In a couple of hours, I’m going to attend a private celebration for the opening of a new independent bookstore. I’m going as my daughter’s guest, because she’s one of the new store’s hand-picked new employees, but I might also have earned my own invitation in the past ten days.
The debut of an independent bookstore is a big deal. It takes vision and nerve to open any independent business these days. A bookstore requires extra doses of both. The folks who are putting this establishment together have both vision and nerve, and I’ve spent the past two weekends helping bust freight, load shelves, and sort and arrange books. Other people have been doing the same—and also hanging slotboard on the walls, painting murals and exposed ductwork, setting up the software, recycling cardboard, vacuuming repeatedly, and more.
Here’s Aubrey, staff member and painter-of-murals, doing some last-minute non-mural-related brushwork. That’s the young-adult section just below her.
All the photos here were taken yesterday, so things were looking very good, if not finished. A week earlier, on Saturday the eleventh, there were lots of empty shelves, and then there was the invasion of the cardboard boxes, and then there were piles of books all over the floor and sliding stacks of flattened cardboard cartons. Ten days ago the space looked about as much like a bookstore as this next photo looks like a cafe. (A lot of work was scheduled to be done in this cafe space today to turn it into a nice spot for a cup of coffee or tea!)
My daughter’s an actual staff member for the new store. I’m not. When fourteen pallets of books arrived on the eleventh, the owners recruited friends and family to help the newly formed crew of employees. I joined the ranks of volunteers. I needed a finite task that did not require me to stay in my office and deal with computers and related electronic devices, many of which have been seriously misbehaving. I needed a change of scene, new folks to talk with, and a shot of hard physical labor as a change of pace from too much desk time (and electronics-wrangling). I also thought it would be great to work for a few days with books without being responsible for anything other than alphabetizing them and arranging them neatly!
As an independent publisher, I know how to handle pallets, boxes of books, packing lists, and all the numbers and procedures of the contemporary less-than-ideal distribution system. I enjoyed getting a fresh view of the bookseller’s side of the distribution system.
So I spent about twenty hours helping prep for tomorrow’s official opening.
The weekend of November 11 and 12
Yes, I made sure to grab the crafts section’s boxes to unpack. I was glad to see Stephanie Pearl-McPhee was well represented, and the rest of the knitting titles had been thoughtfully selected. (No, our books aren’t there yet.)
I also spent a bunch of time with romance novels and historical fiction. I worked those sections with a young woman named Christy and, when she wasn’t working her other part-time job, my daughter. As we unpacked the boxes, we checked everything against the packing lists—sometimes six hundred or so books listed on just one category’s many-paged packing list—and inspected for damage.
We worked out an efficient way to do the check-ins. Part of the awkwardness of book distribution is that the wholesalers’ databases list the books by title and then the books most often need to be shelved by author.
To do the check-in, therefore, we first sorted the books in piles on the floor by the first letter in the title. Then one of us would read off each book’s name in order, going down each pile, while the other would find the titles on the packing list and check them off. Having the titles in order was essential because there might be, for example, three pages of titles that began with S. For some books where multiple copies had been ordered, we made sure the correct number had been included. Tricky thing: numbers are often not spelled out on book packing lists. A book called One Long Night would not be under O but at the end of the list under "1" (I don’t know if there was a book by this title, but if there were it would have belonged in the romance section). As soon as we checked off the packing list, the third person re-sorted the same books by the first letter in the author’s name and then began to shelve them.
Considering what lousy shape the cartons were in on the pallets—crushed, gouged, and otherwise pretty trashed—I was amazed that there wasn’t more damage to the books. The interior packaging protected them pretty decently. Each bunch of books had been arranged on a heavy piece of cardboard and the board-plus-books was then wrapped in heat-sealed heavy plastic before the package was put into a carton. Although the back room of the new store now contains piles of damaged books to be returned, I’d estimate that in the sections I unpacked fewer than one percent of the books were damaged. (My other experience with damaged books comes from returns to our distributor from some accounts. Books can be returned just because they haven’t sold in a given period of time, and not because they are damaged. Yet those returns, which are supposed to be in like-new condition, can be so badly packed for shipping that by the time they reach their destination they can only be sent to the landfill. At the distributor’s warehouse, I’ve seen massive cartons containing hundreds of books like this. Packing matters.)
Lots of titles were out of stock, although all of those were listed at the bottoms of the section packing lists. Picking errors—where the wrong book was pulled—occurred just often enough to keep us on our toes.
The weekend of November 18 and 19
Throughout the week, the staff made enormous progress on the store and I worked at home on my own independent business. By the morning of Saturday the 18th, however, there was still a lot to do.
Over Saturday and Sunday, I spent about eight hours in the age-9-to-12 section.
What I did during that time was help pull out the picture books that had been shipped with the wrong section, and work on how to fit way too many books into what was really quite a lot of shelves, while thinking about how people would browse for, and expect to find, books that would interest them—people in this case being boys and girls between the approximate ages of nine and twelve. We ended up pulling out, and filing in other sections, nonfiction that would most likely be consulted for homework, biographies of famous people, and big books that were movie-related.
Just about the time we had the section arranged nicely, so the books were packed tightly but still fit on the assigned shelves, we discovered that another whole shipment had arrived and we needed to incorporate several hundred more books. That was when we decided to find other homes for some of the series books.
I think I moved every book in the section at least five times during the day to accommodate the changes that occurred. The books looked good by the time we finished, and I think we had made categories and groupings that made sense and would be useful to browsers.
The photo below shows me stealing more shelves (on freestanding rollaround units) to use for the 9-to-12 reference-style nonfiction. That’s about a third of the regular 9-to-12 section behind me.
I’d better wrap this up, because I need to go see the store for real in a few minutes. I hope the tiki hut (the special-order desk) is ready for customers. I’ve been making a list since I heard the store would be opening. This is what the special-order desk looked like at mid-day yesterday. By the time I left, the slotboard behind it had turned into a bright display of face-out books, and I suspect it will be fully operational when I arrive in a little over
half an hour fifteen minutes.
It helps me keep the faith in my own independent business to see other folks making their own passions manifest in the world. And sometimes it can be nice to go work on somebody else’s dream for a while, to give it a boost. The change lets me go back to my own set of projects with a fresh perspective.
And now, whether the store’s ready or not, it’s time to go celebrate a new beginning.
Reader’s Cove and Half Moon Coffee Company is located at 1001 E. Harmony Road—on the south side of Harmony between Lemay and College, near Ace Hardware.