I was 16 years old when my parents were approached by a group of people trying to raise capital in order to keep the Fahrenheit 451 bookstore in Laguna Beach, California open. They came to my parents for money because they hoped that, as former owners of the bookstore, my mom and dad might embrace the cause. I hoped the same and tried to talk them into it – but for slightly different reasons. The thought of owning a business was exhilarating. I could just imagine myself working the register and seeing the money flowing in. I wished that my parents hadn’t sold the store before I was born and saw this is a chance to reclaim it. Later, I would come to understand why they decided against it. I would become rational and logical and would think only of the risk, the stress and the responsibilities that owning a business entails, but, at that time, I could only see the fun side and dreamed of owning a business of my own when I grew up.
It has been a long time since I had that dream and the memory is at the edge of my consciousness – as if it could disappear for good at any moment. And it surely would have if I hadn’t met David and if life hadn’t happened as it did, dropping David and me off in Spain searching for a business of our own.
Since July, we’ve been searching for the right opportunity. We saw practically everything that was for rent and for sale in Torrevieja ranging from a space so small that we wondered where we’d stock the supplies to a restaurant so big that we wondered how we’d pay the rent. But big or small, there was always something that just didn’t feel quite right.
And then, in September, we visited Altea and fell in love with it. We saw an apartment for sale and, on a whim, decided to call the owner to see if we could visit it. He showed us the newly renovated 2 bedroom apartment that was on sale for about $150,000 and then asked us if we wanted to see another property that he was selling. It turned out to be a 3 story house in the old part of Altea, and, as soon as we saw it, we started dreaming. We could live on the 3rd floor and turn the other floors into a tea house. The house was full of character and charm and we went home brimming with ideas but soon faced a reality check. As beautiful as the house was, as long as it was priced at $500,000, there was no way that we could afford it.
So our search continued and we returned a second time to Altea. And we visited a little bar that was available as a turnkey just one street over from the house. The rent was the cheapest we had found yet – about $650/month – and it was small enough for just the two of us to run, yet large enough to work with. While the sign outside announced that it was an art and internet lounge, from the inside it was clear that it was being run as a bar. Nevertheless, the space had potential. Transformed from an old house, it had a mezzanine, small windows, a decent stock room. And it was just one street down from the church, on one of the most charming streets of Altea. And we went back to Torrevieja with new ideas and possibilities.
In many ways, the business felt right and we started making plans to move to Altea. Even if we didn’t end up taking the cafe/bar, we loved Altea just as a place to live. And when we were settled in Altea, we started frequenting the bar and we discovered that it was a very cool, local hangout. And we started to get to know the people who hung out there. We met Andreas, a German guy who has been living in Altea for the past 35 years. He has an antique and furniture restoration store and is good friends with Pepe, the owner. We met Ignacio, the son of the mayor. He was talking to me in English while David went to the bathroom and casually mentioned that his father is the mayor. However, because he didn’t know the word, “mayor,” in English, he said it in Spanish. Had I understood correctly? I asked David to reconfirm in Spanish, and, sure enough, I had. Here, sitting before us, was the son of the mayor of Altea. And I couldn’t believe the company that we were keeping.
And, after much contemplation, we decided to take the leap and buy this business. And we met with Pepe and the landlord in a meeting shortly before we would sign the papers at which time David asked to see the actual business license. David’s stepmom had warned us countless times to make sure the license was in place. And we had asked about it the first time we saw the cafe/bar but had put it out of our minds after getting assurance from the landlord’s son that all the papers were in order. However, this time, when David asked to actually see it, the story was different. Pepe informed us that it was being processed, but that this was normal for businesses here. Because of the snail pace that things move in Spain, the license had been applied for 3 years and 7 months ago and they were still waiting word about the license! In the meantime, the business was fully operating. There was an established beer provider, wifi and telephone service, a faithful clientele. The only thing missing was the license. Yet it was the one thing that we needed to continue with the deal. After all, the surest way to make a bad investment in Spain is to buy a business that doesn’t have its license. And who knew when the license would be approved? It could drag on for years and, sure, if we took it over, we could operate the business, but, at any moment, we could also be shut down – or faced with a long list of requirements needed to bring the building up to code in order to get the license. It could turn into a big nightmare – with a huge price tag.
Armed with this new information, we decided to not take the business. And we called the next day to call off the deal. But Pepe asked to meet with us and so we did. And he assured us that he would cover the costs of any changes required for the license (we knew for a fact that the staircase would have to be widened) and even offered that we could pay half the turnkey up front and the other half when the license was approved. We were wrought with doubt and confusion. If he was really willing to cover the expenses, then that would greatly reduce the risk. And if he was willing to wait for the remaining amount of the turnkey fee then he would have reason to make sure it went through.
But we hadn’t known Pepe for that long and weren’t sure that we could trust him. But, as we wavered and as the days passed, we had the opportunity to get to know him better. We went out for dinner with him and his girlfriend, we heard from people around us what a good person Pepe is and how he comes from a great family. And the details of Pepe’s life came in to focus. We learned that his father owns a hotel on the promenade and that he works there full time and, for that reason, didn’t have the time or energy to run the bar – which was why he was now selling it. We watched in awe as he said hi to one person after another and then understood how he knew so many people when he told us that his family has been in Altea since the 16th century. His family has a hotel, an apartment building, a house in the countryside. They have orange trees and even make their own olive oil – 800 liters per year, to be exact – that they serve at the hotel’s restaurant. You couldn’t get more Altean than Pepe. Yet, even though he is so established, he is also very humble and doesn’t show his wealth. And we hung out more at his bar and even got to meet his brother and parents who came by for a drink, and we were impressed with how warm and welcoming they were. And our trust grew over the weeks. And we confirmed with others that it’s true, indeed, that many businesses in Altea don’t have their business licenses.
And, slowly, we tilted back toward taking it. And we set up a business account and even arranged a transfer of half the turnkey fee into his account. And then we left the bank and rounded the corner to go see the landlord’s son at the computer store that he owns, and, there, we not only found the landlord’s son but also his father and Pepe. And from the look on Pepe’s face, we knew that something was wrong. And we went out for a coffee and he told us that, honestly, he wasn’t sure how long it would take to get the license and how big of an ordeal it would be. He told us that he he preferred that we make our decision with everything out in the open and that we could take our time to decide. Just as we had grown to trust him, he had grown to like us and, apparently, couldn’t sell the business to us without being completely honest. At this point, he was beginning to feel more like an accomplice than someone trying to sell his business to us.
We were taken aback by his honesty but also deeply troubled. How could we go forward with the deal when even the seller was basically warning us against it? We immediately stopped the bank transfer and went home, disappointed and lost once more. It seemed as though our first attempt at buying a business had ended in a dead-end. More importantly, we realized that buying a business in Spain was very complicated, indeed. The whole process had been exhausting, and we decided to start a new search – for jobs. After all, every other business for sale in Altea was more than double – but, most often, triple – the price, which we just simply couldn’t afford.
Sadly, a small miracle would have to happen for us to even reconsider taking this one.