Two book lovers named Shannon and Mike fell in love with the idea of starting a bookshop together in 2009— and they did it. Ten years later, their shop is an iconic destination for other book lovers, and they even started a second brand. Shannon walks us through the life of a business owner in our interview at their flagship store called Woods in the Books.
How it all began
I was working as an event organizer while studying at university, and would pop by BooksActually to drop off flyers. This is how I met Kenny and Karen [the owners of the bookshop]. I really admired their gung-ho spirit!
One day, we were chit-chatting, and I said: “I don’t know what to do after graduating.” Mike was working as a graphic designer, and we were looking for something that could merge our interests.
They said: You can open a bookstore and be our competitor; be our neighbour!
If you are a book lover, who doesn’t dream of opening your own bookstore? This sparked an idea that I hadn’t considered. We shelved it for a few months because we had other commitments, but decided to pursue this idea if we found a shop space in the area. They said we can be their neighbor… so, let’s do it!
The point of no return: signing the lease for two years
We found a shop a few doors away from BooksActually on Club Street. After we signed the lease and gave the big check to the landlord, we realized: Oh-oh, what did we get ourselves into? This is it… there’s no u-turning!
Of course, at the back of my mind, I thought: The lease is two years. Worse comes to worse, if we are not cut out for it, we will get day jobs and use our salaries to pay off all the money we loaned from our family.
Neither of us had experience in the retail trade. We opened the shop within a month of getting the key, because we were only given one month free for the renovation. When we opened the shop, it was quite bare and empty. We didn’t have the time or budget to shelf up the space.
When we look back at photos, we think: “Wow, we were crazy.”
Turning a hole-in-a-wall into a charming shop
When we got the space, it was very run-down with peeling walls, 20 years of dust, dirty cubicles, and a moldy carpet. It used to be a pest control office! There was a squatting toilet with a leaking roof. There was a lot of work to be done!
We had a limited budget for renovations, and we knew that people were concerned about losing the charm of this neighbourhood. So, we kept the façade such as the grills of the windows— which is very iconic, and we didn’t knock down the front wall to create a glass wall for a sparkling and contemporary design. Instead, we decided to preserve it.
We never had a proper interior design, or full carpentry, or shelf-making. We don’t have the money. We picked up unwanted shelves from our friend’s office movers. It just got seasoned and settled in over the years. All the art that you see here are Mike’s drawings.
Find a focus that’s pragmatic within your passion
Initially, we wanted to run a Chinese bookshop because that’s what I majored in. But it would have been difficult given the context; we had limited funds. With picture books, we could start with parents who wanted to buy them for their children.
Picture books was also a merger of our interests. Mike draws; he is an illustrator, and we collect a lot of picture books ourselves. Because of our limited funds, we built the stock book by book.
Nobody knows who you are. Tough days with no sales.
After we started, there were really tough days with no sales. People would come in and ask: what is this bookstore about… oh, this is a children’s bookstore —and they would leave! They would do this before we even had a chance to say anything. Picture books are not just for children!
Personally curating every book in the store
The fundamental question that I always ask is: would I buy this book from a bookstore if I saw it there? Would I personally be willing to give my hard-earned money to buy this book?
We must do our job with the selection we are offering, and I am filtering the risk that my customers are taking. People can tell the difference in our selection, and returning customers embrace and appreciate our work. They are paying with their hard-earned money.
Cannot return unsold books to the distributor
All the stock that you see on the shelves are our money. As an independent bookstore, we are not allowed to return the books we can’t sell. So we pay for it with hard cash. If the stock is stuck there, our cash is stuck there as well. As you know, cash-flow is a very important part of business.
Throwing all the money back into the business
We have been running for eight years now, and didn’t start drawing a salary till two years ago when our child came along. Before that, we kept throwing the money back into the store, and lived on our savings.
With all the time we spent in the bookstore, we didn’t have time to spend much money, anyway! We kept things to a minimal, and stayed away from branded goods. Mike occasionally does freelance projects with his illustration skills, but we kept putting the money back into the business.
To cut costs, we didn’t hire full-time manpower. We basically ran this ourselves. With a child, we will have to find a balance between this bookstore and our responsibility to the family.
A business full of emotional highs and lows
In everything you do, there is a bittersweet part. The bitter part is when sales are slow on rainy days when there is no foot traffic on the street. In the retail trade, you also have to deal with not-so-friendly or rude people.
On the flip side, every time we discover a new good book, it is delightful! Every time there is a delivery, we open the carton boxes and go: “This book—omg wow!” It feels like Christmas every time! It eases off the boring and mundane part of running a bookstore.
Customers give you a sense of purpose
I have a customer who is in his 60s or 70s. Randomly, he will come by and say: Shannon, I want to give a book to my niece who is 30 years old. She is in this stage of life, in this particular transition of life, and I want to give her something that will cheer her up and encourage her. Do you have a recommendation?
So I found a book that I thought she would like, and he picked it up.
Another time, he dropped in and said: I gave a book you suggested to my girlfriend, and she is very happy.
It’s these intangible things. The book is such an intimate gift or action – and our customers are well-traveled people themselves – and yet they trust us with the selection, and even bother to remember and tell us about what it meant to them.
This is something that is valuable to us. These are the things that rejuvenate us.
Staying close to the community
Shopkeepers are living figures in the community, and they have physical interactions with people living in this neighbourhood, city, and country. That’s the difference between us and Amazon.
Amazon is about the best-selling titles. There are a lot of algorithms behind it, but what is a best-seller in the US market or in the Amazon charts may not be something that echoes our local needs and feelings.
We take in suggestions from people who live in the community. They breathe the same air as us, go through the same experiences as us, so a local bookstore reflects real life interactions and sentiment that surround us, compared to an online international market.
Kinokuniya – a big bookstore – also has buyers from the local community, and they know what will appeal to the local market. I guess that’s how we differ from international e-commerce.
Offering an independent experience from the mainstream
We don’t have the popular Disney books. There are consumers who just want to know what is best-selling. That’s fine: then they can go to a bigger bookstore where there is a bigger selection.
But, they can come to individual independent bookstores to study our curated selection, and feel happy and confident about it. If it aligns with their preferences, reading appetite, and their needs, they will always come back to us.
If our role can be labeled as a curator, I can confidently say you will not be disappointed by our books. We filtered it, and it is our recommendation.
Ready for one more.
Opening our second store was like having a second child. You forget the trauma of the first time, and you do it again!
Advice for booksellers: keep pushing the boundaries
Keep trying, and keep pushing the boundary. That’s the genetic code for business. You have to understand that business is fluid and keeps changing, especially in today’s context.
The days are gone when you can have a fixed model— and wait for the harvest. So you just have to keep trying and pushing the limits.
Even now, people say that brick-and-mortar stores are dying—so what else can we do? What other areas can we try? How do we differentiate and strengthen ourselves?
Thank you, Shannon and Mike, for the lovely interview!
Want to read about other bookshop owners?
- BooksActually: Give them something new to discover
- Wardah Bookstore: The bookstore slows you down
- Grassroots Book Room: “This is a different space”
- Basheer Graphics: Surviving as a specialist of books
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world, sharing their insights and stories. Join this journey on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn @ShopkeeperStories. See you there!