What It Takes to Open a Bookstore
But as I learned, it’s not quite as relaxing as it looks.
In interviews, the Greenlight owners and other bookstore entrepreneurs in New York walked me through some of the decisions that need to be taken into account in such a venture.
When Ms. Fitting and Ms. Bagnulo opened their first store, they found that banks were unwilling to lend to them.
So they asked friends, families and neighbors for loans of $1,000 or more, and pledged to pay those loans back (with interest) over the course of five years. The store did not even have an opening date, Ms. Bagnulo said, so the backers were taking “a leap of faith.”
They raised about $75,000 for the Fort Greene location that way, which helped to persuade conventional lenders to come on board.
For the new store, they wanted to cleave to that model.
With the help of 95 people, they raised $242,600 for the location, some of it from friends and family but the majority from people in the neighborhood.
The lessons from Greenlight are being put to use in other places. Brad Johnson, the store manager of a location of a California bookstore chain, Diesel, is using a community lender program that draws direct inspiration from the Brooklyn store.
Janet Geddis, the founder and owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., also used a version of the community lending idea to open her first location, also using several other lines of support, including a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.
Emily Russo, the co-owner of a bookstore named Print in Portland, Me., used an even smaller community to raise money for opening the store, putting together about half the necessary capital with the help of her parents and her husband.
And a Bronx-born entrepreneur, Noëlle Santos, is relying partly on Indiegogo and on her own savings to open The Lit Bar in the borough.
Geo Ong, who has worked at Diesel and will manage the new Greenlight location, said that the phenomenon of independents opening with these sorts of models across the country gave the lie to a recent narrative that “bookstores don’t succeed.”
“A lot of a bookstore’s success is case-by-case,” he said. “But the fact that some bookstores are thriving and a lot of bookstores are opening means that there’s something inherently successful in the model.”
Ms. Bagnulo said there were two major questions to consider when deciding where to open a bookstore: Which city neighborhoods are in need of one, and which can support one.
“It’s sort of joking, but the rule of thumb is, if the neighborhood can support a farmers market, the neighborhood can support a bookstore,” she said.
Ms. Santos, 29, is evaluating a location in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the borough.
She said she was confident that the area could support a bookstore, saying The Lit Bar, as her store will be called, will be the only independent bookstore in the Bronx.
Though she grew up as a self-described “Barnes & Noble kid,” she has embraced the need for neighborhoods to have their own independent bookstores.
“When you come into a neighborhood like the South Bronx, where most of our population is Hispanic and African-American, you need your stores, your community centers and your organizations to reflect the people that actually live there,” she said.
For the new Greenlight store, Ms. Fitting and Ms. Bagnulo commissioned the work of the architect Frederick Tang, who also designed the Fort Greene store.
“We want to make the store beautiful and thoughtful and designed but we don’t want it to be inaccessible and snobby,” she said. They worried about everything from the lighting to the color of the wood shelves (they settled on a honey tone).
A narrow storefront and low-hanging pipes constrained some of the space, but Mr. Tang figured out a way to make the ceiling higher in places where the pipes were less plentiful.
“It needs to be somewhere you can come hang out and have a conversation,” Ms. Bagnulo said, “or where you can have a loud party, or where you can have speakers who are going to curse, where kids and families and babies can come hang out during story time.”
Ms. Fitting, a former sales representative at Random House, where she helped sell books to independents, handles much of the book purchasing.
“For this store, I handpicked every freaking title,” she said, all 7,248 of them.
Ms. Fitting said that she tried to put her personal inflection on the inventory, for example, buying “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde, during the holiday season, which she said was “one of the best gifts that you could give to any creative person, or to yourself.”
But she said she never avoided buying a book because she didn’t personally like it, and tried hard not to make assumptions about what might sell well. That said, it’s true that conservative political books are not big local sellers.
“A new Bill O’Reilly book comes out, and we buy one because someone in our marketplace might want one, or might want to give it someone else,” she added.
She said that big books like David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” tended to sell well in the winter, a combination of New Year’s resolutions to finally conquer certain tomes and the simple fact that people stay in more in the winters.
The new store seemed to be off to a good start this weekend, having sold about 500 books.
The best-seller on the first day was Mr. Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” The top book for the entire weekend, in a bookstore owned by two working mothers, was “Rad Women Worldwide,” by Kate Schatz.