Wisdom Gained from the Wise Owl Bookstore

I opened my bookstore on May 15th, 2011.  I will be closing my bookstore wise owlon August 30th, 2013.  I guess I thought by now I’d have some pearls of wisdom, some sage advice to pass on to aspiring booksellers, some insight into the changing face of book sales.  I really don’t know that I do.

I know that bookselling wasn’t my calling.  I love to read, though.  I love to read.  I would be pretty happy just reading, full-time, every day, with a few breaks for coffee and maybe, maybe some social interaction with friends.  Sorry, friends.  But books are the best.  They just are.  And having a failing book business a few weeks from closing its doors forever hasn’t diminished my love of books in the slightest.  If anything, it’s grown it.

Because now I see just how important books are, in a way I couldn’t before.  Even having worked for the big-boxers, even having obtained my bachelor’s in English Lit, even having read and read and read every day since I was young enough to point at the cat on the page and say “Meow.”  Even with all these things, I didn’t really understand what was so gosh-darn amazing about books.
I think I do now.  I hope I do, because I’d like to think I’ve gained something out of all this.  Grown in knowledge and experience, and all that.

Books are a commodity, and commodifying something is always fraught.  I don’t pretend to know the first thing about the business of money, though my eleventh-grade economics teacher would probably be disappointed to hear it.  I remember TINSTAAFL, Mr. Wiacek!  But I’m not a business-minded individual, and you would be right in thinking that’s a bad place to start from when you’re trying to operate your own small business.  So, I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going be holding my own on the merchandising/advertising/business-izing side of things.  And having to treat the books I loved and adored as merchandise was…difficult.  I would take it personally when someone didn’t like or wouldn’t take a recommendation.  I struggled with stocking things that I didn’t, personally, care for.  Terrible way to run a business.  I know it, you know it, and the book-buying populace of my town knows it now, too.  I didn’t stock 50 Shades initially because I didn’t think it was very good.  I had someone yesterday ask me if I had a copy in-stock.  People still want it.  I mean, talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

So there you go.  I admit my failing, and I admit that that pipe dream of stocking exactly what I liked in hopes that it would attract the “right kind” of customer – as opposed to stocking based on what the customers wanted – exploded pretty spectacularly in my face.  But it wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t all a loss. I had some truly wonderful regulars, like the guy who devoured fantasy books like they were going out of style and was in at least twice a month, sometimes more, to purchase entire series in one go.  Or like the mother and daughter who came in once a month and bought roughly $100 in books every time, stocking up on new, beautiful hardcover children’s books and bestselling paperbacks.  These people felt like friends, because they cherished books the way I did.

Money’s no object when you’re on the hunt for a good book.  Maybe you’re only buying one little paperback, but you’re really buying a vacation, or a day-in-the-life, or an entire era, or a window into someone’s mind, or a love affair, or a journey to another world.  You’re buying experience, and knowledge, and maybe sometimes an escape, yeah, but not the kind of flighty, wishy-washy, take-me-away-from-it-all kind of escape, no.  The kind of an escape that breaks you out of prison.  If you’re trapped, books can free you.  There’s no simpler way to put it.

So I don’t really have words of wisdom about the book industry, except that I think books will be around for a long time, and will become even more of a commodity, but in a possibly nicer way.  I think folks will seek out beautiful editions with custom illustrations and lovely bindings; they’ll seek out the collectibles, both old and new, and leave the more discard-able books to the e-readers.   But that’s just an opinion, and it certainly could change.  The best thing I got from owning my own store was a renewed and reinvigorated love of literature, of the books and stories I grew up with, and an insatiable hunger for more of the same.  I’ll be returning to school in the Fall for my Masters in English, and it feels a bit like I’ve come full circle.  I’ll leave the book-selling to the professionals— I was only a dabbler, really.  And I’ll just keep doing what I do best: reading those books.  In that, at least, I am a professional.

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