Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In the Beginning...

Here's a little background history about our bookstore. Old Saratoga Books was founded in 1996, after owners Dan and Rachel Jagareski had worked in various historic rehabilitation, business and government jobs. After the birth of our second daughter, we knew we wanted a more flexible work environment and some more mental stimulation, so armed with a lot of enthusiasm and a love for reading, we decided to open a used bookstore. We had a large home library and had been scouting around for books in an effort to stockpile an inventory, but we were very green.

First off, we underestimated the weight of the boxes of books accumulating in our house and though it's a sturdy structure with mercifully-thick floor joists, our floors started getting very spongy. The teetering towers of books were a hazard to our then toddler, so we rented a storage unit for our book stock. Most of our books were gleaned from library sales, garage sales and thrift stores, and we did have the sense enough to concentrate on acquiring nonfiction, but as we read more and more books about books, and devoured the AB Bookmans Weekly issues, we kept revisiting our potential inventory and winnowing out more and more chaff.

The big boost to our education came with acquistion of the "Leonard Collection". Dan had spied a Pennysaver ad about a used bookstore going out of business downstate. A titanic collection of books were for sale at a pennysaver price and blinded by biblio-lust, we bought the lot. With the help of Dan's cousin and a rented moving van, we made several trips to collect our treasure. The learning curve was steep after handling this mass: there were some good books, but they had been picked over quite neatly, leaving a tonnage of common and uninteresting books and a singularly disgusting collection of dirty magazines devoted to specific anatomical parts (Big Butt Magazine,et al). Even after ten years, I sometimes find a Leonard book on our shelves and reach for my rubber gloves for extraction and circular filing.

Aspiring used bookstore owners should obtain the invaluable book "The Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore", by the late Dale Gilbert. We borrowed a copy from the library, read it over and over and then bought a copy that we still refer to today. Although Gilbert wrote about the used bookstore in the pre-Internet day, his model for acquiring books, setting up your retail space, accounting, and other information is worth the price of acquiring this out-of-print gem (starting at $35.00 online). His writing style is clever and full of real-life examples. While we don't do everything according to the Gilbert model (location in a strip mall, for instance), it's a fantastic tool and I can't recommend it enough for the any bookseller.

We found an inexpensive and large retail space in the Hudson River town of Schuylerville, with a great landlord who has owned the property for 30 years and maintains its 1880s historic character with annual improvements. The long-vacant storefront had former lives as an antique shop, pharmacy (with a lunch counter where a woman choked to death on a ham sandwich), general store and bar. A leaking roof had caused a lot of damage, so we were able to barter some rehabilitation for rent. Dan built all the shelves and exposed the brick walls and we think it's a funky, lovely space.

With a grand opening scheduled, we were disheartened to see our book accumulation quickly suck into the shelves with way too much empty space, so we faced out as many books as we could. Flocks of bookdealers initially came to scoop up our under-priced mistakes and we were thinking the first month's cash flow would be indicative of long-term buckets of money, but this was a bubble. Over the years our financial progress has been slow to rise, with many backsteps and quicksteps into a wildly changing bookselling market. The rise of Internet bookselling has caused us to learn more about websites, SKUs, ISBNs, and now blogging, than we certainly ever wanted to, but is has grown to over half of our store income, so we've tried to evolve. We've grown to over 50,000 books in the shop and added and renovated a second floor space when it became available five years ago.

It's been over a decade and we've gone through three store cats and several village mayors while at the helm of Old Saratoga Books. We're not rich on the balance sheet, but we still love what we do. We don't sit around reading books and sipping Lapsang Souchong as we snuggle store cat Sam as some customers fantasize. Instead, we're scrubbing the bathroom, reorganizing, cleaning and repairing books, answering emails, scratching our heads over the accounting or trying to figure out the latest Internet business tool. However, we dress as we please and commute along a wildlife corridor where we've seen pheasants, weasels, snapping turtles and a bull moose once. Our kids like to "shop" here when they are conscripted into dusting duty. And each time that we unlock the store door, breathing in the book perfume and spying all the books that Sam has knocked over, there's the sense that this is where we belong. Riches untold.

2 comments:

Forrest said...

We didn't sit around sipping tea either until we taught our cat to make it.

She's not very good with the teakettle, but she loves chasing the tea bags around.

Roberta said...

love, love, love the new blog! I'm always looking for new bookselling blogs and yours is very nice.