Sum of Your Business: Kate Rattenborg / Dragonfly Books
Introduction & photos (unless noted) by Aryn Henning Nichols
There are few places more magical than bookstores. You walk in the doors and can choose to go – virtually – anywhere. Across the world to China through a Peter Hessler book, into one of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggy chronicles, to Texas to see what that wild Jenny Lawson is up to, or even into your self as you carefully pencil in the spaces of an adult coloring book.
For Dragonfly Books owner Kate Rattenborg, just walking into a bookstore wasn’t enough – she wanted it to be her very own. Now, for the past five years, she’s gotten to walk through those doors in Downtown Decorah most days. Some times she gets to be transported to another place – be it through a book, a customer, or even an author reading. Other days she has to do the less glamorous stuff: bookkeeping (the accounting kind), marketing, shelving – but no matter what, she’s happy to be living her dream.
Dragonfly Books is the stuff of a little Driftless town’s dreams, too. Kate and her two daughters, Sarah and Rachel – who often work alongside mom – make sure displays are fun and thought-provoking, events coordinator Kate Scott schedules great local, regional, and national (sometimes even international) authors for readings both in-store and around the community, and, most importantly, the shelves are totally stocked with a well-curated collection of books.
We were excited to feature Kate for this Sum of Your Business. This February 2016 marks her fifth anniversary in business, but we can hardly remember a Downtown Decorah without Dragonfly Books. Looking for a specific book? You can email the store to see if it’s in stock! They don’t have it? They can order it! Want it instantly? You can even order e-books! Indie book stores, guys. They’re where it’s at.
Name: Kate Rattenborg
Business: Dragonfly Books
Years in Business: 5.0
Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?
I’ve been a micro-business owner for the past five years. It is a career path that I love, but one that I did not see myself taking when graduating from college. My late husband, Steve, and I had often talked about opening up a bookstore once we were ready to retire, sometime off in the future. When Steve died unexpectedly in 2002, I shelved our dream while adjusting to life as a single parent. Eight years later, I was driving home from a seminar where we were asked to state our five, 10, and 15-year goals. Almost as a lark, I had stated I wanted to own a bookstore, and my fellow attendees quizzed me on the concept, getting me to articulate more fully my dream, a dream that I had stifled for years. Throughout the drive home through the rolling fields, all I could think about was ‘why wait?’ Why wait until retirement? Why not take the plunge and open a bookstore now? Well, there are a lot of miles between Cedar Rapids and Decorah, the traffic was light, and my mind raced with possibilities. By the time I reached Independence, I had formulated a list of the next steps I would need to take to move forward and make my dream a reality, including resigning from my job. (A very scary thought!) Yet, I needed to name my potential business in order for it to seem real. As I was trying out different store names that would fit in with Decorah’s ‘water’ street theme, such as Brown Trout Books or Eagle’s Nest Books, I drove through a swarm of dragonflies. Not once, but twice! Dragonfly Books. Just like with the velveteen rabbit, a “funny new tickly feeling” ran through me, and I knew I could make my dream Real. Six months later, on my fiftieth birthday and with the help of my two daughters Sarah and Rachel, I opened Dragonfly Books. It has been a fabulous first five years! (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)
What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
I love that I have been able to create and shape a business that fits in with my own personal values. I strive to foster an environment where diversity, creativity, excellence, and mutual respect is honored and respected. It is rewarding to have created a business that promotes literacy and reading; a business that also is community-centered, complementing Decorah’s literary and artistic aesthetics. One of the unexpected benefits has been the opportunity to work alongside my daughters in the bookstore.
How about the worst?
About a year after opening, I had to turn down an author event as I had too much to handle, there wasn’t enough of me to go around, and I had over-promised on what we could deliver. It was clear to me that even though I didn’t think the bookstore was financially in a position to add non-family staff members, we needed to in order that the store could grow and flourish. I was fortunate in hiring an outstanding and talented events coordinator, Kate Scott, who along with other part-time staff, has complemented my skill set in an amazing fashion. (photo below courtesy Dragonfly Books)
Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?
It is easy to feel ‘alone’ when creating and running a micro-business. To counter this feeling, it has been important for me to network with fellow booksellers through my trade association, with other retailers in Decorah through the Chamber of Commerce, with other entrepreneurs, and with friends. I use a variety of different opportunities, such as trade shows, face-to-face meetings, conferences, email, and even facebook, to reach out to others and not get lost in the (sometimes) lonely nature of small business ownership.
Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?
Not surprisingly, much of my personal and business philosophy is drawn from a variety of books. Recent books that speak to me include Michael Gerber’s classic book on small business entrepreneurs, The E Myth Revisited. There are lots of pertinent ideas to apply from this book; my favorite is the reminder to schedule time to work ‘on’ and not ‘in’ your business. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities, and to ignore strategic planning, but without the latter, a business will stagnate and not be able to sustain itself. Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, a book about establishing outstanding customer service, is another book that has helped shape my business philosophy.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
How much fun I would have!! If I had known, I would have taken this leap years earlier! Although I was perhaps somewhat naive about entering the retail business during an economic downturn, much less a brick and mortar bookstore, I think if I had waited until absolutely all my questions had been answered, I would still be in the planning stage. For me, I needed to just take the plunge, jump in, and make a few mistakes while learning what works.
How do you manage your life/work balance?
I feel that it is not possible to separate out ‘work’ from the rest of ‘life’ so instead, I consider a life/life balance. The hours I spend on my business are also a part of my life and not separate from my life. As long as I am able to foster friendships and good relationships with family – either inside of or outside of ‘work hours’ – I am content. However, I have at times struggled with figuring out how to relax away from the bookstore, as I took my relaxation channel (a love of reading) and turned it into a business. I am now surrounded by the books that I love, in all genres, and I receive advance reading copies to review daily, sometimes by the bushelful. I have no lack of reading materials! My evenings, when I used to be able to forget about the day-to-day activities of a eight-five workday by sitting down with a cuppa tea and delving into a book, are often the same. However, instead of an escape, the same reading activity has become another arm of my work life. Reading has become a time for evaluation of new products to order (or not order), preparation for work-related book groups, analyzing new trends in all genres, and reviewing the books read. In short, I haven’t left my business behind. It’s been critical for me to find a new way to relax that is not business related. And so, you can find me at the Blue Heron Knittery working on a scarf, participating at the ArtHaus Poetry Slam, or on stage with the Oneota Valley Community Orchestra, sitting in the viola section and losing myself in the music. (photo above courtesy Dragonfly Books)
What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work… The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs
Kate’s Recommended Reading
Add these to your reading list for 2016!
The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro
When a young Abstract Expressionist painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) vanishes in pre-WWII New York City in 1940, neither her Jewish family living in German-occupied France nor her close-knit group of friends and fellow painters, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner, knows what happened to her.
Descent by Tim Johnston
The Courtland family unravels as their daughter never returns from a hike in the majestic, yet terrifying, Rocky Mountains.
The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson
A definitive guide to Nordic home cooking from internationally renowned chef Magnus Nilsson, featuring over 700 simple and authentic recipes.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this in an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast. Madness, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir.