Little Deer’s first four months of retail
Here are some random thoughts from Little Deer’s first four months of retail, some lessons learned, for folks who are curious about the behind-the-curtain stuff and are maybe interested in attempting retail themselves someday:
There’s a lot I’ve enjoyed about running Little Deer but I need to mention rent first because it’s the main obstacle to Little Deer ever turning a healthy profit and the main obstacle to Little Deer continuing to exist at all.
Rent is expensive. Like really really expensive. I talk to businesses that have been open for a few years and find out I’m paying almost double what they’re paying (in one instance my rent was 4x higher). I read a small business article that recommended rent for retail be only 5-10% of your gross income, which is hilarious, currently it’s 30-40% of our gross income, which puts a big pinch on our stock budget and profit. Like housing, retail rent is now chasing after the speculative land-value of the property, which is wholly disconnected to the normal business of incomings and outgoings and footfall and advertising and take home pay and all the rest, so now I need to sell enough comics to compete with international land speculative gambling.
The fact that this pandemic crisis, even more devastating than the 2008 crash, has resulted in prices everywhere, commercial and residential, SKYROCKETING, is soul destroying. Both individually and societally. There’s the old “keep *wherever* weird” slogan, I first heard it in Portland and then Santa Fe, but lots of art cities and towns have adopted it. It translates directly to “keep rent low.” You can’t have an artistic, fun, weird, dynamic city or town or neighbourhood with out-of-control property prices. It’s not even about a Starbucks moving in anymore, it’s about nothing moving in. Landlords will convert retail to residential, stealing away already sparse communal space from a neighbourhood. White collar workers looking for newly sought after work-from-home space will convert retail into a home-office or extra living room. Solicitors and Realtors will purchase retail space as essentially billboard advertising, even as Dublin hemorrhages office space. And worst of all, nothing needs to move in. A building can be bought, left to rot, and then resold a year or two later for an obscene profit. See the Pigeon Motel on Manor Street. Probably sold for around 350k a few years ago and either when it finally crumbles or whenever the buyer decides, will likely sell for 600k+ now. There’s no leverage to negotiate cheaper rents anymore.
A shop in Los Angeles called Meltdown Comics went out of business about a decade ago. In their going-out-of-business letter they said “if you don’t own your building, you don’t own your business.” As an aspiring entrepreneur those words haunted me. For a long time I thought I’d never attempt Little Deer until we could safely buy a retail space. Basically on hold forever unless we won a Prize Bond. But the realities of running a business out of our teeny tiny house in the middle of a pandemic with work-from-home and on and off lockdowns, meant that we had to move Little Deer out of our house.
My main inspiration for Little Deer was a used-book/record/dvd shop in the Malasaña neighbourhood of Madrid and is the model for cheap rent allowing for spontaneity and creativity. A very small, empty retail space opened one day with a handwritten note saying “buy/sell/trade” and a milk crate in the middle of the floor with a few books and records in it. Every week we walked past this shop and watched it grow and blossom. The milk crate moved on top of a folding table, bookshelves were added (likely as he could find them on the curbside). And by the time we left Madrid for Ireland it was a bustling used shop full of books and records and movies. All started from a milk crate and cheap rent.
Some quirks that came and went over the four months is the wild variability of mail-order. What was remarkably consistent before opening became so chaotic that I stopped factoring mail order into my income at all for the entire month of October! It had evaporated almost entirely and didn’t pick up again until Christmas.
There was an initial wave of mail order when I announced my pop-up with Maureen’s that made our first week maybe my biggest sale week of the year. The drop off after opening the shop was so dramatic I thought maybe the website was down (and there had been at least one website glitch in the first month, but overall it was simply because people stopped ordering through the website). I understood the philosophy behind it. Lots of people all over Ireland make trips to Dublin a few times a year. So instead of ordering a book from Little Deer, the pop-up became a destination for one of their few visits. It’s a lot of fun to browse in a bookstore, that’s why I wanted to start Little Deer. It just meant my mail order statistics for the previous year were meaningless once I opened the shop, it meant I was flying without instruments for a while with no reliable income estimates, basically no clue how much I’d make for several months.
