Flying Solo

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 10th, 2017

Sir John Tenniel’s White Rabbit, from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.

In almost eight years of blogging and twenty years of bookselling, this is a first: I’ve never written a post as sole proprietor of the store. My Flying Pig co-founder, Josie, has officially stepped into her new full-time role at Pride Center of VT. This transition has been a year and a half in the making, but it became final on December 31. Over the past year, I’ve been learning the pieces of the business that Josie used to handle, especially since August when I took over almost all of her duties. It’s given me extra appreciation and gratitude for all of the tasks she used to do that I never had to think about.

I also have newfound admiration for bookstores with sole owners—especially those with a small staff. There is SO much to do, all the time! This has always been true about running a small business, of course, but jeeminy, it becomes critical to strive for laser focus, crystal-clear priorities, and streamlined efficiency. It’s its own extreme sport. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

    • Whereas delegating was once a luxury, now it is a necessity. For example, I know I cannot do all frontlist and sideline ordering for the store alone, plus bookkeeping, event planning, promotion, marketing, our book review newsletter, community outreach, school and library liaison work, etc. Fortunately, I’ve got a fabulous team of staff members, each with her or his particular strengths and gifts, and while they are already doing so much for the store, it’s been surprisingly fun to strategize tweaks giving them increased autonomy and ownership of the store’s choices and mission.
    • Becoming sole proprietor is such a big change that it almost feels like opening a new store, and has energized my thinking about all of our systems. It pries loose some of my calcified habits, and brings priorities into different focus. It’s like being jolted awake by a big bump after a while of humming along on a straightaway; the bump is hard but you appreciate the adrenaline and wakefulness.
    • I like some of the tasks I didn’t think I would like, such as doing the bills. I don’t love invoices and juggling cash flow during the slower seasons, but there is immense satisfaction to seeing the business in 360 degrees. It has already made me a better/smarter buyer to observe the finances this carefully.
    • I’m going to have to put EVERYTHING on the calendar: payroll, taxes, any kind of deadline whatsoever. It’s the only way I have a chance of staying on top of the details.
    • The new Flying Pig will be less top-down oriented and more team-driven. Not that Josie and I didn’t involve the staff and rely on their very valuable input, but with two bosses, many decisions just got made between the two of us automatically, especially back when we lived together, when we ate, breathed, talked the business all the time at home. Some of that has shifted in the five years we’ve lived apart, but I’ve still noticed a significant difference in my own feelings about how store decisions get made now, and how much information is shared with staff. I’ve always felt there’s a real benefit to transparency in decision-making, and it can be easy to overlook those opportunities when you have one primary partner in the business with whom to bounce around ideas.
  • Those are the good things. It is also true that being sole proprietor feels riskier, and there are a thousand things about Josie that I’ll miss. She has been so beautifully able to articulate her feelings about saying goodbye to the store, better than I have been able to write about what it means for the store to be saying goodbye to her. It’s a huge change after twenty years! We will miss her quick wit, decisive nature, tendency to say the most outrageous things and get away with them, her generous and giant heart, her incredible memory for customer names and quirky details, and her eagle eye for mistakes in our building’s common area maintenance charges. Fortunately, we will get to enjoy all of those qualities (except the last one) when she visits the bookstore and when we hang out outside of work. And that’s actually a great bonus: without store duties eating up conversation time, Josie and I have been enjoying a stress-free friendship again! While I will greatly miss Josie at the store, I’ll have a blast just laughing with her.
  • It’s also not as much fun to be the place the buck stops. When frustrating situations crop up, or persistent marketers hunt us down on the phone, there is no buffer zone, no other buck-stops-here partner to share the heat. Josie and I used to be able to tag-team some of those things, but you can’t play good cop, bad cop as a sole proprietor. You’re one cop, and you just hope most of those times, you’re Andy Griffith, not Barney Fife.
    So that’s it as of Day 9. I’ll share more discoveries along the way. But for now, my thoughts are turned toward pragmatic things like reorganizing the office and rearranging some bookstore sections before we re-open after our New Year’s break, and toward philosophical and political things as we head toward a national transition I never thought I’d see and need to figure out how to navigate before that giant BUMP hits Washington, D.C. eleven days from now.

12 thoughts on “Flying Solo

  1. Becky Dayton

    Go get ’em, Elizabeth. My journey as owner took a major detour when my longtime bookkeeper quit three years ago. Josie was extremely useful to me as a kind of coach when I had more to learn than I thought possible in a single billing cycle. She didn’t, as Carol said, tell me exactly how to do it, but she showed me some of her tricks and made me feel confident that I, too, could manage. If I can ever be of use to you (when, say, you just don’t want to bother Josie one more time), please don’t hesitate to call. I’ll gladly pay the favor forward. I consider the Flying Pig an important ally!

  2. Carol B. Chittenden

    What I wish I’d done differently when I took sole control of Eight Cousins: learn to say to staff, “Would you like me to tell you exactly how to do this assignment, or would you like to figure out a better way yourself?” So many times I allowed myself to micromanage, wasting the talents of others, and exhausting my own limited abilities. Fortunately, I got too busy to control every detail, and other people came up with excellent solutions.

    You’ll do fine: you’ll want to succeed, and make Josie proud as well.

    But please don’t stop lending your kind and insightful voice to Shelftalker!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Thank you! And Carol, that is definitely one of the things I’ve discovered over the years and especially needed to abide by lately: play to everyone’s strengths and encourage feedback and innovation. If you hire carefully, which we’ve always tried to do, there’s such a wonderful range of experiences and intelligences to draw from, it would be criminal to shut down deep participation. I feel very lucky to have such a fantastic staff — and colleagues!

  3. Rosanne Parry

    Elizabeth, it has been my great pleasure to work for the last three years at Annie Blooms in Portland where Bobby has been the sole proprietor for more than 30 years. I admire her so much, and I learn from her willingness to be honest about what she has the strength for and what she doesn’t. And she’s a genius about drawing together a staff with a wide range of talents. So think of us here at Annie Blooms as cheering you on from across the continent. You’ve got this!

  4. Cynthia Compton

    My dear little Southern (capital S) mother always managed dozens of committees, projects, and board memberships with nary a ruffled feather (or disturbing her weekly wash/set/backcomb hair appointment) and I remember her telling a bridge partner one day “It’s all about juggling. Some balls are made of crystal, and some are rubber. Keep your eyes on the crystal ones, and let those damn rubber ones bounce, dear.” I think of that often. Well, that and her admonition that “everything looks better after a glass of iced tea and some fresh lipstick.”
    Here’s to lots of bouncing this year. I’ll pour the tea.

  5. Leslie Hawkins

    Very well said! It can feel overwhelming at times to be sole proprietor, but you’ve already pinpointed the key to the success of your business and the survival of your sanity: staff who are smart and willing and with whom you can share thoughts– and who care deeply for the business, too. All good wishes to you on this new leg of the journey!

  6. Suzette

    Good luck, Elizabeth. We know you’ll be successful! Looking forward to hearing about the changes and seeing the new tweaks in the bookstore. (Maybe Josie can write some guest posts for you?)

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