Some dreams die of new age


I have always liked to read.

When I was little, I read comic books and then books and then encyclopedias and then dictionaries and then atlases (atlasi?) and then more books and comics and newspapers and magazines.  Basically, I like to read.

A couple of years before I left for college, I managed a small used book store in my then hometown of North Miami Beach.  It was situated in a run of stores (before they coined the phrase “strip mall”) and was owned by a middle-aged man, who made his daughter was the manager.

Well, nominally the manager.  In fact, she was just fine letting me work longer and longer hours until I became the de facto manager.  Which was also fine with me.  Granted, I could only work evening hours on school days, but come weekends or summer, I was the open and close (and everything in between) guy.

I immediately set out on vast projects to help improve sales and ease customer shopping.  For the most part, the bookstore operated on a coffee can accounting basis that was mostly “gravy” to the owner’s other business (less savory, but legal).

Since the book sales and patronage was not overly important, the books were haphazardly slapped into the bookcases girding the walls.  He also ran a deal with a large bookstore/newstand  down the street to get their “returns”.  These were books that the store ripped the covers off and returned to the distributor for credit.  The books were supposed to be destroyed, but auditing was not especially careful back then.

My first decision was to separate all the books by genre.  Then, within each section, I alphabetized the books, removing excess copies.  The basic principle of the business operated on a customer bringing in two used books and paying fifty cents to take out a different one.  This encouraged people to bring in boxes of books and taking away an armful for only a few bucks.  This also encouraged cash transactions (especially since credit cards weren’t nearly as omnipresent 35 years ago).

If you consider the nature of the transaction, you can see how the bookstore would build up a massive inventory of books without actually shelling out a penny.  Brilliant!  And what were the odds that all of these people were really going to use up all their book credits.

Of course, that also meant many dozens of some of the most popular books of the time (Jaws, Airport, Robert Ludlum, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Suzanne come immediately to mind).  I had boxes of dupes of those books in the back room.  Still, eventually I had the whole store sorted.

The coverless books we sold for 29 cents or 4/$1.00 and I had them all spine up in a large horizontal “bookcase” (imagine taking the bookcase and laying it flat on a table with the open side up).  There were some pretty popular books that would occasionally sneak in there (though not too popular, or the bookstore wouldn’t have to return them).

The best part of managing the bookstore:  I got to read more books than ever!  I mean, let’s face it, even back then bookstores weren’t swarming with people (although a good weekend crowd was always a certainty), so I had plenty of time to spend reading.  So much time, in fact, that I got to explore new genres I had never read (Zane Grey) and some that I felt necessary just for the job (Barbara Cartland).

It was during that time that I developed my dream of one day owning a bookstore.  I wanted to reinvent the charm and friendliness that customers felt as they wandered around finding this old book or hearing a surprised and pleased “I remember that!”.  I even had the name for the store already chosen, “Remember When?”.

And then the new age of technology came and killed my dream.  If I opened up such a store today, who would notice?  Anyone from the current generation would have to look up from their phones or tablets.  The preceding generation would have to unplug their e-readers.  And the generation before, well, their eyesight isn’t that good anymore.

Now the dream in more fanciful in nature.  Not so much a self-sustaining bastion of reading but a self-indulgent museum of mustiness.  I would still love to open a classic bookstore, but I have to recognize the stark financial reality that I would have to be financially secure in excess of simple retirement, since there is no way the store could support itself in tomorrow’s world.

It’s an unlikely scenario, but isn’t that the case with most dreams?

2 Responses to “Some dreams die of new age”

  1. Lauren

    A rather large part of me wants to argue against you’re dream being as unlikely as you seem to think, but I’m not a small business owner so I can’t. I can point out though that your statements regarding use of tech preventing customers from coming into a store front bookstore are generally unfounded. All of the people I know who read for pleasure, regardless of whether or not they own an e-reader or a tablet, prefer real books to digital and enjoy going to independent bookstores because the people who work there tend to be readers. You might lose some customers to digital books, but probably not enough to put you out of business.

    • JMD

      Fair enough rebuttal (and encouraging as well). The relevant evidence I would point to is the drying up of the bookstore chains, which are no longer able to support themselves, even with subsidiary sales from food, music and other non-written merchandise.

      The single store owner today faces the increased costs of establishing and running a business, the thin margin nature of used book sales and an increasing preference for e-reading in the “next” generation that eventually leaves you with a measurably smaller print audience to work with. This may not be as big an obstacle for an already established brick and mortar, whose customers may have grown up with the store, but it is definitely a challenge for a new store owner.

      Thank you for your thoughtful response that all may not be as bleak a picture as I painted, I’m happy for any support to the contrary of my post. I’m even willing to allow I could have been less downbeat in my assessmnet…but then I would have wasted a good headline!


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