Lakeshore, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Bookstore is a golden retirement opportunity

Four friends find that running a downtown gathering place is a labor of love.

February 19, 2016
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The Bookman
Diane Steggerda, left, Sharon Tanis and Dick Tanis are part of the team that is running The Bookman. Not pictured is Alexa McGuinness. Photo by Rachel Weick

The new owners of a downtown Grand Haven bookstore are excited to be starting the next chapter of their lives.

The four owners of The Bookman, 715 Washington Ave., are retired or will be retiring soon. When the prospect of purchasing the more than 40-year-old bookstore became available, they saw it as a golden opportunity.

Diane Steggerda, Dick and Sharon Tanis, and Alexa McGuinness took over operations last March from John and Judy Waanders.

Steggerda had been looking for a part-time job with The Bookman after retiring from substitute teaching when she learned the previous owners were thinking of selling the business.

“I thought it would maybe be fun to buy it if I could find partners. It took a while,” said Steggerda. “Alexa McGuinness was in my book club and she decided she wanted to be a part of this as part of her retirement plan in a few years. Then I was having Thanksgiving dinner with Dick and Sharon and I happened to mention it.”

Dick Tanis, who was nearly seven years into retirement and previously had worked in technology, said while they weren’t too serious at the time, it was an opportunity to consider.

Ultimately, the concern of the bookstore closing down and “becoming an empty box” helped sway the decision.

“I had never been in retail before, have never owned a business, but the idea of four people teaming together began to sound like it was a good possibility that would work,” said Tanis. “In this community, independent bookstores are very valuable. We just could not imagine this town without an independent bookstore.”

Tanis said they worked with the previous owner to arrive at an acceptable offer and began learning how to run the business prior to assuming ownership.

“We were very happy that, as we got closer, it was beginning to look like it was feasible. Of course, we had a lot to do as far as the technicalities of seeing an attorney, working with the state of Michigan and getting our tax license,” said Dick Tanis. “Everything fell into place, and March 1, we took over.”

When the new owners sat down to write their mission statement, the first words that came to mind were to create a warm and welcoming place.

Dick Tanis said being able to guide someone to what they are interested in is probably the best part of his time spent at the bookstore.

“It is meeting people in the community that come here, and trying to help them if they are looking for something,” said Tanis. “Oftentimes we don’t have the answer, but our staff is very knowledgeable. We have made customer service our primary objective.”

The new owners kept the existing staff during the transition and now employ approximately 10, with additional summertime positions as needed. While there have not been any major renovations to the building, Steggerda indicated they have rearranged furniture and shelves to open up the space and allow more natural lighting into the store.

The Bookman’s new chapter has brought nearly 52 new events to the store in the past year, including monthly poetry and book clubs, an adult coloring-book event, live music from local artists, author signings and a Scrabble night.

“The one thing we learned soon after we took over is the numerous local authors in West Michigan,” said Tanis. “They, of course, are trying to find ways to display and sell their books, so we often have local authors come in for book signings, especially if it is a recent book.”

The Bookman also provides out-of-print services, a paperback exchange for used books, special orders, gift certificates and a Customer Club that offers $10 off for every $100 spent. Other discount programs include 20 percent off for teachers purchasing books for the classroom, for book clubs when buying at least five books, and when ordering 30 or more books.

Steggerda said The Bookman has formed collaborations with local businesses such as Grimaldi’s Chocolates, Meals for a Week & Catering to provide free cookies for customers, Gallery Uptown to feature local artists’ work in the bookstore, and the local museum and public library.

“I thought it would just be a store that we stayed in and … welcome people as they come in and buy books. Well, now we are out and about,” said Steggerda. “I am also doing outreach. I decided I wanted people to know, in the nonprofit organizations and schools that we try to help, that we give discounts.”

Steggerda already has reached out to Grand Haven Public Schools, with plans to contact Muskegon and Spring Lake schools and, hopefully, school systems from Holland north to Ludington.

As the business moves into its second chapter, the new owners are working on choosing an e-commerce solution to integrate with the new computer system, which was one of the first major expenses tackled. Tanis said the new system will be more efficient in running daily operations and looking at reports.

“We knew when we took over we would have some major expenses that we would have to address, and that left us a little bit shaky as to ‘can we overcome these expenses,’” he said. “It has worked. It has taken awhile and I think this year we are going to see we are in better shape economically with having had some major things behind us.”

The Bookman also has reached out to SCORE, a national nonprofit association providing education and mentorship for small businesses, to receive guidance as the store moves forward.

Although running the bookstore has been at times intense and worrisome, Steggerda said she feels 30 years younger.

“I think my most fun thing is just sharing books,” said Steggerda. “It is like being a teacher again. … And then the stories — the stories of people who come in and tell you all kinds of things.”

For Sharon Tanis, the best part of being involved with the bookstore is the community aspect.

“You never know who is going to walk in that door, and it is just fun,” she said. “Also, opening them up to something new — I love it when people come in and tell us the stories about the last book they read.”

Dick Tanis said co-owning The Bookman has changed their lives.

“Here I am, launching a new career, and I am loving it,” said Tanis. “Some of the hours are long, and yet it is a satisfaction that is hard to describe.”

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