Small Biz Advice: Breathing New Life Into the Family Business



Dear Holly,

I’ve recently inherited a family business. It’s a small bookstore that has been around for decades and in the past few years sales have declined quite drastically. I’m not sure how much of that is due to poor management or just the reality for a small independent bookstore. My family recently launched a small online store, but that didn’t seem to change things.

I’m coming to this venture with minimal business acumen. I would like to take over and turn things around, but I’m not sure if I have the knowledge and experience to make that happen.

I’ve got all of the records and past business plans from my family and reviewing them has been helpful. But my question for you is whether or not you have advice for a business that is declining and needs to change direction. Any insight you can offer would be helpful at this point.

Open Book

Dear Open Book,

I’m sorry to hear about the decline in your family’s bookstore. I know how challenging it is to compete with bigger industries and online retailers, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer because of it. It is often when things look the most bleak that there is substantial opportunity for change. Your situation reminds me of a great quote from Einstein that says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” So let’s take a page out of Apple’s playbook and “think differently” about the concept and direction of your bookstore.

What I mean by all of this is that the problem I see in a lot of small businesses is that they fail to come up with creative solutions to their problems because it’s not the way “others do it”. We often follow what other businesses do blindly without thinking about what’s best for our business. We think that someone else with more experience must know better than us. Often this just isn’t true and we don’t trust our vision.

It’s good to review plans from the past and get an understanding of where the store was headed, but it’s now time for you to make this your own. The first thing I would recommend you do is spend time thinking about what your long-term vision is for the store. Is this something you want to invest your time and energy in for the next 10 years? If so, what do you want that store to become? This is often a difficult question for people to answer because they get stuck rationalizing what they want from their business. Think as big as possible and don’t judge your vision. Without a clear vision, you’ll never turn this around. That’s the first step.

Next, I would take a fresh look at the community around the bookstore. Could it be that the demographics of the community have changed considerably since your family started the store, and your family didn’t adjust to the changing needs and demands? This is a problem I see many small business owners run into. They fail to keep an honest profile of the changing needs of their community.

Finally, once you have a clear picture of your market and who is coming in and out of the store—and who you want to come in and out of the store—then you’ll be ready for some creative solutions for growth.

I would rethink your inventory based on your new target market. It’s likely that if you haven’t assessed the market, you’re likely not carrying the books that customers desire. That could be a big reason sales are declining. The customer simply isn’t finding what they want to buy.

Give people more than one reason to come to your store and stay. Maybe you’re not just a book store. Maybe you’re also a cafe and event space. This is where you should get creative. If you have the space, consider hosting events or even opening a small cafe within the store. Would you benefit from author events, reading groups or lectures? Do you have space you can rent out for others to host educational events? Could you host small film screenings? These are all important questions to ask yourself. Be creative and start offering the community a different experience than you have for the past few decades. I’m sure there’s more than one direction you can take with this. You just need to decide what is needed and stick to a plan.

Most importantly, be persistent. Change takes time and a significant amount of effort. I truly don’t believe it’s all about how skilled you are at business; it’s also about how creative you can be working with what you already have.

Good luck! I hope you see a lot of success with this change. I know your community will benefit from it!

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Want valuable insights into how to grow your business? Email Holly to set up a time to talk at or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How. You can also enroll in her Business Growth program.

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