“The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2013 is awarded the Canadian author Alice MUnro master of the contemporary short story.”
‘Bookworm’ (an agent? an editor?), writing for International Business Times, takes a cold and critical look at Waterstones’ current strategy:
Waterstones’ strategy appears to be taking away individual buying power from branches, selecting stock for all locations around the UK centrally, while allowing managers to choose the selling discount: in other words they are ‘allowed’ to choose £6.99 or £7.99 for books they weren’t trusted to buy and probably don’t want.
Recently one of my top authors went to his local branch to see how sales of his novel were doing: there were no copies left, they had sold out, and he asked if they’d be getting any more in. No, he was told, they wouldn’t. In what other business do you sell out of a product then not bother to re-stock what’s obviously popular?
Canadian author Claire Mackay – winner of five literary awards, including the Vicky Metcalf Award for her body of work and the Ruth Schwartz Award for One Proud Summer – has died aged 82.
Her good friend and fellow author Jean Little recalls, ““We always sat together in the first row at meetings, and I know we were very bad. I was at a meeting the other day, and it seemed to me it was very boring. I miss her terribly.”
The first thing everyone says about children’s author Claire Mackay is that she was funny. Other words and phrases come up – witty, generous, lover of words and language – but everyone starts with “funny.”
“She was killingly funny,” says children’s book author Tim Wynne-Jones. “You wanted to stand near her at meetings, whenever you got a chance, because she’d always have some great aside to make, especially when someone was yattering. Never nasty, but always funny and accurate.
Laura Bennett treats us to some bon mots that didn’t make it into her 2000 word feature interview with agent, Andrew Wylie:
I interviewed literary superagent Andrew Wylie over the course of several hours and two separate sit-downs in his midtown office. We only had space for 2,000 words in the magazine, but Wylie supplied a pretty much endless stream of bon mots. (To quote a tweet from Dwight Garner, the man is “incapable of uttering a boring sentence.”) So here are some notable scraps from the cutting room floor:
MR B’S EMPORIUM OF READING DELIGHTS, BATH
No.2 in a series of independent bookshop visits
I was going to be in Bath for some events at the children’s books festival. I can’t remember from whom or from where but I had heard that there was a good independent bookshop there called Mr B’s Emporium, so I looked it up and contacted them by email to see if they would be happy to be the subject of ACHUKA’s second indie bookshop visit, in an ongoing series that began with Newham Bookshop.
I had a short but friendly reply from Nic straight away saying that would be fine.
The shop’s full name is Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It has been open since 2006. Bath of course has a very large branch of Waterstones, which extends to three expansive floors. You would imagine that a much, much smaller independent bookstore might want to be a little removed from such giant competition. But no, Mrs B’s Emporium is tucked away directly behind Waterstones.
At the time I was in Bath, Waterstones had scaffolding up. I had done a reccy to find out where Mr B’s was the day before, so I knew exactly how to get there. From the Roman Baths head up Union Street and keep going until just before you reach Waterstones in Milsom Streeet. Turn left on Quiet Street and then immediately right into John Street. The shop is quickly on your left.
It has quite a wide frontage, with ornate signwriting which works well as the shop’s logo.
Nic Bottomley, the owner manager and formerly a lawyer, had emailed me the evening beforehand saying, “Just so you know we are absolutely manic (students start this week and we act as Eng Lit bookshop) so you’ll have to be fairly self-sufficient and compact…but still v.welcome.”
I had replied “I’m quite good at being unobtrusive…” and then, immediately on arrival, proceeded to knock a large pile of paperbacks off the counter with my bag. Not a good start.
Somewhat unsettled by this unfortunate start, I decided to begin my visit in the downstairs room. Immediately I could see Mr B’s Emporium is, in complete contrast to Newham Bookshop (where clutter is allowed to sprawl and create an environment in which fortuitous and unexpected browsing takes place), very very tidy, and organised with a finetuning that approximates a fastidiously ordered library shelf, each book in its correct space.
The floor downstairs is richly carpeted, so that there is a cosy almost living-room ambience. There are shelves of biography, history, and of philosophy.
Next I walked up to the top floor, which is divided into two rooms. The first has art books, photography books, and an antique typewriter standing on an unused counter.
