Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas from Mostly Books

A quick post before we head off to spend some time with our families over Christmas, tired but happy. We had a hugely fun day yesterday - dressed in festive gear, handing out Christmas cookies, and counting down the end of our first Mostly Books Christmas. A big thank you to all of our customers - both regular and new - who popped in over the last few days to buy presents and to wish us Happy Christmas - it was much appreciated. Special thanks to Karen and Linzi for assisting superbly this week - and particular thanks to James for his sterling efforts efforts Friday and Saturday. We will open next Saturday, but we look forward to seeing everyone else again in 2007. Happy Christmas! Mark & Nicki

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Did You Know

On Thursday, with several customer orders still AWOL, and a few nervous phonecalls received (none of these were ordered through the wholesaler) one of our specialist suppliers tipped us off to the fact that we might want to make a trip to the local sorting office just on the off chance. So with Nicki esconced in the shop yesterday, I hared down to the sorting office with Alex riding shotgun - and lo and behold, postie had 5 packages waiting for us. Phew! Apparently (aside from closing rural post offices and putting, ooh, 5 minutes effort into this year's Christmas stamp designs) the post office no longer leave notes if they can't post something through your door...

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lastminute dot wrong

Amongst all the visitors to the shop this week, a significant number of people have been commenting on just how awful the shopping experience has been this year - not in the shops around Abingdon, I hasten to add, but at the big supermarket and retail centres (notably Tescos and Oxford town centre). I don't know whether it's the recent weather, with the fog and travel chaos creating a very depressing and oppressive atmosphere, but we've been hearing stories of people being assaulted in shopping aisles, or being bumped, shoved, insulted and generally abused by the masses in scrums outside department stories, etc. I'm sure this happens every year - but of course this is the first year 'behind the counter' (so-to-speak) and therefore the first time I've been able to collect this kind of anecdotal data. I used to be a classic last minute Christmas shopper when I was younger. I still have very fond memories (when I was a teenager, living in Weymouth) of bimbling around the seafront shops, buying a load of inappropriate gifts with the little money I had (more often than not, lent to me by Mum and Dad anyway). There was one particular shop - Austins - which was a treasure trove of both tat, great stuff you couldn't get anywhere else (there was probably a reason for that), as well as records and tapes. One year I bought all my Christmas presents there, including a particularly nasty porcelain statue of an eagle on a rock. As far as I know, my Mum (bless her) still has it. I really hope it's still there (Austins that is - not the eagle). I no longer do stuff at the last minute. The big change these days (apart from having absolutely no time to go Christmas shopping this year) is that Nicki and I have something like six family birthdays in December (including Alex, who turns three on the 29th). So Christmas is now planned like the proverbial military campaign, and planned months before. Tomorrow is our last day before Christmas - and we're obviously expecting it to be busy. So far, however, our experience of the last minute rush has been completely different. People have been friendly, chatty, sometimes a bit stressed, but we usually can help them with a few ideas, etc. It's been exhausting, but a lot of fun. So - is shopping typical this year or has Christmas (in the words of one of our customers this week) snuck up on people this year and created a bit more panic than usual?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last bookgroup of the year

Depending on your viewpoint, it would take a particularly brave or incredibly stupid bookshop owner to run an evening event 4 days before Christmas. But this evening was our joint bookgroup Christmas meeting - the last one of the year. Thanks to everyone who turned up on what was a particularly unpleasant cold and foggy evening. It was great fun, with a hugely enjoyable discussion about Amélie Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling" and I managed to twist everyone's arm into having their piccy taken for the blog. (Totally unposed and au naturelle of course) Also, we must say congratulations to Cindy from our Wednesday bookgroup, who had a great reason for not attending - the birth of her boy Theo last Tuesday. Our first bookgroup new Mum! She's vowed to be at the next meeting in February however... Nicki and I were both able to attend (thanks to my Mum who stepped in for some high-quality childcare), so we were able - just for a couple of hours - to take a break from the Christmas retail madness, and talk about books, which we both very much appreciated.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Trying not to ruin Christmas

