Fifteen years ago, a small retail unit in Bloomsbury was transformed into what is now heralded as a literary destination, drawing customers from across the world, as a companion to the prestigious London Review of Books magazine edited by Mary-Kay Wilmers.
However, when Natalia de la Ossa arrived as manager in 2013, the London Review Bookshop (LRB) was struggling financially, battling e-books and rival online retailers, and had an operating loss nearing £55,000.
Five years on and LRB is celebrating after turning a profit for the first time since it opened 15 years ago, making £30,000 in the financial year 2017/18. Sales have soared by more than 40% (from £680,000 in 2013/14, to £959,000 in 2017/18) and spirits are high among staff as they celebrate the shop’s 15th anniversary this month.
Along with rising sales, de la Ossa attributed the bookshop’s recent success to ramping up its events schedule. “It has changed a lot since I started,” she told The Bookseller. “I hired two new booksellers who bought a different dynamic. I reorganised the office and then with [events manager] Claire Williams we’ve tried to diversify the events, opening the cinema downstairs two years ago. Slowly we’ve had a greater connection with the cake shop [based next door], which opened in 2013, and sales here went through the roof with events such as a supper club . . . We nearly hosted a wedding.
“Another aspect I wanted to get involved in was the music, which has been a slow process, but we’ve had three concerts downstairs and hopefully will have more in the autumn.”
Two years ago the LRB started running off-site events with the most popular one attracting 900 people to see Alan Bennett at the Union Chapel in north London. The revamped customer evenings featuring food and discounts have helped reap huge rewards—with some Christmas events bringing in more than £4,000 in sales over a two-hour period.
“About six months after I started, we sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with the customer evenings?’,” de la Ossa said. “We shortened them, Terry [Glover, cake shop manager] came up with the menu, someone from the marketing department created new photos, menus, we had drinks and themes. We saw big spikes . . . in the second year they just boomed to the point at which we were making in two hours what we used to make in a whole day.”
Williams believes the current state of the publishing scene is helping boost the events programme. “We can only be as good as the books which are given to us and fortunately it’s so rich. I feel that’s changed in the 20 years I’ve been a bookseller,” she said.
Such is the bookshop’s influence that a Chinese bookstore has re-created its entire first floor in the image of the LRB. Sinan Books in Shanghai launched a “sister bookshop” last month, selling 40% of its titles in English. The LRB’s international reach does not end there, though, with the branded London Review Bookshop bags, the store’s most popular type of merchandise, proving particularly successful in South Korea.
Alongside a busy events schedule, the bookshop’s recent success is also down to encouraging staff to manage individual sections of the store’s 20,000-title stock. A humour and graphic novel section was introduced two years ago, the children’s section now features around 500 titles, while the poetry section has expanded, taking in an impressive £70,000 alone last year.
With 20,000 titles bought either direct from publishers or from wholesaler Bertrams, de la Ossa is also keen to stock books published by independents. “We really try to support small presses: we know they cannot give us 45% discount, but we try our best,” she said. “We always try to open our doors to new authors.”
So how does the store continue to defend itself against e-books, sold mainly by online retailers, and the deep discounting carried out by supermarkets, chain retailers and online?
“One of the main things is the knowledge of the booksellers, the beauty of the space . . . The cake shop is vital for us,” de la Ossa said. “It is about the customer experience that you cannot get online. We can do detective work for anybody that you think you would want . . . I think we went through the absolute fright that e-books would change the publishing industry and everything as an industry we have done has changed that perception. I don’t believe we’re in a crisis about e-books anymore.”
The elaborate window displays have also proved a useful way of attracting attention. Designed and curated by bookseller Gayle Lazda, they have in the past featured flamingos, pineapples and straw bears—she once spent hours building a straw bear for a folk art-themed window using materials from Vauxhall City Farm and a headless child mannequin purchased from eBay.
Going forward, de la Ossa plans a Country of the Month strand to help boost international and translated books, as well as a resident programme for writers and artists to create works in the shop itself.
She is delighted with the store’s progress overall and spoke of the anticipation ahead of the shop’s 15th birthday party this week (17th May), for which she has already purchased a kilo of confetti.
“The hardest thing is to keep the energy flow and that is what changed, for me, since I started five years ago: the energy and motivation of the team. The skills of our booksellers, they keep on growing, so I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved.”