Writing some thoughts about Little Deer’s first full year of retail.
We’re more than a week into Christmas holidays and I’m still very very tired. More tired than I’ve been since the kids were little and not sleeping through the night. It was a busy year and December was a rollercoaster I’m still recovering from.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
In February I decided to leave Maureen’s in Stoneybatter and move to Emmet Hall in Inchicore. Then in November I decided to leave Emmet Hall in Inchicore and move back to Stoneybatter.
In February I was worried the high rent of Maureen’s would torpedo the shop. Some of this was just being freezing in a mostly empty store in January, a lesson I’m trying to remember for this coming January by lowering my expectations and limiting my days in the shop.
Little Deer is too small for January sales. We don’t have enough stock, certainly not enough stock that we’re eager to unload books. And our margins are too thin to really put books on sale. We make very little off of each book, a few euro generally. So marking books down is essentially selling books at the same price we buy them at from our distributor. I understand there’s value in doing that anyway. When all your money is tied up in “assets,” liquidating some can free up cash for other things. Still feels like selling at a loss to me though. Maybe if we ever have lots of stock it’ll seem more appealing.
So we were faced with a quiet January, frustratingly high rent, and an uncertain future in Stoneybatter.
The owner of Maureen’s would only offer us 6 more months. March to August. They wouldn’t promise a second Christmas season, they had plans to redevelop the building into a cafe and build up to add a penthouse. Plans that seem fanciful to me, but what do I know.
I was ready to sign the 6 month lease but decided to request a rent reduction first. I figured if they weren’t offering me a Christmas season then the rent was too high. Had they offered any reduction at all, €10 a month cheaper, anything, I would have signed immediately, but they rejected my request soundly, even when I said I might look elsewhere (not that I was having any luck in my search).
So I kept looking and kept making social media noise that I was looking. A squeaky wheel looking for grease.
And then in February, Lauren sent me a message saying she had an empty shop in Inchicore.
So I went to look. I probably looked very worn out from a cold January in Maureen’s and a bit desperate to keep Little Deer open and a bit too honest about how new I was at all this.
But she made me a very generous offer of a space in Emmet Hall. Renovated, warmer, larger and cheaper than Maureen’s.
I still don’t know if I made a mistake jumping on the opportunity. I guess as long as Little Deer is still open I haven’t made any catastrophic mistakes yet. I worried that I’d lose business moving, and hadn’t figured out the logistics of commuting to Inchicore, which is much closer to Stoneybatter in theory than in practice, but at the time it felt like cheaper rent and a longer lease were the best chance I had at keeping Little Deer afloat.
The boost in sales as we told people we were leaving Stoneybatter almost made me wish we weren’t moving.
So in a single day, Damhnait, Kat, Kate, Charlot, Jacek and myself moved Little Deer to Inchicore, we opened the next day. Then I immediately handed the keys to Kat and Kate and went to America for my brother’s wedding and caught covid.
Our grand opening in Inchicore, along with the boost in sales from moving, seemed to reinforce our decision.
March was sturdy, April dropped off, but then DCAF happened in May, and our sales at DCAF weekend obscured our overall sales for May.
Then several things happened at once: summertime, The Cost of Living Crisis, and the realities of a generally quieter Inchicore business.
Little Deer opened in 2021 in September. We hadn’t experienced summer business before and we were unprepared for the reality of the summer on sales. Heather at FlowerPop is more experienced and successful than myself and was able to tell me what’s normal and not normal in the shape of a year.
We had gotten a generous deal from Lauren on rent during our move. We used the deal as an opportunity to increase our book offerings. We ordered so many books between March until May, just as many as we could to fill the larger Inchicore space and keep enticing people to come find us despite the move.
In hindsight, using that rent deal to build our savings would have been smarter. But we didn’t know what summer business was like (or Inchicore business) so there was no reason to anticipate a dramatic sales slump. And with the return of the Dublin Comic Arts Festival in May, I wanted to offer as many books as I could.
