I took the bookstore down to Libby and then up to the Yaak recently. Mostly visiting friends but it was also nice to introduce it to some new people. And there are times when I feel although it might seem rather odd, that its not just about taking books to people but giving the bookstore some adventures of its own. Like that moment in the photo along side Lake Koocanusa. I really didn’t need to be in that particular spot but it just seemed a beautiful moment with the late afternoon sun and the fall colors. I pulled over and took one of those panoramic shots that Rob had shown me about. But mostly I wanted the bookstore to be in that setting. Like wanting it to be on the coast one of these days or drive it across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Or setting it up in a playground with kids all around. Or pulling into a snowy field. Thinking about the bookstore in this way does give pause. It doesn’t really feel like an entrepreneurial perspective. Perhaps because most businesses aren’t mobile. You could think of a brick-and-mortar store in different types of weather but not in different locations. But a traveling bookstore…well, the possibilities are nearly limitless and I enjoy imagining all the places that this bookstore can travel to and all the adventures it might have. Another thought that came to me on this recent trip was about the redistribution of books. A week ago I came home one day to find a couple boxes of books on my front steps. This is not unusual. When I got around to sorting them, I discovered one box was full of books on spiritual topics. I put some in the bookstore and stored the rest. On this trip while in the Yaak, a man asked if I happened to have any books on Zen Buddhism. Sure enough, there were two from the ones I had just found in the box on my steps. This part doesn’t feel like a business – at least not a retail business. It feels more like a delivery service. I get the books which then need to be delivered to the individuals waiting to read them. I guess that’s my job.
I am still learning. I guess it is not a surprise. Getting a MBA takes some years so learning on this job is probably similar. I told Petr, a friend who was helping at the bookstore last weekend, that if there was time, I would certainly take detailed notes between customers to record all the conversations and experiences. So many interesting people. So many intriguing remarks. One might think people would talk to me about books. But they tend to talk about their lives and travel and their community and their dreams. Perhaps that makes sense. After all isn’t that what books are really all about anyway? Last weekend we had the bookstore and a Czech friend’s handmade jewelry set up at the Down from the Mountain Festival just north of Eureka. There was the man who stopped and told us what he had put in a suitcase in case the forest fire reached his house. I smiled when he said he had packed a book (he bought “Undaunted Courage”). And then the tall guy with the Matis tattoo told about the months he spent in India and then bought a Dervla Murphy book. A woman made an extra trip to her car to get money to buy four books including “Walden”. One man while talking with Petr said although he doesn’t read that he would give the cost of a book because he liked the conversation so much. And I realized another advantages of a traveling bookstore. People don’t have to come into a building. There we are sitting or standing next to the van willing to strike up a conversation with whoever happens by. Obviously I am still trying to get a handle on this business paradigm.
I took the first tentative steps into the traveling bookstore business. I have the van and the shelves, a garage full of inventory, a name and business cards. Even a Facebook page. I’ve become an expected feature at the weekly Eureka Farmers Market. I was an unusual attraction at a couple music festivals. I set up the bookstore up at a brew pub and a marina. A few people called me looking for books and I met them along the road to slide open the door to the bookstore. I got my first fan mail from a woman in Florida who was enchanted with the idea of a traveling bookstore and offered to mail me books. I have been invited to bring the bookstore to New York, Washington, Portland, North Carolina and Texas. And I have passed from the early glow of starting the business to a momentary hesitation. It reminds me of coming upon a river in the forest with a fallen log across it. You put a foot on the log to see if it’s stable and then start across the river focusing on your balance. But then at some point, maybe when you look down and see the water rushing below, there’s a hesitation. Is this safe? Is this really what I should be doing? But at that point it would be just as foolish to turn around to go back as it would to continue across. I am by no means half way into the traveling bookstore business. I am still a novice. Maybe this is the point where I am testing the log with my foot. Maybe this is the point where I actually start to cross the river.
