… Lets talk about you and me. Lets talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.
Leanne just said to me… “there’s been some high points in January”, “Like what?” I enquire, for the purposes of the blog. *Blank face*. I suppose the high point is that we won’t have to work too hard next January to do better. I jest, every day is a joy in the shop, we’re still finding wonderful new customers who react with glee when they discover us and we had record numbers attending some of the classes and Book Club continues to be an invigorating experience.
January in retail is dire. Everyone knows this and why wouldn’t it be? Everyone overspent in December and are now seeing the enormous expanse that is the January Pay gap ahead of them. I’ve been warning Leanne since before we opened “December will be manic and January will be hideous”. Everyone warns you of this and every bookshop I’ve spoken to this month that kindly asks “How’s your shop going?” nods sympathetically in agreement. I think the issue with us is that we certainly didn’t double our takings in December so the cushion we were hoping for wasn’t there. It’s OK though, don’t panic (Mr Mainwearing!), what we do is ride it out and get busy engaging with schools.
I guess it didn’t help me that my year began with a bit of a tour of amazing Bookshops. Upgrading their Till systems and performing stock takes with them. Starting at Sevenoaks Bookshop, I had a lovely couple of days there which I made full use of by visiting nearby Uni buddies and their children. The highlight of which was delivering and reading a shop favorite, the philosophical phenomenon “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse” by Charlie Mackesy. They very kindly listened intently to the whole thing.
Sometimes you need to spend a bit of time in a bookshop to get it’s essence. I knew Sevenoaks had a great reputation and know Fleur the owner well but being there on a Monday in January was a revelation. You start to understand what a real community bookshop offers and the value of longevity. It’s all about people. When you have a team of experienced booksellers bouncing ideas off each other for a customer recommendation and getting it right for them they will come back and Sevenoaks has had 70 years of trusting their Bookshop will get it right for them. I don’t care how good the algorithm is there’s nothing that will beat a conversation about books with someone that really understands. And the community respond with love and loyalty. Whilst I’m getting texts from Leanne about our worst day to date (we’ve since beaten it!) Sevenoaks Bookshop was heaving! You don’t match that kind of loyalty in 5 months of trading. Sevenoaks bookshop has been there decades and this was a real lesson to me NOT to panic. We are on an upward trajectory and that is all that matters.
Next on my UK tour was a Book-ish in Crickhowell, Wales. Since being lucky enough to enjoy a Booksellers conference in Detroit with Owner Emma Corfield-Walters and persuading her to take the system I support we have become close friends. I often get asked if I’d like to stay at fellow booksellers homes when I am on my travels but for the most part I don’t feel like I want to impose but Emma is such a welcoming person I stay there every time I visit now. Her family are so lovely and it’s lovely to be able to be so far from home but still feel at home. Hotel rooms can be pretty soul destroying. Emma’s shop is something else! It’s half incredible bookshop half incredible cafe (I have cravings for their sandwiches). Emma punches above her weight, Crickhowell is not a big place. You could walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes but Book-ish is smack bang in the middle and serves a much larger area in the Brecon Beacons. Emma consistently sells out huge Author events with over 300 attendees, arranges festivals and is on the board of the BA. She is possibly the hardest working bookseller I know and deserves the plaudits she receives. Crickhowell won High Street of the year 2019 and there’s no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t have without Emma’s drive and determination. OK, Bookseller crush gush over. But seriously, go there. The place and the surrounding area is stunning.
After counting all of Emma’s books it was onwards to what is, in my view the finest pure bookshop in the world. I don’t say this lightly, I’ve been to a lot of bookshops worldwide but I know there are some amazing ones in other countries that might take the crown aesthetically. I go back to my previous comment about it being about people. Before I gush about the people, let me just say that Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath has got it right in every aspect. It takes your breath away. I’d not been since they renovated and expanded into next door and created a new children’s area last year. We actually took a lot more inspiration (although on a smaller budget!) from them than I realised, their moving eyes tree is genius and the Imaginarium is sublime. Back to the people. I remember visiting Mr B’s a few years ago and marvelling at one of their legendary Book Spa’s in action (such a clever, simple concept to offer in Bath). You talk to a bookseller in a Spa style environment about books, likes, dislikes etc and they then come up with a reading list for you which you can buy as part of the package. Hearing their team of expert booksellers talking books with each other in response to the spa is an education in itself. I am very aware now that I have been learning all the time in my 11 years in bookshops doing tech support but I am very much in awe of what they do and can’t wait to fully qualify as a bona-fide bookseller. I’m reliably informed you very have to earn your wings in this industry, there are no short cuts. Having the privilege of chatting to Mr B’s owner and current BA president Nic Bottomly for a whole evening while I played about on their computers and fixed a few bits is where it’s all at for me. The seminal moment being the revelation that they started on the same value loan that we did and had no savings! YES! This is exactly the news I needed to hear in such a desperate month. Watch out Mr B’s, we are coming for you. But seriously. Thank you for everything!
Other shops visited this month include John Sandoes Books in Sloan Square. Bookshop to some pretty impressive customers. After counting their 30,000 books Johnny sent me away with one of the most unusual gifts I’ve ever had… a quarter wheel of Blue cheese that a customer had brought in for an event. We like to joke in our house about which particular celebrities cheese we are eating. I’ve also been to Hungerford Bookshop, London Review Bookshop and Primrose Hill Bookshop this month, all of which I have known for my entire 11 years in the book industry. I then had the pleasure of assisting a brand new children’s bookshop in Olney open. Rose there has more energy and drive than anyone I’ve met for a long time and her experience in child welfare means Olney will be well served. She also has the coolest little Book Bus that she can take out to events and lesser served villages. Pop along to her modest premises on the main square and you’ll see “The Snug Children’s bookshop” is a gem.
