Opening a bookshop during Covid restrictions might seem crazy.
But then the perfect premises came on the market, the one we had been looking for years. This was our opportunity. Covid was happening of course, we were just coming out of full lockdown, but we've both worked in book retail in one form or another for over 25 years and have always dreamt of opening our own bookshop. It felt this was our only chance. So, in July 2020 we took the plunge.
Our main problem was funding. We had no money and the banks wouldn’t even consider us. We gave up, then mooned and moped about, and then, with a little advice from the Booksellers Association, tried a start-up loan on the government website. They came back to us and the process began.
A few tweaks to the business plan and few crunches of numbers and, amazingly, we got the loan. We were ecstatic, scared and dizzy. We have three children, a mortgage and steady jobs – what were we doing? But then we looked around the premises again. It was perfect. We were in love.
It was time for action stations. We needed… well the list seems pretty endless. Basically we needed books, something to sell them from, and a till and stock control system. Gardeners could provide most of that, Argos and refurb yards the rest. We thought it wouldn’t take long, we thought we might be open mid-October, November at the latest to build up a head of steam into Christmas.
We were naïve and deluded.
In October, after liberating all the Argos stores in the south west of their bookshelves, our small house was stuffed with flat-pack shelving and looked more like a deconstructed bookshop than a home. We felt we were ready, but the solicitors had other ideas and after another torturous and expensive month and a half, we finally got occupation of 62 Fore Street, Totnes on December 1st.
We desperately needed to be open before Christmas or we would be in dire financial straits. If I had been watching our life all as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, I would have been cynically saying, "Yeah, they always do this - pretending it’s all last-minute and their whole future is on the line. It’s just a ruse, you know it’s going to be fine in the end". The trouble was, this was real, and there was a risk everything might very much not be alright. We pencilled in Saturday 12th December as our opening day – giving us 12 days to fit, stock and get the bookshop fully operational.
The stock arrived, all 120+ boxes. We carted the flat-packed bookshelves eight at a time in our car and swung by our local refurb centre at every opportunity. We took delivery of Gardlink, set up our wifi and re-configured the central heating as there were long radiators where our bookshelves needed to go. We had so little time, but we had friends, fantastic friends it turns out, and amazing family, who all helped us so, so much that we cannot thank them enough.
It looked like we were going to make it. Then three things happened which now seem ridiculous, but at the time nearly broke us. Firstly our shop’s boiler failed, leaving us with no heating. Miraculously we found a plumber who could help... and then our lock (which had existed problem-free for 20 years) also broke. Yes, we were locked out of our shop with days to go before we opened, with the central heating blasting away inside. Five hours and £500 later we were in; our lovely door didn’t fare well, but at least we were in and had a new lock that worked. What else could go wrong? Well, then our internet broke. On the morning of Saturday 12th December we were trailing wires across our shop trying to find a socket that worked. Thankfully, we did find one, and actually opened at 10am. Just writing that sends waves of emotion over me.
So what about Covid? We left lots of space in the shop by omitting a couple of the intended tables, we had hand sanitising stations available and left the door open for circulation. With screens at the counter and an insistence on face-covers, we got the Covid-safe green light from the visiting council officials.
We were overwhelmed by the response from the people of Totnes. After an emotional and exhausting day there was no champagne - just finally the opportunity to spend a little more quality time with our children and treat ourselves to an early night.
So now it is 2021 and we are, as expected, in another lockdown. Like a shinning knight, bookshop.org have provided a worthy platform for customers to support our fledgling shop. We also offer a ‘knock and collect’ service for local people who contact us directly and collect their orders from the door. So we have something - but having our brand-new baby now in lockdown is heart-breaking, frustrating and frankly worrying - not just for the business, but for everyone impacted by the devastating effects of this pandemic.
One day The East Gate Bookshop will be able to welcome customers again and we can even host events and readings. But for now, there are no regrets. And in the meantime we, along with Chipper (the bookshop dog), can only wait.
Nigel Jones started as a bookseller with Ottakar's in 1997, and went from a sales assistant in Llandudno to a non-fiction buyer at their head office in Salisbury. He subsequently worked for the online natural history specialist, Natural History Book Service (NHBS), managed Totnes Bookshop and became a LTA accredited tennis coach. Claire Jones started working for John Menzies in 1997 then progressed in children's bookselling to become Children's Fiction Buyer at WH Smith. She also worked for Ottakar's and is currently a midwife at Torbay Hospital.
They opened The East Gate Bookshop in Totnes on December 12th 2020.