Going into the second month of the traveling bookstore business and I still feel that I am continually and delightfully amazed and perplexed by the way things unfold. People give me books to sell. I had thought that there would be initial donations as friends helped to get me started in this business. But now strangers who visit the bookstore might ask, “So where do you get your books?” and I explain that they have been donated and before you know it, this person I never met before is taking my address to drop off books. Or when I was at the HA Brewery, a woman who saw on Facebook that I was going to set up there, came with a box of books in her car to give me. And there are the people who seem to so thoroughly enjoy visiting the bookstore. Sometimes I am asked, “What sorts of people buy your books?” and well, really all kinds. The traveling bookstore seems to be a big hit with little kids but there are the older kids and the adults and those older ones as well. Last week at the Eureka farmers market, a young couple stopped by. It felt to me that they were having a date as she found a book she wanted (by Janet Evanovich), and the young man offered to buy it for her. All these things that happen and even more that I don’t have time today to write about, but encounters and overheard conversations and questions and remarks that come out of people walking into a van that is really a bookstore. Recently one of the remarks and then the conversation that resulted was about authenticity. I am still not entirely sure what it means in this context. I know the person who said it to me meant it as a compliment. And I know that the bookstore is there (wherever there happens to be on a given day) to give whomever walks by a chance to buy books. I am not doing a hard sell. I am trying not to over charge (Anne convinced me to lower my price on kids books). I want to pay the bills and offer the best books that I can cull from the piles in my garage. I want people to appreciate the book that they buy. But perhaps authenticity stretches beyond that. It is still early – my 39th day in business. I still might figure it out.
Various events are falling into place. The Traveling Bookstore will actually start to travel beyond the town limits. Hope to meet up with you at one of these festivals. Isn’t it satisfying to think of great books being available to purchase at all these places? And don’t forget that we also have a remarkable collection of postcards from all over the world for sale.
Most every Wednesday at Eureka Farmers Market 3:30 – 6pm
July 18 – Yaak River Jam Music Festival
July 25 – Symes Hot Spring Blues Festival
July 27 – Grand Opening Celebration Eureka
August 1 – Eureka Montana Quilt Show in Historical Village
August 6 – ABayance Bay Marina
August 28-30 Lincoln County Fair
September 11-12 Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula
I thought about doing a business plan some months ago when I was first getting serious about starting the traveling bookstore. I did talk with a few people about it – being an extrovert that is how I learn and process things. Basically it came down to trying to figure out how not to lose money on this venture. Now that I actually started taking the bookstore out on the road, meeting people, selling books and cards, realizing the structural changes I needed to make like adding a grab bar that people can hold on to when going in and out of the van, I see aspects of this business that never occurred to me before. For example – I thought running a bookstore meant that I would invite authors to do readings occasionally but now I realize that I can actually drive the bookstore to where the authors are rather than asking them to come to the hills of Montana. And I had thought that I would need to do lengthy internet searches to find all the fairs and festivals that would be good and perhaps the only places to take the business. But now there are people who are requesting that I bring my bookstore to their parties, writers retreats, events, and businesses which is something I hadn’t thought of before. Experiential learning. I am learning how to run this business by doing it and hopefully I will be savvy enough to pick up all the necessary clues and make them work. Last week at the Farmers Market a man suggested I put a sandwich board out to help draw more attention (I was accosting people politely, pointing to the entrance and saying, “Come in. It’s a bookstore!”). So a friend is making the board which hopefully will be ready for next week’s event. I plan to take the traveling bookstore to the Yaak River Jam.
So it went from a dream to buying a used van to getting a guy to build shelves and then this weekend filling it with books. Now I just have to get the logo put on the outside (fingers crossed that Bitterroot Screen Printers magically push me to the top of their list). and I am ready to go. There is a Facebook page and this blog and 221 Dewey Graphics is setting up my website. I try to imagine if this is less complicated than opening a brick-and-mortar store. Or maybe its not more or less complicated – just a different kind. The space inside the van is small but not that small. I do think at some point I will need an awning to cover the entrance. oh my. So many details and truly I am not a business person. Years ago Don Fleck who was a business partner with me in a bakery said, “You don’t have to own a bakery if you like to eat good bread.” At the time though in the far northwest corner of Montana, it did seem that we needed to own a bakery or …well, I needed to start baking at home. Now I am venturing forth on this traveling bookstore business. Yes I like to read. Actually I really like to read. I obviously think reading is medicinal as I am claiming to be a textual apothecary. But is liking to read equivalent to owning a bookstore? Not only do I like to read but I think other people would like reading too if they can find the right book. And trying not to sound too smug, I think its difficult to find the right book browsing Amazon. I think it helps to hold it in your hands, look at the font and page size, give it a smell, maybe read a page or two and then decide if it can come home with you. I want to give this opportunity to find a good book to people. And I guess I need a traveling bookstore in order to do that.