In depth: Independent Bookshops

In depth: Independent Bookshops

With bookshops in the midst of the crucial Christmas sales period, The Bookseller turned bookseller, lending a hand on the high street to see what independents are doing right, why they are positive about the future and what more can be done.

Felicity Wood at The Book Nook, Hove
The three full-time staff at children's bookshop The Book Nook—Vanessa Lewis, Julie Ward and Liz Sampson—love what they do. In their cosy shop just off the Hove seafront, their passion for hand-selling and promoting books is key. Based in a residential area, parents and grandparents come in with a variety of queries (from picture books on naughty rabbits to YA fiction that will distract a wayward teen), and the trio pride themselves on having the range of stock to answer their needs—in fact, the local Waterstone's often sends customers their way when its stock range isn't enough.

A quarter of the shop is dedicated café space, complete with a much-loved pirate ship for young customers to play in as their -parents enjoy a well-deserved coffee. Discounted books are displayed on the “sales cow” (a shelf in the shape of a cow), and the shop's stock ranges from picture books to young adult titles, as well as non-fiction, teaching resources, and a small selection of birthday cards and gift wrap.

School sales are an important part of The Book Nook's turnover, and former teacher Lewis loves showing off its range and offering literacy sessions for local teachers: “We can take a box of books based on certain topics to schools, but when they come in they can see the range of our stock. I love showing them all the texts available—we know the right level of books that they are after, but they know their children and can pick out individual books to challenge and help individual pupils.” Their knowledge is much appreciated by the schools themselves—on the day I visit, staff from St Martin's C of E School are having a lot of trouble sticking to their budget.
An event-led shop—which includes  a daily storytime at 4 p.m. (in order to fill that after-school lull) and book clubs for various age ranges—The Book Nook benefits from the many authors who live in the area (it heavily stocks local favourites including Polly Dunbar and Nick Sharratt). As well has putting on an in-store pantomime each year, there are popular visits from Santa Claus during December, which are proving so popular that Ward and Lewis decided not to run one on the last Saturday of December this year to prevent the crowded audience stopping last-minute shoppers.

Cementing its close relationship with local schools, it runs many in-school events, insisting that the school runs a good promotion of the event beforehand. A recent highlight was an event with Max Silver, author of the Alien Invaders series (Red Fox), which has resulted in a “fantastic after sell”. Ward, who comes from a marketing background, sees these events as a fantastic opportunity to promote the shop's name and ethos.

Now in its third year, the shop has evidently become a beloved Hove fixture. One young visitor comes in exasperated with his mother: “Mummy come on, I want to go in, come on”, and another is carried out crying his eyes out, screaming: “I don't want to go home!”

Stacey Bartlett at Bookseller Crow, south London

Jonathan Main and Justine Crow have owned Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace for 15 years. Their prime location on the high street draws in the local community, and their modern approach to bookselling—utilising both a blog and Twitter—draws in the social media crowd whose loyalties haven't shifted to online retailers.

Main imports American fiction to the shop, which specialises in illustrated children's books, graphic novels and modern fiction. “At one time, a shop like this would rely on a new Delia Smith at Christmas to sell hundreds of copies and be a good cash cow for them, but that doesn't happen any more. It hasn't happened for ages. Essentially, I think to be any good you've got to sell different books—if you're just trying to sell the same things on Amazon's homepage or on the front table of Waterstone's, you're never going to do it.”

A local designer makes Bookseller Crow t-shirts that the shop also sells, and Jonathan and Justine's personal collection of crow-based memorabilia adorns the counter—from framed art to bed socks. Their other member of staff is resident writer Karen McLeod, while Crow herself has a book being published by A&C Black in May.

Its late opening hours (7 p.m. on weekdays, and the shop is open all day Sundays) to catch the commuter crowd is something that Main thinks is a key ingredient to success as an indie in the city suburbs; footfall is around 600 people a week.

Main isn't worried about losing business to Amazon or e-books, and said the recession hasn't affected them as much as other businesses in the area. He also isn't concerned about the local Sainsbury's books selection either: “I think that bookshops like us lost that [supermarket] customer ages ago.”

The best part about running a local bookshop is “on a Sunday afternoon when everybody's very relaxed and we've a nice busy shop. When you've done it for 15 years you make relationships with people and they make relationships . . . I've seen children grow up and have children of their own, and there are couple of customers who are clearly a bit dotty, and I remember them when they weren't quite so dotty.”

Main says he would “certainly rather be an indie than I would Waterstone's, that's for sure; I think they've got a lot less of a chance. I'd like to think we all have a chance though, because it's good to have more bookshops, not less.”

Katie Allen at City Books, Brighton

A former citizen of Brighton, I hadn't visited City Books for a while when I returned to work there. Nestled on the Western Road, which runs parallel to the sea through the city's heritage Brunswick area, the shop hadn't changed, but the street had a -little—recent upmarket additions include cheese shop La Cave à Fromage and organic chocolate emporium Chocoholly.

