Coronavirus diary: return to microbusiness roots

One of the immediate effects of the coronavirus on our business has been a significant reduction of staff. We used to have about five workers every day, we now have two. What this means is that I am working by myself in the store every day.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve gradually moved into the position of boss, buyer, and rare book seller. I’ve moved away from spending a lot of time with more easily trainable things like shipping, shelving, cataloging of non-collectible books, and to some extent working at the counter, and answering emails.

Now that I’m working by myself again, it’s a lot like the early days of Browsers’ where I’m doing a little bit of everything.

Part of me enjoys this. There’s a real zen state of mind I get into when doing shipping or shelving. Those are two things that are not difficult to do, but have to be done perfectly or else it will cause problems later on. Thus, I concentrate closely on what I am doing: when meditating you are mindful of your body and your breathing; when shipping you are mindful of sending the right book to the right customer in such a manner that it arrives in the same condition as when sent.

Paperback shelving, in particular, is one of my favorites because you have to track several things at once:

  1. Finding space for the books in the to-be-shelved stacks.
  2. Being aware of bestselling authors whose books are not on the shelf and need to be pulled from overstock.
  3. Culling books due to condition or lack of customer interest.
  4. Finding space in overstock for duplicates.

The problem, of course, is that I am spending a lot of my time doing things that prevent me from working with the more expensive books. I’m pretty much the only one who enters the more expensive books on ABE & Biblio; and I do all of the Etsy listings myself. But I need to prioritize, and what comes first are the immediate needs of helping in-store or on-phone customers, keeping the store looking at least okay, finding books in overstock to replenish because we aren’t buying books, and keeping up with email and online orders.

My father worked in the financial industry, and he always told me to keep a diversified portfolio. Although in his world, that means a variety of stocks, bonds, annuities, etc., in my world that has meant paperbacks, modern firsts, fine bindings, antiquarian books, etc. What I find is that Browsers’ is spending its workers’ time in a less diversified manner.

On the one hand, this is good. When $5 books is what people want because we’re on the verge of an economic collapse, then it makes sense to be spending more with them. On the other hand, I still want to be adding the $50 and $500 books to our inventory, and right now, that’s slowed down.

So, the conclusions are this. First, it’s been kind of fun to go back to being a one-man show (at least in one of the stores.) I always enjoy working with customers, and if I’m in the back or the basement fooling around with weird/rare books, that doesn’t happen. Second, we are slowly losing a little of our diversification as my time is overly devoted to a few kinds of books, and not others. I’m not panicked about the latter, and it’s certainly helping to clear out some of our overstock, but it’s something for me to be aware of. If the stores need to close for a few hours/days per week, I might spend some of that closed-door time just working on the rare books.