"You did what?" is the typical response when we tell our friends that we quit our cushy corporate jobs and bought an independent bookstore in the heart of San Francisco. "Either you are out of your mind or you know something nobody else does," remarked an old friend. A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle quipped "Geez, why didn't they just take their nest egg and corner the market on cassette tapes?" So, what the hell were we thinking?
The story starts about three years ago...
It was a warm summer morning and we were driving west on I-10 in Texas, somewhere between Sonora and El Paso, on our way to San Francisco. We had both just quit our jobs without any clue about what we were going to do next. Armed with our individual copies of Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life? we had taken the plunge into a world full of opportunity for those looking to make an impact. We were excited about all the possibilities, but also had this unspoken fear of being lost without any structure or clarity. Everything was on the table - moving to India, going for a PhD, starting a tech company. Our conversation had turned to the topic weighing heavily on our minds. What were we going to do?
"What's up with all these bookstores closing?" It was the kind of random fleeting topic that comes up in spousal conversation -- the war in Afghanistan, vacation in Hawaii, next... But this topic didn't go away, it kept coming back. As we dug deeper, we found bookstores were dying. Every few days one heard of another famous one closing somewhere. The numbers backed up the newspaper stories. But many independent bookstores seemed to enjoy tremendous love and trust from their customers. We had just witnessed the community bailout of Kepler's in Silicon Valley, and heard stories of people rallying to keep a Borders chain store out of downtown Austin because they loved Book People.
Once back in San Francisco...
We heard that A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books had just announced it was closing. We read comments from readers who were heartbroken by the demise of another great independent bookstore. I remember Christin taking charge of the conversation "Let's do something, maybe we can still help save them. I am going to call them". Ring Ring. An annoyed voice answered after several rings "Why do you want to speak with the owner? Well, we are closing and he is busy." "That's why I am calling, I was hoping I can help him and maybe he doesn't have to close the store." "I don't know if he has time for this, but I will pass along your message." Click.
While we waited for a grateful call back, we buried ourselves in Laura Miller's newly released book on the history of bookselling called The Reluctant Capitalists. Later we would we discover how appropriate the title of her book is.
After several days and no returned call...
We came up with what seemed like the perfect win-win idea -- let's approach some of the bookstores around the bay area and offer to help them for free. We thought we are pretty smart, we had a lot of ideas, and we had the time. And surely they would welcome the help. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had paid good money for our help as management consultants, so we had the credentials. Ring Ring.
After spending a few months chasing bookstore after bookstore...
"This is going nowhere." "What's wrong with these people?" "Why was it easier to get a call back from Steve Ballmer than from the owner of a little bookstore?" It wasn't just that we didn't find any takers for our pro-bono services. There was another mystery emerging from the conversations we had with veteran bookstore owners. Most of them seemed to blame Amazon, the internet, and even their own customers for their problems. Others assigned the blame squarely on the younger generations who were being accused of spending too much time online and on video games. These people seemed oblivious to the lines of teenagers and twenty-somethings at Harry Potter parties and Chuck Palahniuk events.
We could understand that stories of bookstores closing all over the country had helped create the dark clouds of doom and gloom over the remaining bookstores. What we could not understand was why the bookstores were not doing anything to take charge of rethinking their businesses in a rapidly changing industry. Was it just easier to succumb to the pity business? Why were they not re-inventing their bookstores as innovative, thriving, value-adding, technology-embracing, community-building, trendsetting, financially successful enterprises? Why could they not compete successfully against the convenience of Amazon and the sales and distribution efficiencies of the large chains? Why did all independent bookstores have such terrible web sites? Why didn't they have great loyalty programs to reward their customers? What was the deal with the rude, arrogant, and I-couldn't-be-bothered bookstore clerks? And the final dilemma - while there seemed to be so much potential, why weren't the bookstore owners receptive to our help? There was no shortage of ideas! It wasn't just our consulting trained brains firing up idea after idea. Veteran independent bookseller Andy Laties book The Rebel Bookseller convinced us that we weren't crazy.
"Well if we are serious about this, we should just start our own bookstore." "But we don't know a thing about running a bookstore." "How about if we buy an existing bookstore, that way we can lean on the existing staff's knowledge and we'll use the existing store as the foundation to build on." "I don't know. This sounds too crazy."
And finally in June 2007...
We bought the thirty year old Booksmith in San Francisco.
So, why did we do it?
In a nutshell the picture looked like this -- here was a business whose customers loved it, which had not kept up in a rapidly evolving industry, but there seemed to be unlimited opportunity. It seemed too good to pass up! As if that wasn't enough -- there was this resistance to change from within which seemed rather puzzling and irrational. So ultimately the curious, the optimist, the adventurer in us won the argument. What was the option anyway? Continue working the Fortune 500 career ladder? Or go build a technology company to solve a problem that doesn't exist. No thanks! You only live once. We would rather try our hand at something we really believe in and feel passionate about. Something real. Something with a social impact. Something for which the need is already clear.
Join us on our journey to build the independent bookstore of the 21st century and learn everything you ever wanted to know about the crazy business of writing and selling ideas and stories. Tune in next week for - Why reinvent independent bookselling?