Opening a Bookstore on a Budget

Between Pages & Dreams: The Journey of Opening a Bookstore Part Two

Opening a business doesn’t have to be as risky an endeavor as is sometimes cautioned. We are the greatest risk to opening a successful small business. People have a tendency to dive into the water headfirst without understanding what we’re diving into; we’re indifferent about the physics of water, the general properties of water, the significance of surface tension or bottom pressure, none of that matters to us, we just know that it's wet. We like to believe that water being wet is all that we need to know when we set out to understand water.

At this point in my process of opening a bookstore, having decided that opening a bookstore was what I wanted to do—selling collectible books through affiliate website, developing the image of my store in my head, researching the technicalities, building my business plan, looking for and being denied a business loan, finding and leasing a closet sized space, operating that business, then moving into larger space, and operating that, and then closing my store altogether—I had researched layers and layers of possibilities for every step that I came to in order to make any and all of that happen. I took the same approach to developing a website. I had no coding experience whatsoever, still, I had an image in my head of how I wanted my store to look. I researched and compared the various website platforms, I explored and built mock sites using GoDaddy, Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and Shopify. I played with each platform until I found one that offered the closest thing to what I needed that would allow me, with very little website development experience, to build as close to what I was imagining in my head as I was able. I could go on about what platform I chose and why, but that’s not the type of writing that I’m doing here.

I learned, by building a website, and playing with different platforms, that there are as many things that I would have to address after the fact that I would never have imagined might be an issue, as there are when opening a brick and mortar. The ability to import and export bulk product files, for example, it never would have occurred to me to look into that before I had parked my ass on the couch and started uploading books one title at a time. I kept one stack of books next to my left foot and another next to my right. I would grab a book off the top of the pile stacked next to my left foot and start typing the ISBN, the title, the author, a physical description, and a summary, and I would have to research each book based on the printing, whether the book was signed, and the books condition, and then to compare my copy with other copies available online, and then to consider the market value, especially if the book was rare or collectible. When I finished with a book, I would place it on top of the stack next to my right foot, and then reach for the next book stacked on top of the pile next to my left. I spent six to ten hours a day every day for four or five months (we can call it four and a half) uploading thousands of books to my website. I was able to get through The Office, Parks & Recreation, Sherlock, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Numbers, and Criminal Minds, because I binge watched that shit like crazy while I studied a book, and if I found a specific book that was particular fascinating, I would pause whatever I might have been watching, and give that book my complete attention.

My inability to code might have stirred my annoyances temporarily throughout the process, if there was something that I wanted to do, or if there was some way that I wanted my website to look, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it using one of the website builders, I would never be able to do it. My brain has trouble recognizing the simplicity in a thing. I have spent hours—hours—trying to find some pattern or something in coding that would help me to bridge the gorge between the overcomplication and the simplicity of the process. I never could. It took me forever to learn how to play the guitar because at first, I made it harder than it actually was. Most things are way more simple than we make them out to be. There has always been one thing that I have consistently wanted to do for my sites, and one thing that no platform has made possible, and I have never been able to accept it.

I think a part of the reason that not being able to alphabetize my books by author has been so difficult for me to accept is because that is how people browse when they visit a bookstore. It’s not just a function of finding exactly what you want and in the exact spot that the book should be, it’s because the process is enjoyable; browsing is an experience. Imagine being able to browse a website exactly as if you were browsing the shelves of a bookstore. Alas, as of yet, no website on the internet selling books allows for alphabetical browsing.

I built my first site using Wix, and that site was live for a few months before I learned that there were things that I was going to need that Wix didn’t offer, and so I built my second site using Weebly. I operated my bookstore using Weebly for years, and at some point, down that road I learned that I could sell books on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media sites using Shopify. I incorporated Shopify into my mix and used some combination of Weebly and Shopify for several more years. A couple of years ago I upgraded and updated my Shopify site and I deactivated Weebly. And now, I use only Shopify to operate and maintain my site, and I don’t think that I’ve ever been happier with Communitea Books. I will still on occasion update the site, but the work is mostly minor cosmetic developments. I’m planning on spending some time trying to develop a fun search box. The quality of search engines for these platforms is remarkably low, and I think it’s worth the couple of hours of trial and error that I’m sure it’s going to require to figure that out.


