“…if you’re doing something you genuinely love…no matter what failures you experience, or hardships or bumps there are along the way, it’s all worth it.”
Christina Rosso-Schneider, co-founder of A Novel Idea
Alexander Schneider and Christina Rosso-Schneider opened A Novel Idea on Passyunk Avenue in December of 2018. The independent bookstore started as a dream for the recently married couple that quickly sparked a journey to making it a reality. Here they discuss what it’s like to create a small bookshop in the “Age of Amazon” and the importance of striking the right balance between keeping shop and making a life outside of work for the important things.
Could you briefly outline how you became managers of a bookstore in today’s day and age?
ALEXANDER: I’ll say it’s a real learning experience for us, as we’ve never owned a business ourselves to begin with, let alone a bookstore. So at the beginning we really relied on a lot of research, talked to friends and family who have owned businesses, looked at other bookstores, saw what they do, what we liked, what we didn’t like, and, really, six months in, have come to trusting ourselves at this point, which took a really long time. Every now and then we think our word isn’t worth anything, but really trusting what we feel about things—whether it’s a certain title, about moving things, about making decisions for the business—it’s a lot about having a conversation between the two of us as partners, in life and in business.
What would you say drew you to this vision?
CHRISTINA: So, part of it was that it was always my dream to own a bookstore, as a writer and avid reader. I feel like it’s not uncommon for people who surround themselves with books growing up to want to own or work in a bookstore, but my husband Alex was actually the one who planted the seed that it was something we could actually do and that we could do together, because he’s a graphic designer by trade and I’m a writer and a writing teacher. We were both working multiple jobs and struggling to find time between that and our own relationship and we thought, ‘This is something that we don’t have in our neighborhood.’ My husband’s lived in our neighborhood for over a decade, so we don’t have a bookstore here, and we thought that with his design skills and then with my experience with writing and putting on events and being a part of events in the city that we could offer something really unique that also could be the best of both worlds of us getting to spend time together but also showcasing our own specific talents.
What do you think differentiates A Novel Idea from other bookstores?
CHRISTINA: One thing that was really important to us from the beginning and has become the cornerstone of A Novel Idea is our focus on local. So, not only do we feature local artists on the wall and try to use as many local artists as we can for the products that we sell, like soaps and cards and things like that, but as soon as you walk into the store we have a large section dedicated to Philadelphia books, and books written and published in Philadelphia, focusing particularly on small press. Not a lot of bookstores carry small press, or have such a large focus on local authors and local content, and that was something that was really important to us, not only because I am a local writer, and I know many local writers, but because we think we live in a city that has a really diverse group of artists and that we wanted to showcase that.
“Your intuition…if you’ve done the research…if you’ve done the work beforehand, trust your feelings for it.”
Alexander Schneider, co-founder of A Novel Idea
Did either of you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
ALEXANDER: Lots. [Laughs] Every single day leading up to the first day. We’re both very Type A, and want things to be the perfect vision of what we have in our mind’s eye, and that’s never going to happen, right? It’s something that you work towards, you always try to improve, and maybe one day you get there. We were nothing but fear leading up to it, but it didn’t stop us from moving forward.
We just got married in October, we had signed the lease in August, and from signing the lease to our first, soft opening was four months exactly, to the day. So, we’re both full of hope and fear at the same time, which I know most people are. One thing that really quashed a lot of that was December 1st, on our soft opening. The night before, we were talking to ourselves, hyping each other up, saying, “We’re going to have a line. People are going to be really excited, you know? It doesn’t matter how many books we sell; it’s who comes and how happy they are for us and about planting that seed of community and getting to know the people.” We were there early, vacuuming and straightening things up and about thirty to forty minutes before we opened, people were knocking on the door and we went outside and realized there was actually a line, that there was a line of people waiting to come in at 11.
