Indie Bookshop #3 – The Book Nook, Hove
It would be easy to spend a day or even a weekend in Brighton and not be aware that the town contains what must surely be one of the best, if not THE best, independent children’s bookshops in the kingdom.
Strictly speaking it is in Hove, but is a short 10 minute walk (15 minute stroll ) from the main Brighton shopping centre.
Walking west on the appropriately named Western Road from Churchill Square (Brighton’s shopping mall) just keep on going.
En route it’s worth popping in to Taj The Grocer where you will find, for example, every conceivable brand and type of coconut milk. Bert’s Homestore on the opposite side of the street is also worth a browse.
And as it’s likely you will be interested in adult books as well as children’s books, look out for City Books, Brighton’s other main indie bookshop, on the left-hand side of the street (a shop that is bound to feature in this ACHUKA series in due course).
When you reach Palmeira Square you will know that you are the best part of your way there. Spare a thought as you pass for the early nineteenth century botanist, Henry Phillips, who conceived and had built a large botanical garden on the site of the square. At the end of August 1833, the structure spectacularly collapsed just one day before the official opening, and wikipedia has it that “The shock made Phillips go blind, and the tangled wreckage was not cleared away for another 17 years.” The grand square surviving today was built in the 1850s and 1860s.
Just beyond the square, bear slightly right, passing a flower stall, and then take the next left-hand turn into First Avenue. The Book Nook is immediately there, at the top of the street.
[Alternatively, approach the shop from the sea. Keep walking beyond the ruin of the West Pier and past the Meeting Place beach cafe where the promenade broadens out beside the Hove Lawns. A little further on there is another outside cafe. Turn right there towards the main road. Watch out for bikes as you step across the cycle path and cross at the traffic lights, which will bring you to the southern end of First Avenue. Walking up the street the Book Nook is at the top on the right-hand side.
Vanessa Lewis (a one-time English and drama teacher) and Julie Ward (who had previously worked in publishing) opened The Book Nook in 2009, and quickly invited Lizzie Sampson to join the team. Lizzie had previously worked in banking but knew Vanessa & Julie from helping in their coffee shop, which they ran for a while and now look back on as their business apprenticeship.
The bookshop, which includes a cafe, quickly established a winning formula of traditional bookselling and event organising. (A common theme of this series seems to be the vital importance of events in building a reputation and a customer base.)
In 2011 The Book Nook won Best Independent Retailer at The Brighton and Hove Business Awards and the following year topped that with a national award: Children’s Independent Bookseller of the Year 2012.
The judges of that award said, “The Book Nook is a great space where children and parents like spending time. It’s doing everything an independent bookshop should, and doing it well.”
I spent two-and-a-half hours in the shop on a Thursday afternoon. I had met Julie previously when I was still deputy-heading, and she had been doing the bookselling at an East Sussex Book Award event that our school was hosting, so I knew that she was both easy-going and an enthusiast. It was a privilege to be able to see her in action in her own shop and to see how quickly she was able to locate titles that had either been requested by a customer or which she wanted to recommend to them.
It is clearly this expertise and pinpoint knowledge of the shop’s stock that is valued by customers. There was a steady stream of people coming in to the shop during the afternoon and most of them needed guidance on what to buy. One mother parked her car outside, dashed in and needed presents to take to a birthday party later that afternoon. Julie quickly found two suitable titles, Lizzie had them gift-wrapped and the customer was able to get away without the risk of a parking ticket. [By the way, if you drive to the shop, there is metered parking in First Avenue itself, with a 2 hour maximum stay. In Second Avenue, the next road along to the West, the maximum stay is 11 hours.] Other customers came in saying, “My friend’s just had a baby,” or “There’s a Christening coming up.”
When asked for humorous books for a 9-yr-old, Julie came up with Mr Stink and I Am Not A Loser.
Certainly the bulk of sales on the afternoon of my visit were at the younger end of the market and Julie admitted that older fiction is a harder day-to-day sell. But when I asked about stock flow, observing that the older and young adult fiction shelves were all packed tight, she said that this wasn’t a problem. The shop does quite a few school ‘book fairs’ and these, together with events, and periodic ‘returns’ keep the stock turning over.
Lizzie was alternating between serving in the cafe and trying to order books but being frustrated because the Gardners website was down, which was apparently unusual. There was some excitement in the store because Simon & Schuster had just posted on their Facebook page a photo of Lizzie outside the shop beside her window display for Octopus’s Garden.
Vanessa was off-duty for the afternoon, but in and out of the shop. She went to fetch her mother from the station and brought her back to the shop. Then she went to fetch her young daughter from nursery — all this to-ing and fro-ing adding to a warm informality and friendliness which is so clearly valued by the clientele.
The shop’s website – just one page and not currently not terribly up-to-date (the events listing is for earlier in the year) – is under redevelopment and the plan is that customers will be able to order books online as well as in store, with these orders being handled and delivered directly by The Book Nook. So watch this space. I will update this feature as and when the new website goes live.
Such is the reputation that the shop has built up in the space of little over four short but fast-moving years (Julie was quite shocked to realise that this Christmas will be the shop’s fifth) that it has been the official bookseller for the Brighton Festival, for Komedia and the Theatre Royal, for Brighton Library, for the Southern Schools Book Award (http://www.ssba-online.co.uk/
There is a daily story time in the shop at 4pm. On the day of my visit there were four or five parents with toddlers, including one dad. Julie sat in the big storytellers’ armchair and read two interactive picture books. Firstly, Ben Cort’s just-published Octopus’s Garden and then I Went to The Supermarket by Nick Sharratt The interactivity was enjoyed and participated in by the adults as well as the children. It seems that occasionally come 4pm there are no takers, but only very rarely.