Growing the Manager
Booksellers illustrate the five habits of successful bookselling
Everywhere that independent booksellers turn the stakes are higher.
Those who have weathered the entry of chains and the onslaught of
superstores have been rewarded with the imperative of responding
to the brave new e-world of Amazon and other Internet retailers.
Given these increased external pressures, which are making life
harder for entrepreneurs in all industries, how should one respond?
By addressing those internal measures that develop ones ability
to grow and adapt. As the bookselling market becomes more competitive,
leaders in the field say the most effective way to compete is not
simply to change strategies or add new tools like a new accounting
program or inventory systems. Rather, the most effective way to
grow your company is to address the core issue of how to grow your
personal skills, competencies, and knowledge. Growing your personal
skills enables your business to realize its promise as a distinct
In "The Startup Garden: How Growing A Business Grows You" (McGraw-Hill,
November,) I talk about the skills that growing a business requires
an individual to acquire. Launching and growing a successful company
requires more than simple self-awareness. You must develop a healthy
business vehicle based on an understanding of your own particular
strengths and skills. Then you must add such skills as financial
literacy, managerial prowess, and a capacity for personal and organizational
learning. Such a perspective isn't limited to startups. The same
skills that enable an individual to be in control of their growing
venture also enable small shopowners to become more competitive
in the market.
For the sake of this article, I'd like to focus on five habits
of successful booksellers. In particular, they are: the development
and articulation of a clear sense of self that animates one's venture.
A working understanding of how this identity translates into a unique
experience for a clearly defined community of customers. The third
skill consists of learning to learn-as a systematic and deliberate
activity. The fourth crucial skill involves learning how to manage
others effectively and consistently by setting boundaries and demanding
accountability. And the fifth skill calls for what I call "just
managing": making a distinct effort to step back and implement managerial
systems that enable your store to thrive as your unique venture-without
your constant and occasionally overbearing presence.
There are numerous examples of smart booksellers who have taken
these steps. Let's look at the most important first step, the anchor
for bookstore owners to develop a successful venture. That would
be the articulation of who you are, what you offer, and what your
venture believes in. Just as all startups must determine how their
product distinguishes itself in the marketplace, so too must bookstore
owners develop a clear sense of identity and mission. By defining
your company's identity and mission you will naturally differentiate
yourself from competitors.
Owner Roxanne Coady of R.J. Julia
Books in Madison, CT developed a store identity and mission
in two phases. When she first prepared plans for her store more
than ten years ago, Coady produced a thick document of the business
she wanted to open: a community bookstore that combined a cozy setting
with an active schedule of readings, signings, and other events
to build community and support books. These plans certainly helped
Coady realize her vision: R.J. Julia was named PW Bookstore of the
Year in 1995
Yet Coady found that knowing what type of store she wanted wasn't
enough. For her business to grow and thrive, for her employees to
enjoy autonomy and meaningful participation, she needed to take
this process one critical step forward. In 1998 Coady and her employees
developed a mission statement for the store. This grueling process
led to a simple elaboration of the stores' purpose ("A place for
our customers, our staff, and our community to share their enthusiasm
and excitement for books in a way that enhances the experience for
us all,") and its values (Customer service, integrity, respect,
style, and responsibility). Coady says the process of developing
the statement generated a tremendously useful conversation among
More important, she says "we are now attempting to integrate the
mission statement into all of our policies and procedures and environment."
Recently when dealing with a difficult employee, for example, Coady
and her managers found that using the explicit principles as a guide
resulted in a decision (to dismiss the employee-but with a month's
notice, sufficient time for the individual to find other work and
to save face at the store) that balanced the store's premium on
accountability with a respectful approach to the individual.
If developing a clear set of goals and values is the first step,
then the second critical skill for booksellers (as it is for all
small businesses) has to do with identifying the unique value one
delivers to the customer. The best booksellers cultivate and nurture
a meaningful community of customers. At Kate's
Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA, for example, owner Kate Mattes
does more than offer both new and used titles, produce a regular
newsletter, and hold frequent book signings and other author events.
She also highlights her ties to local authors and draws from the
enthusiasm of her loyal customers.
Outside the Victorian home that houses her store, Mattes has planted
flowers and plants that were gifts from local authors Jane Langton,
Katherine Hall Page, and Susan Conant. When Jeremiah Healy or Bill
Tapply stop by she enlists them to move boxes for her. Robert Parker
built some of the wooden bookshelves in the store. Having such strong
ties with authors enables Mattes to provide her customers with a
greater sense of participation to the world of mystery books. "I
think that my customers enjoy coming here and talking with other
people. They feel a sense of belonging. Many of my regulars will
give advice to other customers, or give them a tour of the store,"
she says. Mattes also listens to what her customers are saying:
she has developed sections of the store that feature strong women
or regional settings as a result of customer requests.
Another mystery bookstore, the Mystery
Bookstore in Los Angeles, has taken the participation of its
community of customers one step further. Last spring, when longtime
owner Otto Penzler (based in New York) decided to close down the
west coast store, general manager Sheldon McArthur searched for
a way to keep the store alive. He found it in the store's customers.
With the help of an attorney (and customer,) McArthur sent 500 customers
an email seeking help. Within two weeks more than 60 potential investors
had stepped up. McArthur eventually tapped more than a dozen in
his subsequent purchase of the store. He has also enlisted this
group for services ranging from legal and accounting services, website
design and support, and general sweat equity.
