Book N Bean: Where prose meets a cuppa.
Successful business is about timing. In 1993, Mike McGinley translated his love of books to a business idea when he opened his first 'House of Prose' second-hand bookstore in Muscat, Oman. Almost 20 years later, House of Prose and sister company Book 'N' Bean are an established part of the region's reading culture."I brought the second-hand books idea to Oman at about the same time they were getting television! While it might be an old-fashioned idea in other parts of the world, it was a novelty in the Middle East," McGinley said.
Expatriates would leave for the summer, and return with suitcases of books to sell. "The business was an instant success because there was a niche to be filled," he said.
Four years later in 1997, McGinley brought the concept to Dubai, opening up in Jumeirah Plaza on the Jumeirah Beach Road. He expanded to Abu Dhabi four years later, and another four saw him open in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta mall.
While it hasn't all gone his way– the Abu Dhabi bookshop and the one in Ibn Battuta have both closed for reasons including mall rebrands and steep rent increases – McGinley believes his sailing has been relatively smooth. "Back when I opened, we just needed a simple trading establishment license. I had, and still, have a sponsor and it was a simple procedure. I had a job in Oman, and my savings as additional finance. We obtained a license to buy and sell books and stationery, etc., but we've never done anything except just books."
The gap left by the Ibn Battuta store closure was quickly filled by a move to the Dubai Garden Centre – a central location with higher traffic.
THE CAFFEINE EFFECT
2011 saw the business model change. Mike McGinley teamed up with long-time customer and retail expert Brian Hutton to combine his bookstore with a cafe experience. Nestled in Festival City Dubai’s ACE Hardware branch, Book ‘N’ Bean was born as a business proposition that offers customers great beverages alongside a fantastic collection of reads.
Brian Hutton is the food and beverage expert in the partnership. "I've had a cafe in flydubaiHQ since its inception, and was approached by Al Futtaim to consider opening a branch in ACE Hardware."
He and McGinley had spoken about combining coffee and the written word, and the large space ACE offered was sufficient to combine both. "The most pertinent aspect for ACE was that we have repeat business, which dovetailed very well with their aims of increased visitation," Hutton said.
Hutton notes that much of retail is on impulse. Drawing customers into a combined retail environment works well for coffee sales, book purchases, and ACE's power tools. Sales indicators point to an excellent future for Book ‘N’ Bean. "The future is very good. The margin on the books, and given that a large percentage are returned so they can be read again, is sustainable. And the book and coffee combination works far better than an isolated cafe serving beverages," Hutton explained.
Book 'N' Bean's success has it teetering on the cusp of going regional. "ACE Hardware is very happy with us - so much so that they want us to go with them wherever they go. We opened in Yas Island with them over a year ago. That store is doing well. Now ACE Hardware is talking further afield, going to Qatar and Egypt, and they're taking us with them," Hutton said.
The duo is looking to franchise Book 'N' Bean to keep the concept manageable. "We're going to try a standardized franchise model. The cafe side is easy, where we insist on good coffee at wholesale prices. We'll undertake training. The real benefit for a franchisee is the supply of books, and Book 'N' Bean and House of Prose can certainly help with that," Hutton explained.
ACE Hardware is not the only vehicle for Book 'N' Bean. Hutton said there are plans for a store in Ras Al Khaimah, which has turned into a viable market as readers spread further afield. Stores in localities such as Dubai’s Mirdif are also under consideration.
Expansion requires modernization. "As we consider franchising, we're computerizing our inventory so we can have the entire collection at any given location. You may only have a thousand books on the shelves, but another 30,000 at the touch of a button," McGinley said
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In the retail business, be it coffee or books, location is everything, Hutton added. McGinley agreed. "In 1997, when we opened in Jumeirah Plaza, that was exactly where we had to be. It was the ideal location.” Now, with the ACE partnership, the Book 'N' Bean brand is getting exposure in prime real estate sites with regular traffic. "Location, location, location!" says Hutton. "This business is all about generating impulse buys."
While McGinley let House of Prose generate traffic through word of mouth, marketing for Book ‘N’ Bean is better defined. Hutton says that ACE's help has proved invaluable. The brand has supported Book 'N' Bean through their PR and marketing functions, realizing that increased traffic would be mutually beneficial.
McGinley says he's learned lessons, but most of them have been positive. "Looking back, I should have started earlier with the idea if I could have. And had we expanded to a franchise model earlier, say before the Kindle came around, it would have been wonderful."
But neither Hutton nor McGinley considers electronic readers competition. Rather, they believe these devices are good for their business inasmuch as they develop a reading audience. "If people are willing to pay for an electronic story on Kindle, they'll be happy to pay a similarly small sum of money for a second-hand book," said McGinley.
As Book 'N' Bean looks set to take off in erudite caffeine-fuelled fashion, Hutton has advice for entrepreneurs. "What's worked for Book 'N' Bean is the meeting of two contrasting yet complementing skills. Mike's expertise in books has been invaluable, while I have experience in running a cafe and turning a profit on it. The combination of different expertise can be very powerful. Partnerships are the way to go."