Coming off the high of DCAF in May really left me blindsided to the summer sales slump. There was basically nothing I could do to jumpstart sales. We had lost some regular customers from Stoneybatter who didn’t follow us to Inchicore and didn’t order from us online. We were slowly gaining some Inchicore regulars but not enough to make up the difference. Combined with the Cost of Living Crisis, June, July & August were desperate. September only seemed to recover because there was another DCAF event, which obscured how bad things were. But when October was also poor it made me realize our business wouldn’t last in Inchicore, the holiday ramp-up wasn’t starting. Once September came we had a previous year’s data to compare to and it was clear we weren’t meeting last year’s sales. The rent was cheaper but the business wasn’t there.
Some of that is probably on Little Deer being new and me being green. There were also odd mistakes in Inchicore. Miscommunications and missed opportunities. Our chance to have Gabriela paint the facade in March got delayed because the owner was renovating the building and we thought the shop would be getting a new facade soon. Then the building-materials-crisis hit and the new facade was delayed indefinitely.
Faced with sales that weren’t recovering and the general oddness of business on Emmet Road, we finally brought back Gabriela with our September DCAF money to paint the facade and promote the shop. It did help. And 6 months after moving Little Deer felt more like Little Deer with Gabriela’s bold “Comic Books” overhead.
But our stretch of Emmet Road had been mostly derelict for over a decade. Across the street was still derelict. In the minds of most Inchicore residents, that bit of Emmet Road wouldn’t be on their radar to browse on a sunny Saturday. I had wonderful neighbours on Emmet Road, Heather at FlowerPop was incredibly kind and generous and encouraging and you should definitely buy her flowers. The team at Small Changes was also very welcoming and came by to buy comics and brought me coffee, everyone was very sound. So it was a shame I couldn’t make the business match the business we had in Stoneybatter.
This year was my first time having a daily commute since I left Los Angeles in 2011.
It wore me down.
In theory, my house and the shop in Inchicore were only a few kilometers away. Stoneybatter and Inchicore, with Islandbridge in between (or the Liberties if you’re going the other way) are practically neighbours.
But no buses really connect the neighbourhoods. I remember seeing plans for a circular bus line in Bus Connects, to link North Circular and South Circular. Was it cancelled? Will it ever happen? Who knows. It’s too late for me to take advantage of it, but it would have been the perfect answer for me.
Instead there’s the Luas, which takes 30-40 minutes, or walking, which takes 30-40 minutes, or cycling, which takes 15 minutes or driving, which takes 15 minutes.
The shop is open from 10-1, I need to be home for the kids getting home from school between 1:30-2:30, then I need to open the shop 3-5 and then home for dinner. Somewhere in there I also need to do post office runs and go grocery shopping. So I was zipping back and forth four times in a day.
On days when I drove or cycled, that’s an hour total commute. On days when I walked or Luas (or some combination of Luas, bus, walk, it was two hours total commute.
It was never really viable. I stopped going to any Stoneybatter shops for groceries because I wasn’t around anymore. I was perpetually late, both to open the shop and collect the kids.
Running the shop in Inchicore felt so dramatically different from Stoneybatter. Being further from home made everything harder, made everything heavier, the day felt longer.
If the sales had been amazing, maybe it would have offset the commute hardship, but sales were suffering.
We live in Stoneybatter, so I always kept my eye on Stoneybatter and always kept my eye on the shuttered Maureen’s. No one had moved in after me. There had been no movement on construction. Throughout the year I contacted them, with repetitive questions like a small child, “what’s happening with Maureen’s, when does construction start, will you rent it out again?”
I missed an opportunity to run a pop-up in Maureen’s for the Stoneybatter Festival, and couldn’t get things together so soon after DCAF to run a booth.
But in the Autumn I finally got a response from Maureen’s, they weren’t sure if construction was moving ahead this year, they were considering renting it out again, would I be interested.
This was, hilariously, right after Gabriela finished the Inchicore sign. Rotten luck but this was our chance.
The move back to Stoneybatter was more difficult than the move to Inchicore. Less hands on deck, more books to move, absurd shelves I’d found on Adverts. It took three days.
But from the start it felt good to be home. So many people welcomed us back. Even if they didn’t buy anything they poked their head in to say they were glad to see us open again. I was reminded what foot traffic was like. The kids’ school even offered me another old bookshelf before they tossed it in a skip!
