Chapter 280 Opportunity or Siren Song, Or, When is it (Ever) the Right Time to Open a Shop?

Last week I wrestled with a significant decision. I didn’t want to blog about it until I made up my mind. I think I’m ready to talk about it now, and I hope my decision-making process can help those of you who want to be booksellers.

Though more and more bookshops are closing and many booksellers now work from their homes, I’d like to be one to buck that trend and have an open shop or at least an office space I could dedicate to my bookselling work and use to meet with customers. An open shop provides the opportunity for people to sell me books, for me to sell books to more people than I currently reach, and for the rest of the trade to consider my business a credible one.

Recently, I found an office space for rent at a very good price. The office, a niche-sized 423 square feet, is tucked under a staircase in a building from 1926 (that’s old around here) on the main downtown shopping street in my town. It is down the street from the only other non-chain bookstore in my town, and across the street from the main library and Tom and Huck’s school. There are several antique stores and restaurants nearby. And did I mention that there is a thrift shop (where people often bring books) right next door? And the rent is (relatively) cheap? It seems to be the perfect place for a small antiquarian book business.

Before I even called the landlord to find out when I could see the space, I was engrossed in fantasies of Louis XV bibliotheques lining the walls. No longer would my books be stored on closet shelves, in armoires, or in bookcases lining the hallway of my house; instead, they would be given pride of place, their majesty revealed from behind glass doors in ornate, dark wood cases. (O.K. I admit that, for now, due to budget constraints, the books would be displayed on my folding, portable bookcases — the book fair type. Allow a girl to dream!) I could have an office, open by chance or appointment, and my books would, at long last, be properly displayed. I could work without being distracted with laundry and cooking. I could actually have customers and other booksellers come take a look at my stock.

My fantasy bookcase:

I called the real estate office and discussed the lease (one year) and asked to see the office space. Here’s a photo:

Now, I am not wild about the blue rug or the fluorescent lights or the lack of windows. (Actually, no windows — no sunlight — is good for the books.) Still, I could envision this room transformed by shelves of books, prints on the wall, and a large desk or table for my work. Most importantly, I could see me working there, surrounded by my books. This is what I have been working toward for the past year and a half.

Trying to camouflage my enthusiasm, I non-chalantly said to the realtor, “I’d like to think it over for a day or two.”

I went home and tried to calm down and think rationally. While I have no trouble making impulsive book purchases, I am much more cautious when it comes to locking myself in to paying a monthly rent bill for a year or more.

The siren song of the quaint antiquarian shop called to me. I would very much like a space all my own to concentrate on projects like the Dante catalogue. I would very much like a place to store and display my books. I would feel like a “real” bookseller with my own space. I know; I get too hung up on that word, “real”, sometimes. And I know that I can’t run a successful business based on how I feel. I have to think. This is one bookselling decision that does not get made via fingerspitzengefuhl.

If I move my business out of my home to an office and my sales slump (look at that stock market last week — at this rate, who’s going to have money left over for buying antiquarian books?), I would be on the hook for the rent. Working at home, I can have a bad month or two or take a month off, because my overhead is very, very low. Additionally, if my sales are good, but not great, I would be able to pay the rent but unable to purchase new inventory. A bookseller who can’t add new inventory on a regular basis stagnates and goes out of business. I don’t want to be that bookseller. Further, like it or not, the reality is that I am a part-time bookseller. Some weeks I fit in a lot of hours, and other weeks I don’t. Each year, as my children get older, I have more time to devote to the books, but at this point, I am still short of full-time. Is it worth it to pay rent on a space I can’t always use full time? How would I use the space in the summer, when the kids are out of school and home all day every day with me for ten weeks?

I couldn’t decide. Was the serendipitous find of this space an opportunity to grow my business or would it, like many other shops for many other sellers, be the siren song that lured me to business bankruptcy?

I called a couple of other booksellers whose opinions I value. Both of them have open shops. We discussed the ratio of rent to sales necessary for a successful open shop that and the additional costs of renting, such as utilities and janitorial service and insurance. We also talked about the merits of office space versus a true open shop in a retail space.

Then I thought about it some more. What have I decided?

It pains me greatly to say this, even though I know I’ve made the best decision for my situation, but I am not going to rent the space at this time.

While the location and the rent were perfect for my business, the timing seems off to me. I think I need to make sure I can consistently make at least three times my rent (or more) per month. I think I need to have more hours to devote to my business to make an office worthwhile. I think that I still need to do laundry and cook meals whether I work at home or in an office.

I am disappointed, because I see real potential in this space. But realistically, I’m not ready just yet. I will be someday, and I hope that day is soon. But it’s not today. I’m trying to look at the bright side.

I realized I would be trading this view:

and this one:

and this one:

for this:

I’m no financial oracle, but if the current economy slows sales of antiquarian books, I want to be able to operate on a shoestring if necessary. I also want to be able to buy a lot of good books if they can’t command the prices they used to. (I’ve found some recent relative bargains that make me think this may happen for a time.)

Mostly, as much as I want to be a bookseller with a legitimate place of business outside of my small home, I am also still very much needed here at home. My place, at least for a while, is here. It is here I can have the best of both worlds — books and family. If the office space is truly meant to be, I will find a way to work it out. But committing financial resources to a lease prematurely would be an unwise business decision. Too bad my house is too small for those massive, mahogany Louis XV bibliotheques I dream about. On the other hand, that gives me a reason to work hard enough and sell enough books to get a place for me and my books someday.

If any of you have an open shop or an office space, I’d be interested to hear from you as to what guidelines you used to make the decision to open a shop. Is there ever a “right” time to open a shop?

See you amongst the Louis XV bibliotheques!

6 Comments

Filed under A Bookseller's Education, Getting Started

6 responses to “Chapter 280 Opportunity or Siren Song, Or, When is it (Ever) the Right Time to Open a Shop?

  1. As I was reading this post, I was saying to myself, “DONT rent the shop, Chris, the economy is not good enough right now”.

    So I am glad you made the right decision for you. Maybe in a year or two (or 5 depending on how fast the economy recovers), you can look around and maybe youll find an even better place at an even cheaper price. As you said, there are no overheads when you work from home.

    Is there any way you can store your books in the garage or maybe add an extension to the garage, or build a shed in the back yard where you can work from? I have had to buy 2 new cupboards in the last 2 years – just to store all my books.

    I am also sorry that you could not branch out, but in these difficult economical times, it was the right decision to make.

    Cheers

    Historia.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Wow, that must have been a tough choice to make. I know I would not have wanted to give up my views from the window very easily.
    Maybe you should think about what you want your library to look like. I found mine. Check it out on my latest blog posting.

    http://idyll-musings.blogspot.com/

    Talk with you soon,
    Mark

  3. I’m with consensus here. Good choice. Other booksellers are also noticing that the current economic woes are opening buying opportunties.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I learned something about Dante today that I thought I’d pass on to you.
    He was sentenced, sometime in the early 1300’s, to perpetual exile, and if he returned to Florence he would be burned at the stake. What I learned is that in June of 2008, the city of Florence finally rescinded the sentence!

    Mark

  5. Thanks everyone for all of your encouragement. I appreciate all the support! If (when) I ever have an open shop, you will all be invited to it’s grand opening!

    Chris

  6. Here’s some cautionary advice about small business: Be prepared to CARRY your business for FIVE years before expecting to turn a profit. I too would love a bricks and mortar shop but sadly must follow my own advice, so the book stacks get higher and the floor space less.

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