June 01, 2007

Origin of the Bookstore, Part the Eighth - Inventory

For the next five months we'll be doing a special feature each month in honor of Borderlands' upcoming 10th Anniversary (November 3rd, 2007). We'll share some stories about what Borderlands is and how it got that way.

by Alan Beatts

Being obsessive-compulsive and reasonably technically apt has its upsides and its downsides.  Both sides were demonstrated during the first inventory at Borderlands.

When I decided to open the shop, one important part of my business plan was to sell books online.  Today, that's a pretty simple matter but at that time it was not.  In November of 1997, I had no idea how I was going to sell books online but I did know one thing -- if I was going to, I'd need an accurate database of all the books in the store.

So, in what was going to become my typical dammit-I'll-just-learn-it-myself business model, I decided to brush up on a program called FileMaker (which I had used years previously for databases in, it makes me blush to admit, . . . role-playing games) and set up an inventory myself.  It was easy to do, after all, what do you need to keep track of with books?  Title, author's name, cover price, selling price, cost, and that should do it.  Right?  Oh yeah, I figured that I'd better add the date it was published and if it's a first printing, since I guessed that there were some people who cared about that.  And, there was this ten digit number on a lot of these books, so I added that too.  But beyond that, what else should I need?

(Ten years later:  No, that's not quite enough.  At this point there are over 50 separate pieces of data we keep about used books.  And more than that for new books.)

Once the database was set up, it was just a matter of getting all the books in the store entered into the database.

All.  The books.  In.  The store.

Right now we have 14,000 titles in stock.  Back then we didn't have anything like as many.  Only something like 4000.  And it took about three minutes to enter each one.  I sat down at the table in what was to be my office (I didn't have a desk yet) and did the math.  4000 times three minutes is 12,000.  That divided by 60 is 200.  200 hours.  And the store was supposed to be open in about four days.

Grab phone and start calling friends.  Especially my computer consultant friend -

"Hi Bill, it's Alan."


"Um, how many used Macs do you have right now for sale?"

"I dunno, maybe a dozen or so."

"Can I rent all of them?"

"What the hell are you trying to do!?"

We chatted and finally Bill, bless his heart, agreed to bring them down to the shop, set up a network, and install copies of Filemaker on all of them.

Then I started calling lots of other friends.  Especially anyone who could type quickly.  I had accountants, legal secretaries, computer programmers, and assorted other folks come down to the store (which by now had computers set up on almost every flat surface) and start entering books.  I supplied all the pizza and soda that anyone could consume and we started entering books.

I had to go buy fans to put in the smaller rooms (there were five separate rooms in the old shop) because the heat from the computers and the people made it like a sauna.

I had to explain not once but three times that, though I didn't care what people did outside of the shop, no-one was going to bring (as one accountant put it), "Chemicals often considered recreational but that are considerable performance enhances for this kind of work" into my shop.

I briefly but completely lost my mind when I discovered that there were two whole shelves of books that, after being entered into the inventory, had been put back on the shelves in completely random order.

I bought all the black tea that was to be had in the neighborhood and a fair portion of all the coffee.

I again lost my mind when the files I was merging together got out of order and completely messed up four hours of work.

I got on a first name basis with the dispatcher at Mr. Pizza Man.

And it went on and on and on.

Then, about 48 hours later and completely without sleep, it was done.

And wonder of wonders, I still had some friends left and no one had killed me.

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