Post script to CBA posts

OK – Micah brought it up in the meta, and it’s a good enough question to come back to the front page of the blog. However, I admit it has limited appeal, so those of you who didn’t care for the CBA posts can just be on your way. This is important stuff we’re talking about.

Micah said this in the meta:
Gotta an idea for a blog post... what would it take for a person to start and maintain an independent Christian bookstore?
Since I have done this personally, I can tell you. However, I am sure some people will not like my answers because they are not the conventional answers to this question.

The first thing you need to start an independent Christian bookstore is a business plan. Why? Because at the end of your first month in business, you cannot call all the people who shopped and tell them (as if it was a church) that the giving did not match the budget and we need to take up a special collection. Also, because the workman is worth is wages, it is important to note that you personally will never get paid unless you know in what way your bookstore has to function financially in order to generate wages for you and your help – and you will need help.

But financials are not the be-all and end-all of your business plan: they are merely the necessary skeleton. Another important part of your business plan is your marketing strategy. Now, don’t give me that I-just-bit-the-pickle reformed schoolmarm look. A bookstore is not a church: it is a business – well, it is if it’s a bookstore not propped up inside Phil Johnson’s church, anyway. (no offense, Phil) But your marketing plan includes things like “we’re a bookstore that caters to high-brow theological tastes,” or “we’re a bookstore that majors in Precious Moments” or whatever. See: you (the layman, the person who only shops at retail from time to time) think that somehow a retail establishment somehow just reflects an approach to selection and presentation by accident, or by some kind of luck. But the reality is that the places that execute retail professionally check every decision against some kind of core value marketing position. That’s how, btw, you keep Precious Moments out of your bookstore in spite of the gaggles of old women who will request them but will never buy them: you decide that your bookstore is “this kind of bookstore” before you buy piece #1 of anything, and then you check every buying decision you make after that against your marketing values (you can call it a mission statement if you want, but that’s not broad enough to cover what you are covering here) to make sure your bookstore is what you want it to be and what it ought to be.

Also included in your business plan is you marketplace survey. That is, if there are 50 Christian Bookstores in you neck of the woods, and 5 of them are associated with MegaChurches®, and 75% of people who live in your neck of the woods are Mormons, opening a Reformed Baptist bookstore which specializes in countercult apologetics will probably go over like a the 8-letter word of conflagration goes over here at the blog. And, again, the mission of an indie retail store seems to make missiological sense in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, but geez louise: there’s no way that store is ever going to make enough to pay the rent as a stand-alone enterprise. You have to be in a market that you either can actually evangelize, or that is dying for the resources you intend to have on the shelves. You will literally drain all your cash in 3-4 months if you are selling at a break-even ate to start, and your idea to be a better bookstore will cost you all your cash.

Last of all, your business plan has to include an operating plan. What are you going to use for inventory control? What financial software are you going to use for book-keeping? How many employees will you use? What will they do? What is your inventory mix? Do you know what “inventory mix” is? Do you need a loss prevention system? Do you need a listening station for music? Your method of implementing a retail strategy results in 10,000 details, and if you don’t even know the 500 categories that the details fall into, you have no hope of being successful.

So the first thing you need to start an independent Christian bookstore is a business plan. If you don’t wanna or you’re intimidated by it and think you can do it on a napkin, forget it. You’re not qualified.

The second thing you need to start an independent Christian bookstore is capital. As I told Micah, you can bank on needing $80/sq ft of real rented space to start, and that will leave you almost no cushion for operating cash through your first three years of struggling to establish your business. Now, unless you have $150,000 lying around, that means you’re going to need to borrow the money from a bank.

If you have a comprehensive business plan, and you have done your research, then you can probably secure a SBA loan from a bank. Without a business plan, you can forget it.

The third thing you need to start an independent Christian bookstore is a guts. Listen: you need to be somewhat fearless (but not stoopid) to own your own business. It means being able to be unwilling to commit suicide when you have your first $100 day when you need $650/day to break even, and unwilling to fold up the tents when somebody starts competing with you when you start being somewhat successful. You have to be able to look your customers in the eye and tell them, “Running this bookstore is a great blessing from God,” as if you mean it when they ask you, “How is your business going” and yesterday you had that $100 day.

You need to be a member of the chamber of commerce that other businesses admire. You need to have the confidence of your accountant and your lawyer. You need to be a member in good standing in your local church. You need to be a good representative of your business when you’re at your kid’s soccer game and that sheep-headed 16-yr-old who’s supposed to be the ref won’t blow the whistle for anything, and when your team is about to crush the other team 7-0 because your son has finally figured out that he’s the tallest (and therefore the fastest) kid on the field.

You have to have guts to be more than just some anonymous person anymore. You will be forming a relationship with your community that is necessary for your success, and if you don’t wanna, don’t waste your time and money. WAL*MART already sells the retail basics in this category, and the only reason people will shop you is if they trust your reputation as an example of Christian living. And guess what: that takes guts.

And just to make sure I say this, the last thing you need to start an independent Christian bookstore is a ”a word from God”. And when I say “the last thing you need”, be sure you understand me to say, “you need that like you need vinegar in your underwear.” Did you know that CBA bookstores fail as startup businesses at a rate of 70% in the first three years of operation? Do you know why? Because so many happy-hearted people think that God has given them a word that they should open up a bookstore, but apparently God didn’t tell them how to pay bills or the rent. If you just think you have the urge, the still small voice, the word of knowledge, the dream, whatever, but when you read the words “business plan” you just skimmed down the page, you are not qualified to open a bookstore of any stripe. Sorry. That’s rough, but that’s the truth.

I mean, since Micah asked, right? This is what it takes. To paraphrase a pretty smart guy, being reformed is not enough, and being a really, really, really nice person is not enough. You have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, and you have to be that way every day.