Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chronicle: Brooklyn Business Library PowerUp! Business Plan Competition Awards Ceremony

Um, I won.

I actually had a very productive day at work yesterday -- I finished writing up descriptions of upcoming events for February, posted author photos on the website, responded to a number of event requests to tame my overflowing inbox, worked the cash register and answered some customer questions, and even pulled some returns from the interior design section. A good day in the life of a bookseller. I felt content in my life as it is, not filled with longing or anxiety, and just a little excited that at 5:15 I was going to put on my good shoes and go down to the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Library for a swanky awards ceremony and some snacks. Everyone at the bookstore knew I was going to the business plan awards ceremony, and I got lots of "good luck"s as I went out the door.

The ALP was waiting for me in the reading room -- we spend half of our Saturdays at the Central Library anyway so it wasn't hard to find him. The awards ceremony was held downstairs in the newly renovated Dweck Center -- I'd never had a reason to explore that part of the library before, and it was cool to see. On the way in the gifts started to flow: a free totebag from Citibank (the sponsor of the award), a business card case from PowerUp. Arcola, one of the Business Library librarians, handed me back my original plan, and I was told to sit in the first three rows reserved for finalists and judges. (We took this too literally at first and the ALP sat in the fourth row, but it later dawned on us that there was room for spouses of finalists in the reserved seating as well.)

I saw some of the staff from my BEDC class in the audience, and the judges before whom I made my presentation back in November, and the owners of Bogota Bistro, the first winners of the award (conveniently located about half a block from our apartment). Maud Andrews, my favorite librarian (because it seems to me she's found her calling too), asked me about the correct pronunciation of my new last name -- they were confirming with all the finalists, she said. It felt so good to be sitting there next to the ALP, the work all done, the prayers for blessings all said, and I felt I would honestly be content whatever the outcome.

There were, of course, lots of speeches preceding the awards: Dionne Mack-Harvin, the BPL's executive director, was the MC (I know her name and title because they're printed on the giant check on my kitchen table), and we heard from the Deputy Borough President (not Marty, sadly, but woman with a lovely Jamaican accent) and a City Councilwoman and representatives from Citibank, congratulating the library and the contestants on the increasing success of the contest. Previous winners also said a few words; the owners of Bogota (who were also the evening's caterers) talked about what an affirmation it had been to receive the award, and how many no's it took before they heard yes, and how well they're doing now -- they grossed over a million last year. Another previous winner, a two-woman toddler t-shirt company, brought up their own kids to showcase their wares -- the tots stole the show, in typical Brooklyn fashion. Then, suddenly, it was time for the awards.

The presenters would read a description of the business plan, then announce the entrepreneur's name and have them come forward for the award and photographs. As they announced the first honorable mentions ($500), I thought how that would be a nice chunk of change to start an account with. But I wasn't with the honorable mentions. Then the $750 honorable mentions were presented, and I thought how great nearly a thousand bucks free and clear would be. But I wasn't with those either. Then they announced the two second place winners, and I thought, five grand would be perfect, wonderful, not too much pressure. But the awards went to a woman with a line of aromatic soaps and cosmetics (who couldn't stop crying and saying "I have labels to buy!" - she knew exactly how she was going to spend her money), and another woman who wanted to open a healthy soul food restaurant (I hope she caters next year).

Well, it's all or nothing now, I thought. Probably nothing. And that's fine. I wrote the plan because of this deadline, which I might never have done otherwise, and I learned so much, and I met such great resources in the Brooklyn business community. Blessings on the winner, whoever they are.

And then the presenter announced that the winning plan was a business that would benefit the readers and writers of Brooklyn. The ALP and I looked at each other, oddly worried expressions on our faces. The presenter described someone who had worked for seven years in the book industry, made lots of contacts, who wrote a bookselling blog. I started to cry. The ALP told me not to cry, so I started to laugh instead. They called my name, pronouncing the difficult hyphenated last name correctly but getting my first name wrong. I somehow made it up to the stage. They handed me a gigantic posterboard check with my name (spelled right) and the words FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. The Daily News photographer took pictures. All I could hear was my own ragged, laughing/crying breath.

The MC apologized for asking me to say a few words. I hadn't thought seriously about having to speak (okay, it had occurred to me, but I shoved the thought away with an eye-roll at myself and didn't prepare anything), but I found I wasn't afraid. Here's what I remember of what I said -- a bit paraphrased, and minus the stutters and repetitions.

"Luckily I host events at the bookstore four or five nights a week, so I'm used to being in front of a microphone... but it's not usually this important. I love what the guys from Bogota said -- one of my favorite restaurants -- about what an affirmation this was for them. I know there's a perception out there that independent bookstores are a dying breed, a bad bet. I know that's not true, because I've seen the ones that are working, that are doing vibrant wonderful things in their communities. And I've gotten so much support from people in my industry -- from publishers, from our trade organization, from other booksellers -- especially from other booksellers, who are such a great community to each other. But I wasn't sure what the response would be when I took this plan to people outside that community, to business people. Would they think I was crazy? And it's so wonderful that you thought this was worthwhile. I honestly was thinking there at the end it's all or nothing, and it's probably nothing, and that would have been okay, because I have gotten so much already out of PowerUp, I've learned so much, and the librarians have been so wonderful. But this money is going to be the seed that I can use to make this dream happen. So... thank you. So. Much."

And then about fifteen thousand more pictures, and I could see the ALP still standing there in our row while everyone went out for the reception, and I just wanted to go and hug him, but it was great to be up there with the other laughing/crying winners and their own big posterboard checks. And then I did get to hug him, and we went out and had empanadas and champagne, and I handed out about fifteen business cards and got fifteen more, and heard from a dozen people why I should open my bookstore in their neighborhood, and talked about collaborating with half a dozen other entrepreneurs, and met people who read my blog, and gradually came down to a less ragged high. Then the ALP and I left the library, which was already closed (we showed the check to the security guards at the door, who pulled out pens to joke about having me sign it over to them), and picked up a bottle of champagne at a Park Slope wine shop on the way home. I called my mom, we watched the Muppet Show on DVD, we talked about having the check made into a coffee table. Then we went to bed.

There will be a lot of details to work through -- where and how to receive and deposit the money, how to use this as leverage to get additional grants and loans. To be fair, it's less than a tenth of what I've calculated I'll need. But it's fifteen thousand dollars more than I had before, not to mention the $5,000 in in-kind gifts: consulting services, marketing services, a Chamber of Commerce membership, even a gift certificate to Bogota. And perhaps more importantly, the experts of the Brooklyn Business Library think my plan is viable -- is the MOST viable, out of all the ones they've seen. Kathleen, the Citibank rep responsible for creating the contest and the head judge, told me that it was my presentation that made the difference -- that the judges were skeptical about the wisdom of opening an independent bookstore given all they'd heard, but I sold them on the idea with my data and my passion.

If I can do that -- and I guess I did -- maybe I can do anything. Maybe I can make this dream happen, after all.

Thank you to all of you who have also given your affirmation. Thank you for saying yes in a world of no's.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bask in the glow for a little while longer.

P.S. They tell me I'll be in the Daily News on Tuesday, in the Brooklyn section or the business section, if you want to take a look.