          In 2022 I was managing the Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Bozeman, Montana, and while I was working on the sales floor one summer afternoon an elderly couple approached me to help them find some books for their grandchildren. We started talking, and I learned that the pair lived in Livingston, which is where I was living. It had come up that I owned a bookstore in the past, that I was operating that business online now, and that I was interested in reopening my store, eventually. They told me that the longest operating business in Livingston is a bookstore, it opened its doors in 1882 and has been passed down from father to son, twice. The couple explained to me that the bookstore’s current owner had no children and was ailing, and they suggested that I reach out to him. After leaving work that afternoon, I sat down and hand wrote a letter to John, the business owner, regarding the bookstore, and explained that I had met this couple at Barnes & Noble, and that they suggested that I reach out to him and went on to express my interest in sitting down to talk. I didn’t hear anything back, and eventually I started to forget about it. One morning, at the onset of winter, I received a call from a local attorney, it was John’s attorney, and he requested a meeting with me about the bookstore.

            I sat down with John’s attorney and business manager at the attorney’s office, and we started discussing the future of the store, and whether my vision might parallel, at least, with the purview of the century-long namesake of the bookstore. The business was no longer making any money, but it’s a community staple, the store had been in operation for more than a hundred years. Nobody wanted to see the business close. They also weren’t willing to let it go to someone who would gut it and change it completely. They were running out of options. As the meeting came to a close the attorney stopped me and gave me a projected deadline for when he would like to see the deal close, and the deadline was approaching but not disrespectfully so.

During our meeting I expressed to them my intention to keep the existing business name, I shared with them my desire to expand the books inventory, as well as to develop a strategy to maintain and expand the office and art supplies that have been carrying the store for the last twenty years. Everyone was excited as that first meeting ended. John’s business manager and I left the meeting that morning and met at the store for a walkthrough. I had been into the store a few times before browsing, but it was nice to see it with a new lens, and to examine parts of the store that are unavailable to the public. I had not yet seen the basement—they closed it sometime in the last fifteen years, for whatever reason—and I had questions about, well, different things. And after exploring that store, and discovering a treasure trove of history and junk, I realized the potential was greater than I first thought. While we were in the basement we started sifting through old things and photographs, and while I was down there, I pictured the space cleared out, and then filled with tables and bookshelves. I stood there imagining Non-Fiction resting on the shelves against the basement walls, and patrons browsing the floor to ceiling bookshelves, and the smell of old books piling in the corners and under tables. The children’s book section would be in the back room of the basement nearest the restroom; I could see families sitting, reading, and playing games, and children tripping on scattered toys that other thoughtless kids and indifferent parents left lying around.

There was even an old darkroom in the basement complete with functioning equipment from the 1980’s. And I imagined opening a darkroom studio up to rent by the hour, for the abundant self-proclaimed photojournalists shuttering about southern Montana. Imagining the basement made it easier for me to imagine the main sales floor after shelves replaced old display cases that have been resting in the same place for so long no one actually knew if they could even be moved. It wasn't until the natural light from the front windows pained my eyes that I stepped out of my thoughts and back into this dormant gem.

I went to work generating an offer. It wouldn’t be as straightforward as the projected future revenue and the cost of current inventory; sure, the business hasn’t been making money, but it is a staple, as much a part of the community as the mountainous skyline and the bald, rounded peak regarding the small city. There is a sentimentality value to be considered. Then again how do you put a price on sentiment? Where’s the line between embarrassingly low and outrageously high? Hundreds of thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, trading sentiment for sentiment: being progressive without considerable change, like keeping the name, for example.

