Bookshop Profiles: Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road

Bookshop Profiles: Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road

He may have taken home the Wiley Manager of the Year gong at this year's Bookseller Industry Awards, but Steve Orchard started his career on something of a whim, as a stopgap after university.

More than two decades later, however, he is still on the shop floor and, most crucially, still enjoying it. After taking a job at Belsize Books (now Daunts) in north London in 1987, he spent seven years serving the Hampstead intelligentsia (including account holder Doris Lessing), before moving to his current base at Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road, in 1995. "I thought I was going to go into journalism, but bookselling just got under my skin," he says. "One of the reasons I've stayed doing it for so long is that I just love it. Bookselling is a passion, and I have huge affection for this shop and what it has been through."

A real fan of 19th-century literature, Orchard has seen dramatic shifts and modernisation in the trade. At Belsize Books he worked on almost Dickensian, old-fashioned manual tills; now there is digital, online shopping and his own shop was the first to have the Espresso (the while you wait print-on-demand machine). Being part of this evolution is important to him: "I feel the tradition of the store and know that the Blackwell's brand is important. I started here before the internet was really biting and we had a few years before it started to get tougher. It used to be more about bookselling than retail and now, quite rightly, retail has come into it and we have to think more about the commercial side... you need to make sure you're making enough margin."

Flair player

Yet to make that margin you can, and need, to infuse bookselling with creativity in order to tempt people into the shop. Orchard explains that as Blackwell's is a varied chain with different stores— from academic to high street—with different markets, it does not have to follow a "one size fits all" mandate. This leeway means that he and his staff enjoy a creative freedom that is not usually associated with chain retailing: "We do have a central buying structure for three-for-two offers, but this only accounts for 10% to 15% of what we buy, and so I encourage my senior staff to do local promotions and have interesting tables that differentiate us from other bookshops." He adds: "It's not always about the volume of the stock you have, it is about how you present it and what you've got on your tables. It all comes back to customer service and we try to be like a local independent, but with the power of a chain. Customers are not always driven by price, people do want recommendations and expertise."

A conversation with a HarperCollins sales rep about the popularity of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell's Wallander series recently resulted in a store-specific promotional table on the 10 books written by the little-known 1960s Swedish husband and wife writing team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlo, who are believed to have inspired both Mankell and Larsson.

Orchard says: "We set up this little table and ended up selling about 250 copies. I think it's just about knowing who your customers are and setting local point of sale to communicate with the customers."

Orchard maintains strong relationships with publishers and enjoys extended credit with them, ensuring that books have a chance to find an audience, rather than falling into the usual commercial trap of having to earn their keep within three months.

No 'I' in team

Orchard believes that his job as manager is to make use of the creativity and freedom afforded to him by head office and encourage his staff to buy for themselves and become experts on their own subjects. He tries to lead by example and cultivate the talent of his team by recognising their strengths, a trick he learnt from his first Blackwell's manager. Key to this is keeping in touch with staff and making sure the right people are in the right department, doing the right job: "We've all grown up together and know how each other works. In this shop we are quite good at that old bookselling tradition of hanging out in the pub after work... that helps." Orchard's staff is well-respected in the industry; three of them were shortlisted for Bookseller of the Year at the BA's Academic, Professional & Specialist Booksellers' conference, with humanities manager Sarah Tilley getting the top gong.

With online and the supermarkets, Orchard recognises that stores can no longer just take a shop, fill it with books and then sit back hoping they sell. In fact, Orchard is keen to get his booksellers out of the shop as often as possible. For the past two years he and his team have conscientiously developed their relationships with publishers and pushed for as many launches and offsite events as possible. They often work at incredibly short notice and two years ago Orchard ran a promotion for two nights at the Lyceum theatre, London, for Malcolm Gladwell in conjunction with Penguin, selling £8,000 worth of books: "By and large we say yes to virtually anything. It's a pain in the arse sometimes wheeling books up on trolleys to the Groucho, but I kind of like it, it's a bit like guerilla bookselling."