We kind of assumed that customer orders would start easing up this week as we get closer to Christmas Day - but they are still coming in thick and fast. This presents us with two worries: 1) will the orders themselves arrive before the big day, and 2) what to say on the phone when the books come in. The first problem is fairly straightforward. Aside from the wholesaler (where an order typically comes in within a day or two, if it's in stock), we source books from a variety of other sources. Since mid-way through last week, if an order isn't in stock with the wholesaler, and we have to go elsewhere, then we've adopted a "best endeavour" approach to fulfillment (i.e. we'll do everything in our power to get the book in, but it might just not make it). At this point there's a bit of a struggle in the mind of the customer, depending on whether they'll take a risk on the delivery date versus how likely it is that they might get the book elsewhere. The second problem is handled through the patent-pending Mostly Books Customer Order Master File in which we record any complex instructions for phoning up once the book comes in (e.g. "now, if my husband/wife answers the phone, give them your name, but don't mention the shop, and just say that 'the item' has arrived and is awaiting collection." or "if it's before Wednesday next week, phone this number, but after Thursday you'll need to phone my son, but don't leave a message if you get his answering machine"). For the last few weeks, whenever I've been making phonecalls, I have had in the back of my mind that I have the power, if not to ruin Christmas, at least make a dent in the overall enjoyment factor. Back when we first opened, a customer ordered one of our Penguin-design deckchairs. When it arrived, muggins here left a message on the answering machine to the effect that "your deckchair has arrived" then, realising there was a note about it being a birthday gift, compounded the problem several minutes later by phoning up and leaving another message to apologise for blowing the gaff. Just in case the first message was missed...this experience left an indelible impression on me about the importance of not blowing the gaff where presents are concerned. Talking of not ruining Christmas, this morning was a bit touch-and-go about the shop opening at all. Whilst no-one has ever said as much, I've kind of picked up on the fact that not opening your shop is one of the major no-nos in retailing at any time - let alone one week before Christmas. What had happened was this. Last week Alex got a nasty 24 hour bug, but when Nicki and I went down with it over the weekend, things looked pretty grim, particularly as a) we knew none of our staff were able to make it on Monday, and b) we'd hyped up today's storytime as being the last one this year. Without going into the gory details, I managed finally to get to sleep at about 3am, and to be honest when Alex woke up at 05.30 this morning I can safely say there are times when I've felt better. However, with hastily arranged babysitting (courtesy of Nicki's Mum and Sister) we struggled down to the shop and opened at about 9.02. Nicki had to leave at just after 10 - and when at 10.30 four little children had turned up for storytime, I had to explain to them and their parents that it wasn't going to happen. However, at this point the bookselling gods smiled on us. In what was a very busy day, by a curious quirk of footfall fate, no-one else (aside from postie) came into the shop for 20 minutes. Asking their parents to watch the front of shop for me, I rolled out the big storytelling rug, and we did the show right there. Relying on some old stalwarts: v.hungry caterpillar, dear zoo, dinosaur roar and owl babies, and finishing with some liberally dished-out chocolate santas, I returned to the till just as the next customer came in. Perfect. I almost feel Christmassy. Or at less a heck of a lot better than I was feeling last night... Anyway, the last big event before Christmas is the joint bookgroup Christmas meeting this Wednesday evening. We'll be discussing Amelie Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling", then having some appropriate festive celebrations. It'll be a nice end to the year, and Nicki and I are looking forward to it...

Friday, December 15, 2006

They know where we live

I was cooking pasta this evening after a busy day at the shop. There is a knock at the door. One of my neighbours is clutching a sheet of paper with two ISBNs on them. "Can you get these for me please?...". Help - customer order requests at home!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas Analysis

I'll refrain from using a cheesy line like "so this is Christmas" but we are now deep into the strange twilight world that I guess is retail in mid-December. Occasionally (when I get to bed in the wee small hours) I have this sense of the billions of items currently hurtling inexorably through the global supply chain, each one some key element in someone's perfect Christmas. Scary trousers. Currently Nicki and I have nightly review and planning meetings, which inevitably mean us huddled over the tea leaves looking for patterns to try to predict what might happen in the next 10 days. Are our regular customers more organised than the general populace (i.e. everyone's done the bulk of their shopping = sales peaked)? Are they less organised (i.e. will everyone come in next Monday expecting upteen copies of our Christmas newsletter recommends that have just gone out of stock)? Will 30 children turn up for storytime on Monday now that school's finished? This Saturday (December 16th) is the first big test. Abingdon's town council have granted free parking all day (they do this every year apparently), and this often corresponds to Abingdon's busiest shopping day. It's a great opportunity for people to support their local town (as an aside, we've had conversations with several people who have decided to 'buy local' for Christmas, hurrah). We've tried to set some 'last order' dates regarding customer orders, but plenty will be arriving during that last week. We have organised a local delivery service for one day next week (the 'delivery service' will consist of me, with Alex riding shotgun in a santa hat handing over the Christmas orders to customers and looking cute). This is just in case of any last minute orders that cannot be collected, the absence of which on Christmas morning may impact negatively on the general goodwill quotient. Anyway - enough Christmas madness. Here's a few bits and pieces from the shop this week: - The "Give a Poem for Christmas" campaign has upped a few gears. Sister Wendy is still miles out in front, but Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy and a couple of anthologies are in the chasing pack. And a new book "Generation TXT" is making rapid progress up the outside rail (mostly by dint of me shoving it in front of anyone I suspect of being into new poetry who comes into the shop). - A big thank you to Ali for our Christmas pressie (special hi-tech water-washable chalk markers for our chalkboard, as befits someone who is a bit of a craftmeister). The home-made bag it came in was also hugely impressive... - Respect to the couple last week who had a coffee each and *sat outside* in the courtyard garden. Global warming or not, that was a brave move. - Some mutterings about the shop being not Christmassy enough made me panic and rush out and get some spray-on snow. I haven't done anything with it yet. Snowy-effect windows with ah-factor v 2 hours in the new year with a cloth soaked in alcohol. Should I or shouldn't I?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Another poem

Nicki and I managed to have a day off from the shop today - don't get me wrong, there are a thousand things to do, but I reckon if we had flogged ourselves today, we might have got that list down to, ooh, 970 things - and been totally exhausted. So - a nice game of scrabble last night, and today a winter walk with some friends near Nettlebed. Lovely. Pass the dressing gown and comfy slippers someone... It all kicks off again tomorrow of course, but sometimes you have to create some space... BTW, here's poem #2 that appeared outside the shop on Saturday, as part of the so-far moderately successful "Give A Poem for Christmas" campaign (note to self: needs better POS inside the shop). My poetry skills are giving my US-book ordering skills a run for their money methinks, but hopefully people see this as a bit of fun at least...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Overpriced and over here

