Bags of Books is a small specialist children’s bookshop in Lewes, East Sussex, situated at the far end of the High Street, somewhat on the edge of town but well worth seeking out. Strategically placed advertising boards alert unsuspecting visitors to to the town of its presence.
It was already well-established (the shop first opened in 1985) when Anna Morgan and Gavin Teasdale took over the business towards the end of 2008.
It has changed a lot since the days of previous ownership when, a thriving reputation notwithstanding, it was a rather dark, cramped and higgledy-piggledy affair with a somewhat traditional and intimidating management style established by its original owner, Angela Macpherson. On Angela’s retirement, the shop was briefly owned by Paul and Rachel Waller, who made few changes.
Anna & Gavin met while working for Borders and Books Etc, initially in York and then in London. A year before Borders folded they left to start up in business on their own and initially considered a startup bookshop but then, when they saw that the Bags of Books business was up for sale, the convenience of taking over a readymade shop (combined with a move out of London) proved irresistible.
It was comforting to know they were taking over a business with a very loyal customer base and a healthy line in school orders, an aspect of the shop’s trade they have been at pains to maintain and grow.
For a specialist shop with such a small floorspace it is impressive to learn that Anna and Gavin manage to employ a further three people to complete the bookselling team – Annette, a full-time shop manager, along with Claire (who specialises in links with schools) and Catherine who both work 3 days a week.
In schools they call this ‘distributed leadership’, and it means that Anna and Gavin themselves come across as relaxed and laid-back employers, with Anna’s realm of expertise being the website and online sales, while Gavin is in charge of deliveries and dispatches. And a very tight ship he keeps, with no pileup of unopened boxes in the office space. “Truck to floor in 24” is a mantra he learnt in his time at Borders. No sooner has a delivery from TNT arrived than the box is opened and the books made ready for the shop shelves or dispatch to schools. A write-on/wipe-off wall chart keeps track of the status of various school orders. “Essential,” Gavin tells me, “because very often people on the other end of the phone in a school do not know who has made an order.”
While he’s telling me this, Claire is following up unpaid invoices on the phone.
Earlier Anna had told me that the opening of a Waterstones branch in the centre of the town mid-summer had had as yet no discernible impact on their trade. They had known it was on the cards for quite some time, so to strengthen the service they already offer to schools Anna has developed http://www.bagsofbooklists.com/ an adjunct to the main shop website, where schools can register and order various curated lists with one click, at a minimum discount of 12.5% (discount increases with the total value of each order) – a service which, by virtue of its online nature, is available nationwide and not confined to the shop’s natural catchment area.
Back in 2008 they had arrived on the cusp of Christmas so had decided to live with the shop as it was for a few months before embarking on a total refit. The result, for anyone who remembers the old shop, is amazing. It is still narrow, but the centre is now a bright open space, with lots of playthings for very young children to amuse themselves with while adults browse.
Anna had told me that the bulk of their custom is with families of young children. They have a good range of Young Adult books, and parents purchase older fiction but “not a lot of teenagers come into the shop”. So who should I find up at the far end of the shop when I come through from the office to start taking photographs? A couple of teenage lads talking — initially to Annette and then later to Claire who, with three teenage children of her own, tends to be the shop’s specialist on older fiction — about the Beyond the Edge Chronicles series, which they had enjoyed but were looking to move on.
The shop has a loyalty scheme but has had to discontinue its physical membership cards because people kept losing them. Everything is now tracked on the till, with the calculation based on book numbers rather than the total value of a transaction. For every 12 books purchased customers receive a £5 voucher.
The refit has involved an expansion into what used to be an administrative area of the shop and this has meant more space can be given to non-fiction, which is particularly valued by teachers who come in to browse. Anna acknowledges that this space might have been used for a cafe corner, de rigeur in so many bookshops these days, and is open about the fact that she would rather not have to serve tea and cakes alongside books. She is happy to diversify into child-centred toys and stationery (she particularly likes selling sets of Stabilo crayons) but she doesn’t want to run a cafe.
The shop has a healthy programme of events, running them at a rate of roughly two a month (something Waterstones is highly unlikely to compete with). The shop itself can comfortably fit an audience of between 20 and 25 which is sufficient for all but the events featuring the better-known and more popular names of the children’s books world. On those occasions the shop is able to use a space in the church on the opposite side of the street or a cafe & courtyard area round the corner. Chris Riddell is due shortly and the church space will definitely be needed for him.
Publisher ‘rep’ visits have continued importance to children’s bookshops and the reps visit the shop roughly every other month – with the exception of the Bounce Marketing, which now represents over 30 publishers of children’s books, making more frequent rep visits a necessity.
Anna and Gavin would love to get to more of the London events they’re invited to but with the shop to run and young primary aged children to look after it is difficult to get away. At the time of my visit though they were looking forward to their annual trip to the Booksellers Conference with an overnight stay in Warwick and a chance to meet up and share experiences with fellow booksellers and bookshop owners.
Annette is a HUGE Herve Tullet fan.