The Iowa Secretary of State's office has been interviewing small business owners to demonstrate the range, success, and experience of Iowan entrepreneurs. We were recently contacted by Erin Bunce, the business services and social media intern with the office, who asked some challenging and interesting questions about the store as a business. The owner, Nialle Sylvan, responded, and since some the questions are ones that business students and other young entrepreneurs have asked us as well, we thought we'd share the full text of the interview.
Q: What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
A: I know that literally, it means "to
undertake a risk for a benefit", and I'm also acutely aware of the
necessity of continuing to take risks to improve benefit. This means making
investments - by taking out loans or spending what's in the operations account
- in capital that I think I can resell at a profit, but to me, it also means
thinking constantly about what value I add to the capital (books) and whether
my capital is good for my community. I'm not interested in selling products or
services that are used up and thrown away. I want people to feel that the value
they get from my products and services are not just worth the price in dollars,
but worth their time and effort and worth continuing to use or circulate. It
may not rocket me to the top of the Forbes 500, but it's - well - sustainable.
A mutual relationship of trust and value.
Q: Why did you buy this business?
A: Some people know they want to be teachers. Some
people feel a calling to religious leadership. I saw a movie when I was a kid
in which there was a beautiful old used-book store, and though I was sure I'd
never have a chance to own one or even work in one, somehow everything I
learned during my haphazard education and work experience contributed to my
ability to buy and run a bookstore when I got the chance. Nobody who knew me
was surprised by my choice, but everybody was sure I would fail. Maybe I will.
Still doing pretty well after twelve years though.
Q: What is the ultimate goal for your business?
A: To have
my youngest customers bring their children and grandchildren back to my retail
bookstore because they still want my products - and because they want to share
the experience of being here with the next generation.
Q: What is/was your greatest fear about getting into this
A: At the beginning, my biggest fear was debt. Now, my biggest fear is
debt. That's why I restructured my company as an LLC rather than a sole
proprietorship and intend to find an "apprentice" or young partner
who can build up at least 50% ownership before I retire. I'll beat the debt,
and I won't pass it along.
Q: What is the biggest obstacle you faced in the beginning?
A: Nobody wanted to loan $45,000 to some 26-year-old office clerk to
buy a used bookstore in the days of newspapers reporting 10% or worse failure
rates per year for bookstores. I didn't blame them then and I don't now.
Fortunately my grandfather knew I was smart enough and stubborn enough to
succeed, so he loaned me the money. All I have today, I owe to his trust in me.
Q: How will your business support your community in five
years? In 20 years?
A: My business' primary mission is to circulate books. That
will never change. How we do it, what the experience of shopping in this retail
bookstore is like, what other products and services we offer, to what degree we
partner with neighboring businesses to facilitate a walkable shopping district
and with local charities to decrease inequalities in our community - all these
will change. In five years, we will probably not change the layout of the
store, the types of books or sideline items, quality measures, or civic and
charitable activity very much, but we're at the beginning of a shift in how we
acquire inventory, and the challenge of the next five years will be to figure
out how to continue to source our inventory from the local community, so that
our acquisitions money continues to return directly to consumers in our area.
Twenty years from now? I'd like to see us working not just to mentor my
replacement as owner, but to help young people acquire the three things they
need most to build a lasting business: affordable premises and overhead,
mentorship and peer support networks, and investors like my grandfather.
Q: What do you think will be the most challenging
obstacle you will have to overcome as The Haunted Bookshop continues to thrive?
A: Same one booksellers have been facing since bookselling: convincing people that
they do have time to read, that it is valuable to do so, that they can afford
and make space for books, and that the community of book owners and readers is
one that would welcome them to their benefit. The special challenge of my
century (unlike those of previous times, when church or government censorship,
ethnic and religious conflict, poor public emergency services, etc. were big
threats) will be the declining production quality of print books, which are
seldom made to be reused now, and the declining variety of published work. My
business, by its very nature, keeps better quality books in circulation, but
we'll have to find charitable and possibly additional entrepreneurial methods
to improve the physical book and to get innovative and diverse writers into
Q: What words of encouragement would you give someone who
is on the fence about starting a business?
A: Be precise and realistic as you
compute the cost of starting your enterprise, running it, and changing it, and
get a thorough knowledge of the clientele you want and how much they would
spend, how often, for products and services like yours. Then ask yourself how
much you believe that what you offer has value and how good you are at sharing
your belief. You're filling a niche and can explain the reason? Make sure your
cost and income projections show a strong profit within six months. You have a
passion, you have relevant experience, and you’ve already gotten other people
excited about what you love? Double the projected earnings and file your
business name, because the worst thing that can happen to you is that your
first run won't work out, but you'll have learned how to make the second time
Q: If it is a family business, how is your family involved in the business now/in the future?
A. My family are not allowed to work
within my business except in really peripheral ways, like mowing the grass
outside the building. I will "adopt" people to "inherit"
the business. That worked for Julius Caesar and the Five Good Emperors of Rome
as well as nearly every successful bookstore I've seen or learned about, and it
also keeps business out of my house, which makes my house more comfortable
and keeps my household income sources diverse.
Q: What is the most rewarding part about owning your own
A: The look on people's faces when they smell the books, see the tidy
rows of well-made wooden cases, hear the cat's greeting meow, and notice the
comfortable chairs, lack of muzak, and occasional goofy touches like the little
Poe doll next to a book with an ominous title, a silly cartoon taped to the
shelves, an employee using a puppet to show children around the kids' room.
Outside my door, almost every person I see is worried or tired, but - even if
it's only for a moment when they first walk in - people show me their sense of
wonder. My entrepreneurship was to take a loan and make a return on it. My job
is to do the things that bring in the returns, from identifying the language
and printing place of old immigrants' books to prioritizing building
improvements. My life is helping people to feel that sense of wonder again, a
little more often, a little more strongly, in the most loving way I can.