The last Saturday in April is Independent Bookstore Day. To celebrate, bookstores across the country hold special events, give out free swag, and offer discounts. In the Pacific Northwest, they have a passport you can pick up at any location. Get your passport stamped at any three stores and you get a coupon for 30% off your next purchase. This year, my friends and I decided to take on the ultimate Indie Bookstore Challenge: visit all 21 of the participating indie bookstores in a single day. Winners receive 25% off at all stores for an entire year, and more importantly, bragging rights. Here’s how we did it.
There were five in our group, each with a separate job:
- Driver – who gave us use of her car and her parking skills
- Documenter – in charge of Instagram/Twitter posts and tracking who bought what in each store
- Concierge – booked our hotel, created the playlist, made reservations for dinner
- Craft Services – planned and purchased all road snacks
- Scheduler – created the route and kept us on schedule
If you wanted to do this with a three or four person team, I recommend combining either the concierge or craft service roles with another role (or with each other), since the other three tend to be very busy day-of.
It will come as no surprise to people who know me that I was the Scheduler, in charge of creating the most beautiful spreadsheet I could.
Factors to Consider
- The number of participating bookstores seems to grow every year, but for 2019 there were 21 stores. For the four stores with multiple locations, you only needed to visit one of their locations (there were 26 total locations to consider).
- Not all stores have the same hours. The earliest stores opened at 7AM and the latest ones closed at 11PM. On the flip side, some stores didn’t open until 11AM and others were closed by 5PM.
- Four of the store locations were on islands or peninsulas in puget sound, meaning multiple ferry rides were needed.
- Your plan is totally different if you want to spend any real time in the stores. It is possible to do this by running in, getting a stamp on your passport, and running out. However our group felt strongly that we wanted to have time to actually look around every store we visited, and that at least one person in our group should buy something at each store.
Step One: Build your list
The store names, addresses, phone numbers, and hours are posted on the official Seattle Bookstore Day website (https://www.seattlebookstoreday.com/). Many stores have extended hours for this day, so make sure you’ve got the right info. I also recommend checking back the day before the event, as the site may be updated with different hours. Unfortunately this first step is pretty tedious because it’s a lot of copy and pasting from the website (it can be made slightly easier by utilizing the Paste Special > Paste Transposed feature, which pastes your list sideways).
This is also when I started to add additional columns to my sheet. I had: Store Name, Address, Open Time, Close Time, Travel Time, Arrival Time, Duration of Stay, Departure Time, Margin before store closure, Website, and Phone. I also put conditional formatting on the Open and Close columns, so the sheet would automatically highlight any store that opened after 10AM or closed before 6PM, since that’s where we’d be most likely to run into trouble.
Step Two: Build your map
For some reason Google Maps has started limiting the number of locations you can have on a single map to 10 addresses. This is really frustrating, especially with exactly one more location than can fit on two maps. I found this video that allows you to combine two maps into one to get past this problem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlmUJ8-KQ5o. It’s still a little annoying, but at least you end up with a full map.
I recommend putting in the store names rather than just addresses, as it makes it way easier to keep track of what you’re doing. You can use the addresses you have on your spreadsheet to confirm Google is finding the right store.
For this first map, all you’re doing is rearranging the stores until you find a logical order. I got the feeling most people default to doing a big circle of all the outer stores, then hit all the Seattle stores.
Step Three: Test your map against the list
Google should be able to give you approximate drive times to get between each location. Once you have the times, you can use that to calculate when you’d arrive at each location. You can do this manually, but using formulas will take away a huge amount of work. Your basic math here is Arrival Time + Duration = Departure Time, then Departure Time + Drive Time = Arrival Time. Keep in mind that ferries operate on their own schedule, so no matter how early you get to the dock, you’ll still land at the scheduled time (so you probably want to replace the formula with a manual entry for that line).
This is also when I started to calculate my margin of error, which was a column that told me the difference between when we were scheduled to arrive and when the store closed. I put conditional formatting on the margin column to turn red if the number went below 2.5 hours. This made it incredibly easy to see instantly where our biggest problems would be if we got off schedule.
