The Perks of Owning a Bookstore

Josie Leavitt - April 14, 2010

There are many bonuses to owning a bookstore in a small town. Everyone knows you, which can be lovely, but not when you’re in your sweatpants running to the mini-mart for butter and a young child shouts,”Hey, it’s the Flying Pig Lady.” Yes it is.
The perk Elizabeth and I got to enjoy last night was being “Celebrity” waiters for the Ronald McDonald House fundraiser. This event pairs local celebrities with real wait people who endure novices taking orders, making salads (croutons go on by hand, I learned a lot last night) and getting drinks. All the tips get donated to our Ronald McDonald House which helps families with kids in the hospital. The goal is to get your tables to massively tip for a modest meal. We had the luck of working with another celebrity, fellow comedian Tracie Spencer, who was great, so we laughed a lot.
There is a non-too subtle competition between the “celebrities” as to who can reel in the most money. We were valiant in our efforts. Elizabeth brought some copies of her book, My Father the Dog, and anyone who left $50 or more got a personalized copy. We worked as a great team: I would show the book to everyone in our section who seemed likely to want a signed book. I would come back with their check and ask if they’d like a signed book. And everyone did! We made more than $300 in tips just from the book
Let me just say something about waiting tables: it’s really hard, but I loved it. It was like the store was sa busy as it’s ever been and everyone needed help at slightly different times. The pacing was amazing. Drink orders and menus first. Put the order in the computer — they let us send orders! — run to the bar to get the drinks. I was amazed every time I’d put in a drink order that it would appear in the bar two minutes later, just waiting for me. Take the orders, put the apps in first (apps, they actually say that), then when they’re almost done with the appetizers, send the entree orders, etc. Customer service is key. And it’s tough.
Imagine if customers at the bookstore could say, “I’d like Cat in the Hat, but you could you put a cover on it?” “We’ll share The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so cut that one in half.” “Could we get There’s a Monster at the End of this Book, but could you take out the monster?” Oh, and throw in some copious amounts of alcohol, at least for one table that we were all afraid of, and it made for a pretty interesting evening.
And I got to end everyone’s meal by saying, “Would you like a book with that?”

7 thoughts on “The Perks of Owning a Bookstore

  1. Ricardo Small

    Not a lot about owning a bookstore, more about waiting tables at an admirable fund raiser.
    When I owned a one-person bookstore in Tucson back in the late 1970s, I did not perk. I never had time to read. I lost my ass and had to sell out in less than a year, even though I developed a niche with metaphysical and martial arts books. Big bookstore chains retailed best sellers at discounts lower than my limited volume wholesale prices.
    I loved my little bookstore. However, it was an expensive hobby, and I had to move on. Sixth Street Books & Periodicals is a lost love affair that knocked my socks off at the time, but left me in tears, after draining my wallet.

  2. Margaret

    My experience has been that the successful bookstore owners are the ones doing it because they love books and want to share that love with their community-large or small. If you are doing it to make a bunch of money-you’re in the wrong business!

  3. Ricardo Small

    Margaret, I was not out to “make a bunch of money”, only to support my wife and two children. I was not successful in doing that, so I had to sell the store. The couple who bought it both had outside jobs to live on. That’s the ideal financial profile for small bookshop owners: at least two people, with at least one employed elsewhwere for group health insurance and other benefits.
    Books are my drug of choice. Money is NOT.
    As an aside, I visited Powell’s City in Portland for the first time last week. I could spend several days wandering the rooms there. Powell’s is a magic place, much different than small shops, which I also love to …. as my book challenged friends and relatives say …. “waste” my time in.

  4. Spellbound

    Well, in a somewhat lame attempt to blend the comment threads… wouldn’t it be nice if bookstore staff got tips? I know, I know… we should just be grateful that there are still a few people out there willing to pay full retail price, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

  5. lovelandj

    I know that there are bookstores out there who aren’t struggling,and I also know that each and every small indie is under siege in this economy.
    I closed my small-town Michigan shop four months ago, and I feel drained, not only financially (objectively true) but emotionally.
    It will take a lot of time to recover on both fronts. And I feel as though I was so gullible.
    However, onward and upward.


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