In the month before the pop-up at Maureen’s opened, Sum-Up pulled the plug on their webshop service, turning it into a very crap, bare bones replacement. At first, this was just a tiresome nuisance, having to spend over a month manually porting over the incompatible Sum-Up website to Shopify. But the sudden availability of Maureen’s turned the tiresome nuisance into a high alert panic stations as I was telling this landlord I had a successful webshop (file not found) and opening a shop brought such a influx of visitors that I quickly needed to finish transferring the webshop so I could let them at it and get to work on the physical shop.
The scale of the in-store sales were also hard to fathom when I was running the online shop. What used to be a good month in online sales became a good day in retail sales. The amount of books I was ordering every month became the amount of books I was ordering several times a week. But the excitement of that scale up quickly wore off once I factored in the zero-overhead of running a mail-order business out of our house versus the enormous-overhead of running a retail business in Stoneybatter. Surprisingly my take-home pay, our profit, hardly went up at all. There was a noticeable bump for the holidays but my previous mail-order income was about the same as my current retail income, despite the massive scale up and tons more work. If my only goal with Little Deer was to make money, there would be no point in continuing, as it was much easier to make the same amount of money selling books out of our house.
The variety of books we’ve brought into the shop has been exciting though. We almost quintupled our offerings from the start of 2021!
The funniest bit of sales for the year were from Peow Studio. Little Deer has always been so small that I would only order 1 copy of whatever book. Maybe 5-10 copies if it was an imported zine. I always prioritized variety because we’re too small to stock loads of every book. But the mad rush on Peow Studio books lead to our first orders of 10-20 copies of a book! And selling out fast! And when Peow started selling out world-wide, our international orders were exhausting! I’m still not sure if I’m handling international orders properly but it’s the only way I can figure it out for now.
By Christmas I had made buying 3-5 copies of some books part of my regular routine. Which I’m still kind of shocked by even though it’s still very small by normal bookstore standards.
The kiddos section threatened to swallow the entire shop at some point. I kind of have a vague rule about only stocking books related to comics, so not ALL picture books, just picture books by comic artists or kids comics. But even with that limitation, the madness of the first few months made it feel like I was running two shops at once, a picture-book-store and an indie comic shop. And as much as I’ve scaled up the kids section since September I could probably double it or triple it easily, to meet demand.
We had a small bit of savings to start Little Deer with, but to run smoothly and stress free, we would have needed to have had at least double that amount. We went for it anyway because we needed to move Little Deer out of the house and Maureen’s was available, but we’ve been on the back foot the entire time when it comes to stock, both enticing people with a wide variety and keeping books in stock.
If you’ve followed Little Deer for the last year, you’ve probably noticed that however many books we have on the webshop, there’s only half that are ever in stock at any given moment. We just can’t afford to keep everything in stock all at once. There’s space in Maureen’s for at least 2x as much stock as we have, we just don’t have the funds.
Playing whack-a-mole with restocking is still a game I’m figuring out. When I moved into the shop in September, I only had the amount of stock that we could fit in a corner of our house. Which looked piddly in the 25 square meters of Maureen’s. After the surge of sales connected with our grand opening, I spent too much money in October restocking, which led to using our savings to cover rent that month. Since then I’ve been a bit more cautious in restocking, especially towards the end of the month, but it’s difficult against the steady stream of customer requests to hold back ordering books until we’re sure rent is secure.
I’ve got a pretty good system now though of restocking strong at the start of the month and then stocking up less and less until rent is secure and then starting over again.
There was a brief period, at the end of September, where I thought I could include a lot more gifts in the shop, more local artist prints, cards, postcards, notebooks, pens, art supplies, chocolate, candy, gift wrap… but those ideas were quickly scuttled when we didn’t make rent in October.
Notebooks and art supplies would have been great to have around Christmas, but we couldn’t pull money away from book orders. Physical gift cards also would have been handy, and Shopify offers them, but they’re expensive to order and we would have had to order them in October, when our financial future was very uncertain.