It’s one of those things where I was like, “Am I still asleep? What’s happening?” Like, the thing that we’ve been focusing on and been trying to bring into existence was actually happening, and our first day was just out of the park—more than we could have ever hoped for. That went miles and miles to quashing our fears of: “Should we open a bookstore? Is this a good idea? Is this the right spot?” You can question yourself to death, but we had done the research. We had looked into demographics of the area. I had lived in this area for a long time, knew that there hasn’t been a bookstore in a long time, talked to the business improvement district and, when we talked to them, they thought it was a great idea. We knew we had a lot of restaurants, but not a lot of retail. So we had done a lot of research, but until the buzzer goes and the clock starts, you don’t know if you’ve made the right decision. Within the first 20 minutes, we knew we made the right decision. It was a matter of managing those fears moving forward and making it work.
What has been your greatest struggle in creating A Novel Idea?
CHRISTINA: I would say it’s time management, because it is just the two of us working there. I’m researching and buying all the books and merchandise in the shop. I literally schedule and plan all of the events, and we have multiple events every single week. Doing all of those little things like social media, and still finding time to be a human being. We constantly get asked, “What’s it like to be a newlywed?” I’m like, “I have no idea,” because, while I see my partner all the time, it’s in a professional environment. I mean, one of us is at the store every day, sometimes for as many as 12 hours, so it’s really trying to find time to do everything that we need to do, and then all of the things that we want to do while also trying to not be completely burned out. We are only six months old and we’ve done nearly a hundred events already, between public and private ones, which is quite an accomplishment. We feel really proud about that, but we also are trying to start to be like, “Maybe this one weekend in July we’re not going to have any events,” because at some point we feel like not only will we let ourselves down, but also our community, you know? We’re too sleep-deprived to give the events the time and energy that we want.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, to build on that, time management is it, but I think it’s also balance. Being a small business owner, it’s that line between when work ends and your social life begins, which we don’t have. Coming home and, after 12 hours, not talking about work again. And then realizing it’s 11:00 and you have to get up early in the morning, and then you just pass out talking about the things you have to do the next day. There’s never a line between those two things, and that muddies everything up, especially as newlyweds, as partners, as business owners. You get to this point where if you don’t have time to decompress, you never decompress, and it just rolls into the next day and it keeps building and building. We’re really starting to find time for ourselves, to find time for each other, and just kind of say, “On Wednesday, we’re going to go on a date, and we’re not going to talk about work.”—Which, usually, if it’s been a little while, it takes about 20 minutes before we figure out we actually have things in common other than the bookstore. It’s almost like a first date again. So that balance is really, really important for us. Six months in, we have a lot of the little things down, like Monday is our day off, which we used to say, “We have to go to the bank. We have to do this. We have to fill out this paperwork. We have to do our order. We have to do whatever.” It’s getting to the point now where all the little construction things in the business, all the stuff that’s been building up that we have to do every week, is done, and we can actually have a day off and we’ve found more of a balance moving forward. Trying to figure that out has been a lot easier.
What’s been your biggest sacrifice as entrepreneurs?
ALEXANDER: It seems cliché, but I guess I would say our time. Less so now that we’re in it and we can see the direct the results of our work, where at the beginning during renovations and doing this research and filling out paperwork with suppliers and staying up to do the mundane little permits and dealing with the city and things like that where we didn’t make any money. We didn’t have an object to go to, because the shop didn’t look anything like it does now. We didn’t have a single book in there. We didn’t have anything. So that sacrifice of working towards a thing that didn’t seem like it was ever going to come for four months was hard. I have a distinct memory that’s tangentially related of sitting in my English class, a freshman in high school year, and realizing the amount of work that I was going to do and thinking, ‘I’m never going to get to senior year of high school. I’m never going to graduate.’ That same sort of thing happened: We signed the lease, it was really exciting, and then we looked at the whole legal pad of things we had to do and thought, ‘We’re never going to get there.’ That time when we didn’t have any sort of results other than, “Oh, we checked this off the list today.” I think was our biggest sacrifice.
