In 1995 with her three daughters, Julie, Joan and Jennifer, Betsy started Revelations Café and Book Store, a popular Fairfield meeting spot.
Previously, Betsy lived in upstate NY, where she was a foster parent for 17 children, started a Montgomery Ward sales agency and private department store, was a successful Mary Kay consultant, started a commercial cleaning service, served as co-president of PTA, chaired the local cancer society, served on corporate board of Montgomery Ward, ran a saw mill.
“Everyone creates their world either by default or by deliberate intention. Those that live by default get up each morning, put on clothes, walk, eat, drink, perform daily activities, go to bed. Like a driver without a destination, without clear intention these people can end up anywhere or nowhere. Alternatively, we can create by deliberate intention by choosing a direction. We put our attention on the goal, know why we want it to happen, and do what’s necessary to achieve it.”
Fairfield is a wonderful place to live, and Betsy Howland can claim partial credit.
When Betsy arrived in Fairfield in the mid-90’s, she found it hard to meet people. Betsy would see people at the meditation dome on campus, but the dome is a place for silence.
Betsy recognized the need in Fairfield for a gathering place. With creating community in mind, Betsy started Revelations Café and Bookstore. In parallel she served for two years as Executive Director of the Fairfield First Fridays Art Walk and was instrumental in launching the Fairfield Maze of Murals project.
Part I – The Journey
The Story of Revelations
As Betsy tells it, “we wanted a place where people could just come in, feel comfortable, relax, meet other friends, feel a part of the community. At the same time, my youngest daughter, Jennifer, had the idea of recycling books. We married the ideas, and that’s how Revelations got started.
One bite at a time
Out of the goodness of their hearts, the owners of Everybody’s Whole Foods said we could use its old garage. We had only to clean it out. The previous occupant, a Toyota dealer, used the garage as a paint shop.
Tires, old coolers, lawn mowers, old furniture, dough machines, almost anything you could imagine packed the garage from floor to ceiling. We found everything too big to move, and we didn’t know where to move it. For two weeks my three daughters — Julie, Joan, and Jennifer — and I worked at an excruciatingly pace.
We weren’t ready to give up until Jennifer overheard a conversation: ‘they don’t have a chance. They know nothing about running a bookstore.’ Depressed, Jennifer said, ‘we can’t do this, Mom’.
‘We can do it,’ I replied, ‘we just need to take the first step; we don’t have to know the whole process.’
I then told my daughters, ‘take the day off. We’ve worked hard. Rest.’
After they left, I took on one square foot of a corner of that garage, removed everything and painted the walls and floor. When the girls returned, I told them ‘This is the beginning of Revelations.’
Then Revelations became four square feet, then seven. We just kept moving stuff and claiming new territory. That’s how we grew. To this day we’re still improving, expanding, and remodeling.
We started with 200 books from garage sales and our own collections. To create the appearance of abundance we fronted three books per shelf. Revelations’ soft start did not discourage us. My daughter and I would celebrate even on days when only two books sold.
The Revelations Building
With cars whizzing by the former Toyota paint shop garage, we envisioned a beautiful bookstore on a quiet street, filled with light, inviting to all.
In the meantime one daughter surprised us and took a job at a new Italian restaurant. At its grand opening, as I ate, I imagined selling our books in that building.
Thinking back, now I feel a little guilty — ten weeks later, the owner went bankrupt. He tried to sell us the restaurant with its beautiful wooden floor and its large windows that flooded the inside with light. Its quiet yet central location made it perfect, but we wanted a bookstore, not a restaurant. He sold us the building, and as it turned out, we ended up with a restaurant.
When we moved in we discussed what would we do with the kitchen. My three daughters said, rent it out; they wanted a bookstore not a restaurant.
But, we were in business for the customer. A few weeks in, we had an espresso machine so customers could have coffee while looking at books. Then customers requested sandwiches with the coffee.
Finally, we made two chicken, two tuna and two cheese sandwiches and didn’t sell one. The girls and I were getting tired of eating chicken and tuna for dinner, before sandwiches finally started selling.
One day a lady said, “I wish I had a soup to go with my sandwich.” So I made a little crock of cream of broccoli. Next it was cream of tomato. For a good while the girls and I had soup for dinner.
