Nestled at the top end of Beckenham High Street, Beckenham Bookshop's small, wood-fronted premises, sunny window display and friendly staff help to preserve the charm of this leafy Kent suburb. Described by store manager Kelly Bradford as a "local shop for local people that our customers are proud of", the independent bookshop continues to thrive after 23 years of service.
This could easily have changed last October when previous owner Sheila O'Reilly, now owner of Dulwich Books, decided to sell up. Luckily for the locals, the store avoided the fate of many independents that have closed or become "another Borders"— which is what Bradford first feared. Instead, a company called IRG Ltd stepped in to provide administrative and financial backing, as it has done for a number of other independents including The Whitby Bookshop in North Yorkshire.
Beckenham Bookshop is now the only independent in the borough, but despite competition from W H Smith on the High Street and two Waterstone's (one a former Ottakar's) in neighbouring Bromley, its position seems secure thanks to its loyal local customer base. Add to this the shop's location near the train station, a handily-placed bus stop outside, and a craftily designed window display with children's titles tactically placed at buggy height, and you begin to understand why passers-by often become browsers.
Coinciding with the change in ownership, Beckenham resident Bradford was promoted to full-time manager of the store, after working there part-time for only three months. She has a background in bookselling at Books Etc, Victoria Street, London, and a spent a short time working for Bromley Libraries. She says: "This job is one I could only have dreamed of previously." Despite the steep learning curve, she is relishing the control she now has, particularly the power to rearrange the window display on a whim—which was, she says, an alien concept at Books Etc. With the increased responsibilities of management, she is grateful to have the luxury of relinquishing paperwork duties to IRG head office, enabling her to concentrate on what she loves—selling books to customers.
Quick on the draw
Many loyal book buyers are impressed by the shop's ability to order books within 24 or 48 hours, through Bertline. Consequently, customer orders account for over half the bookshop's turnover. Bradford explains that quick orders help to secure a customer's return to the shop, and describes the feeling of being able to order a book that Waterstone's cannot as a "real happy-dance moment". Local parents certainly appreciate her efficiency come exam time when frantic orders are made for study guides. Another pleasant surprise is the bookshop's boast that it can order in many American titles quicker than Amazon, from sales and marketing outfit William R Gills.
The shop has a website with an ordering facility run by The Book Place. Most of the site's users already visit the shop, meaning that Bradford is reluctant to promote the site too heavily in case she loses her chatty customers to the internet.
Although the shop covers only 600 sq ft, its mantra is to stock "a little bit of everything". The wide range is arranged by category and includes fiction, biography, travel, classics, poetry, and house and garden titles. Bradford says the children's section is her passion and an area of which all the staff are proud; she admits to a vested interest, as spending time there helps her spot books for her baby nephew. The shop also has an assortment of non-book products, including greetings cards, wrapping paper, Naxos audiobooks, Penguin mugs, Moleskine notebooks, bookmarks and booklights.
Bradford is assisted by three members of staff, all recruited for their ability to indulge in book-related conversations with customers. Sue Harris is the longest standing employee, having completed six years' service. She is the shop's greetings card specialist, and is also responsible for bringing in the considerable custom of her friends in the area. The shop is currently looking for new staff and Bradford's major requirement is an "ability to talk to anyone about anything".
Customers are rewarded through a loyalty card scheme recommended by IRG: customers receive a stamp for every £10 spent and a free £5 voucher when their card is full of stamps. Students and local schools receive a 10% discount, and local reading groups are supported with discounts when customers buy six or more copies of a book. Although the shop is too tiny to accommodate authors on tour, children's writers Tony Bradman and Malorie Blackman pop in every now and again. With friends like these, Bradford hopes to keep charming the readies out of residents' pockets for as long as she is able.
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