And the holiday rush, which didn’t seem like it was going to happen in Inchicore, happened in Stoneybatter.
November and most of December we were still in recovery-mode from the move. And then in the last week before Christmas we finally matched our 2021 sales. A real nail biter.
I pity my accountants. I’m an American living in Ireland, so I need to file taxes in both countries. I make very little money but lots of money travels through me. DCAF doesn’t make me money but happens on my books, Little Deer doesn’t really make money but has lots of turnover, teaching before the pandemic, odd freelance animation and illustration. It’s a nightmare of paperwork with so little to show for it.
But 2021 was the first time Little Deer had a retail space, so I got to see what retail money is like.
A more experienced business person would know how their business is doing year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day.
But I am more like a small baby that hasn’t developed object permanence yet. Seeing Little Deer’s taxes was like seeing the business for the first time.
We were basically break even in our first four months of retail. It made a profit, technically.
Not impressive but not bad for our first months in retail.
I was simultaneously encouraged and discouraged by this news. On one side, we weren’t losing money! Yay!
We don’t have enough resources to really run a business that loses money. We’ve already put our savings into it and we would exhaust our family and friends very swiftly if we had to lean on them (more than we already do).
And frankly, if I’m going to lean on friends and family for help, I’d rather do it for a retail property I would own, not a rental where the building owner would rather redevelop and move in a cafe beside another cafe.
So not losing money is good.
We’re also not really making any.
It feels a bit shit to disrupt our family’s life so much for so little return. There are a lot of days when business is slow where I feel like I’d be better use to our household doing laundry, washing dishes and cooking dinner. It feels terrible knowing the kids want to go to the playground but I need to open the shop for no customers instead.
But a friend who is way more experienced in entrepreneurship than I am said not losing money was a victory worth celebrating and that we’re still in a pandemic with a cost of living crisis so as long as the business is ticking over and we’re making rent and not losing money, there’s a lot of value for doing that for 2-3 years. It would give us a good picture of the long term viability of the business. So onward we go.
BARBER LOCO & THE BUTCHERS
Before Maureen’s came back up for rent, Barber Loco on Prussia Street came up for rent, same rent as Inchicore but right around the corner from our house in a tiny messy space.
I was all ready to move in when the realtor went cold. And I found out more than a week later they decided to go with someone else.
The someone else they went with proceeded to then fall through for them and they offered me Barber Loco the day after I moved in Maureen’s. What are you going to do. Barber Loco would have been snug and closer still to our house and the post office but with no neighbours to drive traffic.
At the start of this Christmas break, the former butchers beside Tesco offered me their space, a space I had attempted to get pre-Maureen’s. The reason I hadn’t gotten it before was that it was missing a front door, which I didn’t think was ideal, and couldn’t find a builder to install a front door. But they’ve since renovated and now they’ve got a front door. A funny space in a Tesco shopping centre but I’m glad to see it’s being actively rented after so many years vacant and can’t wait to see who moves in.
THE DUBLIN COMIC ARTS FESTIVAL
Our last event was Christmas 2019. We had run the DCAF Artists Fund for more than 2 years and raised and redistributed €5000. And now DCAF was back.
We couldn’t do 4 events in the year. At first we were only going to do 2 events, bookend the summer with May and September. But demand was so high that during the September event we went ahead and booked a 3rd even in December.
DCAF is now twice as big as it was before. Before the pandemic, we would only have a single 2-day event in December, and it was a bit of a stretch, with maybe half the exhibitors tabling both days.
Now every DCAF event was a 2-day event, with almost an entirely new lineup both days. We passed 100 exhibitors for the first time in December.
This year was the first year we got to try out the new DCAF Committee. We’re working out the kinks, going from an event mostly organized by myself to now 10 people. Some jobs I’m able to delegate, some I need to do myself, some jobs I can’t do at all anymore.
DCAF was started when I was a stay-at-home dad, mainly because I could do most of the organizing on my phone while babies napped.
Similarly, the Little Deer retail experiment started when DCAF was on pandemic hiatus.
Now the kids are no longer babies, Little Deer is my full time job and DCAF is twice as big as it was before! Everything really collided this year.