Success came, but gradually. Now we make two huge pots of homemade soup and over a hundred sandwiches a day.
The pizza oven, imported from Italy, was just there. It took us a year to open it and peek inside. We had no idea what to do with it.
The original restaurant owner told us that his son was visiting for two weeks. Did we want the son to make pizza? Watching his pizza making, we realized, not only could we make pizza, we could improve it. He used frozen dough, we made homemade; he used canned sauce, we made it from scratch.
That’s how we do everything. We had little book cases, we made bigger ones. A little at a time. Whatever the customer wants. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Mother is at home
A woman teaching classes in our upstairs seminar area told me that at Revelations she feels that mother is at home. Revelations nourishes the body with food, the mind with books, and the soul with art and music.
Revelations has a life of its own, and we feel we are just along for the ride.
Part II – Business Wisdom
Running a Business
Revelations and my other entrepreneurial ventures taught me to start small. Take care of the customer, and the customer will show you the natural path to expansion.
We are here to serve the community. What does it need? What does it want? Always listen when you’re in business. Then do what you enjoy and makes sense. (No, no matter how many requests, we won’t stay open 24/7.)
Remember, you don’t have to know everything at the beginning. For example, it is easy to find legal information such as getting a license, incorporating, and obtaining a tax ID.
With Revelations we didn’t know anything about how to run a bookstore. We just took the first step — a location and some books. Everything we needed to learn, we found out. Now, thanks to Google, it’s even easier to learn how to do almost anything.
Employment – we take strays
I raised over 20 children including 17 foster kids. We have had as many as 20 people working for us, including many young people.
The rules for parenting and managing are the same: be firm (mean what you say), be consistent, and be loving. At Revelations I praise employees when they do good things, but I’m strict. I know what I want, and I know how I want it done.
As with the unwanted foster kids, at Revelations we take chances on young people. I’ve had employees with health, legal, and drug problems.
If a job isn’t working for a new hire, I don’t just push them aside. I am aware how my words can not only affect an employee’s livelihood but their feeling level and self-esteem. We will keep moving someone around until they click and feel comfortable. Someone hired to cook might turn out to be a great waitress. I never know.
I always hire people on a temporary, part-time basis to see if it is a match. Some people just don’t fit. I’m honest and tell them that I’m sorry, ‘I liked these things, but these other things seem difficult for you. It just doesn’t feel right. Why don’t you look for something you are more suited for?’ I let them continue to work for us until they find a better fit.
We encourage employees to further their education. I had one fellow with a serious drug problem. He would be in and out of jail, in and out of rehab. Every time he went to rehab we’d keep the job open and take him back with open arms. He’s now been sober for some time, got his GED, is in college, and is so grateful. Seeing him become such an incredible young man is what makes it all worthwhile.
Revelations attracts visitors from across the state thanks to its book collection, pizza, and unique atmosphere. That said, especially in a town our size, it’s our regular customers that make our business. Even if I don’t know their names, I know where regulars sit and what they eat and drink.
Saying no to customers
As the owner of Revelations, people always are asking me for favors. It is hard to say no, because I want to satisfy everyone.
For example, one person asks if he can use a café table to sell something. Another customer requests hot water for her own tea bag. Yet another brings birthday cake for a party, even with “no outside food” signage, knowing that we make cakes.
I’ve had people upset when I say, no, storm out, and say they will never return. I feel terrible. Yet if I help one person, I would have to say yes to everyone, and that would be a catastrophe. I do my best to be gracious denying their request, explaining that we must make a profit to keep the doors open.
Whether it is foster kids, employees, or customers, the same rules apply — be firm, consistent and loving.
In my mind a business must have meaning and purpose, and fulfill some desire of the owner. Trying to fulfill someone else’s desire doesn’t work because you heart is not in it. For twenty years our hearts have been with Revelations.
The books at Revelations give it a homey, casual, leisurely feel. We want people to feel comfortable so they can just sit around a chat. It’s not like going in to a regular restaurant where you go in, order and leave. Our vision has always been to create community.
Books and poetry have been written at Revelations. People have met and fallen in love. We’ve even done several weddings and receptions.
