Volumes Bookcafe, The Long-Awaited Opening, and Other Bookselling Stories

The empty shelves of Volumes Bookcafe are ready for the upcoming book unwrapping party on March 16. (Rebecca George/VOLUMES BOOKCAFE)

By Frances Van de Vel

The white logo is gleaming proudly on the red brick façade and large windows. On the inside, however, Volumes Bookcafe needs a few finishing touches. The empty shelves – 6,000 pounds in total – are waiting for books, and there are still no lattes or lipstick-stained wine glasses to be seen on the sleek countertops.

Nothing is as it seems, though. The brand new cross between a bookstore and a bar at 1474 N. Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park is more than ready for its opening later this month. With the arrival of their inventory on March 16, Rebecca and Kimberly George will be taking one last step in a journey that seems to have lasted forever.

Four years ago, Rebecca was on her way to a PhD in Rhetoric. But she decided to decline offers from three universities to pursue a much older dream: opening a bookstore that also provides drinks to enhance the store’s community feel.

“Books attract me,” she said. “In my career as an educator, I spent my time every day selling books, selling information. My life has always been centered by and centered around books.”

After looking for funding and finding a business partner (her sister Kimberly), lots of paperwork and trips to the city offices followed. Filing for assorted licenses was also on the agenda, but Rebecca readily admitted that those administrative processes “[weren’t] as bad as some other stuff we dealt with.”

The store’s location in an 1883 building turned out to be the biggest obstacle. Getting final approval on building permits supposedly takes eight to 12 weeks. Volumes’ permit was in the works for several months.

“A lot of that is on the city’s end, because they are a touch understaffed and overwhelmed,” said Rebecca. “Some of that is on our end, and getting yourself and tradesmen and architects to all communicate effectively… I wish I could throw a dart at one person’s face, but at the end of the day, I realize everyone is doing their job. Essentially nothing happens as fast as you would like when it comes to the third largest metropolis in the country.”

Perhaps, yet indie bookstores continue to open in the Windy City.

For Esther Dairiam, who founded the culinary bookstore Read It & Eat in Lincoln Park in 2015 after a minor one-month delay, Rebecca’s problems sound familiar.

“I’ve experienced the complexities of working with the city of Chicago when I tried to obtain my business permit,” Dairiam said. “I had no business background. I’ve worked as a management consultant for several years, and I had no idea how to open a bookstore.”

Teresa Kirschbraun, owner of City Lit Books in Logan Square, did have business training when she started planning the store, which opened in 2012. With a 10-year career in consulting and health care, she knew how to prepare financial projections and draw up a business plan.

“The whole thing, from start to finish, has been very exciting,” said Kirschbraun. “I think the hardest part was my lease. I have a great location, but it took a year to hammer through all the details.”

Bookselling is “a continuous learning process,” shd said. Six months after opening, she discovered that she hadn’t sold one copy of her inventory’s romance novels, a category that had sold really well in similar stores.

“You need to continue to learn from your customers,” Kirschbraun said. “They’ll let you know if you have the right things in the store , and if you’re providing the right service.”

Erika VanDam of RoscoeBooks in Roscoe Village, on the other hand, realized that she had been “spectacularly lucky.” Originally working in ad sales and deciding to try something new after her maternity leave, it took her less than a year to plan and launch RoscoeBooks, which opened in 2014.

“A lot of things went right,” VanDam said. “But getting a permit for a buildout was a more complicated and involved process than I expected.”

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

Even when everything goes smoothly, successfully opening a bookstore still requires intensive preparation, training, and a strong network to tap for help.

“I’ve emailed and called strangers from all over the country,” said Rebecca. “I corner people at conferences. I make binders full of data… One business is hard enough. Two businesses in one is a whole other thing.”

Behind every (potentially) thriving bookstore is a strong fan base. When the George sisters unexpectedly had to expand their HVAC system and water lines, they organized a crowdfunding campaign on the website Indiegogo. After one month, 100 backers had donated $9,400.

Dairiam received advice from culinary bookstore owners in New York City, Seattle and San Francisco.

“They were all so supportive,” said Dairiam. “The indie bookselling industry is a very collaborative community.”

The Bookstore Training Group

The Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates, based in Florida, helps people who want to open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. A former manager of a big bookstore in Nashville, Donna Paz Kaufman founded the company in 1992.

