Some months ago, I found myself at an old friend’s book launch at the London Review Bookshop. I looked around the shop and realised that there was a time when I would have known the lie of the land intimately. I would have had opinions on the books and their covers, and how well their publishers were doing.
The staff at the London Review Bookshop looked much like the bookshop folk I remembered and I wondered how their experience with Amazon as the norm, might differ from mine of 25 years ago. After working in publishing for two decades, I felt like I had lost some of my feel for the bookselling side of the business. I know my way around a spreadsheet of BookScan data, and how to deliver ONIX. I was well-versed in trade campaigns and social media marketing, but what, I wondered, was it now like to stand across from a customer in a bookshop and help them find a book?
In the summer of 1991, I left college and headed back, broke, to my home town, Stratford-upon-Avon. I had no idea what I wanted to do, except a notion that I’d like to go travelling in South America. My mum, not overly keen on this idea, had seen an advert for booksellers at Waterstones and suggested I give it a go.
I entered a world of simple tills, a microfiche database and customer orders filled in on postcards. Electronic point-of-sale and stock technology arrived after about a year, but the real education was the books. I was surrounded by obsessed people who showed me that university wasn’t really the only (or even best) place to learn to read. One of the best tutors was Stuart Havis, who taught me a good deal of what I know about bookselling. He showed me how to import US books and to develop a section, how to sub new titles boldly and the right way to set up an event programme from scratch.
Stuart now runs Topping & Company Booksellers in Ely, and was happy to take me back under his wing and show me what indie bookselling looks like now. Over the past few months I’ve been spending a day a week in Ely, working the till, sitting in on subs and boxing up returns. And the experience reminded me why it's still worth being a part of this business.
Has it changed? Well yes, and no. Topping’s is very much a part of the Ely community with a regular and loyal clientele. For a shop of its size the range is extensive, carefully chosen and the booksellers extremely knowledgeable. For example, a customer came in looking for North African literature in translation, which set everyone off on a quest to solve the challenge. The customer left with a large pile of books. In bookselling, it seems, we still need experts.
Range remains key to Topping’s model, but volume sales are much tougher than I remembered, Amazon having now firmly sequestered a slice of every bookshop’s new title market. For Topping & Company, author events are a crucial factor in pushing back against that trend, forming a real point of difference in the shopping experience. Importantly these events not only establish a sense of community, they provide a significant sales boost.
Over the past decade the industry has undergone a technological revolution via e-books, social media and electronic data supply. But physical stock management actually feels more cumbersome than it used to. Finding ways to engage with the independent sector to lessen the admin burden in stock handling could be a big win in enabling more active hand-selling.
Topping’s belief is that an appropriately and intelligently ranged bookshop, absolutely embedded in its community and alive to its needs, has a future. The Ely customers are looking for guidance from their bookshop and value it as a place to gain inspiration and meet authors. The knowledge and motivation of the booksellers is essential and the inspiration you get from spending time with people who love to recommend books is still infectious.
I found it rejuvenating, experiencing the industry’s diverse offer in reality rather than on a computer screen, though the amount of "copycat" publishing seemed much higher than I remember. There is real power in quantitative data assisting publishing decisions but also a place for the qualitative, the impressionistic and the human, where we can see not just the decisions readers make, but how they make them. Creating an ongoing forum for connecting these kinds of insights and numerical sales data by co-operating with bookshops and their communities beyond the rep visit could be a creative and fruitful way of informing the publishing.
On a personal level, I’ve had some new books recommended to me and rekindled my love for fiction reading, which is no bad thing. I have not yet been to South America, and I’m not planning on it just yet. I still have some reading to do. And some more books to recommend...