“We are very lucky where we are,” admits Paul Sweetman, who founded the shop with his wife Inge 25 years ago. He cites the “well-educated” population, many of whom have fled London's high rents, and points out the full shop frontages. Recession has so far by-passed this section of the city.

The shop covers two floors. Upstairs, mainly devoted to fiction, has a display of new hardbacks in the window, as well as an attractive display of recent paperbacks. There are Faber and Vintage spinners, and an array of non-book products, particularly cards, wrapping paper, calendars and stationery. The back of the top floor includes a wall of classics and a poetry section. Downstairs is kids and non-fiction, with an emphasis on history, politics, MBS and self-help—key to Brighton's lefty demographic (as Inge tells me, “if you don't know where to put it, we can sell it”).

A vital part of City Books' success is stationery stock: the calendars, in particular, are supplied on a 60% discount, firm sale, and they sell 600 between September and January, dispatching the leftover copies for half-price. The cards are also profitable (“there are 8,000 people in the Brunswick area, that's a lot of birthdays”).

City Books is a popular shop, even on an icy Friday in November, although the Christmas rush doesn't seem to have started yet. Paul faces publishers' terms with equanimity, which vary between 45% for one-off orders, or 50% for ordering a standard six, usually applied to frontlist. There is little discounting throughout the store, and they avoid the big supermarket titles, although they do try to offer customers deals such as signed copies, or a recent offer for the second volume of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 for free with purchase of the first.

The key times of the year are of course the festive season, and also their “second Christmas”, the Charleston Festival, where they are the official bookseller. City Books also holds frequent signings (preparations were underway for Harry Hill when I was there), as well as hosting events at the 300-seater hall around the corner, although the big events are not lucrative—“one in about three supports the other two. It's not done to make money,” Paul explains, but rather for the press coverage.

Charlotte Williams at Victoria Park Books, east London

Victoria Park Books is tucked onto a row of boutique cafés and shops that come as a surprise at the end of a bus ride from Mile End tube. A children's specialist—but with adult books, graphic novels and a parenting section to boot—it was set up by Joanna de Guia and her husband six years ago.

De Guia knows her books inside out, advising grandmothers on what to buy and inviting sticky-fingered toddlers to plop onto bean bags with the latest Emily Gravett. The family live above the 20 m2 shop, which is also manned three days a week by John Lucas, who will shortly become a published author after a deal with Random House Children's Books.

I accompanied the shop's external bookseller Suzanne Dietz to Stoke Newington School & Sixth Form for an author event with Melvin Burgess. Burgess easily kept the teens interested, but the day gave me a glimpse into the challenges of bookshop/school events: the difficulties are not only engaging kids with reading and authors, but also trying to sell -actual books. At Stoke Newington, this was stymied because half the pupils hadn't got the message about bringing in £5 for a book, meaning we had to pack up a lot of the books we had brought.  

The shop has an average of two author events a week, with writers- including Michael Morpurgo appearing last year, “boosting takings generously”, though de Guia stressed the authors have to be the biggest names to ensure extra takings. As well as reading groups and a drink-themed book club, de Guia also gives an assembly at a local primary school, which then buys the books she recommends.
Above and beyond the realities of bookshop life is de Guia's passion for her job. Victoria Park Books is the first children's bookshop in Hackney, and she says: “I feel like we are changing children's lives. There are so many literary events in Hackney that weren't there before. Hackney is on the map now as somewhere you can sell books.”

Lisa Campbell at Saltaire Bookshop, West Yorkshire

Eighteen months ago, David Ford, a former Green Party councillor in Bradford, was unable to make a living through his passion for “selling books and introducing compelling new literature” to the village residents of Saltaire in West Yorkshire. His high street business, Saltaire Bookshop, may have enjoyed a steady stream of customers through the door, but on a good day it only just broke even—and more often than not, after deducting £10,000 rent plus council-charged business rates, it made a loss.

Refusing to let his life-long ambition be thwarted, Ford took the somewhat unusual decision to move his company out of the claws of the high street into his own living room.

Now he sells 7,000 new and second-hand titles from the front of his 19th-century Victorian family house in the World Heritage Site of Saltaire. They are displayed on traditional wooden bookshelves, which along with the ceiling's original exposed oak beams and cosy fireplace, help to conjure all the charm and atmosphere of a bookseller from the same era.

“The idea was to have that -traditional feel which fits in with the history of Saltaire,” Ford says. “Although we had steadier custom when we were located on the main road, with £10,000 annual rent I didn't make anything, whereas now I have no rent and little business rates to pay, because it is balanced with council tax, and so I now make around £10,000 profit a year.”

Staffed by himself and occasionally by his wife, the father-of-two also makes money by selling titles on Amazon Marketplace. Selling new books with a discount of 10%, Ford estimated that 60% of his revenue comes from this online business, and he also gains sales through a monthly book club, from two of the village's annual calendar events—the Saltaire Arts Trail and the Saltaire Festival—and through running events for local schools.