Christmas has well and truly hit us like, well, a large pile of snow which has slid off the roof after having shut the door too hard (not the best metaphor in the world, but - dammit Jim - I'm a bookseller, not a writer). You get the idea. Crockatt & Powell (those punk rockers of the bookselling world) describe the feeling quite well. We had an issue this week involving a US book, and it's something that I can't for the life of me work out. If we buy a US book from a wholesaler, they treat the dollar value as pounds, which would cause no problems if a) the Internet wasn't around to compare prices, and b) the pound wasn't currently trading at close to $2, which makes "doing the math" (as our US friends might say) a snap. Customer comes in, brings a book to the desk, sees $40 on the book and thinks "must be approximately £20". Oh no, our system says £40. Our invoice from the wholesalers says we bought it for £40 (minus our discount). A phonecall to the wholesaler says "we charge the full UK currency equivalent to cover the costs of getting the book over from the US". What? But it's Dorling Kindersley. They're a UK publisher (well, they were). And the book was probably printed in China anyway. How did you bring the book over from the US? In a sponsored canoe, one at a time? (My bonhomie has become slightly dented during the conversation) The annoying thing is - there's no way to spot a US book before we order it (at least, not that I know of in my time-challenged, customer-needs-it-yesterday, work-environment) So - anyone out there like to enlighten me (a very ignorant bookseller) if there is an explanation about why this situation exists, and tips on how to handle it? THE used to have an American Bookshop (operated on their behalf by but it closed recently as being non-viable. Perhaps there's a clue there...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Humanity in Print

I always think EM Forster would have loved to have lived in modern times. He'd have been right at home with blogging, using social networking tools to turbo-charge his "Only Connect" and humanist philosophies. Mind you, he'd have had his spam filter firmly in place, being wise to the dangers posed by new technology. Forster wrote a hugely prophetic, and little known short-story The Machine Stops (well worth a read) warning about the dangers of reliance on virtual communities (amongst lots of other things). I shall heed his warning this morning, and go back to doing some pressing admin work which I've been putting off... However, I thought of Forster this morning, having spotted this excellent Forbes' Special Report on the current healthy state of "The Book". My discussions with Sam Jordison last week led me to discover McSweeney's, and - lo and behold - they feature in the report. Life has a habit of throwing up coincidences when you become particularly focused in pursuit of a goal. Forster was, amongst many other things, an optimist, writing one of the most positive essays on humanity (What I Believe) in the increasingly bleak months before the second world war. I've not read the whole report, but - to a bookseller - this report seems marvellously optimistic too.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


When we first started, we were concerned that some of the books arriving were damaged. Slight marks here and there, the occasional crease, some minor wear around the edges, etc. In the few short months (5) since we opened, we've become a little more tolerant, and a better judge of what is acceptable and what isn't. Occasionally, however, a book arrives looking like this.

Tough one to call, huh? Why are these always customer orders...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What a nice guy

Tonight we had our third author event since we opened - an evening with Sam Jordison, author of Crap Towns, The Joy of Sects and (his latest book) Bad Dates. It was a really interesting evening, quite different from the other events we've run (and a first in that I'm posting immediately after the event, rather than the usual week later). I know this sounds cheesy, and hardly imaginative, but Sam is a really nice bloke. Arriving before anyone else, and having turned down the offer of wine in preference to a cup of tea, he then immediately endeared himself to us by buying a couple of books. Sam discussed his book Bad Dates (read more about the launch party for the book, described as the worst singles party of all time), explained how he'd ended up in Oxford (which featured in Crap Towns, mainly by dint of Blackbird Leys and drunk students), confirmed that he had indeed been a goatherd in the Ardeche region of France (something I had been sceptical about before this evening) and answered questions before the obligatory signing. I sincerely wish him well on his next venture, going off to live in small-town America for six months in the hope of learning more about right-wing Christian groups. When your next book is out Sam, we'll get it in no problem. And I will check out the Jack Kerouac piece. And thanks for the primer (from The Joy of Sects) on founding myths of Scientology, British Israelites and the Mormons (amongst others). Not quite the discussion we might have expected at the end, but completely fascinating. One apology to everyone who came tonight. Having trailed the event as consisting of a glass of wine and 'the odd festive mince pie', I completely forgot to actually bring the mince pies through into the shop. They are still sitting out the back. So consider yourself owed one any time from now until Christmas...

Friday, November 24, 2006

The nightmare before Christmas

Having stumbled through all our novice bookshop owning beginner mistakes, here we are plunged headlong already into our novice bookshop owning Christmas mistakes. We started off with a pretty good outline of the sorts of books we wanted to stock to create a welcoming feel and lots of reasons for people to stay and browse. So, really, our opening stock selection was relatively easy (although several weeks of ISBN hell to actually produce meaningful lists for our very patient wholesaler). Then of course, you have to keep things fresh and give people something new to look at. So since then we have been swimming with all the others, trying to choose things from catalogues, before books have even been published, let alone read or reviewed, trying to spot things that look fantastic, but, hopefully, not the sort of things that every other (ie big chain) bookshop is likely to be selling in huge, highly promoted piles right by the door. We don't want to look like all the others. We are less than ten miles from Oxford, which offers fantastic choice when it comes to book buying, so we have to give people a big incentive to shop locally and it has always been extremely gratifying when people come to us and comment that they found more things in our shop they wanted to buy than on book-buying trips into Oxford. Christmas so far has been a nail-biting time. Trying to avoid the sorts of books that will be everywhere, yet making sure you have the Christmas 'essentials' that people are going to want to see, is a tricky path to tread. We've tried to stick to our own ideas about what are good books to stock. By and large we decided at the outset that if you start worrying what every other bookseller is doing you will not do yourself any favours (and possibly go slightly mad). Yet I couldn't resist a sneak peak at the display of a favourite (until recently) Ottakers (now Waterstones), in a town I know very well. I have to say, it did set me thinking. They are directly opposite a WH Smith, with no independent bookseller in the town. Yet both shops really look like they are already into panic January sale territory, with huge red banners announcing price cuts. Aside from a few selected 3 for 2 offers, most other shops in the town seemed to be promoting positively their fantastic Christmas goodies and had beautiful windows to tempt people into the shop to buy rather than shouting at people how cheaply they are selling. I was at a bit of a loss to work out who these bookshops were competing against to battle so hard on price - apart from each other. The Waterstones and WH Smith offered a bewlidering range of different prices on the same promoted books, so hadn't even managed to agree on the deals to offer (aren't they the same company?). Supermarkets can't stock anything like the range a bookshop can manage. And not everyone wants to buy on the internet. Browsing is still pretty big in the book buying business, particularly at Christmas when people are choosing for others. Books are wonderful to hear about, talk about, pick up and dip into before you buy and feel you've made wonderful discoveries, aren't they? You'd think there must be something more tempting these shops could find to say about their books to woo people in other than that a few highlighted titles are half price. A bit mad and a bit sad?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Abingdon Extravaganza and Sam Jordison

