Bookstore owner shares workload with employees


March 18, 1991|By Ellen James Martin

Marsha Berman, founder and owner of the Cover-to-Cover bookstore-cafe in Columbia, learned the hard way what happens when a manager fails to delegate.

After sales climbed and she added a restaurant to the bookstore three years ago, she was swamped with work. Her health suffered and her social life took a nose dive.

Learning to delegate brought personal liberation to Ms. Berman.

She knew she'd mastered the art last month, when she took her first real vacation in eight years.

"I was nervous about leaving the store, but my assistant manager, Susan Lane, handled it beautifully. There was just no trauma. It was like a well-oiled machine. Everything ran smoothly," Ms. Berman says.

Like many entrepreneurs, Ms. Berman -- a former high school math teacher -- had given little thought to delegation skills when Cover-to-Cover opened in 1978. But the business expansion made it clear delegation was a must.

Along with partner Arlene Gillis, Ms. Berman opened Books-for-Cooks at Harborplace in 1980. She also opened a children's bookstore at the Columbia Mall in 1981 (that business was sold four years ago). The big push came in 1988 when she moved Cover-to-Cover to the Owen Brown village center and transformed it into a bookstore-cafe.

Although Cover-to-Cover's work force grew from three employees to 30 during transition, Ms. Berman still found herself handling too much of the work.

"I found that I was not sleeping through the night," she says. "My mind was racing with the details, going constantly all night long. For two years, the anxiety and stress overstimulated my mind. It was all very exciting to expand the business -- but the excitement was turning into a nightmare. I was totally overloaded.

"A bookstore is like a hardware store -- there are so many items in inventory. There are 15,000 different titles in the store and maybe 50,000 books come out every year," Ms. Berman says.

She still oversees tasks that involve large sums of money. But she's delegated other duties, including inventory control and special orders.

So confident has Ms. Berman become about Cover-to-Cover's operation that she gives herself Wednesdays off.

Ms. Berman offers other business people these pointers on delegation:

* Don't be too impatient in hiring new employees to whom you plan to delegate.

"There are two types of applicants: ones that take initiative and the others who will do as little as they can get away with. A lot of the second type are very charming and act like they're go-getters during the interview," she says.

* Don't try to hurry the training of your assistants.

"Even the brightest, most committed person can't pick up everything at one time," she says.

* Set high expectations for your employees.

"If you give people responsibility and believe they're going to handle it, they usually will. People live up to the expectations you have of them," she says.

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