Start a business abroad

Expat business: Starting a bookshop in abroad

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Expat mums Catherine and Bepke met in Switzerland and realised they shared a dream: opening a cosy bookstore in Switzerland.

Catherine Moretti (from England) and Bepke Hovers (from the Netherlands) met after moving to Switzerland with their families. After learning they shared a dream of opening a bookshop, the friends worked together to gather money, negotiate Swiss bureaucracy, and find the right property.

How did you and Bepke meet?

Bepke and I met in 2005. We were both taking German lessons, and we sat next to each other in the class.  Bepke asked me if I would like to go to her house for a coffee, and we found that we both got on really well together.

What led you to start your bookstore – A Brew & A Browse?

After a year or two of chatting over afternoon coffees, and talking about how bored we both were now that the children were a little more independent from us, we started to chat about what we’d like to be able to do if we had the chance.  It was a complete shock when we both said that we’d like to open a bookshop, but not just a bookshop, one that sold other little knick-knack items as well, and for it to be somewhere that people could have a cup of tea or coffee with us while they perused our shelves.  We were amazed that we both had very similar visions of what it would be like, from the dark wooden bookshelves to a table with magazines, to plants in the corners. 

We laughed about it, and told our husbands about it, and a few days later we met up and said, “Shall we go for it?”  We are both avid readers, and we discussed how expensive new books were here, or how we’d have just a few opportunities a year to stock up on used books at the school or church fairs. We felt that it would be great for the expat community around us to have a book source that was always there. 

So after seriously discussing it with each other and our husbands, we looked into finding a property, and everything else we would need to do in order to start up a business in our town.

What was the most difficult part of setting up a business, especially as expats?

Starting up a business was very easy and very straightforward for both us. We bought help guides and researched various websites on starting up a business here, the different types of companies and legal requirements, and decided it was far easier for us both to each start our own individual company or einzelfirma, and find a property we could share, to keep down costs.   

Start a business abroadOnce we each had our capital from savings and help from our husbands, we visited our local Gemeinde (municipality) and told them of our intentions, and checked what we could and couldn’t sell.  We then registered the names of our companies at the Handelsregister (commercial register) in Zurich, set up business accounts, in the meantime cycling around town looking for empty premises.  We had no difficulties in starting up a business as expats (although I have Swiss nationality, Bepke does not). Perhaps the hardest thing is all the documents being written in German. We were lucky to have some German-speaking friends to help clarify things for us before we signed anything!

After a few weeks, we found our location, negotiated terms with the landlord, and after money being paid and contracts signed, we were handed the keys to our new premises in the first week of January 2008.

We couldn’t afford to have the shop fitted out professionally, so we made many trips to Ikea, chose our furniture and assembled it all ourselves. After two weeks of hard work, A Brew & A Browse opened its door on 14 January.

Where do you get your books from?

Our secondhand book sections are made up primarily of people donating their old books to us.  We put up posts on internet ex pat sites informing people that we were going to open up a shop, and asked if anyone had any old books they would like to donate to us.  We had a super response from people, and amassed lots of great books. In the meantime, Bepke’s mum in the Netherlands was rounding up books from friends and family, and trips were made to bring them all back here.

My new books are ordered from a distributor in the UK. I put in my order and arrange transport here with a freight company. This is very straightforward so far.

How do you get the Dutch food?

Importation of the Dutch food, however, was not as easy at first. Bepke had to make several trips and lots of phone calls to the Netherlands to arrange the transportation and importation of the food. It took several months and piles of the ubiquitous paperwork to finally get it all sorted.

Start a business abroadWhat is the most popular item in your shop?

It’s hard to say if there is a most popular item that sells. The hagelschlag (Dutch chocolate sprinkles) and ontbijtkoek (Dutch spiced breakfast cake) is a very popular seller in the food section. I don’t have a specific popular item that sells better than others.  Both my new and secondhand books sell very well throughout the year, and my Swiss souvenirs do well when there are vacations coming up and the expats want a small, typical Swiss gift to take back home with them.

How will A Brew & A Browse celebrate Sinterklaas (Dutch Christmas tradition) which is celebrated on the 5 December?

In 2008 we are selling specialty foods for Sinterklaas, and Bepke represented us at the big Sinterklaas fest in Zurich on 30 November.  She did very well selling Dutch food such as white, dark, and milk chocolate balls, and kruidnoten (small rounded spice cookies) were very popular.

What is your favourite item sold at A Brew & A Browse?

For Bepke, the favourite thing she sells is her food. It makes her feel happy that she is able to provide her Dutch customers a little taste of home. I like to be able to provide a place where people can come in and look for new books that don’t cost a fortune and can also have a chat with us.

Do you have any advice for expats looking to start a business in Switzerland?

Do research and find all the appropriate information you need to set up your business. Buy a decent book about setting up your own business. Set clear goals for yourself and then if you still can, go for it!


Photo credit: Catherine Moretti

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