French-English bookshop Caravansérail to close after two years

French-English bookshop Caravansérail to close after two years

French-English bookshop Caravansérail will close at the end of April, almost two years after starting up in London’s East End.

Laura Cleary, a former diplomat for the French Embassy in Beirut, opened the store in summer 2017, with her cousin Anne Vegnaduzzo who runs an artists’ agency. The store, which offers a gallery, café and “cultural platform”, will host a 50% sale on all books during the two last weeks of April with the rest of the stock returned. 

Cleary told The Bookseller that although they had been “overwhelmed” by the welcoming of the Brick Lane neighbourhood and despite a rosta of weekly literary events, turnover has not been enough to ensure the business was sustainable, and instead she exploring roles in book publicity.

“Since we opened we have had a wonderful adventure of nearly two years,” she said. “We would like to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to our brilliant customers and community. Our literary and artistic events have become quite popular over the last two years and we have been particularly happy to get to know the wonderful community around international literature and translation through our regular series 'The Art of Translation'. We've organised at least one event per week for two years. We've had the honour and the chance to host wonderful talks with authors like Gaël Faye, Maylis de Kerangal, Mathias Enard.

“We've decided to close because our turnover is, although on the rise, not rising quickly enough to meet our business plan targets.”

While Vegnaduzzo will continue her work as an agent in Paris, Clearly is looking towards PR for her next role.

“Publicity, when done well, is about being an ambassador for the books, authors and publishing house you represent,” she said. “My experience working for the French Embassy in Beirut taught me a lot about representation and building ambassadorial skills. I tried to put those to use at Caravansérail with books and in the broader literary community, which I'm proud to be a part of.”

Cleary added the business rates system is damaging and rent levels - particularly in London - are problematic for independent shops. However she still believes there is a great future for high street bookselling. She is keen for potential booksellers to take over the 70-square metre shop at 5 Cheshire Street.

“We think the future of bookshops is bright because we've noticed how readily people buy books. In our case half of our space was devoted to French books and we think we took too long to get the word out about this specific offer to enough people.”

She added: “We think there is great potential for a bookshop in our space. We totally rebuilt the shop with great care and attention to creating a warm, welcoming environment that is designed specifically for books. That is an investment we won't be able to fully recoup - a new bookshop in that space will derive great benefit from our investment, and we would be very pleased that they do so. 

"We would be thrilled for our journey at Caravansérail to continue in some small way by our space continuing as a bookshop.” 

Meryl Halls, m.d. of the Booksellers Association (BA), commented on the closure and the challenges facing bookshops.

“We’re always sad to see a bookshop close – especially one as creative and entrepreneurial as Caravanserail," she told The Bookseller. "It’s very galling and disappointing to hear that, yet again, business rates are a big part of the reason for a bookshop not being viable. Fixed costs are a huge challenge for a small bookselling business, particularly so in major metropolitan areas. 

"Where are we going to get our creative retailers from, who bring such colour and vibrancy to our neighbourhood high streets, if not from exciting new entrants to our industry and our retail community? Business rates are a key barrier to entry and to long term viability, and again, we urge the government to look at ways of alleviating the impact of these costs on bookshops.”

The BA's numbers rose to 883 independents last year, a 1.7% rise from the 2017 total of 868. This marked the second consecutive year the association had seen an increase in independent bookshop members; the previous year saw a lift of just one but this was seen as significant as it followed on from many years of declining numbers.

For more information on Caravansérail or the space, email laura@caravanserail.co.uk.