Step Four: Recalibrate
If your plan is just to run in and back out at each store, you’re probably done planning already. If you want to spend time in the stores and give yourself plenty of buffer, you may run into the same problem I did: store hours.
My original, most efficient driving route would have theoretically worked, but it would have had us rushing through the first stores in order to catch an early ferry, then cutting it fairly close on some of the later locations – showing up at one of the later stores only an hour before it was supposed to close. An hour may seem like enough buffer, but if we missed that first ferry we’d be an hour behind our schedule before we even hit the forth store. So, I decided to try a different tactic that I knew would be less efficient in terms of miles and drive time, but might buy us a little extra time buffer.
Rather than doing a big circle of outer stores and ending in Seattle, I did a half circle of outer stores, went through Seattle to hit all the early closers, went back out of the city to finish the circle, then ended with the remaining Seattle stores.
Amazingly, this only added about 10 miles and 20 minutes to our drive. But we gained the freedom to slow down the morning to a reasonable pace, gave ourselves a 90 minute buffer before store closings, and put us on a more favorable ferry schedule where missing the boat would have only set us back 45 minutes. The reason this worked was that when you plan to spend 20 minutes at each store, every store you visit pushes everything else back at least a half hour. So by moving late-closing stores later, you free up whole hours of you day.
Something worth mentioning is that I chose not to include separate buffers for parking or traffic. My logic here was that those numbers would be so impossible to predict, I would just be adding complication to the schedule without much benefit. Instead I looked at the 20 minutes per store as the overall time allotted for that store, and any amount of time needed for traffic or parking would be pulling from that. As a result, our actual time in-store was closer to 13 minutes on average.
Step Five: Print and Prepare
I printed a hard copy of the final plan, which was very helpful on the day. It was faster to reference when our driver needed to know the next location, and it was a static representation of where we should be at any given moment. Since the times on the sheet were auto-calculating, it would always be changing as I added the real data of when we were leaving or arriving places. This is great for knowing if your margin is growing or shrinking, but can also be a bit crazy-making since the goal posts are always changing.
Step Six: Re-Route
The reason you build a 90 minute buffer into your schedule is that you never know what can happen. Around 3:30PM, when we were just over halfway through our list of stores, a construction crane collapsed in Seattle. The disaster killed four people and completely shut down a major street in the middle of the city for the rest of the day – a street we were supposed to be using to get to our next store. A friend texted me the news in time for me to take a look at our plans and make the last minute call to switch the next two stores. Later that evening, right around store #16, our driver was feeling so sick we had to drop her off at home and switch cars. But none of this sent us into a panic, because we had that 90 minute buffer to work with. By the end of the day we were only 36 minutes behind the original schedule, with plenty of buffer to spare.
No spreadsheet can be perfect until you use it. Over the course of the day I learned a few things I could have done differently to make it easier to use:
- Rearrange/hide columns – On the day of the event I really only needed to see the store names, arrival and departure times, and the margin for error. I ended up hiding the other columns to make it easier to scroll on my phone, but were I to do it again I would probably just rearrange the columns so the most important stuff is first.
- Add floating buffer for lunch – I didn’t write a lunch into the schedule because I didn’t know when the group would want to eat, and therefore where to put it or where to even look for restaurants. I figured that was part of what the buffer was for. But without a specific time set aside for lunch, we felt compelled to just keep going all the time, only stopping for car snacks when we knew we were ten minutes ahead. In hindsight I should have just added a line for lunch in the schedule in the middle of the day, knowing that we would probably want lunch around that time and that we could adjust everything else based on it.
- Plan a low-key dinner – We thought ahead enough to book reservations for dinner, knowing that we’d end on Capitol Hill on a Saturday night and restaurants were sure to be full. In hindsight, I think we should have found a restaurant away from Capitol Hill and nearer to where all our cars were. Specifically, somewhere fairly quiet that we wouldn’t need reservations for. Because while getting reservations was generally a good idea, it just meant one more thing on the schedule that could be messed up. So in addition to worrying about store closures and parking times, we also couldn’t end the day early or late.
