BA president de la Hey on the secrets of Mainstreet’s success

BA president de la Hey on the secrets of Mainstreet’s success

“I’ve looked at Bill and he’s looked at me, and we’ve gone, ‘Why did we do this?’”

Rosamund de la Hey did not have a typical entry into bookselling. Growing up in Newark Castle in Ayrshire, she was close friends with Katie Collins (now Bond): the pair spent many afternoons “sitting in an airing cupboard reading Enid Blyton”.

Fast forward several years and de la Hey found herself working at Bloomsbury (with Bond), then just a start-up, in its sales, publicity and marketing department on a new property the publisher had just bought—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by one J K Rowling. De la Hey’s ascent in publishing mirrored that of the Harry Potter phenomenon. As she puts it, “Harry Potter ruled my life for the whole duration of the series. It was by far and away the most exciting thing on the list—I have a photograph of my husband Bill on our honeymoon, reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

When the couple had had two children, de la Hey and photographer husband Bill began considering a move from their London flat to the more open spaces and affordable properties of Scotland, where she grew up. “We thought we wouldn’t be able to afford to give our children the life we wanted to while living in London, so it didn’t seem a particularly good long-term option,” she says.

So in 2003, the family made the move north of the border, with de la Hey keeping a sales role at Bloomsbury; her connection to Harry Potter wasn’t yet over. “I couldn’t bring myself to leave until the end of the series, to be honest,” she says. “It just felt wrong. It was such an important thing to me and it just seemed wrong.” But commuting to London regularly as a mother of small children—by this time, there was a third—took its toll, and when Harry’s time at Hogwarts drew to a close, de la Hey began plotting a new twist in her tale, too.

When de la Hey was at a Booksellers Association conference on behalf of Bloomsbury, the calling to go into bookselling came (she is now president of the BA): “I think the penny dropped; I listened to the sessions and I found I was thinking as a retailer, not a publisher,” she says. “I kept catching myself thinking about it in a totally different way. I was down in London every other week. Long-term, it didn’t feel like a good family idea—it wasn’t fair on my husband. Something had to change.”

There was an opportunity when a bookshop came up for sale in Melrose in the Borders. It was owned by the mother of Sarah Odedina, de la Hey’s former boss at Bloomsbury, who was retiring and selling up—but she bottled it. “I looked into the option of buying it and didn’t quite proceed,” she confessed. “But then when someone else bought it, I was in a really bad mood for about a month. Something had consolidated in my head and I thought, ‘I really want to do this.’”

Resolve confirmed, de la Hey instructed an estate agent friend to inform her of any properties going on sale—and a former auction house in St Boswell’s came up. Serendipitously, husband Bill was retraining as a chef, and just as the recession was deepening in 2008, the pair set about opening The Mainstreet Trading Company as bookshop and café. “It was preordained,” de la Hey says. “He’s not a book person and I can’t cook.”

The only snag was, with the property a whopping 280 sq m, four shop windows’ worth of space in an outlying area with no natural passing footfall, the retail space would have to be made into a “destination” venue from the start—a huge challenge for two people fresh to retail. “Because our location was so rural, everybody thought we were insane, especially to open in the recession,” de la Hey says. “It was about the worst possible time. The bank manager’s eyebrows went through the roof. He couldn’t believe we would be so deluded.”

But he agreed to lend the pair the money and de la Hey says it took all her might to “stop business-planning every square foot and calm down, and do one thing at a time”. She enlisted the mentoring help of Patrick Neale from Jaffé and Neale Bookshop and Café in Chipping Norton, who advised her on training staff and increasing customers’ browsing time, and Hazel Broadfoot of Village Books in Dulwich, who talked to her about technical aspects such as staffing per square foot. “I couldn’t have done it without Hazel and Patrick,” de la Hey says.

