How to start a used bookstore

While wandering in New Orleans (for the NSTA conference), I came across a lovely used bookstore (Crescent City Books). Since I am interested in developing a successful business model for Iridescent, I always ask people how they run their businesses and asked the cuddly, old gentlemen behind the counter whether business was booming. Surprisingly one of them launched into this long task-list on how to start and run a bookstore. I share.

  1. Don’t sell your own books; that will just make you unhappy. Go to library sales, yard sales and buy a ton of books. Don’t focus too much on quality. People read all sorts of crap, so dont let your judgement cloud what you buy 🙂
  2. Find a space. It doesn’t have to be on a busy, main street. Booklovers are determined people and will go out of their way to find good books.
  3. Get a good carpenter who will make you good solid shelves. you dont need fancy wood, but you do need to have the shelves raised off the ground by a foot to protect the books from dust.
  4. Buy an eye-catching piece like an antique bookshelf, chandelier or lovely lamp for the entrance, so that people are drawn into the store.
  5. Advertise in the newspaper.
  6. And you are on your way!

They have been in business for 41 years! I am a big fan of the Kindle, but to hold an old book in your hands, smell it, feel the tattered pages, read strange inscriptions, imagine all the people who read it before you – is still something quite lovely and irreplaceable.
Anyway, after that list on how to start a bookstore, I started wondering whether anyone had a task-list on how to start and run a booming education nonprofit. Maybe the list would go somewhat like this:

  1. Find a cause you are passionate about.
  2. Find others who are passionate about the same cause.
  3. Experiment, evaluate and re-assess.
  4. ???????

I guess if I knew what came in step no. 4 and beyond, Iridescent would already be quite famous.

And we had a little faith – and we worked on.

I think one, perhaps, is to present science as it is, as something dazzling, as something tremendously exciting, as something eliciting feelings of reverence and awe, as something that our lives depend upon. If it isn’t presented that way, if it’s presented in very dull textbook fashion, then of course people will be turned off. If the chemistry teacher is the basketball coach, if the school boards are unable to get support for the new bond issue, if science teachers’ salaries are very low, if very little is demanded of our students in terms of homework and original class time, if virtually every newspaper in the country has a daily astrology column and hardly any of them has a weekly science column, if the Sunday morning pundit shows never discuss science, if every one of the commercial television networks has somebody designated as science reporter but he/she never presents any science (it’s all technology and medicine), if an intelligent remark on science never has been uttered in living memory by a president of the United States, if in all of television there are no action-adventure series in which the hero or heroine is someone devoted to finding out how the universe works, if spiffy jackets attractive to the opposite sex are given to students who do well in football, basketball, and baseball but none are given in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, if we do all of that, then it is not surprising that a lot of people come out of the American educational system turned off, or having never experienced science.

Carl Sagan

a win-win-win situation

Thinking about pitching our program to some new branches of the University we partner with. And I can’t get out of my head why this program is so powerful, and why I feel confident convincing anyone of its worth.
To me, it is a win-win-win situation.

Start off with the community. They receive undergraduate role models for instructors. Free supplies and materials to create interesting projects with. A fun, engaging activity for the whole family – an opportunity to interact beyond dinner and TV. Content knowledge and specific research conversations that few beyond academia are engaging in. For them, it is a win.

Then there are the engineers – instructors, mentors, volunteers. They are exposed to families the would not normally engage. They are forced to provide clear, simple explanations of content knowledge – and because this is so challenging, they naturally increase their understanding of the topic. They are beloved by parents and children who appreciate their time and willingness to share ideas with them. They make a difference in a relational way, rather than donating money or showing up for a one day event. They walk away understanding some of the challenges the community faces – lack of formal education, inability to communicate clearly in the same language, lack of jobs and medical care – all the while placing names and faces to the problems, rather than a pie chart in the LA Times. For them, it is a win.

And then there is the biggest winner. The University. Not only are they appreciated by the community for the willingness to reach out and collaborate, but they are also recognized by other Universities for their forward thinking work in skill based volunteerism. Not only are they appreciated by students who are receiving technical credit to teach, but they are exposing hundreds of children to the power of life long learning. Not to mention their specific name.

So one day — this is what I envision. Here come Ana, Marcus and Lori. They are from South Central LA and they are about to embark in their first year of University studies. And this is why they are there –

For Ana it was the one on one interaction with a college student mentor. She loved building the catapult, but most of all she loved the attention and the opportunity to see a young woman doing something in the sciences.

For Marcus, it was the topic of animal locomotion. He was fascinated by the flying squirrels and swimming sea turtles, and started reading every book he could get his hands on. He made a decision young that he was going to pursue this content – and it carried him through hard years of high school knowing he had a Big Goal at hand.