The third key skill to develop for bookstore owners concerns ongoing
education-not simply in the nuts and bolts of the newest inventory
system, but a commitment to lifelong learning. The masters of this
do so by building a network of supporters and advisors both within
and outside of their company.
"Networking is invaluable," says owner Frank Kramer of the Harvard
Book Stores in Cambridge, MA, "Anyone who is arrogant enough
to think they know all the answers is destined for failure." Kramer,
who inherited the business from his father as a 20-year-old in 1962,
has spent his career as a bookseller owner trying to expand his
managerial chops. When he first took the reins of what was then
a college bookstore, Kramer supplemented his know-how through a
simple weekly newsletter from NACS, the National Association of
College Stores. Over the years, as his business grew, Kramer grew
his knowledge through actively participating in the ABA-taking regular
courses and picking up tips by osmosis from fellow owners.
Yet Kramer has also tried to become a better bookseller by focusing
on his business skills. He was the only person in the book business
to take the Harvard Business School owner/manager program some twenty
years ago, which he says "gave me a smattering of business knowledge."
And for the past 14 years Kramer has continued to address his ability
to lead the company through involvement in The
Executive Committee (TEC) a formal network of people who run
small businesses and who meet regularly to help one another with
their most vexing business issues. The value of such a group rests
in its ability to identify key business issues that transcend one's
personal business. "Through TEC I've learned the importance of matters
like having a profit and loss statement on the fourteenth of every
month," says Kramer, "Or that as the head of the company you can't
expect other people to make the tough decisions. Those are yours
Such a grasp of solid business skills leads to the fourth essential
skill for bookstore owners, one of the most challenging of all:
learning to set boundaries when managing employees. For many booksellers,
this can be a painful process. In her early days of the store, Roxanne
Coady would often overlook employee's poor behavior. "I just wanted
them as my friends," she says. Yet such an approach "basically reinvented
a dysfunctional family," she says. Eventually Coady implemented
a more formal system in which individual employees set clear goals,
and then review these goals with a manager on a regular basis. This
enables people to discuss their desired and actual behavior, and
helps both worker and boss to explore how to create the right conditions
for employees to do their best.
This leads to the final skill, in which you reach a point where
you can realize the distinctive promise of your business-without
your constant presence. This issue goes beyond the mere issue of
learning not to micromanage (itself a big deal). The question comes
down to this: does your store have sufficient policies and procedures,
coupled with an explicit employee awareness of your mission, for
the store to continue doing what it should without you?
In some ways, bookstore owners can accomplish this process only
if they have gone through the first step of articulating of mission
and values. Without such a compass, no degree of delegation or trust
in employees will enable them to make decisions that are aligned
with the overall company goals. Michael Powell didn't cross this
crucial threshold until his Portland-based Powell's
City of Books had roughly 75 employees. "As we grew from a single
store to a more complex organization, we had to confront the issue
of what systems and strategies we had in place to accommodate the
growth and the potential for future growth," he says.
Yet such a transition awaits bookstores of any size that have
a commitment to growth and excellence. Regardless of your company
size, you must begin to implement systems that enable the business
to continue on its own. "The articulation of values and strategy
doesn't have to be a formal process, but you have to do it," says
Powell. "Because the owner can get sick, for example. Ask yourself:
could you walk away from the store and have it be okay?"
Formulating a strategy and then creating a team-or even a manager-to
help implement the plan changes life in two key ways, says Powell.
The first is that the owner assumes a new role that may be rooted
in daily operations yet takes a broader view of the business. And
the second, hopefully, is a store in which employees have the power
and the expectation to make good decisions. "Though all of this
you have to be willing to delegate and trust," says Powell, whose
company now has seven stores, a booming online presence, and more
than 500 employees. "The goal is to empower people to be part of
the decision-making process, to offer their ideas and feel an ownership
about the company."
How can an independent bookseller compete with the larger market
forces today? By teaming up with others to create a unified front,
says American Booksellers Association CEO Avin Mark Domnitz. He
offers the following suggestions for bookstore owners be more competitive-no
matter their size.
"To survive in 2001 independent booksellers must be excellent
retailers. This means having a full and complete understanding of
their business. Their financial structure must be current and strong.
They must have measurement tools for judging how they are doing
compared to others in the industry, and they must be able to make
forecasts and have the flexibility to adapt when necessary.
"Booksellers must focus their activities on the customer. To do
this they need local marketing intelligence: data that tracks who
your customers are and what type of books they like. There are many
excellent available tools to gather this information and create
an excellent consumer database. This is one area in which people
have to "Think like a chain, act like an independent." All of the
major retailers have techniques and tools to gain market intelligence.
Independents must use these same tools while at the same time communicating
their attributes and qualities as independents. They need to market
"That's the major impetus behind the formation of Book
Sense, which strives to maintain and enforce the diversity of
the independent market. The only reasonable way to do this is as
a unified group. You can't place yourself apart from the community
of independent booksellers. Acting alone, independents won't have
the power to confront the realities of the marketplace. Barnes and
Nobles and Borders together do approximately $9 billion in business.
How does an individual independent fight that?
"The great challenge for independents is to live out in the real
world the claims they make and the aspirations they have about who
they are and what they represent. You can't make claims about your
mission statement without living your mission statement. You can't
create who you are through rhetoric and then not carry it through
in everyday practice. Too many independents have tried to create
this image of themselves as something unique and then haven't delivered.
I understand how challenging this is. Independents must try to grow
their business. When your cost structure is going up, if you aren't
growing your business then you are eroding your profit."
(This article appeared in Publisher's Weekly 11/5/2001)
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