Do you dream of having your own shop? Do you have visions of customers oohing and aahing over your latest creations while sipping a cup of tea or free-trade coffee? There are several options for showcasing your product-based business, from a rented committed storefront, to fairs and festivals, to a booth in a co-op or antique mall.
As a bookshop owner who has pivoted through a few of these business models, let me share some pros and cons and lessons learned along the way.
Your Own Store
Location, Location … and Neighbors
My small town offered low-rent spaces, but not enough traffic to sustain a profitable bookshop. Meanwhile, two similar shops in the next county thrived – in a larger city with six colleges. Strike a balance between monthly costs (including commute time) and an optimum customer base.
Don’t forget to check out your neighbors. My shopping center was anchored by an established music store and restaurant, and we all sent customers to each other. But when a construction company moved into the space next door, loitering heavy smokers forced me to shut down a sidewalk bistro area.
Hack Your Lease
Give yourself and your business as much flexibility as possible. Most landlords won’t settle for less than a twelve-month commitment, but I added a clause that gave me a month-to-month lease after that first year.
Don’t Go Into Debt
There are so many reasons to stay out of debt. What if you get sick? Or your spouse gets a dream job in another state? Or a recession hits, or tall-dark-and-handsome invites you to move to Tuscany, or … you get the idea. When I hear brand new biz babies describe their future shop as “upscale” or “high end” as they fill out a big loan application at the bank, I shake my head. I want to say, “Honey, you can grow up to be upscale if you want, but start small.” I basically took a loan from my savings account, and I’m so glad I did (it didn’t get paid back). Yes, I renovated. I put in a nice carpet, but used counters and DIY painting and shelves. I loved having my own shop. Being free to walk away any time helped me love it more.
Inventory: Have Enough and Know What You Have
I opened my shop in an 800 square-foot space with hundreds of books – and boy, did that look puny. They only filled shelves against the walls, leaving wide-open space in the middle. I’d never heard that typical bookshops have tens of thousands of books! The shop grew quickly over the next two years, including a children’s corner and more and more shelves.
At first, I didn’t label every item with a number, although I recorded sales in an inventory software. Now that I have thousands of items, it helps to have as many as possible in the computer. Not only does it help when it comes to tax time, but when somebody asks for an item I can look up whether I have it and where to find it.
Infrastructure: Two of Everything
You know about rent. You’ve estimated shelves, counters, utilities and even WiFi bills in your basic business plan. Are you prepared to duplicate all the infrastructure of your home business into another space? I kept my printer at the shop (and missed it at home). I lugged my laptop back and forth everyday. For a while I even cancelled internet at home, because two bills were too much. (My neighbor let me use hers to check emails, but it meant giving up Netflix.) Did you know you need another insurance policy for your shop, even if you rent?
That said, you can save money by keeping some things simple and by shopping around. I used a calculator and order pad instead of an expensive register system. I had free credit-card processing through my laptop, although a ton of people walked through the door trying to sell me expensive merchant plans. These options depend on how much volume you do, but it’s okay to start small.
The biggest disadvantage to having a shop, especially if you’re working solo, is that you have to be there. Every. Day. I had a small part-time job that I loved so I closed the shop one day a week. When I went on a trip, I had to hire somebody (that’s a whole ’nother topic). The bright side is: you have to be there. If you have a problem with discipline or distractions at home, the shop hours provide dedicated time to work. Some people thrive on routine and like to get out of the house. And even though you have to be there, your kids can hang out after school or a friend can come by for an extended lunch – because you’re the boss.
A Place to ‘Do’ Business
Having a physical address gives you credibility. Not only do your family and friends finally listen when you say “I have to work”, but banks and wholesalers treat you as legit. It’s a safer place to meet clients than your home. As a matter of fact, it’s more convenient for them to drop by during open hours than to set an appointment. Having a shop is great for in-person marketing events, like book signings or tastings. And when you go home, you’re home.
A Partnership or Small Co-op
My bookshop bootstrapped along for a couple of years, then I partnered with another bookseller who gave the place new life. We’d met online, and had only seen each other a couple of times in person. We wrote up a simple contract committing to six months.