This Friday (24th Nov) the Christmas Lights get turned on in Abingdon - traditionally the shops all stay open late, everyone dresses up, it's a fun evening for everyone. Several of the shops will be liberally dishing out mulled wine as well. We shall be opening until 8pm, and - if we can find anything vaguely 'tudor' to wear (the theme this year) - we might dress up too. This year, being as it's the 450th anniversary of the Charter being granted - a horse will dramatically ride across the bridge into the town to hand the mayor the Charter, and this will be the cue for the Lights going on, and a firework display. All good fun. I'm sure the abingdon blogger will cover the event in some detail at the weekend. We've decked out the children's room with snowflakes as part of our snowflake challenge. Each snowflake has a children's book character, and children are being asked to find all the snowflakes, identify the characters, make a well-known Christmas word, and then enter our competition. A suitable children's literary prize is up for grabs (to find out exactly what, you'll have to come into the shop). We've also managed to squeeze in another author event before December - next Wednesday evening we will be welcoming local author Sam Jordison, author of Bad Dates - a book delving into the soft, fleshy underbelly of dating in the 21st century, and the real-life horror stories of When Dates Go Bad. With his first book Crap Towns (claimed by some to be the real 'rough guide to the UK') Sam managed to upset huge swathes of the country - including Oxford (which was included). So our first question to him next Wednesday is: why did he end up moving to Oxford afterwards? More interesting, in light of recent media discussions on the value (literary or otherwise) of blog and Amazon reviews, is his recent confession in the Guardian that he inserted his own five-star book review on Amazon. I'm keen to learn if there's been any fall out about this... He appears at Mostly Books Wednesday November 29th at 7pm - tickets £3, redeemable against a purchase on the night.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Mostly Books customer query challenge

Here's the latest in our series of tricky queries from shop visitors - obviously we are compiling these into a future quiz compendium for book fans, so any suggestions / answers would be gratefully received and acknowledged: - one of our good friends (Melissa) wants a book plus CD of both traditional folk tales and songs, for an overseas Christmas Present. I've done some hunting around on-line, but the challenge of finding a book that comes with a CD has been the tricky part. Perhaps there is a separate book and CD with some overlap that can be put together into one package? - there is a new book of Fairy Tales published which have gone back to the origins of the tales, and therefore they are significantly different to most of the contemporary versions around today. So far, I've drawn a blank on this one. - Jeremy James books (by David Henry Wilson) - the one with Buckingham Palace in it?! (Question from a little girl) - Suggestions for a good book for an 8 year old, really into animals (not animal stories) and wants to become a vet. I did find a book "I Want To Be A Vet" but it's Out of print...I've also recommended Gerald Durrell, but not for another 2-3 years. - A good, originally-illustrated (was it ever originally illustrated?) Alice in Wonderland for young children. I must admit, I've been a bit lazy on this because I was only asked yesterday, and haven't actually done any checking... (OK, I've just gone and checked its Wikipedia entry - well, well, well. Did you know that the correct title is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", the first edition (1865) was illustrated by John Tenniel - but he objected to the print quality, so another edition was printed the following year. The Rev Dodgson must have been delighted with that delay...and, would you believe it, there is some critical debate about whether it should be classified as a fantasy or a horror story. Blimey!)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What motivates people to read?

