"Life changes and people change—they redefine what success means to them,” observed bookstore consultant Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz & Associates. Since 1999, Paz Kaufman and her husband and business partner, Mark Kaufman, have organized training sessions for more than 550 new and prospective booksellers, a number of whom either transitioned out of highly lucrative careers or intend to do so. While their professional backgrounds vary, these booksellers have one thing in common: the skill sets they acquired in their previous careers have given them a running start as booksellers.
Jennifer Morrow first attended the Paz bookselling school in 2012 and then again in 2016, before opening Bards Alley in Vienna, Va., on July 15. The 1,300 sq. ft. store features a café and wine bar, as well as an outside patio. Morrow, who was previously a risk management consultant for the federal government, said that she decided to move into bookselling because her previous career was “a high-stress, 24/7 job.” She quit, first, to start a family, and then to become a bookseller. Although acknowledging that bookselling is not as profitable as government consulting, Morrow noted that there is a “trade-off between salary and benefits and investing in myself and my community.”
The skills she acquired as a risk management consultant have benefited her as a bookseller. “People skills come into play as much as business skills,” she said. “I have a lot of experience in finding the right people to build a team, and empowering [them]—delegating to achieve a common goal.”
The people skills that Bob Dobrow picked up during his tenure as a mathematics professor at Carleton College also helped him in his new career as a bookseller. Dobrow and his wife, Angel, opened Zenith Books on July 1 in Duluth, Minn. The shop is in a historic building with 1,500 sq. ft. of retail space and 20,000 titles, a mix of new and used books. “A professor has to take charge and manage a class, organize TAs, and juggle a lot of things at the same time,” Bob said. “When I’m in the store, [such] skills help a lot.” Angel, who was previously an accountant, “is in charge of accounting, the books, payroll,” Bob noted. “Everything that gives me a headache.” She set up the back office procedures for Zenith Books, which has two employees and will soon hire a third.
After 23 years as a lawyer specializing in international law, Lori Feathers took down her shingle in March to become a bookseller. She and her business partner, veteran bookseller Jeremy Ellis, opened Interabang Books in Dallas on July 1. “It was a gradual process,” Feathers explained, noting that she was a volunteer manuscripts reader at Deep Vellum Publishing for four years before branching out into doing translations and book reviewing. After being sidelined from work because of an accident two years ago, Feathers partnered with Ellis to remedy what she identified as Dallas’s lack of a good indie bookstore.
“It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have much time to be a lawyer anymore if I wanted to be a bookseller,” she recalled. “I worked hard to be a lawyer, but my real passion in life has been books.” Becoming a bookseller, she added, was just a matter of waiting until she was financially secure enough to make the career switch without it having too much of an impact on her lifestyle. Now ensconced at the store, Feathers said, “I love communicating my love of books to people face-to-face, instead of at a remove, like in reviewing.”
Noëlle Santos, who works in human resources and payroll for a corporation near Wall Street in New York City, is on the verge of signing a lease for The Lit. Bar, which will be the Bronx’s only bookstore when it opens later this year. “The day I sign my lease, I’m putting in my two weeks’ notice,” Santos said, disclosing that she loved her current job but “was called” to open an indie bookstore. Previously an accountant, Santos said that accounting, human resources, and payroll are all “so integral” to bookselling. “I have the skill sets to manage my most valuable assets: my people and my payroll,” she explained. “Other booksellers have told me, ‘I wish I were business-savvy. I could have learned the bookselling later.’ ”
Unlike the four entrepreneurs above, all of them intent upon leaning in all the way, two others are taking a more cautious approach: holding down two jobs, for the time being.
St. Paul, Minn., resident Zsamé Morgan, who has worked in the financial field for the past 17 years, is rolling out her mobile bookstore, Babycake’s Book Stack. Initially, Morgan was planning to open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, but decided that a mobile bookstore worked better with her business model of specializing in multicultural children’s books published in different languages. “I can curate carefully wherever I go,” she said. She is currently operating the bookstore on evenings and weekends, and plans on expanding its hours of operation and paring down hours at the bank where she works. Morgan’s plan is to operate the mobile bookstore full-time by spring 2018.
Stephanie Gordon, a surgeon, is taking an even longer view when it comes to transitioning from medicine into bookselling. Gordon, who intends to open Story on the Square in McDonough, Ga., in October, will continue to practice medicine until the youngest of her three children enters college in seven years, because, she said, “it’s the gravy train that funds the bookstore,” which is going to be housed in an 8,000 sq. ft. space inside an early-1900s brick building. The store will include a beer and wine bar called Rough Draft and an events area for both in-store programming and private event rentals. The store’s full-time manager, a former advanced placement exams teacher, will hire and train employees.
“I have the vision for the store,” Gordon said, “but I’m going to let other people execute it. It’s going to be hard, though, not to be there [full-time]. After all, this is my baby: even though I love my day job, I know where I’ll want to be.”