First off, joining forces doubled the inventory, so customers had a better selection to browse. We used different price stickers, so items were arranged by category, easy for customers to find. We split the bills (woot!). The best thing, to me, was that neither of us had to be there everyday! She was able to teach as an adjunct professor on the days I worked, and I was able to scout estate sales and keep my one-day library job when she was there.
Although we decided to close the open shop after that six-month trial, it was a great experiment and we continue to encourage each other. She already had a successful online business and decided to concentrate on that, while I explored other business models with lower overhead and time commitment.
With booths at local street festivals and events, I’ve found that success depends on how your niche matches what attendees want. People who come to my town’s street festival are pretty focused on deep-fried food and children’s rides. Some of the vendors who bring unique, handmade items do well, but if there’s even the perception that people can get your products later at the local big-box, they’ll use their dollars elsewhere. With my history niche, I do much better at our museum’s living history day. Creative biz-mavens might do well at Art in the Park events.
Even if people aren’t set to buy, pop-up shops are good for getting your name and brand out to the community. Remember to take a sign-up sheet for your email list and bring plenty of business cards or brochures.
It’s not just the cost of renting booth space; moving and setting up a shop – twice – in one or two days is freakin’ hard work. Most festivals don’t cancel for weather. Make sure it’s worth your time and manual labor, as well as any fees.
Craft Co-op or Antique Mall
Antique malls and craft co-ops are a great way to ease into a retail space. Rent is lower, utilities are included, and the contract commitment may be a few months instead of a year. Some will give you a discount on rent for working shifts at the counter.
You Don’t Have to Be There
The coolest thing about the mall (co-op) is you don’t have to be there! If you’re sick or the weather’s nasty or you need to help a family member, you don’t have to go. When I was a new biz baby, I would balk at paying a commission on top of rent. Now that I have the perspective of a former shop owner who worked almost full-time for less than minimum wage, I realize that the ten-percent commission pays for a full-time employee! That’s the power of a co-op: splitting costs with other vendors.
Fluff Your Booth
Visit your booth at least once a week to straighten shelves and bring new things (or rearrange) for regular browsers.
Location and Neighbors, Again
A new craft co-op opened down the street, which would be perfect for makers. The antique mall suits my field, with vintage books and local history next to vintage dolls, furniture and clothing. There’s also a general store that brings people in for homemade ice cream and small toys.
Management Makes a Difference
Does this place advertise? Are they easy to work with? Ask fellow vendors about their experience. The co-op owner/manager makes all the difference. Mine works hard and is good at traditional advertising, like newspapers, which fits the vintage market. Since I’m better at social media and email, our efforts complement each other. Just remember, you are still in charge of marketing your business.
Another Place to Do Business
While some co-ops might not have room for author signings, having a physical space is still great for hosting special events (launches!) and meeting clients. Last year, a TV reporter called to do a story on used bookshops. I was able to meet her the next day and got videoed in front of my shelves of vintage books! That wouldn’t have happened if I only worked out of my home.
Keep in mind that if you meet a client at the shop, any sales need to go through the counter and get a commission. That’s why I meet some of my regular customers at the library or a coffee shop.
Final thoughts and strategies
I loved having my own shop. Being surrounded by things I like and work I enjoy was a dream come true. I’m grateful for the experience and the contacts I made. I’m also grateful not to be trapped by it; having the flexibility to pivot my business so it can work for me instead of the other way around.
I currently have a hybrid business: a physical booth in an antique mall and online venues. The two have different clientele: more local and vintage items for the shop, more antique and specialized items online. The physical shop and online store balance each other out through seasonal ups and downs: the shop does better during summer and holidays, while shipping from home picks up during cold and nasty weather. Still, I look at profits from the past year so I can “tweak and repeat”. You’ll have to decide what works best for your business.
Here are some of the best moves to make when opening your own shop:
- Build in flexibility. You can be optimistic and still have a contingency exit plan.
- Don’t go into debt. It’s okay to start small.
- Let the physical space and your online channels feed each other. Have an email sign-up sheet on the counter. Use that email list to bring people back to the store.
Do you have any other suggestions? Are you ready to open your shop? Comment below and let us know!