I've lost so much weight since opening the bookshop, that yesterday my wedding ring flew off whilst throwing a football to Alex in the garden. Cue hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack, only in this case it was a gold ring in a pile of yellow/brown sycamore leaves, which our garden is full of. Nightmare. Alex enjoyed this game for about, ooh, 5 minutes, but with my increasing frustration and muttered swearing, he quickly wanted to go back inside and watch Little Red Tractor. 'How to motivate a toddler' is something that parents get pretty good at, so I quickly explained to him the (rudimentary) plot outline of Lord of The Rings, and - armed with his sword "Sting" (i.e. a stick) - we set out on our quest. Half an hour later, having slayed a few orcs, and with me beginning to look a bit like Gollum (it's a bit muddy out the back) we spotted it sitting in a patch of earth. Happy Dad, quest over, chocolate biscuits all round. I'm not sure whether this event will give him a lifelong thing about Tolkien (not that he'll need much prodding I feel once he gets older) but it did get me thinking about what motivates people to read (as well as the possibility of publishing my own "bookshop diet" book). Since we opened, we get a lot of questions from concerned parents and grandparents about book suggestions for children, either because they are precocious in their reading ability, or - more often - they seem not to be interested in reading at all. This may also be causing problems at school. They feel - rightly or wrongly - that the right type of book might provide the inspirations and motivation to get back into reading. It seems a tall order for even the best fiction to achieve this. Often books need to be read 'at the right time'. I used to think it was better to ask a few questions, find out what motivated the boy or girl generally, etc. If you find out what their interests are, or what else they've enjoyed, a book may practically leap off the shelves that sounds ideal. A particular character may suggest themselves. It may be Holden Caulfield, or Captain Underpants. It doesn't really matter as long as the book and its characters will make a connection when read. I'm coming to the conclusion that this approach also misses the point. It's not the book quality, but the delivery mechanism, that's at fault. If everyone else in the family loves books, then shoving more books at them is probably going to exacerbate the problem. This is especially true if their peer group think that books are 'uncool' (or, as one boy complained to me recently, "my friends all think that reading is gay"). I think at this point, you need the help of a mentor. Having an interested - yet detached - third-party intervening is often an important way we break out of ruts, and discover new things - or even see things in a new light. For teenagers - and teenage boys in particular - having appropriate mentors is an important part of developing independence, as well as growing into healthy adults. (There's a fantastic book by Steve Biddulph called "Raising Boys" - which we recommend a lot in the shop - which talks about the importance of mentors during the teenage years. It's well worth reading, especially if you have a son.) I think that we - as independent booksellers - can fulfill the role of mentor where books are concerned. If we know our stuff, and are not just pushing the bestsellers, we can sincerely recommend a book in terms different from the party line at home or school (e.g. how it made me feel, or why it was important to me). You've reframed the whole thing - a book is no longer a 'problem', but a potential source of new experiences and answers. This is selling at its finest - the sizzle, not the stake. Only in this case 'the sizzle' is a tantalising glimpse at a bigger, more adult world - something that will overcome peer pressure, and hopefully develop a love of reading for its own sake.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christmas Poetry Please

Recent discussions on the bedside crow bemoaned the fact that the could-be-a-lot-better Waterstones Christmas Catalogue has plenty of "cloakroom classics" (or 'books for the bog' if you run that through babelfish using the "Marketing-to-English" setting) but no poetry. Anyway, it just so happened that poetry was one of the sections that we really hadn't put a great deal of thought into when we opened (there was a long list of those BTW). But last week, with the back-ordered arrival of "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins, we cut the red tape and declared the poetry section 'open'. (Thanks to dovegreyreader for the Ruth Padel recommend. Sets the shelf off nicely.) We have another section in the children's room - although it's a bit hidden away with the children's classics, so we may do one of our many rearrangements (the Sysiphean never-ending task of a bookseller, so I'm learning). So, as a suitable repost to the big chains, Nicki and I have decided to launch our "give a poem for Christmas" campaign. This started in humble fashion on our chalkboard: More sadly, I decided to dust down my teenage poetry-writing skills which have suffered badly in the intervening 20 odd years. However, this may become a regular feature, so there is a possibility that these poems will improve over time. I apologise for any aesthetic offence: So - anyone else feel like hopping on board this slightly blatant bandwaggon? The perfect response to cloakroom classics methinks...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sophie Grigson

On Thursday November 2nd, we welcomed Sophie Grigson to Mostly Books for our biggest event to date. It really couldn't have gone any better. I did wonder about how best to post to the blog about the event - my first effort came over rather too 'luvvy'. This is because Sophie Grigson, superstar cookery writer and culinary guru that she is, was simply a joy to have as our guest for the evening. I shall simply say she was massively interesting to listen to, contagiously enthusastic about her subject, by turns fascinating, surprising and genuinely funny. My friend Paul would describe her as an all-round "top lass", and Nicki and I are very grateful to her for making the event as successful as it was. Exactly four months since we opened, and - as with most things at Mostly Books - representing a series of 'firsts' (another way of saying 'we hadn't done this before') I don't think we could have fit another person into the shop if we'd tried. Once we'd publicised the event, and with strong demand for tickets, we decided to have a cut-off first at 30 attendees, then 40. As the day drew nearer, with a few cancellations, we raised the number again. All in all we must have had nearly 50 people. Having run our of our own chairs, Jill at Added Ingredients leant us hers, as well as providing glasses and some excellent wines which helped the evening go even better. Sophie talked and answered questions for just over an hour (and, for those in the audience who want to read Sophie's v. amusing beer-can chicken recipe, here it is). We then packed up a few chairs so that people could actually move about, and Sophie signed books and chatted to people at the back of the shop. Splendid. Not even a post-event migraine could dim my delight and happiness (although it did serve to remind me to eat more than a solitary banana ahead of our next event). We have of course raised the bar for future events, with people enquiring eagerly who our next author will be. Also, having spent the Tuesday night moving chairs and tables around, and the Wednesday bookgroup having met the night before (and the fact that we still haven't quite put the shop back together) we're having a little break from events this week...phew.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ghostly Books

OK, we couldn't really do a great deal for Hallowe'en, with our two events this week, but I couldn't resist doing something given our shop name... For the lucky kids that did come in yesterday, they got handfuls of Hallowe'en cookies. And just in case you wanted to know, "creepy apple fangs" are in fact pieces of apple. My contribution to healthy eating, but no-one wanted any... The Wednesday bookgroup meets this evening, and our big event is less than 2 days away...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A night of scrapbooking