The latter business is one he would like to increase, but, Ford explains: “A lot of schools go to publishers directly, which is a shame because I like to add value by running events with authors whom children can meet.”

He recently hosted children's writer Damian Harvey with a class of 30 schoolchildren. While Ford, who is a member of Gardners' Hive network, is yet to have a customer ask him for an e-book over the counter, he believes online and digital is a part of the future and shouldn't be shunned. “Booksellers have to adapt to the changing market, like everyone else in the economy,” he says

Indie Tip:
Reflect instore online: Currently online, The Book Nook will launch a new transactional website soon. Although “understanding the concept behind Gardner's Hive”, Julie Ward explains, “We want to be different from everyone else. We're events-driven, and 90% of our time is spent recommending a book. That's what we are known for, that's our brand. We've built up an image, and just having a standard website will take us away from that as we could be anyone—we could be Amazon.” She adds: “People phone us up all the time and email us to order or reserve books, so we know they will come to us online, so with things like our events we can let people log in and pre-order books, which all fits in with our ethos.”

Indie Tip:
Online extras: Jonathan Main regularly updates the Bookseller Crow blog and monitors online sales throughout the day. The key to modern bookselling, he says, is having a good website. “You have to make your website exactly the same [as your shop] if you're going to have any hope of selling things.” The shop hosts regular author events arranged either in person or through Twitter (the shop has 2,700 followers)—a recent event was a signing with author Mark Steele, which pulled in more than 70 punters. Main sells a lot of signed copies on the website and on the blog, and a rather cuddly author visited the shop recently—the adult-orientated, perpetually depressed teddy Misery Bear—whose creator lives locally and signed a number of books, which were then sold all over the world.

Indie Tip:
Loyalty cards: City Books' range of cards comes in handy with the shop's bespoke customer loyalty card scheme, which offers one stamp for every £10 spent (so a card could bring the price of a paperback up to a tenner). Once six stamps have been collected, customers receive £5 off their next purchase. Paul Sweetman also hails the Love Your Indie loyalty card scheme (run by a collective of independent publishers with the Guardian), which he says has brought in a lot of custom.

Indie Tip:
Prepare for school payment issues:  
School pupils aren't the only ones who can forget their money; de Guia says it is a constant challenge to chase up the schools in Hackney for payment on big orders. About 50% of Victoria Park Books' trade is through school orders, but they are often put on stop by distributors as they cannot settle their accounts until the schools do, which is often not a top priority for busy teaching staff. With distribution so centralised through five big companies (Bookpoint, TBS, Penguin, HarperCollins and MDL), small individual tabs can quickly become a larger sum.

Indie Tip:
Remember your passion: Whatever is around the corner and despite online competition and consumers with increasingly shallower pockets, Saltaire Bookshop's David Ford wants to continue to pursue what he set out to do: “I want people to know reading is not a minority pursuit for people who come from nice, comfortable middle-class backgrounds. I want to sell books you do not get elsewhere, to give new and budding authors a chance to have their books championed.”

How publishers and 
agents can help:
POS: Staff at The Book Nook “love a good dumpbin” and they are not alone . . . all of the bookshops wanted to encourage publishers to provide more promotional material, be it bookmarks, posters or signed copies, “the kids love that sort of thing”.

Avoid undercutting: Victoria Park Books' Joanna de Guia once lost out on £45,000-worth of sales through the tills when a festival—which she helped set up—did a deal direct with a major publisher who was offering a sizeable discount. She says: “Every time something goes wrong [like that], you are fighting for your life.”

Prepping authors: Both Saltaire Bookshop and The Book Nook say that more could be done to prepare authors before school events. As the latter's Julie Ward explains: “publishers push début authors to us, but we have to actually sell them and their books . . . and so a new author needs to have a strategy. They need to prepare for an event in the same way that a teacher plans for a lesson, they need a script or a planned agenda.” Alongside this, Ward suggests it would be helpful if more publishers got in touch to let them know which authors were available for school tours and when, rather than them having to do all the “chasing”.

Backlist deals: For Jonathan Main, the biggest threat is “the attitude of publishers”. He says publishers hiking up backlist prices are the main culprits, as they are “pricing to Amazon”, and they should be encouraged to do more exclusive promotions for independents. The Book Nook's Vanessa Lewis agrees: “Some publishers are doing some really good deals based on backlist. HarperCollins has given us really good rates if we commit to a certain number of copies and set display terms, but some you have to fight tooth and nail.”

Travel: Simply put, Saltaire Bookshop's David Ford suggested publishers “need to get out of London and the Home Counties and come and visit the north more.”

New readers: Ex-teacher Lewis suggests that for those aged between six and eight the “books are a bit tried and tested. They need something that is slightly challenging but still interesting and accessible, as it is such a prolific time. In order to really capture that age range, there needs to be a wider range of titles.”