Art Walk and Murals
I’ve been involved with several community-nourishing, art-related projects that display Fairfield artists’ talents. In doing so, these activities helped develop downtown Fairfield where Revelations resides.
As Executive Director of the first-Friday-of-the-month Fairfield Art Walk, for two years I took charge of the monthly downtown events that take place rain or shine, sweltering or freezing. Art Walks feature a theme and art galleries plus music, film, eats, children’s activities, and outside vendors. Hundreds of locals along with visitors from throughout the Midwest attend Art Walk.
I helped launch the Fairfield Murals project. Artists demonstrate their talents on downtown walls, making well-used alleys more attractive.
Be happy – stay in the moment
The best advice for dealing with the chaos of running a business is stay in the moment. Otherwise, everything can be a charge. There are always licenses, insurance, a leaking roof, a dead furnace. In our business entry level young people are always leaving. What’s here right now is all that I know.
No matter how overwhelming a challenge appears, we are always able to break it into small bite-sized tasks.
Whatever you do, you should feel happy. Don’t do something that makes you miserable, even if you think it a great idea, and even if someone you value wants you to do it. If you aren’t happy doing something, change what you are doing.
Once we give our word, we honor and stand behind it. In a small town like Fairfield everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows if you lack integrity.
Integrity shows. Throughout my career, bankers have always loaned me money even when I’ve had a weak asset position.
Part III – Success from the Inside Out
The Power of Thought
Our thoughts create our lives
What we think, say, and believe creates the future. That means by examining our current thoughts and dreams, we can see the future.
To understand this concept, look back a few months. What were we thinking that created our circumstances?
Our thoughts are our most powerful possessions. The power to start and run a business comes from our ideas, our vision, our thinking. A thought put a man on the moon.Revelations got started with the thought of recycling books and creating community.
Everyone creates their world either by default or by deliberate intention. Those that live by default get up each morning, put on clothes, walk, eat, drink, perform daily activities, go to bed. Like a driver without a destination, without clear intention these people can end up anywhere or nowhere.
Alternatively, we can create by deliberate intention by choosing a direction. We put our attention on the goal, know why we want it to happen, and do what’s necessary to achieve it.
At Revelations we envisioned a beautiful alternative to our garage location. Although we did not know how it would come to be, we were clear and precise about what we wanted. Consequently, results came easily.
When we start a project, we begin the creation process with a minute of pure positive thought. Well begun is half done, and that simple process along with focused activity allows for fast achievement.
Change your story and life
Destroyed 3 cars in 2 months
If someone’s ill, they talk of poor health. Someone with problems tells everyone about those problems.
If you don’t like how things are, tell a different story. Change your life, by changing your thinking.
Many years ago my daughter totaled my car. Then the transmission went in our van. I had no extra money to repair the vehicles, and I required transportation for my work, traveling to art fairs around the country. I borrowed a friend’s van, didn’t realize it used a lot of oil, and destroyed the motor. That was three vehicles in less than two months.
It was all I talked about.
On top of that we found large snakes in our basement. It seemed everything that could happen did happen.
Then I realized what I was doing. I created a downward spiral by constantly talking about the vehicles.
I stopped talking and waited for something good to happen. A friend agreed to repair a bathroom for me, and that’s all I talked about, how wonderful for someone to come and repair the bathroom. Once I changed my thinking, that was the end of it. Things got better and better.
In business you can create a negative spiral by continually thinking and talking about problems. Better to focus on successes and vision.
Don’t make problems, stay present
In business, we must be in the moment, and deal with what’s in front of us. It isn’t that we are blind to possibilities, but why dwell on non-existent problems created by the mind.
I planned to drive all night, eleven hundred miles to New York, to spend Christmas with my parents. With a wind-chill of fifty below and blizzard conditions predicted the entire way, I thought I must be out of my mind.
Fearful and anxious I drove with a tight grip on the wheel. Then I realized, there’s no snow now, why am I upset? By staying in the moment, not making trouble by thinking about problems that didn’t exist, I made it to New York easily with just a few flakes of snow.