CHRISTINA: I would say time. Those are all valid points, but I think about the time we sacrifice from being away from our house and our dogs that we have—which for us are our children. Thinking about, like, we’ve been married for almost eight months and we haven’t gone on a honeymoon yet. We don’t have weekends. We don’t experience holidays anymore. When you own a small business and it’s just the two of you—and especially when you work in retail—you have to be open weekends. You have to be open a lot of holidays. You have to do long hours, and that is something that I knew we were going to do, but I feel like living it is a lot different. We live a five-minute walk from the shop, so we were like, “This won’t be too bad.” But even figuring out when we are at the shop. We get there at 10 in the morning and we’ll be there until 10 at night because we have an event, being like, “Okay, well one of us has to go home and walk the dogs and feed them.” Even small things like that add up to being more complicated than we thought they would be initially.
What’s been your biggest failure?
ALEXANDER: I don’t know if we’ve outwardly “failed” at anything major. At the beginning, we knew we wanted to try different things as far as what we carried. We started out pretty general interest, as far as what titles we carried—aside from local authors, small press, and a few categories we knew we wanted and we thought the community would want. There’re categories that we carried at the beginning that we won’t carry moving forward, just because they didn’t do as well as we thought they would.
I think there are a lot of small failures, in the way of, “Hey, let’s do a display table.” We set the table up for a week and no one buys a single thing off of it. Well, was that a bad choice on us, or was it that the community didn’t really like it? We put an event on a certain day, and no one shows up for the event except for us and some regulars; well, was that a bad choice? Is that on the context of the book? Is that on the time? Is that our promotion? Is that because something else is going on in the city at the same time that we weren’t aware of that everyone is attending?
Generally, I think we fail just a little bit every single day. It’s a matter of identifying those small failures and being cognizant of that the next time it comes around, and saying, “We want to do a biography table again. Well, remember the last time we did it, and it didn’t go over very well? But when we have them over here, that does better.” It’s a lot of that. As far as one giant failure, I don’t think we’ve really had one. Maybe that’s my failure: not knowing that we failed. But I think it’s a lot of little things and identifying the cause-and-effect. I do one thing, we get an exact result, and figuring out where those things are and latching onto them—repeating those positive responses. Understanding that small things like that, if we have an event where no one attends, it’s okay. I think that’s the biggest failure; if we didn’t notice those things and we didn’t adjust accordingly is, I think, a fear we both have—that if something goes unnoticed, and it happens again, and we realize we made the same mistake twice, why did we do that?
CHRISTINA: It’s like Alex said, it’s small things here or there, like when you have a day where not a single person has come into the shop or bought anything, or you have an event and no one comes even though it was on a Friday and you thought it was going to be really good, and maybe you bought a bunch of copies of that author’s book and you can’t return them, you know? Or having an event and no one shows up, and it's, it’s all about constantly adjusting and saying, “Well, why didn’t this work?” I think if you’re not willing to be open to changing things that aren’t working, you’re doomed. We’ve always said we want to reflect our community, so if it’s an event that our community doesn’t really want, then we’re probably not going to put it on again for a while. Or, if we do, we’re going to do it differently. Something that I know we’ve both felt a little stupid about is that we have been open a lot of holidays—smaller holidays—but then realizing that people don’t really come out on those. Or we were open all Memorial Day Weekend, but it always somehow works out okay for us. We’re constantly evolving and thinking about next time or next year, doing something a little bit differently to see if we get a different response.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur? Has anyone in your life been a constant source of support?
ALEXANDER: That’s kind of like, pick an even or odd number and probably they all said, “Don’t do it.”
CHRISTINA: Yeah, I feel like we get one of two responses when we say we own a bookstore, and we got those same two responses before we opened the bookstore, of either, “Wow, that’s so brave. That’s so amazing. We need more bookstores,” or the response we got more often of: “You’re crazy. No one buys books in person anymore. Do people even read anymore? Where’re you going to get the money for that?” Those kinds of things. And we still get that now. We have people who come in and say, “We’ve wanted a bookstore in this neighborhood for so long. We’re so happy you’re here. This is everything we wanted.” Then we have people who come in and go, “People still buy books? I can get this cheaper on Amazon.”
