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Votes

‘Bibliocat’ Works at Already Read Used Books

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Ken and Diane Mahnken with Gwenievere, the bookstore cat, chief greeter, and "general manager."

<b>Short bio: </b>

Ken: Grew up in Northfield, N.J., a short distance from Atlantic City. I started a small consulting company right after college, and I found out that there was a lot to contend with, with experience being the main hurdle. I started with my first real job, working as a contractor for the FAA. After being laid off, I moved to the Washington Area (Gaithersburg, Md.) for a job with IBM. The position I accepted was on the same FAA contract that I was laid off from, but on a different project. Ironic, isn't it?

After living in Gaithersburg for a time, I moved to Chevy Chase since I ended up working in Virginia. I decided to move below the split to make the commute a little bit easier. I finally moved to Alexandria, Fairfax County in 2001.

Education: I graduated from Atlantic Community College with an AAS in Business and a AS in computers. I then attended Stockton State College where I graduated with a BS in Computer Information Sciences.

Diane: Originally from southern Michigan. Since 1987, I have lived in Alexandria. Before coming to Virginia, I owned a pizza restaurant and an art studio. After arriving here, I worked in the education/training field for a time, and I managed a computer bookstore. For the past seven years, I have worked for Northern Virginia Community College as an adjunct instructor teaching developmental reading/writing and freshman English.

Education: BS from Michigan State University, MSEd in Reading, a second MSED in Adult Education from Elmira College, Elmira, NY, and further graduate study at George Mason University.

<b>Why did you choose this particular business?</b>

Ken: My wife, Diane, has her master’s in reading, and both of us enjoy reading a lot. The reason we decided on choosing this business was we noticed that this area only had a couple of used bookstores. I thought that it would be a fun business to get into because of the interaction between books and people.

Diane: I have always had a love of books and reading, plus I am a reading teacher. In my free time, I would always go to the local bookstore to spend time and to buy even more books. My first job after high school was as a bookstore stock clerk, and over the years I have worked at various jobs in bookstores including working as a manager of a computer bookstore. So, opening a used bookstore seemed to be a natural extension of my interests in books and reading.

Before we opened our bookstore, my husband and I noticed that there were not very many used bookstores in Northern Virginia, and we thought that it would be an interesting business to own. We had thought about buying another used bookstore in the area, but decided on starting and designing our own from the ground up was the best choice.

<b>Why did you choose to work for yourself rather than as an employee for someone else?</b>

Ken: In my last job, I was not happy the last couple of years, and I realized that I needed to take a break from working in the corporate world. So, I decided to start looking around for another job, and after some lengthy discussions with Diane, we decided to open a used bookstore. I finally quit my job in April, 2006. I knew this was risky since I no longer had any income to help support the store or us in its early months since I would be financing the entire enterprise myself.

The bookstore is a good idea but with plenty of risk. One of our concerns was the number books being sold on the Internet; however, we have found that people prefer to buy a book that they can actually see and touch before buying. Another concern was the "big box" stores and getting people to change their book buying habit; however, we found that opening our bookstore at this point in time was a good decision. With the "green" movement, our used bookstore is a natural way to recycle books, to save trees, and to save money.

Diane: I have always found it to be more interesting and challenging to start and develop a business. Plus, I have always had a love of books and reading, plus I am a reading teacher. In my free time, I would always go to the local bookstore to spend time and to buy even more books. My first job after high school was as a bookstore stock clerk, and over the years I have worked at various jobs in bookstores including working as a manager of a computer bookstore. So, opening a used bookstore seemed to be a natural extension of my interests in books and reading.

<b>What have you learned from being in business?</b>

Ken: This is not the first time I have been in business, so the expenses, taxes, employees, etc. were no surprise. The surprise was all of the business codes and insurance regulations that I had to deal with since this is the first time I had a building, property, and signage to contend with.

The first thing I learned was to make sure that all of the startup costs are present even if I did not need them at first. Even though I had a working business plan, some of the startup costs were not fully considered since I did think I needed to worry about them at the beginning. However, as I began to get the business started, I realized that I needed to worry about them, and this threw off all of the calculations, which made the first few of months very interesting.

Ken & Diane: We learned, as we went about setting up the business, that the book business was harder then it looked. This was probably true since this store was started from the ground up as compared to one that was already in existence. All of the operating procedures and policies needed to be created and put in place to see how things worked, and then modified as needed. Plus, even though we researched the used book business, there was a lot to learn that could not be found in a book. This is especially true when dealing with the operations of bookstore versus on-line operations. What might sell in a bookstore locally, may not sell on-line, and vice versa.

<b>What have been the advantages and/or disadvantages of operating a business in Alexandria?</b>

Ken & Diane: Lots of readers and lots of educated people who love reading and books.

Also, we wanted to locate our business close to our home, so that we would only have a short commute. We looked around the Alexandria area for space to lease, and we decided the building we are in was a good choice — it has its own parking, good visibility, and large enough to house 15-20,000 books. Plus, the neighborhood has been very supportive of our bookstore.

<b>Key staff:</b>

Ken & Diane: Gwenievere. The bookstore cat, chief greeter, and "general manager." Why do we consider the cat part of the key staff? Gwenievere greets customers except when she is sleeping on the job, serves as a surrogate cat for the customers who cannot have a cat where they live, and on occasions she provides her "input" into our decision process. Almost all of our customers interact with her, and they have remarked that all good used bookstores have to have a resident bibliocat.

Occasionally, we have had sales people who stop by selling their various wares, and if Gwenievere does not "take" to them, we tend to take her reaction to the person into account. One time, she really put up a fit over a guy trying to sell us on black top coating. Something about the guy did not set well with her. The guy was pushing for us to make the decision at that moment, so we decided that Gwenievere's reaction was something to consider when we told the guy that we were not interested.

She guides customers through the bookcases and frequently makes recommendations. When she is not greeting customers, she likes nothing better than to curl up on top of one of her "boxes" or in her favorite corner with a warm blanket.

<b>Short bio: </b>

Gwenievere: Born and raised in Alexandria. Part Manx, part Maine Coon, part Siamese, and part alley cat. Lived and fought with her sisters and brothers until moving to bookstore to take her present position.

<b>Description of services and/or products:</b>

Ken & Diane: We have over 15,000 used, out-of-print, and vintage books with many of them difficult to find. In addition, a small selection of discounted new paperbacks are available. Also, we can special order books along with offering a book finding service. Our inventory includes most major categories with large selections of science fiction/fantasy, mysteries/suspense, cookbooks and military/general history. Currently, we also have more than 4,500 books in our ever-growing on-line inventory. We take special care to stock titles in very good to excellent condition, and we do not deal in ex-library copies. Most of our non-fiction hardbacks with dust jackets are protected by Brodart mylar covers.

We offer a generous trade credit that can be used for up to 50 percent of the purchase price on all used books in the book store.