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Quest Expat Interview - Karen Fox

Quest Bulgaria has had the opportunity to interview Karen Fox who operates her own business: "The Book Cave"  in Veliko Tarnovo, situated in central Bulgaria. She shares her opinion on life in Bulgaria and gives her views on establishing a business in Bulgaria.

1. How long have you lived in Bulgaria for?

We (Chris and I) have lived in Bulgaria for 6 years.

2. Where are you originally from?

Originally I'm from Wales but my family moved from there when I was 7 and I spent the rest of my UK life in Devon.

3. What made you decide to move to Bulgaria?

Living in Bulgaria has been more of an unfolding of events than a decision!
The initial plan was to travel for 6 months with a view to finding somewhere we felt we had a chance of setting up our own business....without spending 20 years paying the bank! Bulgaria was always on the likely list but we also looked at other countries; Hungary was too land locked, Slovenia too mountainous, Croatia too expensive and Romania, the first time we went through it was just too scary (the first place in Europe I'd seen children who looked half starved). Bulgaria was cheap and friendly; we loved the people and the climate and felt that this was a place with opportunity.

4. How well do you think you have settled in?

That depends on the day! Overall I think we're pretty well established in our life here.

5. Was it easy to make friends?

We were lucky! 2 other British couples moved to the village where we lived at about the same time as we did, this gave us an instant support group! As to Bulgarians, I think it's easy to make superficial friendships but it takes time and language to develop those friendships to something deeper and more solid.

6. Do you speak Bulgarian and if so how difficult would you say it is to learn?

I speak some Bulgarian; I can get by on day-to-day things and have social conversations in the bar. It's been difficult to get as far as I have and I'm planning on starting lessons again soon to try and take it to the next level

7. Tell us about your work and how you decided on setting up a book shop selling English books...when did you decide to set it up? Was it hard to set up and what process was involved?

Once again, it was more of an unfolding than a plan. A friend told me she had bought a very small shop that came with her apartment, another friend mentioned that he had the possibility of economical transport from the UK and then I discovered that my sister knew someone who's been buying and selling books for 30 years. At this point I started to feel that this was something that was just meant to be. Add to this the fact that I love to could I resist!

I was expecting the paperwork trail to be really complicated but if fact it was round about the easiest bit of bureaucracy we've taken on so far. Some things were already in place; our company was already ‘active', we had a cash machine and an accountant. (Never try to set up a business in Bulgaria without a competent accountant on your side. There's just so much that's different here.!) The notary deed clearly stated that the property was a shop so we didn't have to worry about change of usage, we did need a rental agreement for the premises. We needed documents to say our company had no debts to the tax office and inspections from the fire people. We didn't need a certificate for health and hygiene because book shops don't come under those rulings. We had to get the cash machine re-registered to the shop address.....I think that was about it.Sounds a lot but it was done in a couple of afternoons.

Oh, we needed permissions to have the sign above the door because that counts as advertising. That was a different set of paperwork but again not too complicated.

Despite the fact that Bulgarian officials can have a reputation of being unhelpful I really haven't found that to be the case. They're kind of interested in the fact that we want to do something here and by and large have been helpful in making it happen. Maybe the fact that the shop really doesn't compete with any other business in Veliko Tarnovo helps.

8. Who would you say your main customers are? Bulgarians, or other foreigners?

I'm lucky, I have at least 3 different client group. When the shop first opened most of the customers were British and living here. Over time I've also built up a client base of (mostly young) Bulgarians who read in English because they have to or want to and travelers from all around the world. There are about 7 hostels in Veliko Tarnovo and even if their guests are not native English speakers many of them have strong enough English that they choose to buy books in the language. It's hard to say what the split is but I'd guess about 50-60% of my customers are native English speakers and the rest are a mixture of Bulgarians and other nationalities.

9. Does your job require you to speak English or Bulgarian most of the time?

Maybe my one regret about the shop is that most of the time I'm speaking English. It rare for a Non-English speaker to come into the shop; there are a few exceptions to this. I've got very good at giving directions to lost people, explaining that we don't sell maps, helping grannies and grandfathers to pick out a book for their grandchildren and discussing British and American Rock musicians in Bulgarian.

10. What would you say you like most about your job?

It's hard to say what I like most.....I get first pick of the books, that's a real bonus. Imagine a kid in a sweet shop who doesn't have to worry about getting fat or getting spots ? . Meeting a vide variety of people is a great thing too.

11. Anything you would like to add about the Book Cave? Prices, stocks, services etc.

Our prices vary the average price of a paperback book is about 8 leva. Hardbacks maybe about 12-15lv. All books are returnable as long as they haven't been written on, left in the sun so the glue melts or otherwise damaged. Half of the price of a returned book is discountable against the stock in the shop.

We also do a membership system for big readers with limited cash or shelf space and we're happy to consider taking your read books for credit against our stock.

Our stock list is searchable online (at the moment this is a very basic spreadsheet, but it is searchable). This is useful for people travelling some distance, because the shop is tiny and only about 1/2 the books are here at any one time. An email sent a few days before your visit will give me a chance to find the specific book you want and make sure it's in the shop when you come.
If you can't get to the shop we can arrange to post or courier a book to you.
We can order any book from the UK that we don't have in our own stock. It might take a while to get here because I ship to the UK first them bring over a box load at a time, but this usually works out cheaper than ordering directly from a UK store.
Most exciting of all for me is that we're currently working on a website for our books which will allow us to offer direct online sales using paypal and we will be able to ship not just within Bulgaria but to surrounding countries.


