What You Should Know Before You Try to Open a Bookstore/Café

Do you love books? I love books. Somehow, books and tea (or coffee) seem to just go together. Which is probably why every introverted bibliophile I have ever met has at one point or another uttered something along the lines of “I want to open my own bookstore/coffee house/tea room/café.”

To which respond, “No. You really don’t.”

I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here; I just happen to have a pragmatic side. Book lovers–all of us, I’m afraid–have this romanticized idea of a warm and cozy nook that magically takes care of itself while we snuggle in a comfy chair with a hot cuppa and read, read, read to our heart’s content.

In other words, we dream of opening the kind of place where we’d like to hang out.

Thing is, if you’re running the place, you don’t have time to hang out. A wise man once said, “You don’t own a small business: it owns you.” This might be even more true in a specialty business. For example:

  • Your life becomes defined by your customers’ needs. Stayed up until three finishing that book you just couldn’t put down? Tough. Your sign says “Open at 8,” so you’d better be there.
  • What you do becomes more important than who you are. Not a morning person? Have trouble making easy conversation? Dislike being interrupted mid-task? Sorry. You’re the shop-owner: the way people perceive you becomes your brand. You cater to customers … even the unreasonable ones with screaming children.
  • Your romantic daydream will often clash with business reality. You need a business plan going in, but once you’ve started, you do whatever it takes to keep the business alive. Remember, you’ll be going up against big name discounters like Barnes and Noble. That means your cozy farmhouse ambiance might have to give way to polished chrome and brass … and shelves of Dickens and Melville might need to be cleared for more copies of “Fifty Shades of Rainbows.”
  • It’s work. You’ll need to be there before opening each morning to get foodstuffs ready. You’ll be on your feet all day meeting customer needs (or worse, sitting all day because you have no customers!). And you’ll stay long after closing, cleaning up, restocking shelves, and preparing for the next day.

And there’s more: if you’re a literary person, it usually means you prefer to deal in words, not numbers. But running a small business is all about numbers: what you pay out, what you bring in, paying bills, figuring taxes. You’ll also have to deal with legal expenses. Licensing. Insurance. Chargebacks. Theft. Unreliable employees. Hiring and firing.

And all in an industry that has one of the slimmest profit margins of any business.

Are you discouraged yet? No? Well, in that case, you might actually have a chance of making your dream a reality.

But if it all sounds like way more trouble than its worth, well, maybe just brew yourself bit of black oolang, find a cozy corner to curl up with a copy of David Copperfield, and dream about all the books you’ll be able to enjoy by not opening your own café.