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Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Mayor's background, Part 1

Let's start at the beginning: What led me to start Kraken Enterprises?

Like most Baby Boomers, I started out with a pretty normal work life. I had a long series of meaningless jobs in my teens and early 20s, worked my way through college, and finally graduated with a useless Bachelors degree in English. Not wanting to teach, I ended up working in the back room of a B Dalton bookstore in Lansing, Michigan. It was supposed to be my day job while I became a novelist in my free time.


Working with books suited me. Soon enough, my tendency to run things overcame my habitual inertia, and I moved up the short management chain. It wasn't long before I was managing my own B Dalton in Horseheads, New York. It was a comfortable job. The pay met my needs, and the opportunities for advancement matched my limited ambition.

After six years, B Dalton became a takeover target, and I decided to move on. I wound up managing the Lauriat's bookstore at South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Massachusetts. This job theoretically should have been great, but instead it turned rapidly dreadful. Lauriat's was a dysfunctional company that would die within a few years.

I ended that unhappy stint quickly, landing a job as the book buyer at Boston's Museum of Science. The MoS was expanding, and I'd been hired to transform their sleepy little children's book department into a full-fledged science and nature bookstore. The pay was terrible, but the hours were short and the work was fulfilling. Under director Roger Nichols, the MoS was on a major roll, and the staff felt like we were part of something important -- bringing science education to a public that desperately needed it. I was proud of my store. For the first time in my working life, I felt like my work mattered.

Unexpectedly, Roger Nichols died in his prime, and the spirit of the place slowly ebbed under the directionless and reluctant interim director. I hung on, remembering the glory days and hoping for their return. When they finally brought in one David Ellis, we hoped that the old spirit would return.

That did not happen. Ellis inherited an institution that had overexpanded and taken on too much debt. His priorities were necessarily increasing revenue and cutting costs. To accomplish the former, he ditched the adult-oriented approach that had brought us such great exhibits on Rameses the Great, China, India, and Soviet Space. The new focus was on children's shows and pop culture tie-ins. To accomplish the latter, he slashed staff. The MoS had always been an academic environment in which jobs were thought to be highly secure. The massacre came as a huge shock. IIRC, he laid off about 20% of the staff.

Apart from destroying morale and crushing our vision, the effect on me was financial. Previously, my bookstore had been seen almost as a public service. Without rent or taxes to pay, and with salaries low, I had been free to carry many low-markup, academic-type books that you wouldn't find in a typical commercial bookstore. These texts made my store fun to browse, set it apart from its competitors, and gave it a certain gravitas. Chet Raymo called it "a community treasure" in his column. Books might carry the lowest margins, but they gave our store a serious educational feel despite all the high-turnover childrens crap that we sold.

No more. Now the pressure was on to improve turn and margins. Even at their best, books could never rival apparel and toys for markup. Gradually, I lost physical space and budget. As much as I loved the institution and was proud of working there, the handwriting was on the wall. I had to move on.

In the 10 years that I'd been insulated from the larger bookselling industry, some serious changes had taken place. First came the rise of Barnes & Noble and its clone, Borders. With their deep pockets and relentless discounting, these book superstores made it impossible for small, independent, general-interest bookstores to compete -- remember, markup was already notoriously low -- and the industry was in a sad period of dramatic decline. This was also about the time (1996) that Amazon.com took bookselling online, stealing away the independents' last competitive advantage -- their special order services and eclectic selections. It was clear that I could not go back to what I'd done before unless I wanted to join the evil empire (Borg & Noble). I made a serious effort to break into book publishing as an editor or a publicity person. But the publishing industry was also in consolidation and I had no education or experience. That went nowhere.

NEXT: Where I ended up

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