For Lori, it was working with her Dad. She had never seen him so engaged in an activity, and he had loved building that heart. More importantly, she heard the praise of the graduate student impressed by her dad’s ability to make such a great, working model of pressure. Knowing that he was good at something in the sciences made her want to pursue science, as well. But most of all it was seeing her hard working father finally recognized for the intelligence he had, even if his daily work didn’t afford him such creativity and opportunity to demonstrate it.

Ana, Marcus and Lori are the ultimate win-win-win.

Next Steps

Here is the plan for the Summer and Fall based on advice from ‘Growing Pains’ (an awesome book on management by Eric Flamholtz).

  • Spend a week planning and writing a realistic business plan. Stick it to the wall next to the computer.
  • Identify common, successful factors in the 4 schools this semester and develop a strategy for the fall.
  • Work on establishing trust and credibility with parents. E.g. Short activities at ‘Back to School’ Night with the parents.
  • Plan and conduct 4-5 courses in the Bay area in summer, 4-5 courses in LA in the fall and 1-2 courses in New York in the fall. Start testing scalability!

Other exciting happenings

  • I went to the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) conference in Boston and it was by far the most exciting and inspiring conference I’ve ever been to. I met so many dedicated, science teachers, got invited to teach in schools all over and attended at least 20 hours of talks. I came back very energized and submitted 9 session proposals for next year’s conference in New Orleans. I think this is a great way to share all our hard-earned lessons and ideas with people who will put them to immediate use.
  • We got $10,000 from AAUW (American Association of University Women) to conduct 4 girls-only courses. We have to carefully choose 2 schools where we can start “Girls and Mothers only” courses and reliably expect 10-15 teams.

Spring 2008

We started the second semester of “Engineers as Teachers” and had a team of 14 engineers (some undergraduate students, some volunteering graduate students and some professional engineers). Based on last year’s experiences and the constraint of scheduling volunteers with full-time jobs, we decided to conduct 6 evening Family Science Courses.

The topics were all sooo exciting- Structural Color, Biomechanics of Diving, Science of sporting equipment, Sound, Cardiovascular mechanics and Renewable Energy.

Each course was of five sessions, held once a week for two hours. The response was quite unexpected. We started the Family Science program for the first time in three schools (Stevenson middle school in East LA, St. Agnes and Trinity St. Elementary near USC). We had roughly 10-22 families at each site. But we had less than five participants in the two schools where we had conducted morning sessions.

I was quite mortified at this response considering that the instructors had spent 8 weeks preparing for the courses. We tried the evening sessions for two weeks with not much improvement in the numbers. We decided to move the courses back to the morning so that all the children could still benefit from the instruction.

Lessons learned:

  • If you didn’t have the foresight to prevent a problem, don’t let pride or “consistency” slow you down. Focus on your end goals and don’t be afraid to change tactics.
  • Give your team members the complete picture. If you are trying out something new and don’t know how it’s going to turn out …. Say so…. Your team will feel more connected and in step with the organization’s goals and if things don’t work out, at least all of you are trying to solve the problem together.
  • Focus on the positive! Four out of the six Family Science courses continued in the evenings.

Here is some feedback from administrators, children and parents at these schools.

These lessons sometimes take a couple/three weeks to catch on with the families – they have never really done many activities like this, so you are serving many great purposes: educating our families about science and perhaps greater than that, teaching families how to participate in these kinds of activities. Great work! Pat Falzone, Trinity Street School

I know our parents and children have benefited immensely–they have never had an experience like this. Education at its finest. –Kathleen Doherty, St. Agnes

What did you like most?
That I did it with my family and learned how to make it a ball.5th grade student, Science of Sporting Equipment Course

The class seems very interesting just as much for the parents as it is for the students. Those in charge of instructing the class are very friendly and explain the projects very well. They seem very good for the school because they help students do new and different things that perhaps like parents or in they same school they don’t do it. Thank you for showing new things to our kids. Thank you to everyone who teach the sessions. Idalia Contreras , Mother of 5th grade student, Structural Color Course

Change the world!

We made exciting progress on the following fronts:

  • Identified a model that would extend learning beyond the course i.e. Family Science Courses.
  • Conducted a 40 hour course with 60 high school students in which they designed and built a city that ran on wind, water, solar (and human) power.

  • Developed a partnership with the Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering Department, USC through which undergraduate students earned 3 credits for teaching these courses. We started off the “Engineers as Teachers” course with 6 students in the fall. They conducted 8-18 hour courses on Aeronautics, Physics of Sailing, Renewable Energy and Rockets!

  • We conducted three Family Science Courses (in addition to 40 courses for children) in 2007. Two were in the morning (at Johnnie Cochran Middle School and Audubon Middle School) and one in the evening (Shenandoah St Elementary). We got about 4-8 parents for the morning courses and about 32 families (~ 80 participants) in the evening course.