“Many people [who want to open a bookstore] are educators, some are librarians, and many people come from the helping industries like healthcare,” she said. “Learning the business side of managing a bookstore was hard for them.”

The Bookstore Training Group, currently at its highest enrollment rate, has helped hundreds of stores open and trained over 1,000 students.

Although the group will offer free training in the future, the current two-part program costs $1,395. The first part, conducted entirely online, covers financial and startup issues. The second is a three-and-one-half-day workshop offered in spring and summer. They are affectionately dubbed “workshop retreats” because of their idyllic location on Amelia Island, Florida.

A core group of teachers and guest lecturers teach groups of no more than 25 everything there is to know about the trade. About 70 percent of the clients want to know how to open a bookstore; the others are current owners seeking extra coaching.

Clients quickly realize that their heart’s desire will likely involve a lot of work, including work weeks of more than 70 hours. “It’s a lot to manage in a person’s life,” Paz Kaufman said.

Dairiam attended the boot camp in May 2013 to see if her business plan was feasible.

“They provided me with the industry statistics that I needed,” she said. “I intended to build a kitchen in the bookstore to host events and demonstrations, but I didn’t have any access to data on that kind of classes, such as margins and project growth.”

Kirschbraun graduated from the program in the summer of 2011. “I still talk to the people I’ve met in the class,” she said.

VanDam trained with Paz & Associates in May 2014 and valued her newly acquired “knowledge of how it all fit together.”

“One major thing that they offered me was peace of mind,” she said. “I knew that I could ask them about any random weird thing that I would run into.”

Asked about tips for aspiring booksellers, Kirschbraun is surprisingly quick to answer. It’s a question she hears all the time from visitors to her store.

“I would tell them to really think about their location,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be in Logan Square, but finding that right spot took a long time and the lease took a long time. But it is so worth it, so I think that’s really important. And understand whether it can work or not – you really have to get down to crunching numbers.”

“Take the time to hire the right people,” VanDam said. “Not just the ones who have experience, but the ones who see your vision and believe in it.”

Chances are, women are asking most of the questions about how to start a bookstore.

“Bookselling attracts a lot of women,” said Paz Kaufman. “We get a lot of female attorneys in our classes, more than any other profession. It’s like a running joke with our team: ‘Who will be the female attorney in this class?’”

“If you walked around the bookseller conferences, you would probably see a 3:1 if not 4:1 ratio,” Rebecca said. “The used-book store owner, conversely, is somewhat of the opposite. I’m sure many have hypothesized about this… I don’t know the answer.”

The statistical stairway to heaven

Whether run by men or women, the number of indie bookstores and their sales volume are on an upward curve. Dan Cullen, Senior Strategy Officer of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), confirmed that independent bookselling in the U.S. is in a “healthy state.”

As of May 15, 2015, ABA’s bookstore membership comprises 1,712 stores in more than 2,200 locations. The number of indie bookstores affiliated with ABA has grown by 22 percent since 2009.

Number of ABA members (2009-2015)

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Source: The American Booksellers Association (2016)

In 2015, sales in indie bookstores increased by 10 percent, continuing a trend that started in 2012.

“While not every bookstore or community has seen this growth, the national trends are clear,” said Cullen. “New stores are opening, established stores are finding new owners, and a new generation is coming into the business as both owners/managers and frontline booksellers. All of this is a result of the fact that indie booksellers remain a resilient and entrepreneurial group.”

Big plans for the future

George, Dairiam, Kirschbraun and VanDam all have optimistic plans for the future. Dairiam plans to add a shopping cart to the store’s website. Kirschbraun is tentatively thinking about expanding or adding alcoholic beverages. VanDam hopes for “strong partnerships with all of the local schools and other local institutions that need books.”

“Despite every little hardship or little thing that comes up on a day-to-day basis, it still feels like this may be the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said. “And I’m hopeful that Rebecca and Kim will feel the same way in a year or so.”

Rebecca envisions bringing “great things to our community,” but for now she has only one concrete goal for Volumes Bookcafe.

“Maybe someday we can expand our footprint,” she said. “But right now, I just want to open.”

Photo at top: The empty shelves of Volumes Bookcafe are ready for the upcoming book unwrapping party on March 16. (Rebecca George/VOLUMES BOOKCAFE)