ALEXANDER: And then just walk out the door.
CHRISTINA: So we were fortunate enough, in particular, that Alex’s family from the get-go was just really supportive of us. Because we did a lot of the painting and wallpapering, and the design of the space ourselves, and having them willing to come in on the weekends and help us paint, pull down the ceiling, clean the floor, or put up bookshelves was really helpful. We had a really good support system, just in general. We’re both from the Philly area, so that was part of why we thought opening the store here was a good idea because, even with all the naysayers, we knew that we had friends and family that were behind us, whether or not they could physically come and help like Alex’s family did.
ALEXANDER: I think it was also big being partners. That was huge. We did a lot for each other in those first few months, even before we were open, of almost giving each other lullabies as we fell asleep, saying things like, “This is the right decision. We’re doing a good job. We’re making headway.” I commend anyone who does it by themselves, because it is an inordinate amount of information and permits and to-do lists that we couldn’t have done it individually.
If someone were attempting to open a bookstore, how would you recommend people respond to someone dissuading them
ALEXANDER: Well, first and foremost, Philadelphia has been great, and overall really, really supportive of new, independent bookstores and established independent bookstores. Everything going on with Penn Book Center, Joseph Fox, Uncle Bobby’s—everyone has a unique facet of the bookselling world, and they all add something to it, something to Philadelphia and the literary community. I would say A) Find your location. That’s not an unknown thing in any business ever.
CHRISTINA: You need good foot traffic.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, good foot traffic. And find your angle, find your story, find your brand.
CHRISTINA: And find what your community wants.
ALEXANDER: Yes, and find what those people want. Reach out to them, have a conversation. We were very transparent about it. At the beginning, we said we went general interest, but we want to reflect you [the community], so those categories are being removed, and we’re opening up new categories we haven’t had to reflect the people around us. It’s nothing I would say entrepreneurs or anyone with an established business hasn’t said before. We just opened up with a great story of newly-weds, a local couple with a strong focus on community and local authors. That helped us a lot as far as relating to the people around us, and we were staying true to ourselves, which was really important. One of the largest reasons I think people come in and continue to come in is when they don’t know what they want to read or their child has gone from second grade to third grade, and they’re transitioning from one series to another. They don’t know where to go, and even in these six months have learned to trust what we’re reading and what we’ve been researching for them—that bond of, “Hey, so-and-so, you came in and you bought this the last time. We just got a new release, and I think you’ll really like it.” That conversation is very, very important.
CHRISTINA: Yeah, the personal touch is important, because everyone knows what it’s like to go into a Barnes & Noble and everyone knows what it’s like to go on Amazon and order a book. While there’s a comfort in that and an acceptability in that, I think that what keeps brick-and-mortar, independent bookstores open is that personal touch of knowing you’re going to come in and talk to an actual human being, who is, hopefully, happy and open to talking to you about some book suggestions or what’s going on in the shop—what might be a good pick for you next. My favorite thing is when someone comes in and says either, “I’ve no idea what I want to read,” or “What are you reading right now? What would you suggest?” I have a lot of fun, because I read so many different things, of being like, “This might be a good fit for you.” I love putting books that someone would never pick in their hand, and so far I think I’m doing a good job of that because I had a customer come back and say, “I am going to trust all of your book recommendations now. That was awesome.” So having those personal relationships and not losing sight of who you are and your passion for it, because—especially if it is someone wanting to open the bookstore in the Philly area—we have a lot of small bookstores, so how are you going to set yourself apart? I think the best way to do that is by being yourself.
Tell me about your work-life balance. Are there any methods you use to make time for yourselves?
