So you think it would be fun to open a book store or any little business of your own for that matter? Well, think again. It’s like wanting to own your own home—but you never really own it; Mother Nature does. And what with her termites that can eat your investment in record time or subsidence that will crack your foundation or the flood that was never supposed to happen, you can never fully depend upon that house to be truly loyal to you. A business of your own is the same. It too is subject to the whims of nature, the economy, gentrification, rent hikes.
For 10 years, we had stable rent; but at one point, a streets project ironically named Pathways to Progress just about shut us down with the deconstruction of the Quarter’s walk and roadways. And what about the scaffolding in front of our shop during a renovation or a couple of hurricane evacuations that set everyone back? Then there was the BP oil spill—not great for tourism. And the list goes on. Yet throughout the rough times, we had good rent and that kept us in business … until we didn’t. Even the best of landlords will fall for the pipe dreams of larger rents that real estate managers put forth. A 115 percent rent increase was set. We left our Quarter digs and the space remained pretty much empty for a year. Our former landlord lost revenue and we nearly lost a business we had grown for 10 years.
New location, fresh start, and enough debt to worry over for the next couple of decades. You still want your own business? Freedom from the grind of working for the man and punching a clock? We work seven days a week with 84 hours of work-related stuff. No boss per se, but I do wake up staring at the ceiling wondering how to pay the rent and, if we fail, how to pay the lease off.
We have tried to reinvent our cookbook shop, thinking out of the box, brainstorming, being creative. I now spend hours every day with my imaginary cyber-friends in the hope that they will lead me to business. I Twit, Twat and Twitter my fingers and eyeballs. I hashtag inane words and phrases. I stalk people on Facebook looking to network with other businesses. I chase down bike tours with business cards and offers of clean restrooms and bike racks. I even Tweeted “Hand job and a free beer” (many “follows” on that one). I have learned the best ways to attract Facebook likes and shares—anything with a kitten photo. You can post “My hair is on fire” and if you show a cute kitten, you’ll garner little hearts, smiley faces and likes. Post a goofy puppy, throw in a kitten, add some adorable kids, and a mushroom cloud in the backdrop, and everyone will love it—it can go viral, even. However, you might not get any retail sales from any of it.
Book signings with plenty of booze are supposed to help business. Two hours later, you have a lot of empty bottles, some water rings on that circa 1890 cookbook, and you spent half the time “babysitting” someone’s adorable child who wanted dearly to sit on an antique chair tagged FRAGILE $400.00. Great kid, obtuse parent. Sure, there are those loyal customers and friends that will buy any book you throw a party for out of solidarity. But I just want to scream when someone with money, means and (otherwise) good manners chooses to read the damn book, sip wine, then leave empty-handed. Still and all, my best advice to any book store would be: throw as many book-signing parties as possible. They are exhausting to host, but the goodwill you garner from folks will help, and there is great pleasure in helping an author—they gotta make a living too.
We spent 10 years in the Quarter cultivating a name for ourselves among visitors. We are better known in Australia than in Uptown New Orleans. We’ve always welcomed locals; however, the Quarter is not “local-friendly.” I gave up trying to lure locals living outside the Quarter due to parking or lack thereof. Why would anyone want to pay $10 to $50 to park or risk being booted and/or towed? So we left the Toulouse Street location and became the new kid in town. Across town. Locals are fabulous—ya just have to get ‘em in. We now have free parking to offer—yes Joni, I’m sorry, they did pave paradise to put up a parking lot … and we have two of them!
Still, even with social media, guerrilla marketing (hand painted yard signs, flyers, joining neighborhood associations, grabbing every radio/ podcast interview possible) free gift certificates, free booze, chef pop-ups (the best idea so far), chalk writing Kitchen Witch This Way on sidewalks—it’s never enough to pay the bills. Add all these efforts to our 5-star YELP rating, features in major food magazines/newspapers, and the kindness of many—and we still tread water.
You might think, “But it’s just a book store, I could run it on a shoestring.” Think again. Just to be able to sign a lease, you must have insurance, and to buy insurance, you must have an alarm/security system. Add computer/internet, phone, credit card processor/fees, banking fees, Entergy ($660.00 last winter—we hand out sweaters now), clunker car, AAA, insurance, printing, bags, business cards/brochures. Inventory: major expense; But rent comes first … oh, and those bank loans and credit debt.
Bottom line: you will be owned by your business. And in our case, it is one that we love dearly. Wish us luck!