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Current Events and Future Scenarios

by Don Blyly

(as of 21 June 2020)


Within hours of the fire, several people contacted me because they wanted to start GoFundMe sites in their names to help Uncle Hugo's. I told all of them Don't Do That. Until I found out what I was getting from the insurance company, I wouldn't have any idea what I needed, and when I figured out what I really needed I would start my own GoFundMe site. All but one guy did as I asked, but Alexi from New Jersey opened a GoFundMe for Uncle Hugo's anyway. Some people, who probably knew him and knew he was honest did contribute to his site. But lots of people thought it was pretty fishy to send money to a guy in New Jersey to help a bookstore in Minnesota, and I thought the same thing at first.

After many e-mail exchanges and a few phone calls, I'm convinced that Alexi was an honest guy, just trying to help a store that he had been visiting once a year for about 19 years, but he was overly eager to help and didn't think things through very well. After about 3 days he happily transferred control of the GoFundMe site over to my son, Sam Blyly-Strauss, who is more tech savvy than I am and has slightly more free time than I do at the moment. I have thanked Alexi for his help. Alexi set the goal at $500,000 even though he had no idea what Uncle Hugo's would need, and we didn't bother to change it because we still have no idea, and leaving it alone was a lot easier than trying to figure out how to change it.

My computerized point-of-sales system (Anthology) was supposed to back up data to the cloud. I found out last week that it successfully backed up a few hours before the fire. I don't yet have access to that data, but I ordered a new Anthology system last week and it should arrive within a few days. Once it arrives and the data is transferred from the cloud onto the new system, I'll be able to figure out what my May sales figures were (to keep the state and federal tax people happy), figure out who placed the last 4 mail orders that were destroyed in the fire before I could get them to the post office (so I can arrange refunds), access customer records, and start processing mail orders and accepting credit cards again.

[The new system has now arrived, and is mostly set up. Elizabeth needs to do some website work to get that end of things up and running again.]

My attorney and I met with the insurance adjuster at the ruins 6 days after the fire, and I'm much more optimistic after the meeting, but I still don't know if I will get enough to rebuild The Uncles. The adjuster said that the policy only provides $25,000 for demolition and haul away of debris and he thought I might be facing a $75,000 debris removal charge.

About two weeks before the fire I had ordered what would normally be a 2-year supply of Uncle Hugo's/ Uncle Edgar's T-shirts and sweatshirts. The shirts did not arrive in time for the fire. They arrived at my home 5 days after the fire, and I now have about $5000 retail in Uncle Hugo's/ Uncle Edgar's shirts (overwhelmingly in sizes that don't fit me) taking up a lot of room in my house. I hope that within a few days I will be set to accept and process mail orders from my home, beginning with the T-shirts and sweatshirts. I plan to expand that quickly to include signed books (many authors have been very supportive of this), and then gradually to sell used books from my personal library. (I don't want them to go into a dumpster after I get dragged away to a nursing home or have dropped dead.) I am also looking into ways to handle mail orders for new books.

The national book wholesaler (Ingram) has 3 options, some of which are fairly new:

1) I receive orders from customers, and place orders to Ingram for whatever books I don't have on hand. I have to order a certain minimum number of books each time to get a good deal. They eventually ship books to me (and I have to be here to accept the order from UPS whenever UPS swings by, which was not a problem with a retail store and employees, but could be a problem for just me operating out of my home). I accumulate the books until I have enough to fill the order, and then I pack the box and process the transaction. I would be responsible for providing the customers with the information they need to be able to decide what they want to order--which the newsletter provided, but the newsletter required a lot of work from 4 of us. This is the procedure that I used for decades.

2) I receive orders from customers and pass the orders along to Ingram. Ingram gathers the books together and sends them directly to the customer instead of to me. I am still responsible for providing the information to the customers so they know what they want to order, but Ingram takes over a lot of my other work, and charges me for their additional services.

3) Ingram takes over all the work, and passes along a small amount to the participating independent bookstore. You would go to the site Ingram set up and search everything they have in their warehouse, not just sf and mystery, and you place an order through their site, not through me. This is basically a way for independent bookstores and Ingram to provide a very strong alternative to Amazon. I've looked over their site and it does a very good job of providing information about the books. Amazon has a lot more self-published books than Ingram (due to Amazon's exclusive-to-them self-publishing platforms), but I think Ingram probably has a better selection of books published by traditional publishers.

I have no experience with alternatives 2 or 3, but I have the names of some local bookstores that do have experience with them, and I'll talk to them about their experiences when I get a chance.

I've had lots of people offer to donate their used books to help stock the used bookshelves for the Uncles. I've told them that it could take 6-12 months for me to figure out if I will be opening a new brick-and-mortar store, and I don't have anyplace to store the thousands of books people want to contribute. If I decide that I'm likely to re-open a brick-and-mortar store, then I will rent storage and start accepting books. But I don't want to rent storage, collect thousands of donated books, and then have no way to sell them.

There are various ways for The Uncles to move forward from here. The mail-order-only from my home is quick and easy and will bring in some cash to support me, but is not capable of doing a lot of things that a brick-and-mortar store can provide. (I haven't had a chance to even consider how taxes or various called-for-but-not-yet-real business rescue plans might influence my decisions.) The options that I am looking at include:

1) Rebuild in the same location, if I can come up with enough money. People are used to finding us there. (When we moved there, we started telling people 6 months in advance that we were going to be moving and 3 months in advance we started telling people where and when we were going to be moving, but we were having people decades later "discovering" that we were still in business because when they saw the empty storefront at the old location they just assumed we had gone out of business.) The space was adequate. Mass transit connections (important to some of the staff and many of our customers) are pretty good and will get better over the next couple of years, but the parking situation is not very good. The property tax would probably double from $20,000 a year to $40,000 a year, and it was hard to afford $20,000. And I'd be stuck with this expensive building when I decide to retire. It would probably take about a year for this option.

2) Buy a new lot somewhere else and build a new building there. This would probably be the worst option. Nobody would know where to find The Uncles, it would be the most expensive option, it would involve the high property tax for the new building, and would be difficult for me to retire someday unless I could sell the building. It would take over a year for this option.

3) Find an older existing building, buy it, and turn it into a bookstore. This would probably cost around half as much as either of the first two options with lower property taxes than the first two options. I have no idea what the current real estate market is like, what might be available, and where I would have to move to.

4) Find an existing building and rent it. Again, I have no idea of what the existing real estate market is like or what is available. I know that around 100 small businesses are burnt out and looking for new locations to move to, and there is a sudden severe shortage of commercial buildings that have not been burnt out. On the other hand, there are a lot of businesses that are not going to survive COVID-19, so 6-12 months from now there might be more options.

5) Just stick with the mail order business and don't open a new brick-and-mortar location. I'm 69 years old, with increasing arthritis in my hands and wrists, and my eye sight keeps slowly declining. A bunch of people, including my kids and some of my staff, are pushing this option. It would make it very easy to retire when my body forces me to. But I've enjoyed meeting with a lot of customers over the decades, turning people on to new authors they might otherwise never have discovered, hosting signing events, and providing tens of thousands of inexpensive used books for people who can't afford to maintain their book addiction at new prices. I just feel happier when surrounded by thousands of books, as do many of our customers. And Ecko the store dog REALLY misses going to work and greeting customers.

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