I could hear conversation from the other room. The two voices, male and female, were talking about books but did not sound like customers. The female voice was asking the male voice about his reading tastes. He mentioned liking Harry Potter but loathing J. K. Rowling’s adult novel. She agreed. She hadn’t been able to finish it. Peeping through the archway, but not venturing inside I could see a man sitting in a comfortable armchair with a piece of cake on a plate beside him.
I went back downstairs to ground level and began taking photographs of the wonderful ‘bath’ window display. Anthony McGowan would be happy I noted. After its launch, he had complained to his friends on Facebook that his new novel was not in bookshops. I had checked in Waterstones and could not find it. But there it was, given front window prominence in Mr B’s.
The counter and till are close to the front door of the shop. Nic had been right, the shop was busy with students coming in to order course books. The majority of these customers entered the shop, made their order, or collected their books, then left.
The main browsing display in the shop is situated in the first of the groundfloor rooms. The selection of titles here is not at all what you would expect to find in Waterstones. Fiction is shelved in this room, so it tends to be the hub of the shop.
Not all student visitors to the shop came to order course titles. During the time I was there several four-strong groups came, went upstairs, came back down. There was a continuous flux of custom. The counter was rarely empty.
I grabbed the opportunity of a rare quietus at the till to ask about the conversation overheard, and Lucinda (one of Nic’s team of booksellers which also includes – in addition to his wife Juliette – Ed, Kate, Libby, Emma and Tom) told me all about their successful Reading Spas gift scheme, which works like this: As a birthday, Christmas or other special present you purchase one of two Reading Spas for a recipient, who then gets a 1:1 book chat with a member of the bookshop’s staff, and based on this conversation the shop will make several reading suggestions, show you the books and let you mull over them while having coffee/tea and cake. Depending on the level of gift, you will then have either £40 or £75 to spend on the books you select. The cost of the Spas is £55 and £100 respectively.
This seems very reasonable. It means the basic Reading Spa is costing just £15 for an intensive reading consultation with a bookseller in comfortable surroundings with nice cake to eat, and a Mr B’s mug to keep. It’s all taken at a very leisurely pace, lasting from 90 minutes to 2 hours. I can see why these are popular. I imagine a fair few people buy them for themselves, as an occasional self-indulgence. And why not. I was told some 1500 Reading Spas have taken place since they were introduced.
Next time I went upstairs, it was Nic talking to the man in the armchair, finding out more about his reading tastes and then hopping down and up the stairs finding titles that he thought would work.
In between times he gave helpful advice to a mother looking for a book for her child, talking knowledgeably and giving a strong recommendation for Lauren St John. Then he was bounding up the stairs again, fresh books in his hand.
The children’s section is in the second groundfloor area, which also houses books on Food and Drink, rather a clever combination. While I was browsing there a pair of grandparents selected a Dorling Kindersley book on Dinosaurs as being pitched at just the right level for their grandchild. The grandmother phoned her daughter to get approval for the purchase. Approval was given, together with a request to ask for Mr Gum. Off to the counter went grandmother and of course a copy of Mr Gum was immediately found.
There was a thriving, bustling atmosphere in the shop throughout my visit. It’s a model of what a well-run, centre-of-town independent bookshop can be. If I were a parent of school-age children I would probably still want to take them to Waterstones to browse the much broader selection of stock, but I can quite understand why the discerning adult readers of Bath would want to do their book-browsing and buying in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.
I can also recommend The Salamander opposite, a Bath Ales pub that serves a superb cheese on toast for only £3, perfectly sufficient for a tasty lunchtime snack.
Because the shop was so busy Nic was unable to talk to me during my visit, so I followed up with some questions by email.
How have you ensured university students use you rather than Waterstones. Is your connection with specific teaching departments or is it across the board?
Our main connection is with the English Literature department. We have engaged with them over the years, helping provide title/edition information, giving them close service in the way that we do all our customers and then, when their own bookshop closed down, making sure that we provide electronic order forms for each module that they can get to their students well ahead of time. It’s the one time we do engage in some serious discounting and the uni like the way that their students can come in and know that if they just give us a module name we all know the books on it (I can vouch for this from the ex changes I overheard at the counter: ACHUKA) and can just go and pick a stack of them for them so they can begin the job of studying without having to faff around tracking down/remembering titles. We do work with other departments – History, Theatre Studies etc and pick up some orders from others via word-of-mouth from English students.