CHRISTINA: One Alex mentioned earlier. We did this at the beginning of our relationship and we’re working to reinstate it, but we used to do a weekly date night where we either go out or eat in, but it would just be time to spend together. It’s really important when we do that now, that it’s like, “Put the phones away,” and we don’t talk about the bookstore. So that’s one thing that is challenging to do, but is important. I would say another thing is to know your limits, and to set boundaries for your business and for yourself. That might mean taking a day off from the shop, you know? Closing every once in a while because you need to rest, or—I’m fortunate enough that sometimes, if I want to go to a yoga class or something like that, I can ask Alex if he’ll cover for me for an hour, or if we could switch days that week. It might seem really simple, like, “I’m going to go to a yoga class for an hour in the middle of the day on a Sunday when we’re open all day,” but it can really change my perspective and how I’m feeling that day with something as minor as that.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, linked in with that is just mindfulness of your limits. Like, it doesn’t take much for us to have a conversation, for her to ask me: “On Tuesday when you’re working, can you come over at noon? I’ll open, but come at noon and I’ll be gone for an hour-and-a-half and I’ll come back.” Being open about your needs is big, and that just kind of goes with everything, right? It goes for your business, it goes for your personal life, it goes with your family. If there’s something you need, be honest and say it. I think it goes a really long way to finding that balance. Our turn of phrase has gone from, “We’re on the same page” to “The same part of the page,” because often enough we’re talking about the exact same thing, but she’s still talking about the beginning and I’m talking about, “Oh, and we’ll finish up with this,” and we look at each other and realize we’re not really communicating on the same level. We’re really close, but we’re not on the same part of the page. One of us is ahead of the other one, or just not understanding the basic principles. That conversation, an announcement that we’re off, has done a lot for us.
CHRISTINA: I also think in terms of the business, we’re getting to the point now where we’re starting to say no when people reach out about an event or have a request. We’re not people who “no” comes easily to, because we want to make everyone happy. I feel like I am failing if I’m not doing everything I could be doing. But when we look at the schedule and for a week we have—out of seven days—five evening events, saying, “No, we’re not going to have an event on that Sunday night. We can give you an event the following week or two weeks from that.” Being more open with the business about our limitations, because we can’t be there. We shouldn’t have to be there every day, 12 hours a day. People also aren’t going to come out if we have events seven days a week, every week, because you’re pulling more or less from the same people, as well. So that’s a boundary that we’re working on setting.
Did you ever think about giving up?
ALEXANDER: I would say, since we’ve been open, definitely not. But all the intricacies of permits and titles and paperwork and the federal stuff and tax forms…
CHRISTINA: Or even, like, when we got married in New Orleans, and for a week we’re down there and we have to answer texts from contractors. Or I was teaching at three colleges. I’m getting emails from students, so all of that build-up in the time that we were getting ready to open the shop. Or we had issues with our first major order of books. They kept delaying the order, so we didn’t get in about 2,000 titles until about 48 hours before we opened. There are moments like that where you’re like, “Oh, crap, I don’t know if we can pull this off,” or, “I don’t know if, in this moment, I have the energy to want to pull this off.”
ALEXANDER: I feel like I totally blacked that out of my mind. Our first order got pushed back several times, to the point where we got the order Thursday afternoon—two days before our soft opening. She was working, because she took the day off for when we were supposed to get it that Monday or Tuesday, so I offloaded two pallets by myself on that Thursday to open. We had to alphabetize, stock, and get everything ready in, I would say, less than 36 hours? Before we opened the doors for everyone else. And I, offloading the pallets, I was thinking like, “Why did we do this? This is the worst idea.” But again, it was really the two of us that continued to be each other’s cheerleaders through all this.
What would make you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do with A Novel Idea?