One thing that happened when we didn’t make rent in October though was that it made me realize that Little Deer might not last beyond this 6 month lease, so I basically had fun with my distributor and looked up all my friends who’ve been published and ordered their books (and CDs). Poets, bakers, craftmakers, scholars, musicians, anyone I knew that my distributor had a lead on I ordered, just for fun. It didn’t matter if it sold, I miss a lot of friends since I left America so it was nice to carry all their hard work in the shop.
The new EU customs law that went into effect in July really injured Little Deer and our desire to keep our stock fresh and unique with comic imports from all over the world. We had boxes of books returned to sender, lost for months before reappearing back in America. We got slammed repeatedly with new import charges, both Brexit-related and otherwise.
I don’t know where the new EU customs law came from or what problems it was trying to address, but it’s been brutal. It’s easier now (and sometimes cheaper) to get on a plane and go pickup a comic from England or North America than it is to import it.
And even artists and companies doing their level best will still have packages held at customs for typos or goodness knows what else. In one case, despite the package being obviously labeled books and all our details being correct, I had to jump through hoops with DPD customs until their customs person said “oh this is for books? nevermind we’ll send them all through now.” Why was it flagged? Why the weeks of hold-up? I’ll never know!
We learned the hard way at the end of September, that basically until the kids are older, when they’re off school, Little Deer has to shut. I attempted bringing them into the shop for a few days in a row and kinda killed the whole idea of the shop for them for months they were so bored and annoyed with being cooped up in the back room.
It’s a little different now that I’ve got a little roster of Guest Shopkeepers, but I certainly don’t want the kids hating comics and bookshops so basically if no one can cover the shop it’s better to close the shop than to torture the kids dragging them to the shop with me.
As a result, November ended up being the only month of our first four months that Little Deer was open for the entire month. We didn’t open until the 2nd week of September, in October we closed the week the kids were off school for midterms, and Christmas we got hit both with a Covid isolation the first week and then closed for from the 21st for holidays.
I guess it means we’re doing okay if that many closures in such a short amount of time hasn’t tanked us.
We do get told quite a lot by customers that they missed us or that we were closed, either due to our many closures or due to them coming during the extended lunch break where I need to collect the kids from school. I’m not sure what to do with that. Not everyone’s annoyed when they tell me that, but I guess very few shops in the city centre are primarily owner-operated, so folks don’t bump into inconvenient closures very often.
I have no clue what the next year of the pandemic has in store for Little Deer. Obviously we’ve two kids in school and schools are a continuous super-spreader-event, so if we get another positive case the shop will need to close again.
Our closure the first week of December lost us thousands of euro. Of which I’m only really entitled to maybe one €350 dole payment, and I’m not even sure of that since I’m still jumping through hoops a month later to get it.
To comply with Covid safety precautions, we’ve been leaving the doors and windows open for ventilation along with giving away free masks. I’m grateful I haven’t encountered any extreme anti-maskers, only some absent minded poorly masked folks and lots of parents who still don’t think masking kids or even teenagers is necessary.
There’s a chain reaction a lot of folks don’t think about, it’s not just about Covid, the only ways schools could stay open the last few months was by sending any kid with a sniffle or a cough home. So really any common cold will end up keeping my kids home from school and potentially shuttering Little Deer.
It’s all very precarious and stressful.
Leaving the doors and window open in September was kinda nice, and then got increasingly less nice in October and November and December. Damhnait bought me several wool jumpers for Christmas and even with them and the new radiator and a hot water bottle my fingers are turning blue towards the end of the day. It takes some of the joy out of sitting in a comic book shop if you can’t draw or read because you’re shivering so much.
It’s funny to run a comic shop and have such little time to read comics. I need to continuously remind myself to pickup a book now and then and read it so I know what I’m recommending to customers. I used to do it all the time at markets in the early days of Little Deer because there’s lots of downtime at markets, but there’s a lot more busywork in running a shop that makes me forget to take the time to read. The year and a half that Little Deer ran mail order out of our house, the books were always boxed up in a corner of our house, so for a long time I couldn’t read anything.
