There is a place for great independent bookstores in this era, according to Paz & Associates, and the consulting firm has been proving it the last two years with its Prospective Booksellers Workshops. Held twice a year in the spring and fall in different locations for "geographical diversity," the workshops are aimed at people in other careers who are interested in venturing into the often-intimidating world of bookselling.
"We realized through the program that there was still room for what we were dreaming of—that there's still room for independent booksellers in this day, despite conventional wisdom," said Tom Lowenburg, a workshop graduate, who owns and operates New Orleans's Octavia Books with his wife Judith Lafitte. "You can do it in the face of dot-coms and corporate booksellers. In fact, they've helped define the need for individual booksellers. We came into this knowing where the battle lines were formed and we realized there was a need."
Lowenburg, a former research director for a nonprofit group, and his wife started discussing owning a bookstore years ago. He said the more they talked about it, the more they got excited. They discovered the workshop while doing research on the ABA's Web site.
"The program is very comprehensive. It helped develop a good thought process for setting goals, objectives and strategies," Lowenburg told PW. "There's also great day-to-day practical information. It's a very nice mix."
Octavia, which opened in October, is doing very well, according to Lowenburg. The store had a "great" holiday season and continues to receive support from the community. "People are excited about what we're doing here," said Lowenburg. "Virtually everyone who comes in wants to come back."
So far, the workshop has produced nearly 60 graduates, according to co-owner Donna Paz, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Paz said that some graduates have realized bookselling was not something they wanted to pursue. Given the amount of time and money it takes to start an independent bookstore, Paz views these graduates as success stories too. The goal is to make sure the graduates know the environment, the ins-and-outs of running a bookstore and how to make themselves unique.
"These people know about Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, not like current owners who were in business before all these changes took place," Paz told PW. "They know about the environment and we're here to say, 'Okay, if you're going to do this, how can you be special?'"
Lelia Taylor, who, with her daughter, Annie, opened the specialty bookstore Creatures 'n Crooks Bookshoppe, in Richmond, Va., was tired of the corporate world and, two years ago, talked to her daughter about opening a store. Since neither of the women had experience in retailing they started by joining the ABA and discovered the workshops. They signed up for the debut workshop in July 1999 and opened Creatures in May 2000.
"We decided one of us needed to go to the training, so I went and, quite honestly, it's the best investment we've made," said Taylor. "The little details they cover are stuff you just would never know unless somebody told you. They say, 'This is what's going to happen and this is what you need to do about it,' and they were right."
Taylor pointed to the inventory software programs as an example of critical information learned at the workshop. She said Paz brought in representatives and information from all the different software programs that existed so they could make informed decisions. She also said the workshop's instruction on the usefulness of co-op was enlightening.
"I suppose most bookstores start with people who have worked in bookstores before so they know some of this, but we were starting flat-out cold," Taylor told PW. "Paz helped us make decisions on what we wanted our furnishings to look like, they did our initial inventory and we negotiated our lease from things we learned from the program."
Taylor said Creatures is doing well, in large part, because Paz helped them define success. "I was aware it was difficult for new retail to get moving and not to expect a profit for two years," she said. "However, we got a lot of financial direction from Paz and this program. There are certain ways of looking at finances, like turnover, that aren't normal. Because of that, I can see we're heading in the direction we planned."
Workshop graduates Lisa McKay-Jones and her husband Jonathan have not yet been able to secure funding for the Insomniac Literary Café, which will be an ethnic bookstore carrying mainstream as well as lesser-known titles, in Frisco, Tex., a Dallas suburb. But McKay-Jones, who quit a job in telecommunications in order to open the bookstore, says Paz's program readied them for obstacles in obtaining money, such as bankers' aversions to book business margins. The couple has decided to wait for six months to a year before again addressing the problems of funding. But McKay-Jones is certain Insomniac will open and, with the knowledge obtained from Paz, they'll be ready.
"The program is excellent," said McKay-Jones, whose parents owned a bookstore when she was a child. "I couldn't have gathered the information any other way. We could have asked other booksellers but they would never have been as in-depth as these classes. We learned how to get access to books, buy the books, which books to hold and which to put on the floor and which point-of-sales system we should use."
The major point of the program, Paz told PW, is giving the graduates a core curriculum that is more thorough than anything the chain store owners go through, while encouraging the independent bookstore feel. "When I hear people at chain stores say things like, 'Thank you for shopping at Kmart' or 'Have a Jim Dandy day,' I cringe. Actually scripting responses is stifling. That would never work in independent bookselling because you have free spirits and people who had professional jobs but wanted out of the rat race. These people are in bookselling because they want to be."
The next session of Paz's Prospective Booksellers School will take place at the BEA when Paz and her husband, Mark Kaufman, will facilitate the intensive, three-day version of their seminar. Further information can be found at www.pazbookbiz.com.