7 lessons I learned while working at a children’s bookstore

Vineet V. George
11 min readJan 16, 2024

Thirteen years ago, on a sunny summer morning in New Delhi, India, a young unemployed (and fresh) engineering college graduate decided to take a chance. He walked into this cute little bookstore right opposite the school he had spent 13 years of his life in, trying to grow up.

Eureka! The Bookstore for the Young

Why? Because he had a job interview there.

This bookstore was the first ever dedicated children’s bookstore in the city (and perhaps the country). It was a beautiful space, full of books from all over the world, a mix as diverse as you could ever find. The best part? The bookstore still has the best mix of children’s books you could ever find anywhere in the country.

The bookstore had been part of his growing up — he’d got his first Harry Potter books there, grown from Enid Blyton (or not) to Hardy Boys and eventually to some biographies and (unfortunately) management & self help books.

During the very last year of his life in college, trying to learn mechanical & automation engineering, he’d made up his mind to work in a business from the ground up, and do something different. So he wrote to a bunch of places, and the nice people at the bookstore replied.

Hence, the job interview.

Needless to say, he did clear the interview, got the job and spent three and a half years working with some of the most amazing people he’d ever met.

This young engineering graduate was me.

And this is a gist of the seven lessons I learned during my time at the most amazing bookstore in the world!

Lesson 1: Give importance to (but don’t sweat) the small stuff

Bookstores are a solid business.

What I mean by solid is that behind all the creativity, excitement and beauty of a novel business like a children’s bookstore, are solid principles of any bootstrapped business venture — P&L, inventory management, process management, event management, business hours, employee shifts, defined (& undefined) roles & responsibilities, and a whole list of other managerial, operational and creative tasks that need to run like a well-oiled engine, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (yes, bookstores are open on public holidays too).

Checklists, process-flows and day-to-day routine tasks were as important as the engaging author events or the multi-city literature festivals we hosted. Diligence and discipline were customary (the oil of the well-oiled engine).

We would fret over imbalances in cash, perform quarterly ‘stock-takes’ (an entire inventory check of the bookstore’s thousands of books) and plan our days, weeks and months in elaborate fashion just to make sure we were able to manage our expenses, and run a profitable business.

Hence, the little things mattered a lot, all the nuts & bolts needed to function appropriately so that we could focus on creating a space that was unique, growing in the right direction and at the same time, was run efficiently.

Each of us working here had specific roles and this came with automatic accountability. We knew that if we slacked off, our work would fall on someone else. We all learned to be more disciplined, more accountable and more responsible during our time here. No one had to tell us to ‘know our role and do it well’.

This created deep team bonding, personal as well as team discipline and rigour that I doubt I could have learned anywhere else.

Inventory check in our first godown!

Lesson 2: Things do go wrong, never blame others, chin up, get up and move on.

We did so many different things from one bookstore — we ran a schools business, planned & managed book fairs, hosted the biggest children’s literature festival of India (which has now grown globally), organized author tours and ran the retail outlet — the bookstore.

Since many different people came together for various tasks and activities taking place all the time, the chances of things going wrong were an expectation that we, inevitably, were prepared for.

While we did build checklists, kept clear process documents and learnt every single formula Microsoft Excel could throw at us, more often than naught, things would break — someone may forget to carry the cash box for a book fair, some ordered books may not turn up on time from distributors or some volunteers may wake up late for a 7am start (and hence leave us short of staff).

Quite literally, anything could go wrong.

Once, on one of the hottest Delhi afternoons ever, the axle of our truck broke while hauling books up to a school on the top of a hill for a book fair that was supposed to begin in a few hours. (Books can be heavy — figuratively and literally). We regrouped, quickly allocated various responsibilities, got a random dude with a small truck to help us and in a few hours all the kids & parents of the school were joyfully browsing our books. No one even knew what had transpired. That’s just how we ‘rolled’.

So yes, things did go wrong, all the time. Setbacks were part and parcel of the ‘bookstore’ business.

But what remained constant and special was the way we moved on from the setbacks. None of us spent a second playing the ‘blame-game’ or brooding over what happened or even pausing for a second to curse the universe. (Well okay, a bit of cursing did happen).

We fell, we got back up and we started running again. We thought out of the box, in the box, on top of the box, and sometimes even without the box.

Yes, we learned from the mistakes and we added more items to our checklist manifesto (this is also a great book each of us could read) but more importantly, we got together as a team and moved on.

This learning has helped me become a pretty good fire fighter (figuratively) across teams, organizations and even in my personal life. Being unfazed in the midst of chaos is a trait I am very happy to have picked up at the bookstore.

A book fair we managed to set up by 7am even though our shelves were only ready at 2am in the morning

Lesson 3: No job is small. Work ethic means something.

The bookstore instilled in all of us an insane sense of work ethic that has stayed with me even today. It also taught me a very important lesson right from my first day working there as a part-time store manager:

Process is much greater than the people.

Now don’t get me wrong, people are important. But when people may not be available, the process needs to take precedence. There are no two ways about it. For instance, if the person who cleans the store takes a day off, the others have to volunteer and take on the mantle (also pick up the broom and clean the store).

When I first saw the store owners (both with decades of experience as editors of renowned editorials and magazines) pick up a broom and clean the store themselves, I was… I don’t know what I was — surprised yes, and at the same time, it was a light bulb moment for me — It just broke many perceptions, and stereotypes in my head.

I would like to think that it made me a better human being.

So yes, anyone working at the bookstore could be seen doing anything and everything.

Process > People.

