Frank Reiss | Owner, President
A Cappella Books
Q: Why did you start your business?
A: After college I worked at an antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco for a number of years and fell in love with book culture, not just authors and readers, but collectors and all of the passion and imagination and talents that book culture embraces. I wanted to create something similar to what I knew back in San Francisco in my hometown of Atlanta. That was in 1989.
Q: What are some key factors or decisions that contributed to the success of your business?
A: We have had to continually adapt and reinvent our approach to selling books as technology and reading culture has evolved, moving from almost exclusively used, out of print and collectible books to a mixture of new and used books, and driven at this point largely by author events.
Despite all of our changes, we've tried to remain true to our original vision of being almost obsessively focused on one thing: books. Not sidelines, not coffee, no gimmicks. Just books for people who truly love books. And there are still a lot of them, and a lot of different ways that people express that love.
Q: What are some challenging aspects of your business?
A: There are many challenges. One, the profit margin is not very big on new books (especially in the age of Amazon). Books are relatively low-priced items (again, more so in the age of amazon), so it's difficult without generating a large sales volume to make much money.
It's easy to get passionate people to work in the book business, but because of the limited income that a long career in book selling offers, it is a challenge to retain capable employees for a long period of time. And without that, it's hard to maintain steady growth. We have maintained steady growth, but the result of that is that the few decision-makers in the business have more and more responsibility over time, and it's hard to delegate to reliable staff. We are, hopefully, starting to see a change in that over the last couple of years, during which our sales have pretty dramatically increased.
Q: Do you feel you made any serious mistakes as you were starting or growing your business? Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?
A: I was severely under-capitalized when I started A Cappella. That has hindered our ability to grow from day one--not really a decision, just a fact. Thus, re-tooling along the way has always proven extremely tough. There were never any opportunities to make any decisions that cost any real money. We always have to do everything on the cheap. During the economic collapse of the previous Republican administration, we had no avenue to survive, having to sink very deeply into debt. In the years since, we have worked extremely hard to grow the business and pay down that debt and we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can't imagine that anyone could say taking that course was a good business decision, but it was our only path to survival, and it looks like we're going to make it through--barring another national economic downturn--so it's probably good that we did it that way.
Q: What other advice or words of inspiration would you like to share?
A: It seems to me that if you truly believe in what it is that your business does, all the hard work that goes into maintaining it seems worth it. If it's exclusively about making as much money as you possibly can, I can't imagine how difficult the day-to-day reality of running a business would be.
Another great aspect of running a business that genuinely reflects your values is that the people you bring on to help run it--and the people your business serves--tend to overwhelmingly be people with similar values. That makes the day-to-day go better, too.
Oh yeah, and marrying somebody smarter than you are and just as hard working helps a lot, too!
About A Cappella Books
A Cappella Books is a small, independent bookstore in in-town Atlanta, offering a well-curated selection of new, used, out-of-print, and collectible books in a wide range of fields of interest. We have a strong online presence, especially for our used and autographed editions, and we also partner with other businesses, civic groups, and cultural organizations of all sorts to present author and book events all over Metro Atlanta.
"Despite all of our changes, we've tried to remain true to our original vision of being almost obsessively focused on one thing: books. Not sidelines, not coffee, no gimmicks. Just books for people who truly love books."—Frank Reiss