Earlier this year, my wife and I decided we would take a stand against the recent banning of certain books in Texas, where we live and run an independent bookstore. We set up a trailer on Main Street in front of our shop in the small town of Bastrop and gave away hundreds of copies of books such as Fahrenheit 451, Lawn Boy, and Out of Darkness.
Obviously, giving away books is not a great revenue driver, nor is potentially alienating members of your community whose politics differ from yours. (One of the books we gave away was protested by parents at a high school just a few blocks from our store.) But neither of those considerations was enough to overcome the feeling that we were doing the right thing--at least by our moral standards, if not our bottom line.
And as it turns out, in the bigger picture, following our conscience was good for business. Local media came out and covered our event extensively. National media followed suit. And the e-book service Scribd ended up picking up the tab for the books.
Let's back up for a moment. I opened a bookstore in the depths of the pandemic for the same reason I write--because I love it. Because I felt called to do it. I feel that books are important and that a world where people don't have access to them is not a world I want to imagine.
I'd like to believe that that reasoning is analogous to the way many (not all) businesses get started. A person sees a need in the world and, by filling that need, becomes an entrepreneur. The business has a purpose beyond profits.
That purpose is important. We live in an attention economy. What is scarce is not capital or natural resources or retail space or consumer dollars. The prize resource is the attention of the ever-distracted, incessantly courted, very jaded public. Without people's attention--be it on social media or on foot--your business will not survive. And the pursuit of profits is not going to attract attention on its own.
The thing about protecting your profits, or acting only in your narrow economic self-interest, is that it's very boring. It's the driest definition of capitalism. It doesn't inspire much in the way of goodwill or enthusiasm, and it reduces your relationship with your customers to the value of their next transaction.
To act with purpose, on the other hand, frees you to do the things that actually matter to human beings--and thus to stand out among a sea of businesses that don't.
Take Covid, for example. I did not want to get sick, nor did I want anyone who worked for me to get sick. So it seemed obvious that no matter what the governor of Texas chose to do, we would mandate masks in our store. Which we did. Did that upset some people who might have otherwise come in and bought things? Of course. I understand other businesses had circumstances forcing them to make other decisions. But I wouldn't have let an unmasked stranger into my house in 2020 or 2021, so we said no thanks in the store as well.
And when a woman I don't know sent me a nasty note about our mask policy, I posted it on social media. As with our book giveaway, significant press coverage ensued--and so did a spike in our online sales. For every person who came into the store and complained about the minor inconvenience of masking up, far more people came in and thanked us for taking the extra step, for making a space that was safe for, say, their immunocompromised kids. We even had employees of other businesses in town thank us for providing an example they could point to when asking their bosses for the same protections.
In writing, you find that the less pretense you have, the more your work connects. I have found as a business owner that the less I think like a business--the more I just do what makes sense to me as a human, what feels right for my community--the better I sleep and the better our business performs.
Because being yourself is relatable. It's real. You might feel like you're going way out on a limb, but actually it might be the safer bet--because it gives you access to an audience that everyone else is too afraid or too calculating to reach.