Do you dread a time when academic books go digital – how substantial a lifeline is that aspect of bookselling? (I overheard one law student in a coffeeshop saying he had just spent over £300 on books and lifted one paperback of case-studies from his bag saying it had cost him over £100 – not sure if he was exaggerating)
Law and other textbooks like that are on terrible margins for booksellers so to be honest it’s not something we concentrate on and those academic texts going digital would have little effect. Academic textbooks are also the one type of book that we don’t stock as a matter of course. Set texts for English Lit is another matter but those will remain in printed form even though students may migrate to digital (but at the moment they still want an edition they can carry around, fold pages down on and write all over).
Has Waterstones’ policy of shifting away from 3 for 2 offers benefitted you, or was this never a factor in customer behaviour? Any other comment to make on Waterstones, given that you are literally almost in its backyard?
We have a great relationship with Waterstones. Their booksellers send people to us if someone needs something urgently and they don’t have it in stock. If there’s a Waterstones in town to compete with then it doesn’t matter if it’s metres away or blocks away. In fact I think to get people in the habit of trying you first (if they like the indie ethos) it’s handy if they know that if we don’t have it in they have Waterstones’ larger floor space to try afterwards. The 3 for 2 thing doesn’t matter – though I applaud their move from it as paperback books are value for money in terms of entertainment per £ at retail price and 3 for 2 had a tendency to devalue the product and leave people owning a third book they didn’t care about. We really can’t be too concerned about the discounting that the big guys can offer because we have no option of matching those prices – we just have to provide a level of service and quality of stock and recommendations that mean people are happy to pay the retail price for the book.
I am presuming that if you had remained in the law you would be earning more than you are as a bookseller, but has it turned out to be a business that can support a comfortable enough lifestyle for you and your family, and if so what would be the key factors in someone else emulating your success (in terms of location, staffing, business model)?
Yes to both parts of the question. We’re earning a comfortable lifestyle wage but nothing like what I’d have been earning as a lawyer, but the pay-off is that I LOVE my job and my business and we’re also supporting the lifestyles of 6 full-time employees. I could answer the other part of the question for hours but I think it’s important to say that what has worked for us (especially innovations like The Reading Spas etc) may not work for everyone and I fully understand we’ve had some luck in there and that we are in a great place to sell books. I do believe surrounding yourself with great full-time booksellers is key and keeping a very tight eye on costs and negotiating hard with suppliers is also vitally important. Other than that it’s all about building a huge reputation for customers service and selling books with an infectious passion.
Is there anything about the way publishers operate that is unsupportive of small independent bookshops such as yours and if so what would you like to see changed?
Publishers are doing a great job of supporting indie bookshops. Commercially there’s always even more you might hope for but they are fully aware of the importance of bookshops and their financial backing for the national Books are My Bag campaign underlines that. If you go to a publisher and ask for particular support/terms then they’re almost always willing to listen to the request – that’s the important thing!
- An interview with Nic about his move from the law
- The Bookshop Band playing a gig in the shop
- And another Bookshop Band gig, also at the shop
Peter Hyman: We need a new schools model for the 21st century
It is not enough merely to drive up standards in London — all aspects of education need a radical overhaul
School21 is one of the more interesting free schools.
Read more about the school in the Observer piece, published 1 Sep 2013:
BBC National Short Story Award 2013 winner
Author Sarah Hall has been named the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2013 for her story Mrs Fox.
She picked up the £15,000 prize at a ceremony at BBC Broadcasting House in London, from this year’s judges’ chairwoman, Mariella Frostrup.
Mrs Fox tells the story of a woman who turns into a fox to her husband’s confusion and dismay.
“I think we educate to the wrong strengths in the orchestr. Our education system is not broad enough. It’s not imaginative enough.” SALLY GARDNER
Michael Gove is “a train-track thinker, with a lack of imagination,” says the leading children’s author Sally Gardner, speaking at the Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature.
During a discussion at the festival, she said that Gove’s policies are out of touch and ineffectual in inspiring a new generation of children to read…
At the same event, the children’s writer and artistic director of the festival, David Almond, said Gove should stop issuing directives from Whitehall and spend more time in schools up and down the country.