We skirted by on the May and September DCAF events, but stretching to the December event nearly broke me. Not enough time to prepare, everyone pulled in different directions, Little Deer unable to close in the run-up to Christmas. It was the first DCAF event that I couldn’t attend myself since I founded it in 2017.
But it happened, and the committee took care of it, and it was a success, but I was burnt out, and so were some committee members. So we’re working on how to get through the 4 DCAF events in 2023 with less stress.
For the May and September DCAF, we brought almost the entire shop. This was ridiculous and excessive but I didn’t know how else to do it.
For the December DCAF, since I wasn’t able to close the Stoneybatter shop, I needed to split the stock in a way where customers coming to either DCAF or Stoneybatter wouldn’t miss out on books.
Not being able to close the Stoneybatter shop also meant leaning too much on Kate to run the Little Deer table at DCAF. We’re trying to make sure that is a once-off mistake. The 2023 DCAF Winter Market will be a week earlier and hopefully I’ll be able to close or we can plan better between myself, Damhnait and the kids that one of us can be in the shop while I’m at DCAF.
DCAF published a book in 2022! Thanks to DCAF committee member Clara Dudley, DCAF received its first Arts Council funding! We’ve never successfully managed to secure funding for events but she was able to get money for publishing a comics anthology. That was part of the breakneck run-up to the December DCAF, the HOME anthology was going to print and being delivered to Little Deer the day before its launch at DCAF. Over 100 copies sold so far and we haven’t even had time to distribute copies to bookstores other than Little Deer. It's been a wild success for the committee. Something that wouldn't have been possible if I had still been trying to run things on my own.
Correlation is not causation, but Kat basically saved Little Deer’s holiday season with one viral tweet.
Maybe not viral like a celebrity social media post, but easily the largest reach Little Deer’s ever had. With so many kind testimonials as people talked about the shop.
7 days before we closed for the year, we were thousands of euros off the previous year’s sales. And while Kat was Guest Shopkeeping, I said they were welcome to tell people that.
I’m not one to play my cards close to the chest. I try to be transparent about DCAF and Little Deer. Because it’s nice if people know that a shop they like might close forever before it actually closes forever. And if talking about the business encourages other folks to start more events and more businesses, that’s great. I subscribe to the rising-tide-lifts-all-ships philosophy.
If our business had stopped that 7 days before Christmas, we likely would still plow forward, but we wouldn’t have made January rent. And the slow business was already effecting our ability to order books.
Kat said kind words, Kate said kind words, more people replied with more kind words. It was very encouraging as I was burnt out from DCAF and looking at sad sales numbers to close out the year.
It was right up to the wire but in the end we matched last year’s sales and covered January rent.
It’s not the broad Christmas-season-safety-net that more successful businesses use to weather the rest of the year, but I’ll take it.
Trying to learn my lessons from January 2022 as I go into 2023, a repeated mistake I made throughout the year was: whenever Little Deer would sell a lot of books, I would immediately feel the compulsion to buy loads of books to replenish stock. It happened after DCAF events, it happened after the 2021 Christmas season.
It basically meant while Little Deer was continually stocking up, we never accrued any savings and I’ve been flying without a net all year.
So I’m trying to force myself to take a more measured approach to restocking instead of my usual panic-restocking.
Hopefully dialing back the oh-no-the-shelves-are-empty restocking will also give me a chance to spend more money on the smallest publishers and self publishers. And spend money on things I’ve wanted to do since Little Deer opened: more local artists, more cards, prints and gifts, notebooks, art supplies, chocolates, etc.
Building a bit of savings would also help me with school & library sales. A few times in 2022, I had to turn down libraries who wanted to buy comics & manga through Little Deer, simply because I didn’t have enough money on hand to order the books. If an individual requested a very expensive book (like that €400+ Love & Rockets box set) I could maybe request they pay in advance for such a huge outlay. But a school or library pays via invoice after the books are delivered. So I need money on hand to purchase the books. And some library orders were so big I couldn’t afford the purchasing costs and had to turn them down. They’ll find another shop (or Amazon) to order their books, but it was frustrating be unable to make that business connection.
