Virginia Carmichael had put in 12 years of volunteer work, doing everything from puppetry to developing the community resource bank for the Houston Independent School District.She had worked at several jobs, and had twice tried graduate school.
Finally she took an aptitude test, hoping that it might magically point to the answer she was seeking. "I thought I'd finish after three days of testing, and the slip of paper would say 'nurse.' Instead it said I was one they couldn't help because my aptitude didn't fall into a pattern. No job would really satisfy the different aptitudes."
Then Mrs. Carmichael made a list of 17 career possibilities. She carried it in her purse for two years. One of the items on the list was "bookstore." Since she is such an avid reader of contemporary fiction that she sometimes has 35 books piled in the bedroom waiting to be read, it was one obvious choice for the list. That choice moved farther up the list on Thanksgiving two years ago when she took a job working during the Christmas season at the cash register of a local bookstore.
A few months later, while accompanying her husband, David, to New York, she met the owner of an East Side bookstore who was willing to hire her for a stint during the summer.
So, while her children, Shannon, 13, and Laurence, 12, were in camp, Mrs. Carmichael checked in at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York and spent eight weeks learning the book business firsthand. At the end of the summer Mr. Carmichael, chairman of a Houston-based oil service company, flew up to meet her.
"I think he thought the whole thing was a whim," she recalls. "But he went into the store when I wasn't there and met the owner and that night said, 'I'd like to be your partner in business.'"
When she arrived back in Houston, she bought a neighborhood store.
"All the terms on a balance sheet I'd avoided all my life I came face to face with," she remembers. "I had to learn 'assets' and 'liabilities' and 'expenses' and 'inventory' and 'costs of goods sold.' I knew nothing about budgeting and finance."
She had the physical job of dealing with 3,600 square feet of space cluttered with inventory from 40 years before.
Quickly she learned that running a bookstore has nothing in common with how many books one reads. "I didn't know books and I didn't know my audience," she confesses. "I knew what I liked myself. That's not enough to run a bookstore on. I kept one employee who knew books and knew the audience, and she and I did the buying together. It's trial and error, and errors are costly."
Perhaps her most difficult task was dealing with "letting people go." For advice she turned to her husband and his business acumen, because she wanted to do it "the professional way": "I talked to them once. I talked to them twice. I warned them so that it was a surprise to no one."
Her store, Books Inc., carries 22,000 books. The store emphasizes art, architecture, new fiction, travel, and children's books and cookbooks. She works 30 hours a week and says she has more energy at the end of the day than when she wasn't working. And sales have been higher this year than a year ago. "Now that I've got sales up," she said, "I'm hoping to make it function as a business -- and in the book business that is a challenge."
Mrs. Carmichael is careful to work only when the children are in school. "When I was staying all day, I felt I was missing out on the children," she says. "They were becoming adolescents, and I was missing out."
So with a husband, children, and a business, she has had to be streamlined. "It has made my priorities simple -- work and family," she says. "Therehs no time for me personally. That time at the store is for me personally."