Footnote — Interestingly my own role evolved from just being a store manager, within two weeks of me joining the bookstore, because someone decided to leave the bookstore one fine day and I decided to take on the role. More on that in the next lesson.

All in all, no job is small (or big). A job is a job. It just needs to be completed. Period.

Lesson 4: Say ‘Yes’ a lot. Taking on challenges, being ‘present’ and available.

While this is more true in the initial stages of one’s career, being a ‘yes person’ has held me in good stead throughout my career.

I joined the bookstore to learn as much as possible about a business, from the ground up, and at the same time add as much value as possible to it. So one fine day when the person who was managing our schools business (B2B) decided to call it quits, the store owners asked me if I would want to take up the role.

I was ready to say ‘Yes’ even before they finished their question — one of the best decisions of my professional life (even today).

Saying ‘Yes’ allowed me to grow so much in life, helped me learn immensely on how to scale a B2B business, and take on challenges that made me a more resilient human being. As a matter of fact, saying ‘Yes’ has continued to be a core part of my professional growth.

I love taking on challenges because I took on that first professional challenge and plunged head first into something I had no idea about.

I’ve seen this attitude in many amazing individuals I’ve had the chance of working with and reading about. If I hadn’t spent my initial years working at the bookstore and saying ‘yes’ more than I said ‘no’, I don’t think I would have had half the experiences I was able to have through this decade of professional workmanship.

Lesson 5: Finding your calling and moral compass

While many of us will face many different situations throughout our lives — some easy and some difficult — what separates the clear-headed individuals from the confused ones, is quite simply, a moral compass.

There are always situations which push us to make a choice and many a time, these choices are not easy decisions to make. Sometimes it is a choice between doing what’s right by us and doing what’s right for the business to grow. There is always a lot of grey area and that’s where a moral compass helps create some clarity.

The leaders at the bookstore business were so clear about their moral compass, their ethics and values, there was never a doubt for us, as employees on what path to take. For example — No bribing, no shortcuts to anything (success or failure) and always keeping our heads held high even when we went through tough business cycles.

This basic value system instilled so much faith in all of us to always do the right thing, we were able to grow respectably. This learning has also stood the test of time and circumstances ever since. Even today I would be the first person to turn down a sales deal if it meant going against what we stand for as an organization, as a team or even as an individual.

Defining our true north, knowing that the path we take is as important as the destination we are trying to reach and making sure we do what’s ‘right’ according to our overall value-system are simple ideologies in life that can profoundly impact us.

Lesson 6: Never selling, always adding value.

A bookstore is a place that welcomes many different types of customers.

We meet kids, parents of those kids, teenagers (young adults), college students, young couples, old couples — the list is endless. They also come from all walks of life and come searching for all sorts of things. From a book for their holiday reading to a birthday gift for a loved one, from an activity book for their toddlers to even some questionable ‘adult’ literature that we’d usually frown upon.

So one can imagine that we had many varied conversations with many different types of people.

The common thread across all these conversations was the simple yet core sales fundamental of ‘know thy customer’. We loved knowing more about our customers, and their ‘why’.

‘Why do you need this book right now, what kind of books do you read, what do you plan to learn, what’s the occasion, what’s your budget, how well do you know this author, have you read other books by this author’ — again, the list of questions is endless.

While I did not know this back then, the process of uniting a book-searcher with a book that’s just right, is one of the best examples of a successful consultative sales process.

At the bookstore, we never sold. Ever.

We only consulted, and our focus was always on adding value.

We were never running after numbers. Yes, we tracked numbers, we celebrated numbers and we enjoyed hitting our targets but they did not drive us in our conversations with our customers. We spoke to customers to solve for them, to add value to their ‘search’ and to ensure that when they left the bookstore, they left with more peace than what they came with. (Sometimes this meant they did not leave with a book, and that was okay).

Our spirit went beyond numbers

Lesson 7: Take the time to celebrate, together

Finally, one of the most important lessons of the bookstore life, was the importance of team celebrations.

We loved celebrating occasions. These could be employee (or customer) birthdays, festivals, amazing sales at a book fair or even a new scooter that an employee bought. Such was the camaraderie and bonding we were able to build as we grew together.

More importantly, we always celebrated each other’s successes. Each of us had our own roles, even when it came to sales, but none of us focused on individual goals — it was always the team, the bookstore and the overall business.

And hence, we always celebrated as a team.

And these need not be elaborate celebrations either. Yes, we did enjoy fine dining every now and then, especially when we celebrated the bookstore anniversary or an incredible edition of our children’s literature festival. But most of the time, it could even be just samosa and chai. Or a good ice cream from the ice cream bhaiya who stood on the road next to our bookstore.

This lesson has continued for me in my professional as well as personal life. I love celebrating the smallest of things — and in the simplest of manners. A celebration could also be a team meeting to play badminton. Or celebrating a deal-win with a breakfast ride or drive. The important part is to celebrate, and enjoy the small wins with each other.

We love our cheesecakes, don’t we?

The bookstore is now 21 years old and it’s been 10 years since I left the bookstore but the lessons are still very much part of my life.

Forever grateful to the bookstore, to the people there and to the two amazing humans who still run it, with a jump in their step and a twinkle in their eye. :)

Always grateful.

Here is where you can find Eureka! Bookstore and Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival.

www.eurekabookstore.com

www.bookaroo.in

Facebook: Eureka! and Bookaroo

Instagram: Eureka! and Bookaroo

YouTube: Eureka! and Bookaroo

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Vineet V. George

A sales and consulting professional who enjoys writing about things that are close to his heart.