A quick post and some piccies after our scrapbooking event held in the shop on Thursday night - top fun. Myself and Carole Waechtler (ably helped by her daughter Kim) welcomed 15 people to the shop of assorted ages to have a go at scrapbooking and journalling. Everyone brought photos and were able to use various neat gadgets to crop them, then create highly artistic pages - Carole was on hand to give tips: At one point I nipped outside and took some pictures looking back in. Several people peered in during the evening. At the end of the evening, I took some photos of everyone's creative efforts (with permission!). (I think my own cropping skills are thrown sharply into relief in that last photo - suffice to say that any scrapbooking I get involved in will have an online component - scrapblogging anyone?) Thanks to Carole for working frantically all night, and to everyone who pitched up for what was - frankly - a bit of an experiment, and the first of possibly more come-and-try craft evenings. All part of our ethos of a bookshop being a hub of activity, and not just a place to buy books...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Some more tough customer requests

In our occasional series of tricky or challenging requests from customers, here are a few that have come in in the last week:
  • Friendship books (auf deutsch, "Freundschaftbücher" - the lady who asked about these was German, and apparently they are very big in Germany). These are books that you write in and pass on. I found a website about Friendship Books, but I got the impression they were books you made yourself. Apparently you can buy books which are "ready to go" but couldn't seem to find anything on the web about it (aprt from this site).
  • We have a new poetry section (something that was left over from our opening, and we get chastised about ocassionally). We're keen to provide accessibility to poetry - is there a good introduction to someone coming into modern poetry for the first time?
  • One of our regular customers was looking for a good book about the tooth fairy, which contains some good guidance about the importance of dental health, etc. Both of us seemed to remember a story about a 'nasty toothfairy', ripped off a few years ago by the Listerine mouthwash commercials. Can't locate the book however...
  • A 'very close family friend' (OK, its my Mum) is running a Christmas fun night, and wanted to know if there is a good book with Christmas stories, anecdotes, sayings, etc. To be honest, I wouldn't even know where to begin to look, there are so many books of that ilk...
OK - thats it. Scrapbooking event well last night, We've sold all the tickets for Sophie Grigson next Thursday and have started a reserve list. It promises to be a busy week next week...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Santa, Scrapbooks and Smoked Parmesan Kumara Cubes

Nicki and I have just about recovered from our manic schedule of events, tradeshows and bookgroup meetings in two weeks. Christmas is beginning to loom like a large tinsel-decked iceberg, and we're hoping that the Mostly Books ship doesn't come a cropper on it. Our only experience of the retail run-in to Christmas has been from the other side of the counter, and I guess the challenge for all booksellers is to use all their long bookselling experience so that when - on Christmas Eve - 20 different people are clamouring for the same unexpected must-have Christmas bestseller, they can emerge triumphant from the stockroom with cannily-placed emergency copies. Unfortunately, we don't have that much expertise to call upon (although someone did send us an email a few weeks ago advising us to make our best guesses and then max out our lines of credit to get the books in. Not sure we're that brave!) Anyway, Nicki and I are deep into preparations for our next events. This week we have a craft-theme evening on Thursday: "The Art of Scrapbooking" to coincide with the annual Abingdon Craft Fair. Next Wednesday is the first meeting of the Wednesday bookgroup. However, I would be lying if I didn't say we are extremely excited (if a tad nervous) about our event on November 2nd - Sophie Grigson will be at the shop, answering questions about and signing copies of her new book "Vegetables". It will be far and away our biggest event to date (no offence to Mr McNair!) and we're keen to make it a big success...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Mr Morello Writes

In keeping with our current schedule of writing up events from over a week ago, our first evening (and adult!) event was Mr Morello Writes the Thursday before last (October 12th). with Morello Letters author Duncan McNair. It was a small, but perfectly formed event - even if 1/8 of the audience consisted of our relatives... I've already written about The Morello Letters itself - and a great little book it is too (signed copies still available). But I'd thought you'd appreciate some details of the behind-the-scenes activities beforehand. We'd advertised the event as started at 7pm, and had bought some funky folding chairs the previous week specially. It's fair to say that ticket sales had been a little slow - new bookshop, new author, etc. However, with a combination of Duncan's skilful marketing, our in-house mailing list and some frankly disgraceful bribery and blackmailing of family and friends we were confident of getting above the figure Nicki and I had set ourselves (10) to avoid the event being a bit of a damp squib. At 5pm the shop was still set-up for a normal retail day, so when the trusty James turned up at about 5.30pm, we had to swing into action. By 6.30pm the front of the shop looked like an event was about to take place (see photo above). Duncan McNair's agent had kindly sent us a whole load of fliers which had arrived that morning, so I went a bit mad in the shop window: Did it look tacky? Possibly. Did it bring anyone extra to the event. Probably not. But there was no mistaking the fact that an event was taking place that evening in our shop. You'll notice the new chalkboard - which had arrived the day before. I had expectations of creating a nice, smart, artistic advertisement for the event, but it's been a few years (20?) since I last tried to write on a blackboard, and a have a new respect for some of my old teachers. It's a darn site trickier than it looks. In the end I hastily scrawled details of the event, and shoved it out of the front of the shop. No time to consider whether it looked slightly less classy than "apples £2 a lb". I did at least resist the temptation to write 'free wine' at the bottom. (BTW, the chalkboard has worked wonders for the significant number of people who walk down Stert Street most weeks and who have never noticed our shop. In the last week we have suddenly had people visiting the shop who never knew we were there. I put it entirely down to the chalkboard, although word-of-mouth must also be partially responsible...) Duncan turned up at 6.30pm, and despite a farcical 15 minute attempt by me to erect a 9 foot display poster of a goat (which ended in failure) by 7.15pm approximately 15 people were seated with glass of wine in anticipation of my big introduction. (I think that's me looking for a bit of inspiration, as I had my usual stomach-churning bout of nerves, fuelled by forgetting to eat anything but a banana all day). Duncan was brilliant - a very good public speaker, with loads of great behind-the-scenes anecdotes of the birth of Mr Morello, his family and menagerie of animals. He read out some of the letters and responses, and finished the evening signing copies, and chatting to everyone. Nicki and I felt the event was a great success. A big thank you to everyone who came to the event - everyone seemed to have a great time. Thanks particularly to Duncan's marketing posse who travelled down from Banbury, our neighbours in the flat upstairs who - it turned out - were big fans of Henry Root (which The Morello Letters have been critically compared to), and last but not least to my Mum who drive down from Cambridgeshire (and back) with her friend Jill. Kudos and respect. Thanks of course to Duncan - who was in Pinar the next day, and had an estimated 40 gigs lined up between then and Christmas (as well as keeping down his day job of a solicitor). Who'd be an author, eh? We had the first proper meeting of our Thursday bookgroup last Thursday, and next Thursday we have an arts and crafts themed scrapbooking event (Oct 26th) to coincide with annual Abingdon Craft Fair. But Nicki and I are tremendously excited about the event that will be taking place on November 2nd...more about that in our next blog post...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Charlie & Lola Funday