          Meanwhile, I was working on setting up a meeting with a non-profit in Bozeman to discuss what I consider to be the better option for additional financing. While waiting to hear back from the non-profit John’s attorney began to place some pressure on me that made me both nervous and uncomfortable. While I was balancing meetings and conversations, one morning, less than a week after our first meeting, I got a text from John’s business manager putting even more pressure on me (he admitted that he too was being pressured by John’s attorney). John’s attorney asked John’s business manager to tell me that ‘I didn’t seem as interested in the deal as I came across and that they might be forced to consider other options.’ That irritated me. I immediately called John’s business manager and we set up another meeting with John’s attorney. In that second meeting, John’s attorney started making comments that raised some flags for me. I wasn’t sure however whether the attorney’s behavior was because he wanted to maintain some control over the business or whether these were symptoms of an aged memory, still the takeaway from that meeting was that I assured them that I wanted to press forward. And so, we continued to.

John’s attorney reached out to me again almost immediately after our meeting and he shared that he had become aware of an investor who was interested in providing the overhead to keep the business going, ‘assuming my partnership,’ and he asked me to put together a business plan and some financials to present to this mysterious angel investor. I already had a detailed business plan and the projected financials prepared, I made a few adjustments and then I left two packets with John’s attorney's secretary: (1) financials for the attorney, (2) my business plan and the financials for the angel investor.

          That evening I received an email from John’s attorney.

A part of me wants to publish the email here, along with the several emails that followed. However, I can’t, in good conscience. The email from John’s attorney was asinine! He was questioning my business plan to irrational detail: he questioned my intention to hold events because other local businesses already hold events, he questioned my intention to eventually sell tea because other local businesses already sell tea, he even questioned my intention to use the basement because some people might have trouble with the stairs, he questioned things that he and I had already discussed at length in one or both of our previous meetings, as if he had never heard it before, as well as others things, many other things; things that are noticeably antithetical for a person who was pushing to close the deal rapidly. None of this made any sense.

I read his email that evening while eating dinner, a bit wide-eyed and I couldn’t help but to think—aside from my response to each absurd question—that the attorney was supposed to be little more than an intermediator. My business plan wasn’t even meant for his eyes, it was meant for the mysterious angel investor. An investor that I was now realizing, he had brought to my attention, and not once had he mentioned the investors name or contact info only that they wanted to see my projected financials and a business plan (yes, it did briefly cross my mind that the attorney might be the angel investor, but that thought did come and quickly go).

I responded to the attorney’s email, explaining to him that my business plan was none of his business, and that if the angel investor had any questions, then I would be more than happy to have a conversation with the investor. After learning about them, I had been, of course, looking forward to talking about a number of things anyway. The attorney's response to my email was that he was just trying to help me refocus my business plan. And so, in response, I told John’s attorney that I can appreciate his concern, however I will communicate such things with the investor from now on, and that he no longer needs to worry about it. You would think this would have concluded that topic. It didn’t.

My correspondence with John’s attorney started to get increasingly strange. The attorney’s next email stated that the investor was someone who simply wanted to help, and that they weren’t even interested in turning a profit. They wanted only to keep the business running. My first thought then was, why did they—or you—request my business plan, and, specifically, my financial projections? And why then respond with concerns to a business plan that was not only none of your business but apparently unnecessary to even provide? I urgently expressed to John’s attorney that it was time for the investor and I to meet. The attorney responded that the investor wasn’t local and was very busy. So, in yet another email, I had to ask him for the contact information for the investor. The attorney refused to provide the information. To reiterate, the attorney refused to provide me with the contact information of the investor that I would be going into business with. After which I stopped responding to him. I…it’s, I mean, how…I’m still dumbfounded by the fact that he wouldn’t provide me with the investor’s name and contact info. Was I supposed to use the attorney as a mediator forever? I cannot imagine what the attorney could possibly have been thinking.