Armed with advice and the loan, up went the crisp white shelving, illustrated with Mainstreet’s hare logo, bunting and more than 7,500 titles to fill 875 sq ft of space—and in came the customers. “We had a market town in every direction, so we knew we had to be a destination from the very beginning,” de la Hey says. Four aspects were required to get people through the door initially, she says: books, gifts, the café and an antiques concession rented to a friend. “If there’s one thing that gets people stopping their cars on the way past, it is an ‘antiques’ sign,” she says.

Against the recession odds the shop was a hit, and the business made a profit within three years of opening. After its initial success the couple chose not to “stand still”, expanding with a deli stocked with produce from Somerset, where Bill grew up, and a homeware section in 2013.

Nine years in, the shop attracts high-profile authors from across the world and has played host to some of the biggest names in publishing, such as Margaret Atwood and Jodi Picoult, political heavyweights such as Alan Johnson, and veteran journalists including John Simpson. The business employs 22 people which includes 13 full-time roles, and turnover keeps growing. Last year, the company made £735,000 turnover, with the largest part of the business its books. Sales are on track to be up 8% in the year to April 2017.

In the run-up to the shop’s 10-year anniversary, de la Hey plans to make 2017 “the year of efficiencies”, for the shop—a reference to running a more disciplined business, which she would like to be a theme at this year’s BA Conference. “I want to do a lot more analytical work, recalibrating how we will use the space to make it more efficient, easier to navigate. That should see another increase in sales,” she says. De la Hey also wants to bring in table service at the café to increase table turnaround, and offer more specials. After consecutive years of successful trade and increasing turnover, there is another financial aspect the de la Heys would like to tweak.

“We have paid ourselves a standard amount and that hasn’t changed in the past eight years, which I find frustrating,” she says. “But I’m hoping this year that that will be able to change. I would also like to pay key staff more as well, because they really matter. We are all in it together and I want it to feel that way,” she adds.

One of de la Hey’s first initiatives as BA president was to encourage publishing chief executives to work on bookshop floors, and she has herself hosted Penguin Random House UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon at The Mainstreet Trading Company. More collaboration between publishers and booksellers is an aim de la Hey would like to realise during her tenure, along with supporting and welcoming more new booksellers.

“What I want to do as president is encourage new entrants and support people in opening new bookshops. Publishers experiencing the shop floor is part of that. The more publishers see bookshops as a vital part of the community, the better, and vice versa. We would be nothing without [publishers], but it has to go both ways,” she says.

De la Hey adds she felt “incredibly lucky” to be taking up the mantle now, rather than at a time when the “angst” about the digital revolution and Amazon’s dominance in the market looked more like career- threatening incendiaries than they do currently, with print sales back on the rise and e-book sales flattening for the large publishers. “I have been to a lot of BA conferences where there has been quite a downbeat mood, or quite a lot of angst in the room about Amazon and everything else. Yes, we are encountering big structural challenges with wages and pensions and rates—big structural challenges—but I really feel the BA is on it and has been on it well ahead of the curve. It’s been anticipating the need to be on it,” de la Hey says. “I have come in at a time where it feels like a very fit organisation and a very fit campaigning organisation. I feel it has really gone up a gear.”

The two biggest challenges for the trade body and bricks-and-mortar booksellers are the hike in business rates, coming in next month, and the fight for “a level playing field” with online retailers. “Business rates will be the sector’s biggest challenge, without question,” she says. “Some of the rates rises . . . I don’t see how any bookshop would be able to cushion. The fact that Amazon’s warehouses taxes are going down while independent booksellers’ are going up is ridiculous.” She adds: “I think the campaigning aspect of talking about Amazon is important. By that I mean lobbying the government [for] a level playing field, [with the e-tailer] paying fair tax and business rates—and its working practices are not anywhere near where they need to be.”

Does de la Hey have any regrets over her switch to retail? “It is incredibly stressful, nearly all the time,” she says. “But the bottom line is I like going into work 99% of the time. I have never had any fundamental regrets. I would miss the industry so profoundly if I suddenly decided to set up a B&B—I couldn’t think of anything worse.” And if she had one tip to give new entrants to the bookselling game, what would it be? “Do the business plan really thoroughly,” she says. “Do the numbers. And find great mentors.”