Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's life in the independent bookshop after all

My high street in West London has one bookshop, which, until a month ago, was a rather unfriendly place which I assumed would soon be replaced by another estate agent or stupid gift shop. The man behind the till wasn't exactly rude, but he did seem uninterested in books.

Then it was bought by a woman who owns two thriving bookshops within a couple of miles. I know both of them, and they're bustling, cheerful places and, what's more, places which I have left having bought a book without intending to.

Well, today, I went to my local shop which has been in her hands for just over a month. I was just browsing, but I found two books I couldn't resist on the table just inside the door (Keith Richards' autobiography and Michael Lewis' book about the financial crisis).

While I was paying, I asked the new owner how it was going. She said business was up 40% on the same month last year and she expected to make the same increase again when she'd had a chance to change more of the stock and do more reorganising.

It was a dramatic result, but she was unsurprised. She put it down to a better selection of books, better presented, and more enthusiastic customer service. To my untrained eyes, not much had changed, but the subtle differences were obviously effective.

I nosily asked about how books are sold and she explained that most shops deal with publishers on a sale-or-return basis. In other words, they're not stuck with books that don't sell.

She could choose a higher profit margin by buying books outright, which some publishers prefer; but she said that shops would only do that with a massive discount. She'd want to pay no more than 25% of the retail price, which would mean she could still make money by selling the leftovers for 50% of their original price.

So it's not impossible to make a living as an independent bookseller, I asked, despite everything you read to the contrary? She said it was quite possible, as long as you had a real interest in the book business, so you knew what to put on the shelves, and good customer service, so people wanted to come back. She reckoned there was probably another ten years at least for people like her, before she was overtaken by the digital revolution.

It wasn't what I expected to hear, and it was a refreshing note of optimism: a new bookshop business that's doing well, with an owner who isn't gloomy, and no particular gimmick or formula. Amazing. And I'll be going back.

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