What I Know...
by M. Stephen Lukac

“Reinventing the wheel is sometimes the right thing, when the result is the radial tire.” – Jonathan Gilbert

We’ll see.

Last November, when my employer announced their plans to shutter my brick and mortar bookstore, my first reaction –aside from a thorough recitation of every obscenity and scatological reference in my repertoire- was to contemplate what I’d spend the rest of my life doing.  It was, I thought, a prudent concern.

I remembered what friends and family had said two decades earlier, when I accepted the position as the manager of a bookstore.  For the sake of brevity, let’s just say nobody was surprised.  In fact, if ever a career had suited an individual, this one had suited me, as anyone who’s ever helped me move will attest.  I’ve always maintained that my job as a bookseller was the transformation of an avocation into a vocation, and in all my years of bitching (and trust me, I bitched a lot), that belief never changed.

A few days later, after the shock had subsided and I’d exhausted my supply of obscene gerunds and colorful metaphors, I had the first of what would become many plans for my future.

I would open an independent bookstore.

This seemed like a perfect solution, especially when I considered the arguments against it.  One third of small businesses fail within the first two years; only half survive beyond four years.  I’m no MBA, but the biggest contributing factors to that seem obvious.  Most would-be entrepreneurs’ business plans seem to focus on two common –yet erroneous- parameters: It would be really cool and How hard could it be?

I’m surprised the failure rate isn’t higher.

However, I’d already done the job for twenty years, and I was old-school, not one of these least common denominator, managers come lately.  When I started my tenure, I chose what books were stocked on my store’s shelves.  I was a Manager in the traditional sense of the word, not just the highest-ranked wage-slave with a nametag.  I knew how the business worked, and more importantly, how to run the business.

Additionally, I believed my hometown was a viable market.  My store’s sales never qualified me for Rock Star status, but my location made a healthy –and consistent- profit in a depressed economy with demographics that precluded most high-profile retailers from dipping their toes into the local waters.  After some quick math, I calculated an Independent bookstore could thrive on roughly half the annual sales that seemed insufficient for my corporate masters.

After some timely advice from several wise men whose counsel I respect, I quickly decided I was in the wrong headspace to make any decisions more important than whether or not to super-size my extra value meal, so I tabled further planning until after I closed my joint.  During the intervening weeks, I came up with several other alternatives, ranging from practical to absurd, thus proving the wisdom in waiting.

It’s no secret the book business is changing; I realized that during my first post-career visit to a bookstore.  My family and I made the 40 mile trek to a Barnes & Noble (and yes, that is now the minimum distance required to patronize a bookstore; how sad is that?), and while I located several books I wanted to read, I didn’t purchase any of them.  Why?  I realized I could obtain them for a much lower price from Amazon.

In fact, the first book I purchased after becoming unemployed came from Amazon too, not because of any price differential, but due to the fact that I couldn’t find it.  This wasn’t an obscure, small press title either; this was the latest mass market offering by a national publisher’s bestselling author, and none of the –ahem- local merchants had it on their shelves.

Now, you might think the preceding facts argue for the need and potential success of a hometown bookstore, but I disagree, and here’s why.

E-books are here, kids.  As a reader, I’m not a fan . . . yet, but I can feel myself leaning in that direction.  Now that I’m not surrounded by 10,000 titles on a daily basis, now that I don’t have easy access to every title In Print, now that I actually have to spend money to read something (which was almost a bigger adjustment than losing a job), convenience, value and immediacy form the capstone on my bibliophilic pyramid, especially since my literary taste extends beyond the Oprah Book Club and teenage vampire angst, and that’s 90% of what the local Wal-Mart stocks.  And that realization has me eyeing Amazon’s Kindle page with more than passing curiosity.

And, the iPad is going to impact books like the iPod impacted music.  I’m not much for prognostication, but I believe it –as my grandmother used to say- deep in my bones.

As an author, I don’t need to expound on the potential of electronic offerings; somebody’s already doing that for us.

But, technological advances and industry upheavals aren’t the only cautionary factors preventing me from diving into the entrepreneurial pool.  The space my store occupied in the mall has already been leased, to another “bookstore” (the need for quotation marks will become apparent in a second).  Their business model leans heavily on remaindered and bargain books, with only ten to fifteen percent of inventory dedicated to Frontlist titles (you know, the heavily discounted books found on every Costco, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart shelf).  Their presence in town didn’t have me shaking in my businessman booties, but something cautioned against action without further investigation.

Last weekend, my family and I visited an existing location of this company.  From the concourse, the business looked remarkably similar to any other mall-based book retailer (not nearly as neat and well-merchandised as mine, but I’m biased), but closer examination revealed the truth.

The store was divided into sections, just like any Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble, but these sections were filled with older titles, each sporting a small, red sticker touting a price fifty to seventy percent lower than the original retail.  And while I’m a big fan of low, low prices, I also want some bang for my buck, but alas, there was no boom to be found.

As an aside, I also have to mention my encounter with the store manager.  As he roamed the aisles, “Jim” motioned for customers to follow him into the stacks, as if he had some magical secret to reveal.  I tagged along, anticipating a wondrous surprise, only to be disappointed when “Jim” stopped next to a display and jabbed a finger at a red price tag chanting, “Bargain bookstore!  Bargain bookstore!” before dashing off to disclose the Secret of the Universe to other groups of unsuspecting shoppers.

It was Dr. Sheldon Cooper running a flea market stall, except the books were arranged on shelves instead of stuffed into orange crates, and the paperbacks didn’t have their covers torn off.  No wonder they only offered me half of my previous salary to run the new one here in town.

What scared me most about my foray into what will soon be the only bookstore in my county wasn’t the staff, or the muddled presentation, or the veneer of current, relevant product.  Most disturbing was the realization that their target demographic –the customer base that made me and my staff’s final month manning the registers an exercise in insanity- won’t be bothered a bit.  Make no mistake; these weren’t the loyal customers we serviced for years, they left soon after the last truck delivered our last shipment of new books, and only ventured in afterwards to say good-bye or inquire about the possibility of my bosses changing their minds.

The same folks that drooled over merchandise because of deep discounts, without any consideration for the quality of their purchases, will make this new venture enough of a success to guarantee them a place in my mall until the last national retailer has vacated the premises and the Farmer’s Market moves in.

More’s the pity.

So, what do I know?

I know my beloved business has changed.  I know traditional content delivery models may not have gone the way of the dinosaur yet, but if you look to the skies, you can see the meteor coming.  I know Out of Print isn’t the death knell it once was and that revenue streams for writers are growing exponentially, and once E-books settle into one or two standard formats, the potential will be limitless.

I also know that one leg of my publishing tripod (bibliophile, bookseller and author) has been eliminated, ripped out of the stool that once helped support me, and if you’ve ever tried to balance yourself on a two-legged stool, you know it’s a nearly impossible trick.

What I don’t know is what comes next.

But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .

M Stephen Lukac has been reading since he was three, writing since he was seven and selling other people’s books since he was twenty-eight. At forty, he realized it might be time to get serious.

He loves stories set in coherent worlds, where the rules and situations –no matter how fantastic they may be- remain consistent across the author’s body of work. Experiencing the creation of a fictional universe –whether overt or subtle- is akin to peeking over God’s shoulder. Inhabiting those creations, regardless of the medium, is his second favorite thing.

His favorite thing is definitely not talking about himself in the third person.

But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .

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