One-stop shops

<p>Caroline Sanderson</p><p> Bertrams, Gardners and THE dominate the book wholesale sector, but a number of smaller independents have found ways to survive, even thrive. Some make a virtue of traditional selling methods. Others have found ways to make their specialities pay. And many of them have developed the art of expanding their businesses beyond the traditional book trade.</p><p>Edinburgh-based wholesaler Lomond Books is a case in point. Part of David Flatman Ltd, which also owns the Bookworld bargain books chain, Lomond conducts 70% of its business outside the book trade, and 95% of its customers are based in Scotland. Lomond sells its range of Scottish interest titles into most bookshops north of the border, but its core business is elsewhere--Scottish tourist offices, castles, garden centres, caf&eacute;s, petrol stations and woollen mills. "We will sell to anybody who has space to put a rack in," sales director Trevor Maher says. </p><p>Bookshop customers tend to melt away during fine weather, but Lomond's business is at its busiest during the summer months, with stockholding peaking at 15,000 to 20,000 titles between Easter and October. "Many of our customers are owner-occupiers, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight months of the year. Their needs are very different from those of a typical bookshop, and a one-stop shop is what they need," says Maher, who joined Lomond in 1986 with a brief to build up the wholesale business. While traditional bookshop business has declined in recent years, Lomond's business has expanded elsewhere. "Now, the non-book trade is our bread and butter," Maher says.</p><p>As well as operating a cash-and-carry service from its Edinburgh warehouse, Lomond is one of the few wholesalers to operate a van service. It has four vehicles which cover the whole of Scotland. "We have always resisted the move to reps and cars, briefcases and trollies," Maher says. "We deliver to our customers straight off the van. They can even climb on board and have a look at what we've got. That way they get the product straight away too.</p><p>"Basically we are a traditional wholesaler in a niche market, providing a complete service. We merchandise, we put stands in, we dust, we replenish stock. We have a no-quibble sale-or-return policy--we will take anything back, even dated products like calendars which have to go once the season's finished. And our customers get one invoice from one supplier for their whole range. That's why they like us."</p><p>Activity specialist</p><p>Another wholesaler with an extensive list of customers outside the book trade is Cordee, which claims to be Europe's largest specialist wholesaler of recreation and travel books, maps and videos. Based in Leicester, it was founded by Ken Vickers in 1973, and run by him until last year when he sold the business to Jane and Richard Robinson, a sister and brother team with experience in publishing and banking respectively (Vickers continues to work for Cordee in a consultancy role).</p><p>From its origins as a small wholesaler of mountaineering titles, Cordee now stocks some 7,000 lines, encompassing all types of adventure sport and outdoor recreation, as well as travel guides. Its customers range from high street booksellers to camping and outdoor outlets such as Blacks, YHA Leisure shops, skiing and cycling specialists and many more. "Our job is to source titles and put them in one place, thus providing a one-stop shop for our customers," Vickers says.</p><p>Cordee also distributes for a range of small organisations, among them the British Canoe Union, Alpine Club and Sustrans. According to Ken Vickers, the key to success for the small wholesaler couldn't be simpler: "Know your customers and provide the books that they want. Though we serve the specialist outlets particularly well and are known for doing so, we are now becoming more widely known as a specialist wholesaler within the mainstream book trade as well, which is very pleasing." Vickers has always felt strongly that general booksellers ought to take more note of specialist wholesalers. "I think many are missing out on the range and expertise we have to offer."</p><p>That special edge</p><p>It is specialist knowledge that many independent wholesalers and distributors believe gives them an edge. But all agree that expertise counts for nothing unless it is accompanied by excellent customer service. As Mark Hurley, marketing services manager of Carlisle-based STL Distribution points out: "If we make a mistake, the retailer can always go direct to the publisher. So the service we offer has to be the key factor."</p><p>STL ("Send the Light") Distribution is the sole UK distributor of an extensive range of UK and US Christian religious product--books, software, music and spoken word CDs, and giftware. Its mission statement is "Advancing the Christian Faith Through Distribution". Of the company's 2,500 trade accounts, between 600 to 700 are Christian bookshops; the rest are missionary organisations, churches with coffee shops, and direct mail operations. STL also acts as a wholesaler for other religious product so that its customers can use it as a one-stop shop. It offers a next-day service on orders placed before 3 p.m. (later for e-mail orders), which Hurley calls "exemplary" and "probably unique in the '90s when we introduced it".</p><p>Maintaining close relationships with customers is something smaller wholesalers and distributors pride themselves on. Argosy Books in Dublin is an independent book wholesaler which carries Irish interest titles alongside its extensive range of UK-published mainstream trade titles.</p><p>The company has an interesting history. From the 1930s until the early 1960s, it was a commercial lending library with outlets throughout Ireland. Current m.d. Fergal Stanley is the grandson of the founder. "Come the 1960s, television and the advent of cheap paperbacks destroyed the commercial lending library business in Ireland. So my grandfather changed Argosy into a book wholesaler, selling paperbacks into the same kind of outlets as had previously taken Argosy Libraries stock."</p><p>Consolidation in recent years, including Argosy's purchase of Hughes&amp;Hughes' wholesaling business four years ago, has left Argosy as one of two Irish wholesalers (the other being Easons). Its customers are spread right across the island and include newsagencies, hotels, tourist outlets, as well as bookshops. Argosy has a significant share of the Irish market, but prides itself on maintaining personal relationships with its customers. This, says Fergal Stanley, is possible thanks to his company's relatively modest size</p><p>Radical roots</p><p>"Our business is not just about putting books in boxes," Bill Godber, m.d. of Turnaround, says. "It's about working closely with our clients, having an understanding of their needs and offering help and support." Turnaround was founded by Godber in 1984, with a staff of three, to provide a distribution service for radical publishers. After four or five years however, the political climate started to change, the economics of the business became problematic and the company took on a broader range of titles in order to survive. </p><p>Now Turnaround has a turnover of &#163;6m and employs 34 people at its warehouse and offices in Wood Green, north London. Its stockholding still plays to its traditional strengths, featuring a notable range of black and ethnic, gay and lesbian titles for example. But the company is now as well known for the number of small, independent "general" publishers it represents--"freshness and vitality from publishers working at the cutting edge", as the company website puts it. These include Arcadia, BlackAmber, No Exit Press and Tindal Street, home of Booker-shortlisted author Clare Morrall. </p><p>Turnaround's experience in the field has even led to occasional diversification into an "editorial role", in which it gives advice to publisher clients on such elements as cover design, pricing and scheduling. And small publishers that struggle to get access to buyers in the big chains sometimes find that Turnaround can help there as well. "Booksellers often tell publishers that they will take their books if we will distribute for them," Godber says. "So in some way, we are a kind of gatekeeper for them too." </p><p>It is clinching evidence that small wholesalers and distributors can provide a service that goes far beyond simply packing books into boxes.</p><p></p><p>Caroline Sanderson is a freelance journalist</p>