In business I do what needs to be done now. My mind sees all sorts of problems, but is there a problem right now? If there is a problem, I handle it, but if there isn’t one, I don’t create it.
I want a Harley
For years I wanted a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Every time I’d get some momentum by imagining the Harley ride, hearing its sound, enjoying the wind, feeling the bumps on my teeth, I’d think about how expensive it was. Creation stopped.
I finally realized that by thinking of its expense, I was sabotaging myself. Rather, I formed a clear intention. I made a decision that I would have the Harley, whatever it took, even if I had to empty my piggy bank or get dealer financing. The clarity was liberating.
With that decision, motorcycles came from all directions. At the time, waiting lists for Harleys could be up to three years. I told a Harley Quincy, Illinois dealer, I didn’t want to wait, and I wanted a Springer Soft-Tail. That’s amazing he said, “I have one that came in a half-hour ago, still in the crate. A hundred and four were made for the Super Bowl and this limited edition is one of two that wasn’t used. You can have it today.”
I decided not to buy it because my friends would never let me take this collector’s edition out of the crate. I did buy a similar-to-the-Harley Suzuki Intruder at half the price. I invested the difference in Harley stock, and the Harley stock paid for my next three vehicles.
I changed my thinking, and I had my ride.
Create through thought
Cheaper by the dozen
When young, I watched the original version of the movie, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and thought how fantastic to have all those kids.
Later, I had three children, adopted three, and took in six foster children and homeless kids. Having twelve children in the house was every bit as fun as the movie and just as crazy.
A swimming pool for the kids
During that time, we bought an old farm house in the country. I thought it would be wonderful to have a swimming pool for the kids. We had no money, but we had a spot in the yard where I envisioned the swimming pool
Whoever cut the lawn had to wear a bathing suit when mowing over that part. We walked around the pool location unless we wore a swimsuit.
Soon someone knocked on my door, and said that I hear you want a swimming pool. I said, yes but it has to be an in-ground pool. A few miles away someone was giving away an in-ground pool with stainless steel liner and the whole thing. We still needed to dig a hole, move the pool, and fill it with water without money. Our strong intention prevailed, and the kids enjoyed the pool for years.
Inner guidance system
Everyone has an inner guidance system. It never fails; it never fools you; it’s always right. Guidance signals might include gut feelings, knowingness in the heart, an intense headache.
Close your eyes, and try the experiment. Think of a question and take the first answer that comes. See what your body says about the answer. How does it feel?
If you listen to what your body says, it always works. The mind tries to override it, but if you listen to the body, the body knows.
For twenty years at Revelations we have used the inner guidance system to make decisions.
On the other hand, I’ve noticed that “practical” people often don’t move ahead. Their minds focus on the inevitable obstacles, and nothing happens.
Be positive, ignore the negative
When I awake, I appreciate all that’s good in my life. Doing so brings me happiness and power.
I then think “What’s going to charm me today?” For example, I might think now that Valentine’s Day is over, I will put the St. Patrick’s Day window in. If during the day, it becomes too much work, and I lose my passion, I stop. I’ll get to it another time. The window remains half done because I go by what feels right in the moment.
There are people that come in and tell us, that was the worst pizza they ever had. We think maybe their taste buds are off that day, and give them a credit slip and say, sorry.
I can’t control how people think, how they respond, what they say. I listen to them, and thank them for their input. I rarely agree, because I know what is right for me, even though I never tell others what’s right for them.
If people attack our plans, we don’t buy into it. An overheard conversation didn’t deter Revelations at its inception. If it’s our vision, if it is what we want, we just keep going.
Betsy emphasizes both living in the now and having clear goals. Is that a contradiction?
Betsy’s vision and passion was to create community. What is your vision and passion for your business and for your life?
Betsy discusses deliberate intention and creating from thought. She gives examples of the swimming pool for her kids and the Revelations building. Do you believe you can create from your thoughts? Do you have examples?
What do you think of Betsy’s notion of a fail-proof inner guidance system? Have you ever used it? To what effect?
Betsy gave several examples about how her negative thinking perpetuated her problems. She didn’t get the Harley and she kept destroying vehicles. Is it your experience that your story creates reality? Or do you believe it is reality that creates your story?