12. Are you a resident or citizen of Bulgaria? Was the process/paper work difficult to sort? Does this effect your rights to working in Bulgaria?

We're residents of Bulgaria but not citizens. We first did this back in pre-EU days when it was a time-consuming, nerve-wrecking and expensive process. These days, for any citizen of an EU country, arranging long term residency in Bulgaria should be quick and relatively painless. Because we're managers of our own company our right to work in Bulgaria is undisputed. I think that there are still some restrictions in place for Bulgarians in the UK and vice versa, these should be dropped within the next few years.

13. What do you like the most about living in Bulgaria?

I most enjoy the fact that we're our own bosses; we work as hard as we did in the UK for far lower financial return but our mistakes or triumphs are our own.
I love the climate here; four real seasons. I love the fact that we live in a village, have a decent sized garden, have pets and the time to care for them and enjoy them. I love socializing with Bulgarian and British friends. I love the slight edge of uncertainty about what's likely to happen on any given day.....spotting the guy on a bicycle with 2 goats on leads......I could go on!!

14. What are the things that you don't like so much?

It's sad to see the level of poverty that many villagers live in....then you look at the 4 x 4's with blacked out windows and wonder where the money came from to buy them.
I find the level of suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the ‘Roma/Ethnic Bulgarian' fence difficult.
There are times when the level of bureaucracy here drives me up the wall.....but then I used to work for the National Health Service, so in Bulgaria I only have to deal with that stuff on an occasional basis, in the UK it was 37.5 hours a week!
It's tragic to see the brightest of young Bulgarians leaving their country to find opportunity abroad but I have to admit that in their position I'd probably be doing the same. I could go on about this subject too, but for us the good stuff honestly does outweigh the bad.

15. Is there anything that you miss from home?

My daughter, my grandchildren, music festivals and cheddar cheese. Frequent contact with friends I've known for 20-30 years who I share so much history with and who know me for my best and worst. Not a lot else to be honest.

16. Do you visit the UK very often and if so, how do you feel about being back there?

I don't visit that often. It has been 3 times within just over 12 months but 2 of those visits were related to family business where I had no choice but to go back. It's going to get more difficult as the grandchildren get older because I'd like to spend more time with them; on the positive side, as they get older it'll be easier for them to travel here. As to how I feel.....I enjoy catching up with people and there are certain things I rush to the shops for (Cheddar cheese, McCoy's char-grilled steak crisps, an English Breakfast or two and clotted cream!) But a week to 10 days is always long enough in the UK. It's busy there, rushed and usually damp. Britain makes my knees and shoulders ache.

17. What advice would you give to anybody moving to Bulgaria?

If you don't have fairly tough nerves don't do it! Bulgaria is an emotional roller-coaster and if you can't take the ups and the downs this isn't the country for you.
It helps if you can maintain a sense of humour and a sense of perspective. If this isn't a fun adventure; why are you doing it?
If you're passionate about animal welfare think twice; most Bulgarians won't see things the way you do and when villagers are surviving on 200 lev a month for two people they're not going to understand that stale bread isn't good enough for their dogs (it's good enough for them!)
Try before you buy!! Travel round the country and get to see lots of places, talk to lots of different people and get different viewpoints.
You probably need a smaller garden than you think! Weeds grow so fast here.

Try to approach new people with neutrality; you can go wrong by being too cynical as easily as by being too trusting; but invest trust slowly don't risk anything you can't afford to lose and be prepared to walk away from anyone or anything which doesn't feel right.
If you want to stay in control of your life you may need to set some boundaries....this can be anything from the person who is convinced they have the perfect business opportunity for you to the neighbor who walks into your garden and plants 50 cucumber plants for you because they think you need them (You really don't!! Nobody needs 50 cucumber plants unless they're planning to set up a market stall selling them!)

Oh....make an effort with the language....Bulgarians don't require that you get it right; in fact they'll really enjoy your mistakes but they do appreciate you trying.

18. What advice would you give to anyone who is planning to set up a business in Bulgaria?

The best advice I was ever given in the UK is equally true here; do your research first! If everybody else is already doing what you're planning to do ask yourself why people would prefer your services. If nobody else is doing it - you need to ask why not.
There are a wealth of resources out there including Quest Bulgaria and a couple of forums with some very experienced people, use them!
Be prepared for things to take longer than you expect to set up and to cost more than you hoped. If you don't have the resources behind you to support yourself for at least 2 years you're really not giving yourself or your business a fair chance.
Do get a good accountant, do read anything that's available in English about the tax laws and business regulations in Bulgaria; there's a lot on the net if you hunt around a bit.
There is corruption here; it would be foolish to deny it. However, if your advisors are telling you that you can ignore the laws or that you have to pay bribes then they're really trying to drag you down into an old system that should be on it's way that really the route you want to take?
Above all, if you're choosing to live in Bulgaria or develop a business here then that already makes you a brave and adventurous type - remember who you are and what's important to you; and enjoy!! Really that's the most important thing of it because you want to or don't do it at all.....if you want to do it, remember to have fun!