So, Leanne tells me that for a bookshop blog this hasn’t been much about our shop. Sorry not sorry. When I have hung up my Bookshop travelling boots and am full time employed by Bookbugs and Dragon Tales I promise to only write about our shop but in the meantime I’m loving writing about the inspiration I find in other shops. I make sure that I come back with 1 new book to stock from every shop. People often ask us where we find such a diverse and interesting selection of titles that they don’t see elsewhere. Well… you’d have to have been to all the bookshops I have been to to see them. Of course we also discover books from other sources, supplier catalogues, publisher visits, customer recommendations, industry analytics,
newspapers, radio, Instagram and Twitter but our Bookbugs Whatsapp group (comically named “Bookbuggers”) is littered with pictures of books I’m finding that are either recommended by the booksellers I meet or just found on the shelves. Of course our problem this month is we can’t afford to buy them! January is the perfect storm. Broke customers, terrible shopping weather and December bills.
So what do you do about January as a bookseller?
- You get busy with everything you’ve been promising you’d do before but not felt enough urgency to really drive it forward. You engage with Schools in a big way. We have started up a schools day trip program where classes of children come to the shop and can do one of several things with us. We have one school who come in groups of 10s, have a few stories read to them, a craft or drama activity and pick 1 book each for their Library. Choice is so important and the thought of these kids going back to their classmates and championing their book is wonderful. We have a variation on this theme for other schools. What’s lovely is when one of the children drags their parents in days later, kicks off their shoes and throws their coat down to show them around their new favorite place.
- You do Harry Potter quiz nights with pop up shops
- You have your 1st external Author events at a local school and feel very honoured to have been trusted with the supply of the books for that (although also very scared we’d get the numbers wrong. Fortunately the publisher has been very supportive offering Sale or Return and great discount on the entire back catalogue!). A lesson I learnt from the Americans is the importance of pre-orders for school events. Get your form designed and sent to the school early.
- You dress up as a Bookbug and Dragon and parade around the city handing out flyers. Luckily Leanne and I are incredible show-offs and have no shame. What’s more surprising is when customers/friends volunteer to do this for us! I’m still working on getting my 14 year old step daughter in it. Apparently it would be frowned upon in the cool circles at her high school. Go Figure!?
- You Return Books. One of the great things about the book industry is that there is a system of returning books you’ve found don’t move from your shelves. Generally only 5% of what you’ve bought from a wholesaler (depending on your negotiation skills) but in a tough month that can pay off some substantial invoices or just gives you a chance to try some new titles. In my position as Bookseller systems trainer I’m something of a wiz at this and have taken great pleasure in imparting my knowledge of this to Leanne. I swear she’s never happier than with a scanner in her hand filling boxes of books to go back. Some booksellers see this as a failing on their behalf, the one that didn’t sell, but Leanne is brutal!
- You re-finance, re-evaluate, juggle savings and find you have guardian angels. There have been moments in the shop this month that have had us crying with joy and filled us with belief in what we are doing. We have never been stronger.
A quick word about today. The closest we have had to a dreaded snow day. Storm [whatever stupid name they decided to call this bit of wind] hit and everyone else stayed home. Tiles were flying off roofs, car alarms were going off and our A board decided it much preferred the view from John Lewis. Leanne and I came in because it’s what we do. We quickly realised it was going to be a stinker, in retrospect we probably shouldn’t have bothered leaving the house. Until 1.27pm we had had 1 paying customer and 1 online customer, to my own personal amusement (because I am 5) they both bought the same book, making the day even windier with “Does it Fart”. Finished the day on £24, £5 of which was a loyalty card redemption. Do you know what though? We had a lovely day together, dancing with each other, reading, laughing, cleaning stock rooms and writing blogs. It doesn’t matter. The week in general was better than any in January and our events have been better attended than ever. Craft social kicked off Friday evening with 12 customers! We apologised to our “Bookseller” Sally that running Craft sessions in an evening wasn’t in the job description, she laughed in our faces and said “Are you kidding? This is the best job ever!”. Meanwhile Poppy, our other permanent Bookseller has been off making waves in the poetry world with her performance at Norwich Arts centre that blew our minds. We are so lucky to have them.
We know we have great things coming up, Leanne actually took email orders today for 4 No Outsider book packs and 30 scripts so if you count those we had a great day. Big picture, don’t ever get focused on the quiet bits, evaluate and use your time where it can make things better. We have 2000 Loyalty card customers which may only be 1% of Norwich but that means we’re doing pretty well. It also means 99% of Norwich could still find us and we can grow into the hearts and minds of the community, which is where we always wanted to be.
If you’ve made it this far then you deserve a Badge and a sticker the next time you are in the shop. You could have read a book in this time. I recommend “Leonard and Hungry Paul” Fantastic book from our grown up section. Best book I’ve read in the last year. I’m a little star struck that the author and publisher have been tweeting me today. These things never get old.
nb. The day after writing the above… Hit our target by lunchtime! 10 in for bounce and Rhyme and lots of lovely customers. Boom! Back in the game!