a nonprofit or something similar. The difference between succeeding in opening a business on your own or not could very well be the manner in which you received your capital.

While Massachusetts has the largest number of college graduates in the nation (and is the state that I would have preferred to live in, comparatively), the Bay Area has the greatest number of college graduates per square mile, and there are less bookstores per 100,000 people in the Bay Area (believe it or not) than in Massachusetts; although, granted, the Bay Area does have the more famous bookstores. When my research led me to the Bay Area I discovered Jack London Square, a newly developing district right on the coast of the Oakland Inner Harbor in California. Jack London spent a great deal of his time between first street and the estuary in Oakland, when he was growing up as a young writer, this neighborhood is now a shopping district named for London. The region has literary beginnings, and yet there isn’t a single bookstore in Jack London Square, or within a several blocks radius of the Square. The Bay Area is a constant swell of people, like an unsure grip of a dilated balloon, wheezing people out, and then distending, so know when you have found an opportunity, and don’t overthink it. I realized that the Bay Area is actually the most promising place, statistically, to open a bookstore (or was in 2012, the bureaucracy of opening a small business in California can be strikingly unreasonable).

            My store is a new, used, remainder, rare, and collectible bookstore and teahouse, with a focus on literary authors and genres. In my mind, over the coming weeks and months, I was to effortlessly open a business with little financial hurdles, interruption, or firm bureaucratic interference. Things didn’t quite turn out that way. For personal reasons, I didn’t move to California, I moved back to the Texas Hill Country; Kendall County, the second fastest growing county in the United States. It was a place I knew very well; I had spent most of my formidable years there. And the only bookstore within twenty miles of any cardinal direction was one within and operated by the local library. I would like to stress something that I started realizing around the time that I moved back to Texas. 1.) Every business, regardless of whether they are in direct competition with you, which is to say that they offer similar products or ideas, is actually a competitor. If someone is not spending their money at your business, they are at someone else’s. 2.) Local businesses, regardless of whether they are in direct competition with you, are better served as collaborators and not competitors; figure out how you can collaborate with other businesses in your community and do it.

I sat down with an SBA representative in San Antonio, Texas, and we went over my business plan, and discussed my vision. He and I talked for a while; I lost myself in my bookstore, and he recognized that, and he walked with me through the aisles. Afterward, the SBA rep walked away and returned after speaking with a senior member of the bank's loan department, and when he returned, we started discussing finances, not financing mind you but my finances. I had hoped that the exceptional detail that I applied to my business plan might offset the situational waste of a decade that was my twenties, and that my detailed market research, and conventionally unconventional approach to management established via trial and error (working retail), and my experience, having worked at Borders, (2) Hastings Entertainment(s), (3) Barnes&Noble(s), one college bookstore, and an independently owned bookstores (among other retail companies), would counteract the fact that I had made no effort whatsoever to establish credit. It’s not that I had bad credit, the thing was that I had essentially no credit. The SBA representative wanted to approve my loan request, he made three separate visits to senior loan officials in an attempt to convince them that my experience and my knowledge are of value in this situation. However, his attempts would ultimately end in a denial of my request.

            I decided then to develop my bookstore from absolutely nothing, and on my own.

I started looking for cheap, and I mean cheap locations throughout the Boerne area, and I found a closet: a space 4’x3,’ it was wide enough, only for a single person to stand, and browse. This closet was inside of a flea market style refugee camp for businesses. I had to start somewhere through, right, so I leased the 4’x3’ closet, and I made shelves out of cinderblock and 2’x4’s which I stacked as snug against the walls as I was able. I put a little chair with a desk outside of the closet door threshold. I already had more books than would fill the closet, so I had to go through my inventory and decide what to display based on the region, as well as unfamiliar titles or authors to the area that might complement the more popular titles and authors the people in the Hill Country would be familiar with. And thus was the beginning of Wardrobe Books. I thought the name Wardrobe Books was apt, considering. My plan now was to grow my store organically; I would move into a larger and larger space, as both the location and money would allow.

Opening a Business

I did get creative looking for different ways to expand. I set up meetings with prominent local businessmen who showed interest in investing if they saw substantial growth. I wasn’t yet able to provide the expectation of growth with the money that my store was making within their bracketed frame of time. I could choose to prioritize inventory, or I could choose to prioritize marketing, and unfortunately, in this case, one would negatively impact the other. I needed an equal investment in both inventory and marketing to expect and sustain the reality of their vision. I continued to pursue developing Wardrobe Books on my own. It took me a year, but I did, finally, move into my own space. I continued to operate, maintain, and grow Wardrobe Books. However, I didn’t know then that my new location had an expiration date.

The building I moved Wardrobe Books into was sold, and when my lease had expired, I had to leave. I wasn’t able to find another location; I was lucky to find the location that I did have. The months after closing my bookstore, I didn’t know what to do. I sat down with the local businessman again, however, he, like so many others, was hard-pressed to set his focus beyond the rumors of a dying book industry, without taking heed to the actual sales and projections.

            After a few months of working catering gigs, I had the idea to build a website. I didn’t know how to build a website, and so I set out to teach myself how…

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