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Bridge over troubled water
"Cut Darrell Thrush-Denning in half and you would see Blackwell's and passion all the way through." That was the gushing, if medically improbable, verdict of the Retail Week Awards judges when they gave this year's Store Manager of the Year gong to the man in charge of Blackwell's Edinburgh South Bridge shop.
That particular phrase, reprinted in the Blackwell's inhouse newsletter, has been the subject of much mirth among Thrush-Denning's staff. "It was a bit over the top," Thrush-Denning admits. "But it's a fantastic accolade, I'm well chuffed. Not just for me, but also because it raises the Blackwell's profile, not just in bookselling, but in general retailing."
The only bookseller shortlisted, Thrush-Denning saw off competition from managers of Thortons, -Jessops and Sainsbury's. It is the latest in a string of awards he has received since taking over as manager almost two years ago. He was shortlisted for Manager of the Year at The Bookseller Retail Awards 2006, while at Blackwell's internal awards he was named Bookseller of the Year and South Bridge won Store of the Year.
Walking through South Bridge on a midweek afternoon, the store is busy, even though it is a rare, sunny Scottish spring day. At more than 17,000 sq ft spread over three floors, it is one of Edinburgh's biggest bookshops. Situated in the Old Town across the street from Edinburgh University's law faculty, it is the city's main academic bookseller, and has large general, schools, music and stationery departments.
Thrush-Denning says it has taken a while for the shop to look right. When he arrived at Blackwell's as a floor manager in 2003, it was in the midst of a "long and drawn-out" refit; South Bridge had been the flagship of the much beloved Edinburgh institution James Thin, which Blackwell's bought in 2002. But he believes the Thin regulars have now been won over. "The shop is inviting, comfy and brightly lit, and we have an excellent local book section and locally driven events," he says. "Our customers do compare us to Thin's, but in a complimentary, not derogatory way."
In the remorselessly tough academic bookselling environment, Thrush-Denning draws attention to how his team can "flex the stock" across the store depending on the season. "There really is no down time during the year," he says. "We have Back to University (BTU), Christmas, second semester BTU, the tourist season and the Edinburgh festival, back to school . . . and then it's BTU all over again."
Of course, the store has also -benefited from the closure of three of Edinburgh's independents and Ottakar's main city centre shop. While not wanting to reveal turnover, Thrush-Denning says it has notched up "significant successive growth" and is one of Blackwell's more successful Scottish shops.
The leadership of Blackwell's c.e.o. Vince Gunn, who took over in 2005 in the midst of significant losses and Blackwell family infighting, has been crucial, he adds. "The company is completely unrecognisable from the one I joined, and for the better." He believes Gunn and commercial director Sue Townsend's "Fix and Build" strategy has given stability, while the "Model Store" programme will stimulate enthusiasm. "It's about developing the Blackwell's brand and looking at things in a completely top to bottom way, with new systems, processes and merchandising."
"Retail is detail," he laughs, making quotation marks with his hands. "Seriously, it is the little things that work. Like our 360º merchandising of tables, so customers can see all around the table and there are not these massive towers of books like you get at Waterstone's."
He lauds the knowledge of his 67 members of staff, some of whom have been at the shop for decades. "I'm a big believer in succession planning and drawing on people's expertise. I'm sure I learn more from my staff than they do from me."
Thrush-Denning started his career at Virgin Games Centre after leaving high school with "every intention of going to uni". But he enjoyed the cut and thrust of retail and stayed on, -eventually becoming music department manager at Virgin's Edinburgh Megastore. In 2003, he was headhunted by both Blackwell's and Harvey Nichols, but chose books over fashion. "I thought there was far more chance for my own personal development at Blackwell's, with more scope for freedom."
He believes his non-book background has been an advantage, and made him more receptive to bringing in other products. South Bridge recently struck a deal with Edinburgh University to be sole external retailer for T-shirts, sweaters and other university-branded merchandise. "There's always going to be a place for high street bookshops," he says. "But they need to adapt. Booksellers can't just rely on book sales, but need to look at other, complementary, ranges."
He also tries to keep a good work/life ratio. A former part-time club DJ, music has always been his passion, but these days he spends most of his free time with "the wee man", five-year-old son Jacob.
"It's a good balance here," he concludes. "We're centrally supported, but not overly reliant on the centre. I've been in retail the past 14 years and I can honestly say that the last three and half years have been the most enjoyable."