We now have a fabulous mobile hanging from the beams of the children's room - thanks to the combined efforts of everyone who attended our Charlie & Lola funday on October 7th. At times the room got a bit crowded, and we had to move a few tables to accommodate buggies, but we had a steady stream of eager participants who coloured away, drank approximately 16 pints of pink milk, munched their way through several packets of biscuits - and even braved the odd moonsquirter (that's a tomato to the uninitiated). Here are some pictures of top colouring-in underway:

Butterflies were a popular choice - we asked everyone to sign their masterpieces:

Eli and her Mum - with crayon poised...

Possibly the best-coloured flowered...someone seems to think so anyway...

Mind you, I think next time we'll get the kids to make the mobile, whilst I colour in the pictures. Having bought a collection of lolly sticks, skewers, thread, etc. I wished we'd got a bit of advice before I started to try to make it.

It turned out that The Foulsham Family (that's Andy, Sally Ruth and Ben) were mobile-meisters, and told us we should have used green gardening sticks. Too late - but after a bit of wrestling, sticking, knotting (and mostly thanks to Karen on Monday, because I gave up Saturday evening!) here's the finished article:

(That Roald Dahl dumpbin is going ASAP - not one of our better decisions. Still, we're learning from our mistakes...)

Thanks to everyone who came, we hope you had as much fun as we did...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In danger of burning out

After Charlie & Lola Day, The Morello Letters, we were at a Tradeshow today (Sunday) - for 8 days, that's quite an itinerary, and with the first meeting of our bookgroup (to discuss The Secret River) on Thursday, I think we're going to need to pace ourselves a little better, or Christmas will flatten us. We took loads of pictures of the two events, so expect some postings later this week. And the Charlie & Lola mobile is now in place in the children's room - so if you coloured in and signed a piece last Saturday, a pop in and make sure it's hanging up correctly!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Morello Letters

Just time to draw breath from our Charlie & Lola funday (which was a big success - piccies to follow, we promise) before our first 'adult' author event this Thursday - Duncan McNair with his book The Morello Letters. Duncan McNair dreamed up the Italian Mr Morello, a lover of all things British, yet struggling to understand some of the finer aspects of British life, as an amusement for his nieces and nephews. He has written to politicians and celebrities and received some good natured and sometimes hilarious replies. As our first event, we're understandably nervous, and keen for it to be a success. This has been helped by the fact that the book is excellent, and we really feel that it deserves to be a great success, and also the fact that Duncan himself has been a joy to deal with, and extremely slippy with the old publicity. People genuinely love the book - and from my own (albeit unscientific and limited) view of people browsing in the shop, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Duncan has already got quite a bit of coverage for spoof letters to local councils (and others) - but unfortunately his highly amusing letter to Abingdon Council (which we shall have on display Thursday evening) was met with a bit of a sense of humour failure. Mind you, having just implemented a major change in Abingdon's traffic system, and having faced quite a bit of criticism for it, maybe they were understandably sensitive with Mr Morello's suggestion of using a dilapidated council building to store his menagerie in, with a moose and giant mexican slug being thrown in to cement the deal (the council have also received lots of criticism for the state of this building too). We still have tickets for the event on Thursday, and despite our failure in getting hold of a live goat for the evening (Duncan's original suggestion), it still promises to be a lot of fun. We extend an invitation into the blogosphere to come along and meet the author over a glass of wine, this Thursday at 7pm.

