Three years ago I was a general-assignment newspaper reporter, which means that, like all reporters saddled with covering local politics and planning board meetings, I fantasized about duct-taping myself to a rocket to Mars.
The alternatives were equally unpalatable — suck it up, get a job in PR, or write a novel. I decided to go into business for myself and opened a bookshop with my wife.
Strangelove’s, at 150 Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown, was intended to be my affair, but it soon became my wife’s burden, day-to-day.
Like many people new to business, I started the shop with more dreams than money and more hope than common sense.
If I’m anything, I’m an idealist. I was born and raised in Trenton wanting to be everything when I grew up. I’m not sure where my buffet-table view of life came from, exactly. Both my parents were janitors. Dad worked for St. Anthony’s Parish; mom started as a crossing guard and moved to custodial work at St. Francis Hospital and finally the Hamilton Township School District.
I was the first on the family to go to college. I earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Mercer County Community College and a bachelor’s in humanities from Thomas Edison State College.
I went to work as a reporter for the Princeton Packet, where I eventually I started covering Bordentown. There I met Arlene Bice, who ran Buy the Book at 150 Farnsworth Avenue for 20-odd years. She wanted to sell the business and move to North Carolina. My wife and I purchased Bice’s inventory for a mouthwatering $4,000. Another $100 in paint and $2,000 of extra cash got us rolling in an enterprise I was certain would rescue me from the routine of winter budget meetings and contentious local elections.
Connie and I launched Strangelove’s with the intention of rewriting the word “cool.” The shop was a bath of primary colors and pulp magazine covers featuring apes carrying bikini-clad women. It also was a gallery, housing my enormously talented wife’s sculptures and paintings. And we named it Strangelove’s after my favorite movie (not the Depeche Mode song and not the TV show with Flavor-Flav).
Almost immediately we learned some powerful lessons about going into the retail business — you’re not allowed to have a bad day, you don’t get three-day weekends, and there is a big difference between hanging out at a cool bookshop and owning one. We lasted 51 weeks.
But I’ve always believed that you can learn as much from failures as you can from successes. And with the holiday shopping season kicking off this week, it might be nice to explain what you should be aware of if you ever decide to hang your shingle in retail.
What a cute little shop . . . . People envy bookshop owners. It seems like a wonderful little life to retire too. But there is work aplenty to tend to. Running a small shop means having to constantly realign your inventory. It means having to always be aware of what is on your shelves, where everything is, how many copies you have of something, where you can get it if you’re out. And if you’re specializing in pulp sci-fi books, you absolutely need to know the authors, rank structures, and interplanetary alliance organizations of every book in the space opera ouevre.
Owning a shop with set hours is also quite a bit like being a parent, or at least a conscientious pet owner. You don’t get holidays off because that’s when the world goes shopping. You don’t get dinner at 6 because you have to be there when the dinner crowd finishes up and needs something to do. Before you start a little book shop, or a yarn store, or anything else that doesn’t look like work, understand that it’s more work than you do at your day job and you don’t get to complain about the boss.
You know what you need . . . . When you have a strong idea and an unapologetic approach to doing business your way, you will get plenty of answers to a question no one asked. And most advice — you should have a coffee pot; you need more chairs — comes from the customers you didn’t set out to target in the first place.
Strangelove’s closed because my wife and I didn’t love it, not because we had a bad idea. And, to be fair, we did get a handful of the type of customers we set out to reach — namely anyone who can identify the terms Feral House, Doc Savage, Tom Verlaine, and Kriminal without googling.
But the majority of customers who walked in were moms with baby carriages (they showed up in the morning to buy children’s books), bargain hunters who said our bargain basement prices were too high, high school kids who admired the yellow walls and my wife’s sardonic art but never bought a thing, and political leftists who assumed we were on the same page about everything simply because we nodded and smiled a lot.
These people would gleefully tell us how much they loved our shop and how desperately we need to change it.
We didn’t, and eventually we enjoyed the twin benefits of decreasing advice and the steady drop-off in people we didn’t care to listen to. If you hang on long enough, the customers you want will come around. Just know that it takes a lot of sifting to get there.
Mind if I sit down? When you have a “hang-out” store some people want to turn it into a social club. My wife got the brunt of this, sitting inside all day while I was busy being at my day job. There were about 10 or 12 people who would make it a habit of coming in to talk, usually for about two hours.
Had I to do the shop over again, I would only open between 5 p.m. and midnight. Like the crowd at a day baseball game, most people with two hours to spare on a Tuesday afternoon don’t work. Hence, they have all the spare time and none of the spare change you need to bring in needed cash. Be aware, then, that if you have a polite, pretty woman sitting at your counter all day, you will get a lot of company for her, but not much business.
The cackling hens. Neither my wife nor I have any interest in politics, domestic, foreign, local, or fictional. Politically oriented people, on whatever side of the fence, cannot accept this, and the presence of a small shop carrying a decent selection of Noam Chomsky books seems to spur them into political rants. From the war in Iraq to the regional school board elections, everyone, it sometimes seemed, wanted to turn my bright and cheery shop into a hotbed of political fervor. It might have been the Howard Zinn collection or it might have been the fact that the adjacent building was once the home of Thomas Paine.
Whatever incited the rabble to rouse, it got old fast. My advice: Don’t get involved in politics (particularly local-level politics) when you run a shop. You will end up losing customers you once liked and attracting people who are less interested in your enterprise than in vociferously convincing you they have the solution to all of life’s woes.
Plague wanted, solicitors not. We hung a sign stating exactly this on our front door before the end of our third day. The absence of that sign, it seemed, was an open invitation for every salesperson in the Delaware Valley to come in and peddle wares we had no interest in or no use for. We didn’t at first realize the necessity of signs and were soon stunned at the number of rules we had to set up to simply keep from being consistently annoyed.
“Plague wanted, solicitors not” soon was followed by “No Smoking,” “No Cash for Books,” and several other signs that I hated having to put up. But as many merchants will tell you, unless people are told what they can’t do, they will assume anything goes. We soon spent more time stressing about idiots than we did actually enjoying the fact that we owned the kind of place we always wanted to hang out in.
All you need is love. From what I can gather, there really are only two things you need to succeed in business: money and love. That includes a love of people — and by now it should be painfully evident that I’m not a people person. Or, perhaps better stated, I don’t react well to idiots, hucksters, and loudmouths — all of which seemed to frequent my shop. Either way, unless your shop is part of a Monty Python skit, it might be wise to reconsider your business plans if you are prone to telling people where their opinions might best be stored.
The need for money is a given — in fact, it’s No. 22 on the list of “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” Without money, a great idea means nothing. But given that you have the money to sustain your business, you need to love what you do.
You need to be able to wake up every day and want to go to work. You need to be able to stand alone in the middle of your shop and say, “Wow! This is my shop!” And you need to be able to do that on Day 1, Day 78, and Day 360. On our 360th day, we closed out the register and packed up our inventory for good.