During dinner I asked the other women in my group what advice they’d give to anyone trying this in the future. Here’s what we came up with:
- Drink lots of water – you’re going to get really dehydrated
- Wear good shoes – we walked a total of five miles over the course of the day. Even though our parking luck was generally pretty good, the act of going in and out of 21 stores is a lot of steps.
- Wear layers – April is a real mystery month for Seattle weather. The day was deceptively bright and sunny but also pretty cold, and many of us wished we had something thicker to put on.
- Wear your best book swag – I wore a Harry Potter shirt and carried a tote that said “I’d Rather Be Reading,” and I got a lot of compliments on both. As you go through the day, you’ll see tons of other participants that you’ll recognize by their swag. Not just in the stores, but while you’re parking, on the ferry, in the coffee shop, everywhere. You’re on Team Books, so wear your team colors if you got ‘em!
- Make dinner & lunch plans – like I said, I wished I’d had a more proactive plan for lunch, and a more easy-going plan for dinner.
- Bring both healthy and junky car snacks – healthy snacks are good for your body, junk food is good for your moral. Make sure to have both in the car.
- Bring something for motion sickness – You’re going to be in the car a lot, possibly looking at your phone the whole time, not to mention at least an hour on boats. Even if no one in your group is normally susceptible to motion sickness, this is a good investment.
- Be prepared to move with the crowd – For the first three stores of the day, we were clearly part of a massive crowd all going to the same places in the same order. This doesn’t last all day, but it’s likely to happen at the very beginning and maybe very end. Be prepared to stand in line, to hunt for parking, etc. Don’t stress out over the crowd – you’ll naturally disperse to different directions soon. And remember: it’s not a competition. Everyone can win.
- Try to buy something – These stores don’t have to do this. Even if your group doesn’t have the cash to buy things at every store, try to find at least one or two places you can support with your dollars.
- Know what you want to buy – If you choose the “buy something at every store” plan like our group did, you might want to think ahead about the kinds of things you want to look for so it doesn’t feel like you’re choosing from the entire world at every store. Examples: one new release, one staff recommendation, one journal, one non-book item, etc.
- Remember the other costs – ferry rides, toll bridges, parking fees, car snacks – all this stuff adds up. If you’re in a group, consider having one person front the cost for each category and paying them back later via PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, etc.
- Prepare for Sensory and Decision Fatigue – Bookstores are inherently engaging and stimulating places, plus you’re running around, you’re talking to strangers, you’re looking for stuff to buy. It’s really exhausting and over-stimulating. I don’t have a cure for this, but I think if you and your group mates are aware of it you’re likely to be kinder on yourself and others.
- Know what game you’re playing – Everyone has a different approach to this challenge. Some people were trying to go super fast, some people got a really late start, some were buying things as they went. Whatever version of this challenge you’ve decided to do, just make sure you know what it is and everyone in your car is on board with playing that same game.
- BE NICE – I can’t stress this enough, not only for the impact you have on others but for the impact you have on yourself. This is a long day, especially for a store owner watching people run in and out of their store just to get a stamp without so much as a hello. At the early morning stores I thanked them for helping use start the day, at the late night stores I thanked them for being open so late. I thanked people for extending their hours for the event, for the snacks they provided, for the cool stuff they were handing out, for having great parking. It made me feel good to focus on gratitude so much, and I could tell the staff appreciated it as well.
If you’re planning to do this challenge in 2020 or beyond, good luck! I’ll be over here, reading the seven books I managed to buy…
Our Documenter, Kristina Horner, did her own write-up of the experience that you can check out here: http://kristinahorner.com/how-to-do-the-indie-bookstore-challenge-seattle-2019/
Looking for more? Here are the articles and blogs I used to help plan my day: