When worlds collide….
Sometimes life and business are at a crossroads. When only one path can be chosen, which one do you take?
Five years ago, my dream of owning and operating a unique second-hand bookshop was just starting to become a reality; I had a mission and, at long last, a business loan to back it up. Another year would pass (with many doors being slammed in my face for being young, female AND a start-up entrepreneur) before I would get even a long shot at leasing commercial retail space…..but I did get it done.
Measures of Success
I knew from the start that this location would be quirky at best; a lot of my hard work was to go unnoticed or be misunderstood entirely. In a neighborhood riddled with the tension of constant construction and all the potential in the world to become the next great Seattle hot spot, I planted a seed in a plot of urban soil that had the ability to sprout something both retro and revolutionary. And sprout it did!
Where customers are hard to come by, every want and need counts. Before you know it, the pressure of being all things to all people is upon you. Our coffee crowd cried “LUNCH!” so we made it. Our book devotees demanded special orders, so we did it. Both were thirsty enough for beer and wine, so we fought through the arduous mine field of red tape and paperwork to make that happen as well.
As a result, we have one of the most diverse customer bases a small business could hope for. There truly is something for every walk of life within our walls. We earned the moniker “community living room” after our monthly Open Mic night grew wings and started to fly on its own.
We are loved. We are treasured. We are respected. We are a diamond in the rough. Mission accomplished!
Being a square peg in a round hole is both a blessing and a curse, a double-edged sword if ever there was one.
The Achilles Heel(s) of Running a Small Business
- Being (too far) ahead of your time
- Location, Location, Location
It is possible–to an extent at least–to control the environment within your own business. Touch up the paint here, move this piece of furniture to a slightly different angle…any number of tiny adjustments can make a huge difference. However, the environment outside your business, even a few steps outside the front door, is virtually impossible to control.
I have a great, loyal following of customers, and for that I’m grateful; Inner Chapters would have never made it this far without you! Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of you to keep pace with the ever-rising cost of doing business in this place at this time. It’s so close to everything, and yet so far away.
Being in a neighborhood that is both old and new has its trappings: simultaneously there are feelings of excitement and bitterness as old things are destroyed (or obscured) to make room for new things. People who are new to the area may be greeted with open arms or vicious disdain by the die-hard locals, desperately clinging to the comforts of the familiar.
Having a customer base that changes at the drop of a hat can be quite a challenge, because on the one hand you want to sell whatever the people are buying, but on the other there’s a need to be true to your vision–and yourself, for that matter. My vision was to anchor the small retail core that this neighborhood so desperately needs; I set out to lay a foundation that would appeal to other unique retailers so we could band together and make this area glow with excitement and commerce…….but it hasn’t come to pass, YET. There were so many unknowns 5 years ago, anything could have happened. What did happen just hasn’t worked out for me. This business model belongs in a residential neighborhood, not an office park. If I could wait it out for 5 more years until the area is truly ready for me, I would. But that’s not an option…..
- What this is about:
Cash is the life’s blood of a business. It ebbs and flows, sometimes there’s a pattern, sometimes it’s erratic as hell (unlike collecting a regular paycheck where you know what you’re getting and when). If only the expenses were synchronized to keep it all in some semblance of balance! Risks must constantly be taken in the hopes that enough sales will roll in to cover that power bill, or rent, or taxes. Sometimes you win the game, and other times you wake up in the cold sweat of sheer terror for weeks.
After you’ve tirelessly done everything humanly possible to create a self-sustaining organism that also sustains you, it certainly does sting when you still come up short through no fault of your own. At some point you hit a wall and decide that enough is enough.
And then life happens! The universe has a way of providing clarity when the hardest decisions must be made. I was standing at a fork in the road of life: the prospect of relocating the business was becoming more appealing with the impending end of my lease (it’s not that I’m being kicked out, but taking on 2-5 more years here isn’t exactly in my best interest at this point), and then I found out that I’m due to bring a new, wee evil genius into the world this coming August….well that changes things just a bit now, doesn’t it?! Wait, can’t I just go on maternity leave? Not an option. I wouldn’t currently be running the business solo if I could afford even part-time employees, let alone full staff for 3 months or longer. What does this mean? Well, we can still relocate–just not immediately or seamlessly.
Inner Chapters has been my baby for 5 years. There’s a new baby in my life now, and it would be unfair to all if I were to attempt burning my (currently dwindling) candle at both ends.
- What this is NOT about:
It is widely thought that the printed word (and thus bookstores) will go completely extinct in our lifetime. Every time a bookstore moves or closes, the chest-beating laments resound like there’s some kind of inevitable book-pocalypse just around the corner. I find it funny (and at the same time enraging) that the individuals who go off 0n extensive diatribes about the tragic loss of so many lovely bookshops RARELY BUY A BOOK. But I digress….
The book and the bookstore as we know and love them are, in fact, not dying but changing (read my manifesto on this topic here). These symbiotic species are in the middle of an evolutionary population bottleneck, and they will emerge as something recognizable and yet (perhaps?) quite different, but certainly stronger and more valuable than ever to the modern human.
Never forget that what’s happening to bookshops is also happening to nearly every small business in this country. The Main Street vs. Wall Street battle is very real, and it will continue for years to come.
Whose side are you on?