The Big Highs and Deep Lows of Opening an Independent Bookstore
Split Rock Books is Coming to Cold Spring, New York
When you tell people you’re opening an independent bookstore, they always have a strong opinion to share. Brave is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Strangers will worry about you (a bookstore in this day and age!) and lots of people will tell how much they do or don’t read, how much the general public does or doesn’t read and how many people shop on Amazon (all of them). The truth is there are some real obstacles to opening a bookstore, some that apply to any small business, and some that are specific to our industry. But there are also some obstacles that exist only in the minds of a concerned public.
For us by far the strangest commentary is people who volunteer “I don’t read” and who then extrapolate this quality to the rest of humanity via the follow up questions, “Does anybody read anymore?” and “How do bookstores even survive?” Frankly, we’re more curious about how tanning salons survive, but I guess the answer is that not every store that exists serves the entire population of earth. We don’t need everyone to read, we just need the people around here who read to find us and to shop with us. Nearly every person we know does read, so this imagined obstacle doesn’t worry us.
That leads to the next most common concern, WHAT ABOUT AMAZON?? This one is usually followed up with an admission that they shop on on Amazon all the time and everyone just buys books online. All booksellers are well versed in responding to this claim. We may be somewhat weary, but we soldier on in hopes of converting even a single Amazon devotee. We explain that while yes, Amazon will always be a threat to independent businesses, the general public has been realizing how much they enjoy having community spaces and businesses in their neighborhoods. We talk about the the shop local movement and the resurgence of the independent bookstore. We explain how we can offer lots of things that Amazon can’t: personal recommendations, discovery of something unexpected, a space to congregate. No, we will not be able to price match, but we are banking on the people who like what we offer and would rather see money go back into their community than into the pockets of Jeff Bezos. While Amazon is real concern, it is not in fact an obstacle to opening a bookstore in a town that wants a bookstore and does not have one.
This ties in with the people who like to tell you that the book industry is dying. A favorite way of expressing this is coming into a bookstore and saying, “A bookstore! I didn’t think there were any of these left!” as if you’re Marty McFly disappearing out of a photo and they have to warn you. These people, incidentally, never buy anything. We’ll skip this one because it’s much the same explanation: people like to read, people are starting to realize authors, publishers and bookstores need to make money if they’re going to stick around. So there’s not much to say to that other than that it’s an odd thing to say to someone, whatever the industry.
“We continue to struggle with the balance between productivity and sanity. What is healthy and what is necessary?”
Then there are the people people that have lots of advice for you even though they’ve never worked in a store of any kind (very different from advice from colleagues and others in the industry). We’ve put in 10 years of blood (the old elevator at Housing Works Bookstore was one culprit for both of us), sweat (every bookstore ever) and tears (we don’t know you well enough to get into this one). It’s been years of making retail wages and paying NYC rent. Years of explaining to relatives that while yes, you do work retail, there’s a lot more knowledge and skill involved than your grandmother thinks. And years of cleaning toilets, lifting boxes, gingerly taking books out of the mouth of babes while their parents are distracted, and attempting to pacify customers who are pissed off for any number of reasons. And all while still loving the hell out of your job. A part of the difficulty of opening a bookstore in this day and age is the years of work we’ve put in up to this point and how little credit booksellers get. Friends, family, loved ones, strangers all want to give you advice, often because they care, and one can get weary of very gingerly saying No Thank You.
Our major obstacles have been much more concrete and more generalized to any business. Our space is in a historic building from the early 1900s. The walls were slanted, the floors uneven, the wiring dangerous. But we love the location, the space, the big bright display windows and were willing to put in the work. Turns out a good contractor is hard to find! Really, really hard to find. We searched for nearly two months, getting the runaround, having our calls ignored, dealing with people who promised the world and then disappeared. Eventually we managed to find a company that has been truly great—flexible, understanding of our ignorance when it comes to renovation, and willing to work with our we-need-to-open schedule. Finding a contractor is not something anyone worries about for an independent bookstore but for us it was by the far the most difficult aspect.
Decision fatigue is a new issue for both of us. Whether it’s picking out light fixtures or agonizing over book editions, minuscule price differences, quantities, or translations (Michael Hofmann 4 lyfe), the decision-making is infinite. This can mean that deciding what to have for dinner leads to a major meltdown. No one wants to make any more decisions. There is no real cure for decision fatigue; at some point you just start treating each one like a band aid that needs to be ripped off. The final product may not be the perfect, platonic ideal of a bookstore, but that’s probably for the best.
The imaginary tether is another real obstacle. The fear that something may need to get done, so you can’t go anywhere, even though soon you’ll be working seven days a week with no end in sight. We continue to struggle with the balance between productivity and sanity. What is healthy and what is necessary? In April we fled to LA for a few days for a much needed break, but it didn’t help us to keep that balance for very long upon return. We know most business owners struggle with this, and we hope to learn to do it at least somewhat successfully. Occasional time off, some TV, yoga, hiking (Cold Spring is beautiful!), anything to not be completely engulfed by the store.
Our bookstore opens just a few weeks from the time of writing, and truthfully, the vast majority of comments that we’ve gotten are from locals telling us they’re so excited to have a bookstore in town and can’t wait for us to open. We are so lucky to be opening our store in a community of readers, writers and book lovers. And we’ll be so happy to be in a real live bookstore again, that we’ll be thrilled to hear all the advice and commentary that our customers have to offer.