No Data Was Harmed in The Opening of This Bookstore
(Figuring out where to open a bookstore, part 2)
During my time at the dot-com behemoth, I was taught a crucial business principle. Data isn't just important — it drives every decision. You don't touch a line of code, launch a product, or respond to a customer without numbers providing direction. This made perfect sense to me; more to the point, it made the company very successful.
Data was certainly on my mind as I planned my location scouting trip to Columbus and Pittsburgh (see my previous post on why I chose those two cities). Unfortunately, I knew very little about them, which put me at an immediate disadvantage. It is easy to see why opening a business locally is so typical. I needed to figure out which neighborhoods the bookstore would fit into well; luckily, I knew I could count on a data-driven strategy.
To start out, I wanted a source that could encapsulate all sorts of information: income level, density, education level, how frequently they read, etc. Beyond that, I needed to know where they lived, worked, shopped, and spent their free time. How far were they willing to travel? How much money were they willing to spend? I knew if I combined these factors correctly, I'd be very successful.FIVE: POINT OF NO RETURN ➡
Starting with Columbus, I trawled the internet in search of answers. This type of data isn't hard to find, but it tends to be outdated, expensive, or in a very difficult format. Some maps would only present details for the exact location of your cursor — I spent days trying to plot those points on a regional map. Midway through all this, I realized I'd forgotten to identify the location of current bookstores on my map. It didn't help that I kept discovering new stores which weren't on the American Booksellers Association list. Then there were the stores that had a faint online presence. I didn't know if they were still open, or if they had managed to open at all.
I tried to merge all of this information into a sensible format, creating a map that would point me toward the best locations for a new bookstore. The result was laughable, looking a lot like paintings I had made as a four-year-old, and was roughly as useful. I had overlaid colors with different meanings, so the best spots inevitably darkened, obscuring existing store markers. Varying granularity and quality caused their own issues, and the whole thing was absurdly over-engineered. I threw it out.
Needing a new path, I turned to websites ranking neighborhoods, news articles, and Wikipedia pages. I decided there were just a couple places in the Columbus area that could support a bookstore. One of them was Delaware, having failed to identify their existing children's bookstore. The other neighborhood that popped up was the Short North.
Looking at Pittsburgh, I had even less of an idea, and cast blindly through a variety of data sources, trying to find anything that might point to an appealing spot. In comparison to Columbus, I found that Pittsburgh had a much more dispersed population, and areas with sufficient density and walkability had lower income and education levels. Having given up on the map-making exercise, I blindly threw myself to the mercy of anecdotal listicles and the yellow-tinted highlights of Google Maps.
I knew I was at the limit of what online research could tell me, and it was time for a road trip. We stopped in both Columbus and Pittsburgh on the same day, studying the atmosphere of the neighborhoods, the nearby shops, residential areas, restaurants and schools. We stuck to just Delaware and the Short North in Columbus. In Pittsburgh, we checked out the South Side, Shadyside, and Lawrenceville. We visited some independent bookstores, a variety of neighborhoods, and lots of gas stations. It was a beautiful fall day.
Much later, I would learn that this approach meant I had ignored areas with great potential in Columbus, since Clintonville, Westerville, and Dublin all have charming and walkable sections. And what about the outlying towns, benefiting from Columbus' rapid growth? On the Pittsburgh side, I'm even more ignorant — I don't know which towns I overlooked, though I'm sure they exist. The bookstore could have thrived in many neighborhoods, and it's unclear what impact, if any, the maps and research produced.
In the end, I ended up going with my gut. Even though the decision to located in the Short North doesn't have a data trail backing it up, I have no doubt it's the best place for my store. The neighborhood reminds me a lot of San Francisco, with older two and three-story buildings cozying up to a walkable and transit-oriented street. It features local retailers, restaurants, and hotels, and has a close proximity to downtown. The Short North is the type of neighborhood that deserves a great bookstore. I can't wait to settle in.
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