The Bookseller has just revealed its inaugural list of Bookshop Heroes, supported by the Booksellers Association and sponsored by HarperCollins, which celebrates 25 of the best individual booksellers in the UK and Ireland. Here, some of our Bookshop Heroes share their answers to the question "What is the key to running a bookshop?".
Emily Adsett-Raggett, manager of The Haslemere Bookshop
One of the most important things for me is to always try and be open minded, and on the lookout for new ideas — the Booksellers’ Network has been such a valuable resource for this. I also make sure I take time to think about what our customers want to see on our shelves — sometimes this doesn’t reflect the national bestseller lists!
Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, owner of The Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill
An understanding of the community, a working website, and a rock-solid team who love their books.
Sanchita Basu De Sarkar
Ross Bradshaw, owner of Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham
Being fleet of foot. Letting staff members run with their own ideas and projects and encouraging every member of staff to choose books. Listening to customers and engage with them outside the shop. Spending a lot of time reading social media to try to keep up. Building a set of communities around the bookshop.
Justine Crow & Jonathan Main, co-owners of Bookseller Crow in the Hill in Crystal Palace
In the case of The Bookseller Crow, the key to our success is being ourselves. We can't compete on price or volume, but we can on taste and curation, so we stock stuff we actually like.
(Left to right) Jonathan Main and Justine Crow with authors Elizabeth Strout and Karen McLeod
Aleida Gomez de Caso, sales and marketing assistant manager at Blackwell’s Broad Street in Oxford
Imagination, to always come up with new ways of communicating to customers. Empathy, to understand the customers’ needs. Flexibility, because there are always a thousand things that need doing! And willpower, to do your tasks, be resilient and always be there for colleagues and customers.
Lali Hewitson, owner of The Portal Bookshop in York
As with most things, I think passion and engagement will be obvious to your customers. People can tell when you care. Honesty and transparency help just as much as knowing your audience and your books (but I recommend an encyclopaedic memory or database if you can get one!). Plus, a lot of research, and trying to keep up with excitement and buzz about new or upcoming releases has a big impact. And being far too loud and chatty on Twitter definitely doesn’t hurt!
Layla Hudson, director of Round Table Books in Brixton
Passion is one of the key things for success in bookselling! It's so easy to sell a book when you love it, as customers really pick up on your enthusiasm. It's also really important to read as much as possible, so that when someone comes into the bookshop and tells you what they like, you can find them the perfect book.
Layla Hudson and Saber Khan
Saber Khan, managing senior bookseller at Topping & Company in Bath
You have to let people browse in comfort and feel they can ask for guidance, or simply be left alone, as well as having breadth and depth of stock.
Tomás Kenny, general manager at Kennys Bookshop in Galway
A knowledge of books and publishers over a long period is crucial, both when buying and selling. Retaining historic sales information in terms of what books sold and when is really helpful. Ultimately though, it comes down to people. Having good relationships with customers, being able to solve their problems easily and being able to know what they would like to read all make people want to come back to the shop over and over again.
Tracy Kenny, development director and shop manager at Kett's Books in Wymondham
Running a bookshop is about book knowledge, people skills, and having a head for business. I’m convinced that bookshops more than anyone need to have a really clear grasp on their story — of where they’ve come from, and where they’re going — and we need to tell it often. Customers and staff will know it’s not just a book they’re getting, but that they’re doing something important to help to change the world into how they want it to be. You’re never going to get better loyalty than that.
Marie Moser, owner of The Edinburgh Bookshop
I think to be a successful bookshop in these times you need primarily to be a good retailer and have a team with outstanding people skills, which has become even more important as the stress of the Covid situation has made some customers a little prickly. I also think you have to understand business enough to watch your costs, manage your range and spot opportunities. The presence of the ever-aggressive Amazon and high street costs mean that a love and knowledge of books is no longer enough to succeed — you have to be a good retailer and your shop needs to be professionally run and merchandised. Of course, passion and love are still essential.
Fiona Sharp, bookseller at Waterstones Durham
I think for anything to be successful it needs an engaged, friendly, and enthusiastic team behind it. If you don't engage with your customers, there are many places they can shop for books both on the high street and online. The best way to achieve this is for the bookshop team to work to their strengths and use each other's expertise to the collective advantage and benefit of the customers.
My personal approach is to try and treat each customer exactly how you would like to be treat yourself, take the time to get to know people and what they like (and don't like).
Sheryl Shurville, co-owner of Chorleywood Bookshop and Gerrards Cross Bookshop
The key to running a bookshop is passion and commitment and wonderful staff. It is also important to connect with the community in different and interesting ways. It’s not all about being behind a counter in a shop, it’s about going into the community and engaging with people.
Lydnsey Smith, bookseller at Mostly Books in Abingdon
Teamwork is everything! There is so much more to running a bookshop than people might think — it’s a really specialised area of retail. The nature of bookselling means that we are constantly problem-solving for our customers, and trying to give them the best possible service while competing against large chains and online retailers.
Will Smith, bookseller at Sam Read Bookshop in Grasmere
I think the key to running a bookshop is listening to your customers, knowing your own stock and keeping an eye on the broad array of books being published across genres, with an eye to those that aren’t being championed by everyone else. Developing good relationships with national and local publishers really helps. Ultimately, we have to offer solid book temptations and paths of least resistance to those books. Sometimes that means not being shy to enthuse about books, but it can also mean trusting your stock to speak for itself and letting the customer get drawn in!
Bob Stone, owner of Write Blend in Liverpool
The key thing to running a bookshop, I think, is understanding my customers. I don't just mean listening to what they want so I can have the right stock, vital though that is, but understanding that people who love books want a welcoming, friendly environment in which to browse. They want someone who has a fair idea of what book they mean when they say “I don't know what it's called or who it's by, but I think it's about...”. They want knowledge and enthusiasm.
Helen Tamblyn-Saville, co-owner of The Barrister in Wonderland Bookshop in Retford
Being organised, knowing the books, and more importantly, knowing your customers. A good bookshop is a community asset and offering the best customer service you can, while keeping up to date on news from the book world is what makes bookshops stand out.
Mandy Thomas, owner of Books at the Dragon's Garden in Carmarthenshire
Curation is absolutely key — every book has to be meaningful. Look after and listen to your customers, hire great staff, and be flexible on your model. These are very different times, you have to retain a business head but stay passionate.