If you ever have a chance to move a bookstore by yourself, don’t.
I made a number of mistakes during the run of Wordsmiths. A lot of them were up front. One of them was not hiring at least one guy who could lift a box of books without tumbling down a flight of stairs. I don’t know, maybe I’m asking too much at this point. There aren’t a lot of physically gifted book nerds in the world, after all, are there? Regardless, the only reason this point has relevance is because one of my other mistakes was not working harder to get the bookstore in the location I wanted to begin with.
The square in downtown Decatur is a charming place. Home to a number of Atlanta’s finest eateries with an endless supply of drink options, unique shops, coffee shops, a MARTA station, beautiful architecture, and as many events as they can cram into that space over the course of a year. It’s hoppin’ is what I’m saying, in case you drifted a bit and began thinking about your next meal. The Arts Festival, Beer Festival, Wine Festival, Beach Party, July 4th Fireworks, and much more, bring thousands of people right there, on the Square, businesses reaping the benefit. And for a bookstore, there is no greater gold than Labor Day weekend, when the Decatur Book Festival arrives. 75,000 (or more) people fill the Square, with books on the mind, and money in their wallet. It is the weekend we long for, our Christmas crammed into three days. If you, as business, aren’t on the Square, then to those who visit, you just aren’t there. Plain and simple. Not when that many people are vying for space, unwilling to wander too far away.
So…my mistake. We’ll call it Mistake #1 on a list that, at last count, has no end.
In my talks with the city, two main buildings were targeted. The first, the old Sun Trust building on the Square, basically ended the conversation for me. That was it. The place. The main floor still housed the ghost of the old bank, longing for something sight-worthy, memorable, befitting of such an historic place. It had a vault, right there in the open, a haven for the creative mind. There were offices, primed to be culled out as book nooks. There were chandeliers, pillars, and so much character. It needed Wordsmiths. I had grand plans at first, far too grand actually. I scaled them back (which if you visited the store might make you wonder how, or what in the world I might have thought was bigger than what I wound up with), focused on the space, and entered negotiations with the building’s owner.
Now, I’m not here to disparage the man. Allow me to make that clear. But–and this is no secret to those who knew him–he was no genius. In fact, to my misfortune, I was the first individual he managed a continued conversation with about leasing the space. Ever. Most people wandered off after “Hello” and “It will cost you THIS MUCH I WILL NEVER BUDGE.” Then again, this was my first leap into a lease negotiation as well. So, there we were, two people with no experience talking about an offer on a lease with no basis of negotiating comparison. In hindsight (a common refrain you may see here), I should have sought advice. I should have asked for help settling on a deal. But as we hammered away, I let my pride, my vision of the long-term dream of Wordsmiths, get in the way. I allowed us to get hung up on the length of the lease. He wouldn’t budge beyond a one-year lease, I wanted at least two (preferring three). Such a short term left me with an unfavorable possibility: Having to move the store after one year, which I wanted nothing to do with. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I said. Oy vey.
Negotiations broke down. He told me he had a number of people lined up, waiting for the space. Not wanting to cave, unwilling to deal with him further, I dropped out, wished him luck finding anyone with a business willing to sign a one-year lease, and moved on. Oh, how I wish I had just taken the lease, proven my worth, and built my store there. I would have saved thousands of dollars. Wordsmiths might still be around. Then again, the economic crush of 2008 might have still done it in. I’ll never know.
The story of our second location is another tale altogether. Though the space was beautiful, and historic, it wasn’t Wordsmiths. It wasn’t what I meant for it to be. And it wasn’t on the Square. Granted, it was only a block plus away, but you’d be amazed how far that is. You’d be amazed how much business you gain being in an impossible-to-miss location. Additionally, it left me with the ultimate choice, as mentioned already, I wanted nothing to do with: I had to move the store a year and half after opening it. And guess what? My Country Bumpkin Owner still hadn’t secured a tenant. So we had a chat. Not the first time we would have a conversation about hindsight. And I signed a one-year lease. Just like I should have done to begin with. I’m not a dumb guy, but I sure seem to do a lot of dumb things.
I didn’t have the resources I needed to convert the space to its original design (one that would have included a small cafe), but it came together nicely. I believe, and tell me I’m wrong if you visited and think otherwise, this is the memory of Wordsmiths Books. This is the image that comes to mind when people tell me they loved the store, when they mention the name to anyone, anywhere. When I think of it, I’m sitting in one of the chairs before the store opens, coffee in hand, taking a long look, staring through the front door, clock ticking steadily above the vault to my rear, smiling at the realization of a dream. I could have lived there forever.