CHRISTINA: I would say I already feel like we have, which I know is crazy to say because it’s only been six months, but we wanted a space that reflected the community. We wanted to put on author events. We wanted to put on workshops. We wanted to have interesting conversations with people about books and promote literature in the area, and I feel like we’ve already made a mark in the few months we’ve been open. So I already am really proud of what we’ve done and we’ve already done much better than we ever anticipated doing so soon. But I guess for it to continue to grow from where we are now, and, for me, something I think about constantly is when we’re able to one day have staff, and not have to do everything ourselves. So I would think that we’re successful if we can have staff without losing the personal touch that we have now. Right now, I post everything on social media. I plan and host most of the events at the shop. Alex designs our every post you see. He does our T-shirts, our merchandise. If we start loosening the reigns and giving someone else the chance to work in the space‚ which is the goal, that it doesn’t lose the personal touch and what people are starting to get used to as being able to come in and talk to us.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I mean, I think this is a unique situation and I feel like we have accomplished everything that we wanted to—not that we’re done accomplishing. We’ve done so much and it’s been a whirlwind, but I feel like we are successful. That first day, having all those people getting together and being excited for us, being excited for each other and rallying around a new bookstore was, again, more than I could ever have dreamed of. I felt, in that moment, that everything else was worth it and we were successful, even if it was for those 10 hours or whatever that first day was. It’s all about emulating that success every day thereafter.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as entrepreneurs?
ALEXANDER: This is only at the forefront of my head because a customer had come in last week or so and asked for advice in a random way. They went to check out and said, “I need some advice from you, whatever comes to mind.” And I sat with them for a little while and their friend, and what I came up with was trusting yourself—your intuition, your gut. If you’ve done the research like I’m sure you’ve probably done moving into a new business—moving into picking colleges or picking whatever it is—if you’ve done the work beforehand, trust your feelings for it. You know what the right decision is and that coin-flip moment where you’re between two things and you’re like, “Heads or tails?” And then realize, as the coin’s in the air, “I really want tails. This is what I want to do,” then just go with it. Go with it and adapt; you’re going to have those 19 failures a day kind of thing, but they’re going to be little. You’re going to be happier knowing that’s what you went in for, as opposed to just leaving yourself wanting what the other decision would have been. I think that’s been really important for me, and for us, to just understand that we know what the right decision is. We just have to go for it.
CHRISTINA: I would say, too, something that we’ve talked through is just to be there when you’re just starting a business. You have to be 100 percent committed to it. So, if it’s a retail space, sometimes that means sitting and being open eight hours at the beginning—even if that means no one’s coming in in the dead of winter, or being there in that you are ready and willing to answer any questions people have, or sit by the phone to answer phone calls or answer emails, and just giving it your all. With us, it’s thinking constantly about what events can we do that bring people in? What are some great titles that we could look into getting that would really fill a space and a need? Just being present in any way possible, being there and knowing that some days are going to be harder than others. But if you’re not putting yourself 100 percent into it, you’re less likely to get those days where everything’s just coming together.
Is there anything else you might want to add?
ALEXANDER: My only general advice: We’ve talked to a number of couples and people who’ve wanted to open businesses that have reached out to us in the shop, and it’s going to sound silly, but don’t fill anything out online. Just, go—especially in Philadelphia—just go to the permits office and do it. They’re all very nice and very accommodating. And they’re human. If you say “I don’t understand this,” generally, they will help. We did a number of things thinking we were saving time at the beginning, and filled it out online and put it in, and we also really didn’t know what the heck we were doing in the beginning, which led to more hurdles and inevitably having to go into the permits office and basically doing everything twice. So just go in and ask questions. Do it in person. Talk to someone about it. It seems like it’s a waste of time, but it’s not.
CHRISTINA: And my advice—well, not even advice necessarily but comment—for anyone who is thinking about starting a business, especially something like a bookstore that people think in this day and age can’t be a lucrative one, is that if you’re doing something you genuinely love and you’re passionate about, no matter what failures you experience or hardships or bumps there are along the way, it’s all worth it. We go to work every day and we might be exhausted, but we love being in the bookstore. It’s a dream come true for us to have this space and to be able to go into it every day and talk to people about books. I’m going to start teaching workshops at the store soon, so just being able to have a space that totally represents us and our vision is amazing. As long as someone who wants to start a business really puts themselves into it, it’s going to be worth it—no matter what.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.