Five years and we ain’t bounced a check…yet!” That’s our shop’s motto, and frankly in this economy it does mean something.
We opened our cook book shop three months after Katrina. Since the flood didn’t kill us or deplete our resources we figured we might as well experience something equally frightening. Actually the “we” began with “he”; Boyfriend had this cockamamie idea that we take our relationship to the next level—and form an L.L.C.
Boyfriend wanted to give his dream of retirement as owner and curator of a small but perfect shop devoted to culinary books a chance, actually a second chance. He had valiantly attempted success at this venture back in ’99 but it failed after four years of enduring a bad landlord, bad location and one rather small problem--it was almost never open. His retirement had him working 45 to 80 hours a week as a chef to support his shop.
So as the city was drying out he started scouting for a location. One of the many post Katrina shops not to reopen was on Toulouse Street. He took me there to see it and we found the most important component for starting a business—a good landlord. She offered us something rather rare for New Orleans. Rent control. And along with a five year secured more-than-fair-price she gave us the option to break our lease amicably if the city didn’t come back.
So together with the world’s tiniest bank loan and Boyfriend’s five thousand cookbooks that had been placed on sabbatical at home (one of the lucky homes that was high and dry) we began the process of opening a business. Combined we held about as much business savvy as a monkey but nevertheless we were the second folks to apply for and receive a business license after Katrina.
What we lacked in professional skills we quickly made up for with street smarts, gerry rigging, and guerrilla marketing. Previously the shop had been a record store and we inherited all the handmade wooden bins. We just happened to have several thousand albums to sell as a backdrop to the books and the remainder of the racks were dismantled and reconstructed as bookshelves. My friend, Anne donated her old computer and artist friends filled the newly painted walls with consignment art. Here I must thank a generous handful of old friends outside of New Orleans who donated some cold hard cash.
The Friday evening after Thanksgiving we opened the doors and christened the shop with friends and wine. Back then the streets were empty of tourists more days than not. But word of mouth spread to locals who were desperate to replace things, like cookbooks, that were lost to the storm. Large groups of volunteers flocked to this region (and continue to do so in record numbers). Many of the ranks were filled with students and church groups—traditionally not your target customer. Yet these folks knew that spiking our local economy was crucial to our recovery. Many an evening, young volunteers would spend their only time off from gutting houses to rummage through our vinyl selection and regional cookbooks. They spent their money and thanked us for being here.
We learned quickly to jump in front of any camera and make ourselves accessible to all interviews by the media. Paying for an advertisement was as much out of the question then as it is now. Our brochures and business cards find their way into every hand I shake. They mysteriously appear wedged into local magazines stacked in bars and coffee shops. Guerrilla marketing—that’s us.
That first year we were open seven days a week. It was overwhelming what with our rent-paying jobs and our attempts to maintain relationships with our critters, friends and bartenders. So we made adjustments: brought our dogs to work and enlisted Bob the cat as our greeter (the other cats stayed home and tended to our apartments). Friends began to gather at the shop for bring-your-own-wine nights (of course we still had to visit our bartenders on the walk home). A coffeepot was there for breakfast and a microwave for lunch. It was our other home; but sometimes, you need to run away from home.
I can’t speak for Boyfriend, but my capacity for stress is tenuous at best, and back then I was not alone—the entire city appeared to be medicated thanks to Katrina. So if mother’s little helper could take some of the edge off for the seriously wounded it might help an overworked shop owner. And it did, but a long-term solution it was not. So we chiseled down our hours of operation somewhat; combined households and moved out of the Quarter to quieter neighborhood. The Quarter is amazing but you can’t eat, sleep and work every minute there.
My sister once referred to the shop as a hobby. I was dumbfounded. Hell I was pissed. It might appear that we run a non-profit, it might look like lots of fun. But I swear to god this ain’t a hobby, despite the fact that we will have to pay a Hobby Tax if we can’t show some sort of profit.
A hobby doesn’t keep you awake at night. Owning a business is serious business. And just because you rent doesn’t mean you are free of ownership obligations. Interior issues, like a broken air conditioner, are ours to deal with or do without. Insurance, the alarm, pest control, electric, phone and Internet bills, taxes to pay every month...the list never ends.
There are those days when we wanna throw in the towel and curl up into fetal positions. And then like magic, in walks that customer from last year that claims we, the shop, the dogs, the cat, the restaurant suggestions we made, and the time spent chatting were the highlight of last year’s trip--and she just couldn’t wait to come se us again. Add to this, she shops like there’s no tomorrow, writes us up on her food blog, does something friendly with us on FaceBook and thanks us for letting her spend money.
The other evening at closing time while re-shelving some books, I looked about the shop and saw loyalty and friendship everywhere. Over the last five years Christmas cards, thank you notes, post cards, photos of customers or their dogs, and drawings by their kids, all decorate various walls and nooks. There are the saved emails and letters—some addressed to our dogs and Bob the cat. Friendships that began with the purchase of a cookbook. Maybe this is how you measure success.