By VaLinda Miller
Owning and operating a bookstore has been my personal dream, a dream I’ve quietly clung to for many years. Truthfully, I long doubted that such a dream could ever become a reality. There aren’t many African Americans who own bookstores and even fewer African American women doing so. I’ve had to search for role models.
But as a youngster growing up, books were my engines of exploration and discovery. Their pages provided tantalizing clues, maps, and signposts to different pathways of life in a vastly bigger world than the neighborhood I called home. Books were a joy and a solace from the problems of life that complicated a child’s world and circumstances. They still are.
Before the decline of large retail bookstore chains, I held a part-time job at a top-flight bookstore just outside of Washington, D.C. I loved that job; I loved helping customers and discussing books with them. I loved arranging new window displays and learning aspects of the bookstore business. Above all, I loved the physical proximity to thousands and thousands of books. They spoke to me; they still do.
Yet none of this prepared me for actually purchasing a bookstore and learning to operate a retail business. As owner of The Booksmith in Seneca, South Carolina, I am no longer an employee working under supervisory oversight and following the guidance and directions of others. Now I am the decision maker. I’ve been thrown into a whole new world of securing financing, opening accounts with publishers and other vendors, managing staffers, meeting payroll, dealing with problems concerning the physical layout, finding legal representation and accounting help, and ordering merchandise. It’s a long-term learning process.
It’s also hard to run a bookstore in the Amazon era, especially when trying to stay out of debt. Amazon is a concern for bookstores, but I think the bigger concern is debt. Running any business requires money and for a small bookstore, it’s sometimes hard to keep stock up when funds are low.
There are signs the trade is changing again. For example, there is a noticeable resurgence in the popularity and preference for printed books across the industry that coincides with a downturn in e-books’ popularity. Another hopeful sign is the increased number of new independent bookstores. More people are patronizing them as a regularly preferred local hangout, including parents, kids, teens, coffee lovers, computer gurus, wine connoisseurs and those who appreciate socializing around book discussions, social commentary and lectures. Let’s hope this continues for a long, long, time.
You don’t go into this business for money. You go for the love of reading and spreading that love to as many people as you can. I’m thrilled to have local authors and creative vendors selling a variety of items in my store. I even stock an author from Charleston, mystery writer John Stamp. We also recently increased our Christian fiction, non-fiction, bibles and church supply inventory. Right now, I cannot afford mainstream authors, but one day I will. That’s why I’m still working full-time and part-time jobs. I’m also still living in Charleston, involved in local organizations such as the Charleston Friends of the Library, and I am blessed with an amazing staff that takes care of the store in my absence.
As I celebrate four years in business, I know now more than ever I cannot give up on my store. It keeps me close to my grandmother, who introduced me to what I’ve always called, “My world, and only my word.” I am determined to persevere through difficult financial times and emerge debt-free, which will allow me to offer more books to better enrich the community and other areas of South Carolina. I take on special opportunities, like being the major book dealer for the Sept. 8 Black Ink Book Festival. And once everything is said and done, the only full-time job I will have is owner of The Booksmith.
VaLinda Miller is the primary bookseller of Black Ink: A Charleston African-American Book Festival, Charleston’s first literary festival celebrating local black authors. Miller is one of two African American bookstore proprietors in South Carolina.