Succession Planning

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 22, 2010

No, Josie and I aren’t looking around for bookstore buyers, but if we were, a good place to start would be among the third-graders I visited on Tuesday. The Shelburne Community School nearby has been doing a civics study and invited me to speak to several classes about being a local business owner.

As you can imagine, it was a LOT of fun. Although we’ve only been in our current location for three and a half years, that’s close to half of these kids’ lives. They can’t really remember a time before we were in their town, and a lot of them feel proprietary about the store. That’s a good start for potential buyers when we decide to retire someday.

The children were prepared with all kinds of questions, from the simply curious (“How did you get the name of your store?”) to the supremely practical (“How much money do you make every day?”). For the record, I didn’t avoid the latter question; I told them about the $0 day we’d had one winter day in our first year, and about the multiple-thousands-of-dollars night we had for Harry Potter VII, and about various normal ranges during high and low seasons of an average year. They asked me how many employees we had, and how many days a week we were open, and whether or not we read all the books in the store. They wanted to know my favorite books, now and as a child, and whenever I mentioned one they’d read, I got excited gasps of recognition and “Me, too!”s. If there’s one thing that makes a bookseller’s heart glad, it’s seeing children light up when they think about a really good book.

As you might imagine, their assumptions about what it means to run a bookstore needed a little tweaking here and there. A few kids were crestfallen to learn that bookstores are not high-profit businesses, though most didn’t seem to care. (They’re third graders, after all.) All the kids’ eyes widened when I emptied a fairly full tote bag containing just three days’ worth of mail: bills and book PR postcards and packets, along with the current Publishers Weekly, several distributor and review magazines and supplements, a bunch of publisher and sideline catalogs, and one lonely, lovely credit memo with its pink paper beckoning from the envelope’s window pane. My talk possibly heralded the first time these kids encountered the term “overhead.” Don’t worry; I explained it lightly. ABA members will be relieved to know that I did not attempt to introduce the “2% solution” to eight- and nine-year-olds.

They had a pretty good idea of the various jobs we do around the store, too, like helping customers find books, ordering and shelving new titles, making special orders, and ringing people up—kids have a fairly strong attachment to cash registers and bar-code scanners—but were surprised to learn that we also vacuum floors and clean the bathroom and dust shelves, too. Most of them mistakenly assumed that we get to read books at the store, but then, a lot of adults have this pleasant fantasy about bookstore life, too. It cracks my heart just a little bit to burst that bubble. I talked about the fun stuff, too. They sure did love ARCs and the idea of opening up boxes of new books every single day. (We love them/it, too.)

It was particularly fun to have the kids guess how many books we carry. Kids: “Five hundred?” “A thousand?” Me: “More.” Kids: “Two thousand?” “Five thousand?” Me: More. Kids: “Ten thousand?” Me: “Go higher.” Kids: “Twenty thousand?” “One thousand and five hundred?” (Aww.) Me: “We have about 40,000 books and cards and gifts at the store.” Kids: Mouths hang open, unable to fathom.

Every class had a student who asked, “How old do you have to be to work at the bookstore?” and when I told them sixteen, their chorus of disappointed “Ohhhs” was very sweet. (Apparently, the tales of dusting and bathroom-cleaning hadn’t scared them off.)

Looking around at their enthusiastic, excited faces—which were, by the way, far too close; I forgot that when audiences of kids sit on the floor for events, they scoot right up to about four inches away from your feet—I felt very happy to be part of a community where the teachers introduce children to the idea of local business, where the kids love reading, and where one of them, surely, will want to carry on the lovely business of matching readers to books they’ll love. Not to alarm the third graders of the Shelburne Community School, but—I’m taking names.

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