Sally Pattle is the owner of Far from the Madding Crowd. In the running for this year’s Nibbie for Independent Bookshop of the Year, the Linlithgow, West Lothian retailer’s owner reflects on a surreal 12 months.
What have the main challenges been for bookshops in Scotland over the past year?
The biggest challenge for us has been the lengthy shop closures enforced by the Scottish government. By the time we’re allowed to reopen on Monday (26th April), we’ll have endured 241 days closed. When West Lothian, along with much of Central Scotland, was plunged into Tier 4 restrictions in November 2020, we were given four days’ notice to completely transform our selling model, in the middle of the busiest trading period of the year.
In January we were classified as essential, so we were allowed to continue with click and collect, but in March we were declassified to non-essential again. The constant chopping and changing of restrictions has taken a real toll mentally. It has been almost impossible to gauge what stock and staffing we’re going to need when: it’s not as easy as simply opening and closing the shop doors!
Have any positives come out of the lockdown for bookshops in Scotland?
I think we’ve categorically proved that people still want to buy books, and support local businesses. In a weird way, we’ve benefited from the restrictions: we’ve effectively had a captive audience for much of the past year, as people simply haven’t been allowed to travel out of our local area lucky that we’re located in such a fantastic community: Linlithgow has a brilliant high street, with a wealth of diverse shops. As traders, we’ve all worked together over the past year to show people what goods and services are available locally. We’ve also really appreciated the mutual support.
I did want to highlight the work of the reps over the past year. We have a brilliant relationship with our reps and I honestly don’t know where we would be without them! From helping us to return/cancel orders when the wheels came off initially, to helping us restock when we were allowed to reopen, they have been with us every step of the way. I will be forever grateful they are on our side!
You teamed up with two other indies to form Wee Three Indies and host live virtual author events. How did you become involved with this, and what has the response been?
Olivia Kekewich at The Edinburgh Bookshop came up with the idea, I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of it, and Millie McCosh from Atkinson-Pryce is the final member. Olivia suggested restarting events in summer 2020 and we agreed that by working together we could save time and reach a wider audiences. I have always loved the events part of being a bookseller, and it’s been great to have Olivia and Millie to bounce ideas off. We’ve had a great response and recently ran our first online festival, #WeeNatureFest. I’d like to give a huge shout out to publishers, especially Pan Macmillan, for letting us loose on their authors on a platform we’d never used before.
What other schemes did you introduce over the past year to reach customers?
We rebuilt our website from scratch: customers can now browse our catalogue and buy direct from us, including non-book items like event tickets. We also introduced e-vouchers, and our book subscription service has really taken off. We’ve had it in place for around three years, but it has become a popular gift—and we love curating the bespoke service. I stepped up the frequency of our online newsletter and for Christmas we launched “From Linlithgow With Love”, luxury gift-sets with items from several shops in Linlithgow.
What does the year ahead look like for Far From the Madding Crowd?
As long as we are allowed to stay open, the year ahead looks good. We can’t wait to welcome people back into the shop and we’re looking forward to developing our events programme to introduce hybrid live/ streaming sessions in the autumn. Schools are also starting to plan for book weeks and author visits again (albeit online for now), which will be a massive step back towards “normality”. It feels as though everything is waking back up again.
Do you think Covid-19 has changed how Scotland’s bookshops will be run?
Without a doubt; our business model has now changed for good. Online sales will continue to grow, and our customer orders have nearly trebled in the past year, so this is something we’ll look at refining—though I think once people are allowed to browse again, they’ll be happier to take what we have in stock. I can’t see us return- ing to big-name events with hundreds of people in the foreseeable future. As a small business, I simply can’t take on the liability of hiring big venues while there is still so much uncertainty. I’m excited about developing boutique in-person author events, as well as our online presence, and we’ll keep working closely with other bookshops, publishers and businesses to make sure we continue to offer a truly special experience.