Independent view

<p>Richard Barker</p><p> The town of Reading lies some 40 miles to the west of London. It has a population of around 150,000, a thriving shopping centre that has been the subject of huge redevelopment in recent years, a football team on the verge of the Premiership and a large, prestigious university. It also has two Waterstone's bookshops--three if you count the university branch.</p><p>Reading is convenient for Heathrow airport, while both rail and road links to London are good, making it a popular commuter location. Those residents who do not work in London often work in one of the many high-tech research and development facilities that have grown up in the area, which has become known as Silicon Valley.</p><p>The river Thames runs through Reading. It is not the prettiest of riverscapes, but like many urban waterside locations it has become the focus of speculative investment by property developers. To the south of the river are the main town centre and most of the residential areas. To the north of the Thames lies Caversham.</p><p>Caversham is the smart end of Reading. House prices are higher; the schools have, in the main, better reputations. This is arguably the most desirable area of Reading and has been colonised by aspiring middle classes, gradually edging out the indigenous, traditional residents. These new residents have disposable incomes that are materially larger than average; car ownership is high; and personal credit ratings are high. The new residents will remind you, because it matters to them, that they live in Caversham, not Reading.</p><p>There are a handful of fee-paying schools in Caversham, and the area benefits also from being the natural gateway for shoppers and visitors approaching from the affluent towns and villages of north Berkshire and south Oxfordshire.</p><p>Despite being less than two miles from the centre of Reading, Caversham has its own retail centre. It is small, but not without appeal. Anchored by a popular Waitrose supermarket, with a good supply of convenient parking, Caversham can boast an interesting mix of national, regional and genuinely local, independent retailers. These shops benefit from their proximity to a variety of well-frequented pubs, bars and restaurants.</p><p>John and Lindsay Mullaney saw the potential in Caversham when they both left the teaching profession more than 25 years ago and set up the Caversham Bookshop. They first opened in a peripheral location, but soon took an opportunity to relocate to a central site, where they were able to acquire a freehold property comprising an attractive ground floor shop of some 1,000 sq ft and a one-bedroom flat at first-floor level which could be let to provide a steady income.</p><p>John and Lindsay became expert booksellers who, as good independent booksellers should, became an integral part of the local community. Talking to them, one gets the impression that they have, over the years, derived as much enjoyment from the social interaction their business has brought as from their patent commercial success. In so doing, they cemented the place of their bookshop in the local community. The Caversham Bookshop has been everything a local independent bookshop should be, and more.</p><p>In recent years, and by their own admission, they let the business run down a bit, as they moved towards retirement. They closed on Mondays and on Wednesday afternoons; they let some of their more demanding educational accounts lapse; and they chose not to invest in what became a badly needed refurbishment. But who can blame them? They had earned the right to take things a little easier. They still owned a valuable business asset in a retail location that has undoubtedly become stronger over the years.</p><p>So why then, when John and Lindsay decided to retire earlier this year, have they failed, despite their best efforts, to sell their business? Why has the Caversham Bookshop closed, depriving the area of its sole outlet for books? Why has no one come forward to purchase what was an attractive small business with real potential for future growth? Why has no one been prepared to pay the very reasonable price that John and Lindsay were asking for their bookshop?</p><p>Acquisition of the Caversham Bookshop was as good an opportunity for getting into bookselling as is likely to present itself. But somehow that opportunity has gone unexploited. Here was a business that was inexpensive to buy; a stable business that was relatively simple to operate; a business with a strong reputation and a loyal customer base; a business in a good location with no immediate competition, where an enthusiastic, energetic owner could build on 25 years of goodwill and develop an enterprise of considerable value. In short, the type of business opportunity that rarely becomes available and that should have been snapped up with vigour.</p><p>I'm inclined to believe that at any time up to five years ago, the Caversham Bookshop would have been sold without a problem. Indeed, one could imagine a number of purchasers competing to buy it.</p><p>The fact that no one came forward must say something about the state of our trade. Was it the threat of supermarkets pushing further into bookselling that put prospective buyers off? Was it the uncertainty of a marketplace where the issue of price and value has become so confused as to make it impossible to predict the future with any accuracy?</p><p>Was it the belief that to be successful, the bookshop would have had to engage in price discounting at a level unfeasible on independent margins? Was it a concern that ever-rising property costs would ultimately leave an independent operator in an unsustainable location?</p><p>Perhaps it was a concern that with Watersone's already well established in Reading, and the other multiples--both Ottakar's and Borders--committed to laying down much more retail space in the next few years, such expansion would simply leave no space for independents to flourish.</p><p>Perhaps it was all of these factors; perhaps it was none of them. In any event, the outcome is much the same.</p><p>No winners</p><p>Who has benefited from this state of affairs? Certainly not the book buyers of Caversham. Not the young families who value advice on books for their children. Nor the local schools that have received years of professional service. And not the other local retailers, which have all benefited from the variety and appeal that a thriving local bookshop has brought to their retail centre. They have lost not just John and Lindsay, they have lost also a valuable community resource.</p><p>The publishing industry has not benefited either. There are now fewer books being sold in Caversham and Reading in total than were being sold three months ago. The sales, which have migrated from the Caversham Bookshop to Waterstone's in Reading, are costing publishers more to supply, and local authors and local publishers have lost a valuable showcase.</p><p>The only beneficiary has been Waterstone's. Although we must continue to be grateful that our leading book retailer is as good as it is, we must also recognise that our trade will be poorer if an independent sector cannot coexist with the multiples. Too many independent bookshops have closed in the past decade. Caversham should have a bookshop. We should be concerned that no one has come forward to build on the legacy that John and Lindsay are leaving behind.</p><p>There are many independent booksellers across the country in far less good locations earning decent returns and enjoying lifestyles that, even though demanding hard work, can be immensely rewarding both commercially and culturally.</p><p>Never had it so good</p><p>The irony is that, in many ways, the environment for independent booksellers has never been so good. The wholesale trade, the umbilical cord for most independents, is strong. The main wholesale players are efficient: they offer discounts that are realistic, and they increasingly provide the range of value-added services that enable independents to compete more effectively with the more powerful multiples.</p><p>There is also growing evidence of disillusionment among sophisticated shoppers with the tedium of homogeneity that more and more multinational retailers are bringing to our larger retail centres. Shoppers--particularly those with the disposable incomes of book buyers in Caversham--value the variety that local independents can bring. They value the personal nature of the service they receive; and they value the way local retailers can reflect the ethos and the cultures of the communities within which they trade. </p><p>Use it or lose it</p><p>These shoppers are a fickle bunch, not averse to taking advantage of price offers. But they are also sophisticated enough to know that if they value their local bookshop then they must support it--the mantra is "use it or lose it". They have used it, and they would use it, under new ownership. They recognise that they get something more from a local independent experience than merely price offers and coffee shops.</p><p>Everyone reading this article will know someone who, at one time or another, has expressed a desire to own a bookshop. Britain is famously a nation of shopkeepers. Finance is readily available for robust retail business plans. The opportunity has been there and it has not been taken up.</p><p>The Booksellers Association/Publishers Association Liaison Group is establishing itself as a forum for discussing the weighty issues that confront the book business. The BA Conference provides another forum for debate. Both would do well to address an important and fundamental question: why is there no longer a bookshop in Caversham? I suspect the answer would provide real insight into the structural issues faced by the trade which, if left unaddressed, will serve only to diminish the strength of our industry.</p><p>Richard Barker is general manager of the Commercial Network, Post Office Ltd and co-proprietor of the Gerrards Cross Bookshop and Wantage Bookshop. He can be contacted at rwbarker@talk21.com.</p>