At the same time I need to carve out time to read comics, I need to carve a little time to make them. I had a few good drawing days in the early months but once it got cold I gave up. It’s fine, I’m currently at an impasse with a scene that annoys me anyway, but once I break that scene I’ll need to carve out more time to draw.
My first comic, Strong sold out this year. I want to see about a second printing, maybe something RISO’d through Damn Fine Print. Having seen a much bigger variety of printed comics this year I’m curious to try a different size than A5. I’m really fond of kuš’ A6 comics.
I’ve got so many more printing opinions than I used to! A lot of them informed by the fact that the covid-ventilation-requirements essentially means Little Deer is an “outdoor” bookshop, as far as climate control goes. I’m constantly battling curling pages.
I (foolishly?) attempted one event at the Lighthouse cinema, bringing all the queer comics out of the shop and over to a screening of the new No Straight Lines documentary.
I had a lovely time but what I hadn’t realized, was that even though Little Deer started as a market stall, the shop had grown so much even in that first month, that it was no longer convenient or easy to breakdown and transport so many books for a market.
Maybe if I had a bookmobile or a book bike or a book cart? Something I could leave set up in the shop and wheel out to markets, maybe? Before the pandemic began, I was trying to build a bookshelf that would become a book cart, but abandoned the wheeled aspect when the virus struck. It’s still something I’d like to figure out, because I’d love to be able to easily get from Little Deer to DCAF four times a year whenever the events restart.
At the moment though, it’s probably too much for me to attempt the shop and markets at the same time.
GUEST SHOPKEEPERS & MURAL
Probably the most positive aspect of Little Deer has been the opportunity to get more artists paid and increase the amount of art in our neighbourhood. I never actually pictured having anyone else run the shop when we started but the sudden opportunity to visit my parents for the first time since the pandemic started really opened the door to the possibility. Followed by the strain that a 6-day week put on our household, being able to hand over Sundays to Kate for a few months was a relief. I’ve really enjoyed seeing what the Guest Shopkeepers do with the recommendations and the social media for the day. Knowing I could toss the keys to Kate, Katherine & Charlot when I needed to saved me a lot of stress.
When the weather got cold I was really ashamed asking other people to be in that cold shop all day, but walking around the neighbourhood shops, almost all of which have their doors and windows open to, I guess that’s just the terrible reality of retail right now.
The mural and sign painting is something I’ve wanted to do for so long. DCAF never had the budget for street art or window painting, and it’s not like Little Deer had the budget either, but I really wanted it to happen and Gabriela was brilliant and we were so lucky to get her and it was so much fun seeing more of her murals pop up all over the neighbourhood afterwards. The postcards and greeting cards of the mural were a lark. I hope they sell out so we can do more.
LITTLE DEER PRESS (HA!)
From our first week opening, people asked if we would start publishing comics ourselves. This kinda ties back to the obscenities of rent. Because if I was paying any reasonable amount on rent, I might already be publishing some mini comics. But at our current rent, we’d have to be at least 3x more successful than we are before we could begin to think of taking on any additional risk.
My lease is up at Maureen’s in February. So I’ve 2 months to figure out what comes next. I might be able to renegotiate to stick around a bit longer depending on how the landlord’s plan to redevelop is going.
There’s very few places available in the area, and all the prices are even more expensive than the very expensive Maureen’s.
So I’ve got some ideas:
Plan A: win a Prize Bond and buy a building!
Plan B: extend my lease at Maureen’s another 6 months or a year.
Plan C: stay at Maureen’s month to month until the owners start their renovation, as stressful as that sounds.
Plan D: some other retail space (there is so little available, please send me any leads!)
Plan E: rent a cheap as possible office space and move Little Deer to mail order-only until something better comes along.
Plan F: buy a van or a truck and make a Little Deer booktruck and do mail-order-only and book truck browsing until a better retail comes along.
Plan Z: move Little Deer back into our home.
Thank you everyone who has supported Little Deer since 2019 and thank you everyone coming to our pop-up in Maureen’s and sharing our social media posts and spreading the word about us. Thanks to all our mail order customers all around Ireland.
We’ve such a small audience but I really appreciate how excited and enthusiastic everyone has been. We’ve had such a warm welcome.