In the weeks before my contact with John’s attorney began, I had started to reevaluate what it is that I wanted, and more to the point what it is that I wanted to do. You see, opening a bookstore wasn’t my first, and lifelong dream, opening a bookstore became the next best option. When I was presented with a certain scope of what might be practical in this life I never once asked myself, beyond that particular pretense, what I actually wanted out of my life. It was always a balancing act between what I had interest in and what might be practical. Was working retail what I wanted or is the industry where I found some footing at a young age, and then I became comfortable with it. Have I, ever since, been limiting the scope of my dreams to what exists within my comfort zone. I wanted to write; writing was my passion. In the summer of 2022, I started to take a deep dive into myself: who I was, and who I wanted to be. I started working through a number of lingering emotional traumas, and in the midst, I decided to weigh what it was that was really important to me. So, when, in the course of closing the deal to buy this bookstore, this turn of events came about, I was already beginning to open my mind up to a wider scope of possibility for myself.

I think most of us make similar mistakes, in some fashion, throughout our lives. We become comfortable, and not only will an opportunity outside of our comfort zone feel uncomfortable, but it will likely feel impractical and unrealistic for little reason other than that it might be unfamiliar, and we’re comfortable only with what we’re familiar with. I can imagine my life owning a bookstore: how I would act, where I would go, what I would do, and who I would talk to, and it may not be the same life exactly that I had been living for the last twenty years but it is within that same comfort zone, and that life is one that takes little effort to envision. It's a comfortable thought. I had begun to realize that my choices are not limited, and no one’s are, but escaping our conditioning is difficult, and it’s complicated. You first have to realize that your way of thinking and the way you’re living are riddled with limitations, you have to expand your mindset which is like learning to accept that the universe is expanding…

I made the incredibly terrifying decision to quit my job managing the Barnes & Noble in Bozeman and I took a job working part-time as the night attendant at the Murray Hotel, and I moved into the hotel. I was determined to teach myself everything I could about the fundamentals of writing; any talent I may have had wasn’t enough for me to feel confident calling myself a writer, and I knew that unless I did the work, I would never find that confidence. I would have to learn to take an impossibly bad piece of writing and figure out how to make it work, and then to do that over and over and over again.

Throughout my life I have learned how difficult it can be to not compare ourselves to others; especially the older we get, and how easily it can feel like we don’t have much to show for time that might seem wasted or lost. Sometimes certain lessons or realizations come to us after a lifetime of searching for something entirely different, a dream that we can't really even place anymore. This does not mean that we’re starting over or that we’re behind in the game, what we have learned getting to where we are now is invaluable and it does make us better at whatever it is that we will eventually realize we want in life. Of course, this is something that we have to remind ourselves of time and again, until we feel comfortable simply knowing it. I learned a lot from these past several months: the prospects of taking over a local bookstore, the bizarre process trying to see that realized, and accepting that the reality of closing the deal, buying this store, would have been a terrible mistake, and not least of which is that even small-town attorneys will take any advantage they might be able to, while thinking only of themselves even in the face of the sentiment of a small town’s oldest operating business going out of business, but mostly I learned a great deal about myself and what I want. 

            Communitea Books is the most important thing that I have created in my lifetime, I love that I can share my love for books here, but I also love that I have created a place for my writing, and I am looking forward to not only see my writing evolve, but to also realize different avenues that may not even be apparent to me now. My website has allowed me to explore my passion for photography in a way that I had never before imagined. It took me nearly twenty years of learning and failing and exploring and developing to recognize that what I thought I was working toward wasn’t at all what I expected. The most surprising thing is that I know now that I am capable of both recognizing and being open to those possibilities. 

            I started out nearly twenty years ago to open a bookstore; I came within a single decision and a verbal agreement to accept the conditions of an offer that would have put the reigns of one of the most celebrated bookstores in a popular literary town in my hands, and because I was beginning to explore parts of myself that had been more or less dormant for years I was able to recognize a bad situation. If this same opportunity was presented to me even just a few months before I would have agreed to it and would very likely have found myself in a bad triangle of plight and quandary with a small-town attorney that couldn’t be trusted and a ghost. The path I set for myself back then is one that I’m still on, and although side effects from my past still present themselves, and so much is still unknown, my situation has probably never been better, and then I started to realize that this was all water, and I was well beyond it simply being wet.

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