We had some drama around our sales of Peow Studio books this year. We are such a small shop and our buying budget is so low, a few hundred a week. So when we extend ourselves to order in hard-to-find books, we can’t order enough to satisfy both domestic demand and international demand. We need to prioritize domestic demand.
This came to a head with Peow’s A Frog in Fall by Linnea Sterte. We backed the kickstarter. Books arrived, and before I understood what was happening, international sales had cleared us out in 24 hours. This was doubly difficult because Peow was still fulfilling the kickstarter. More books wouldn’t be available to retail stores via the usual wholesale avenues for months. When you take into account the high cost of international postage (which then resulted in cancelled orders when international customers realized you couldn’t get a giant book off the island of Ireland for less than €30 postage) it was a whole mess.
It was at this point that I figured out how to block international orders on certain stock, which I immediately did for all remaining Peow books. It was the only way I could guarantee any books for customers in Ireland. That then led to emails and DM’s from international customers the rest of the year wondering why the webshop was blocking their orders and could I please send them the books.
I’m not sure if international demand will ever be that high for books again, but at least now I know how to cut things off if I need to.
Customers are also bumping up against the limits of Shopify’s UI and Little Deer’s limited stock. We try to carry an enormous variety of books, but since we can only afford 1-2 copies generally (more for popular new releases) the online shop is full of sold out products which make browsing difficult. I don’t want all these books to disappear from the shop, because I often reorder them and I want customers to see what’s possible to request, but at the same time I need to find a way to “downgrade” out of stock items in the webshop browsing so they come up last.
One advantage of the summer sales slump is that I was able to finish penciling my graphic novel, Chocolat Noir.
I still haven’t figured out how to draw the final book, in a way that I can transport to the shop and fits in my backpack. Autumn into winter was so hectic that didn’t have time to work on it anymore.
I got a little better about reading short comics and zines this year, but still finding it difficult setting aside time to read larger graphic novels. I need to, to make better recommendations to folks, but DCAF and running the shop and other things kept pulling my attention.
This coming year is hopefully the year we give Maureen’s a makeover. The landlord removed her old sign (and gave it to her I believe) and I’m working with Gabriela to design a new facade.
Our holiday season was saved, but not so much that we can tell Gabriela to spare no expense. I’ll probably end up needing to paint the facade myself and only bring in Gabriela for the lettering.
There’s also the interior to contend with.
I’m forever amazed by new businesses’ budgets to renovate their retail spaces. We basically started Little Deer with enough money to buy some shelves from the salvage yard and cover first month’s rent and deposit. The idea of being able to spend thousands of euros on walls, floors and lighting is a dream.
Hopefully I can figure out a way to spruce up the adverts.ie hanging shelves and paint the shop without spending too much.
LITTLE DEER PRESS
Last year I mentioned how a lot of people asked if Little Deer would be publishing books and how the business would need to be way more successful than it is to try something like that.
Publishing remains a long term goal and dream though. A dream that maybe seemed more possible at the start of 2022 than the end of 2022.
Seeing small press publishers shutter over the last few years have left me even more determined to publish books someday, even if just to selfishly get back out-of-print books that I’ve wanted to stock in Little Deer.
Thanks to our customers in Stoneybatter and Inchicore and our mail order customers all over Ireland and a few regular customers living abroad for keeping Little Deer afloat.
Thanks to Kate and Kat for keeping the shop doors open when I’m not able to.
Thanks to Charlot for being our Thought Bubble liaison this year. Traveling to buy stock for Little Deer is something I want to do eventually, but we don’t have the budget for travel. Cheekily asking a friend to buy books for us worked out really well in the meantime!
Kat brought The Comics Jam to the Inchicore shop, which was wonderful and Kat and Kate ran a workshop in the Stoneybatter shop which is very exciting and will hopefully lead to more things in 2023.
My anxiety around groups is too high for hosting, so I’m really happy that they’re taking the lead.
It’s possible Little Deer might run tables at some events besides DCAF in 2023. We’ve got a second card reader now that would allow us to split up the shop when needed.
There’s also the Fun Home musical coming to the Gate Theatre in 2023 which we’re excited about and want to figure out how we can join forces.
Here’s to Little Deer continuing to tick over and stay out of debt and maybe grow a bit in the new year.