Friday, October 06, 2006

One of those eeeogggrrrhhh! moments

It was probably about Tuesday of this week when we were amassing glitter, crayons and pink biscuits that we suddenly realised something rather crucial was missing for our Charlie and Lola Day on Saturday. As Lauren Child outsells everybody in our shop, when some new books were coming out (especially one complete with glitter) we thought we just had to celebrate. Then a few mums pleaded that we hold it on a Saturday so their at-school children wouldn't miss it. Then August gave way to September and our Saturdays got really busy and we realised we could well have hoards of small children waving crayons (as they help us to make a giant Charlie and Lola mobile for the shop) in among the usual, fairly harassed and hurried Saturday shoppers. A good mix? We'll see. It should all be good fun. And there is free pink milk. So we were fairly panicky about what we might have let ourselves in for. And then we realised none of the books had arrived. About August time we ordered what is known in the trade as a 'dump bin' - a cardboard stand that comes full of nicely displayed books, especially for the new Charlie and Lola books. We thought we'd been well ahead of the game. We had been expecting it to arrive in plenty of time to assemble before Saturday and had also been running down our stocks of the books as we thought plenty more would be coming in. Then we realised, One Charlie and Lola day. No books. This is when a phone call (a bit panicky) to our suppliers told us that two days after we'd ordered it back in August it was cancelled because they'd run out. Gulp. Whoops, missed that one. Back in August we were generally panicky every day. We certainly hadn't got clued up to that fact that the way your suppliers inform you that something crucial is not going to arrive is as follows - the word cancelled appears next to the order line in very small type, at the bottom of an invoice full of details of half of your weird and wonderful opening stock ideas that have been discontinued or deleted and won't be coming in. We missed quite a few. We also missed several weird and wonderful customer orders that had also been cancelled. We don't do that much any more. Of course we're old bookselling hands now with a whole three months' experience behind us now and know to read to the bottom. But it was a bit of a shock when we realised we had practically no Charlie and Lola books to sell on Saturday, and certainly none of the new ones with the glitter. We do have some very nice mugs, though. And there's pink milk (did I mention this?). Anyway. We were lucky. None of them was out of stock and we had plenty of time to get shedloads in and we shall just use a good old fashioned table to put them on. Who needs fancy dumpbins anyway? Pictures next week.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Our doppelgänger?

A few week's ago we had a visit from WingedChariot Press - a splendid new publisher of translated children's books from around continental Europe. The range fits our shop perfectly, and we now have a WingedChariot display in the window. They are also based in Wallingford - a short boat ride down the Thames from Abingdon. However, when Ann from WingedChariot visited, she mentioned a new bookshop in Abingdon that she had recently visited - Mr B's Emportium of Reading Delights. Had we heard about it? Last week we were visited by Zoe from Egmont Books - and lo and behold she had just visited Mr B's - they were set up by a husband and wife team, not a great deal of experience, etc, etc. Did we know about them, etc? This required further investigation. It turns out that the spooky coincidences don't stop there. Consider that:
  • Mr B's opened on July 1st (admittedly with a big celebrity author, as opposed to me almost barfing in the entrance)
  • They have made extensive use of blogging (albeit theirs is in the more salubrious location of the Guardian culture pages)
  • Reading through the blog, their initial stock ordering experience was described as death by spreadsheet (check)
  • They have a cupboard behind the counter teetering with publishing catalogues
(That's enough spooky coincidences - Ed) Anyway - hoorah to Mr B's for giving the fine city of Bath something to celebrate after the demise of Secession Books, and we have added Bath to our places to visit when time allows to see it for ourselves...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


A few weeks ago, we started a regular Monday storytime. This Monday we had several children come along and - with the permission of their parents - we took a few photographs. Storytime takes place at 10am (for toddlers) and again at 2pm (for under-5s). Karen, who runs storytime for us, is utterly brilliant, with props and a storyboard to make sure everyone participates and gets involved. Monday's story was the Very Hungry Caterpillar (Saturday's food items going up on the board you'll notice). If storytime continues to grow in popularity, we may have to take over the front of the shop... Charlie & Lola is a firm favourite - our Charlie & Lola fun day (all day on Saturday October 7th may be a bit busy... Seems like everyone had a great time (actually, the little boy with the big grin is my son Alex, previously featured in this blog as chief bubble machine tester, and getting into some good habits for future publicity photos!) Our bookgroup has its inaugural meeting tonight in the shop - pop in from 7pm onwards for a glass of wine, to sign up for our Wednesday or Thursday group, and discover which books are first on the list...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Search for an uplifting read

We get requests large and small for all manner of individual tastes and general weird stuff. But one of my biggest challenges for this week turned out to be one I at first thought would be easy. It was for a customer who was looking for suggestions for uplifting reads for a recently bereaved relative. Not difficult on the face of it, until I started trawling the shelves and seeing how many books I quickly rejected. Anything of the triumph-of-the-human-spirit-over-adversity type seemed to be relentlessly grim for most of the book and not ideal. Generally, I was forced to conclude, good writers seem to prefer to write about the sort of challenging subjects that are simply hopeless if you're feeling weepy and want something to take you out of yourself. Even reliable stand-bys such as the utterly wonderful Salley Vickers' Miss Garnett's Angel, has quite a lot of death in it and I hesitated over saying whether it was at all appropriate. Obviously some sort of frothy romance was hardly the ticket and I wouldn't necessarily describe those as 'uplifting' in any case (perhaps that's just me). I was really struggling until I hit upon Elizabeth Von Arnim's The Enchanted April. That was written in the 1920s. And then I was saved by Persephone Books, classics all, but not a recently published volume among them. Where are the modern 'uplifting reads' ? So I am probably missing something (probably quite a lot) and have decided we have far too few uplifting books. So I am turning to our ever-reliable bloggers for helpful suggestions to put those rays of sunshine on our shelves. We all need a few uplifting reads ever now and again. I have to admit that I indulged in something I find less of an uplifting read than a guilty pleasure when I had a bit of a cold at the weekend. In a bit of a snuffly mood my fingers sought an Agatha Raisin (MC Beaton) detective story from my 'to be read' shelf. It has been sitting guiltily there for a long while and I promise I will return to a more respectable path this evening, especially as we are launching our Book Group this week and I have been busy concentrating on all sorts of erudite books to brush up my image as a bookseller of wide knowledge and exemplary good taste. I also indulged by watching the new BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre. Not one of my personal favourite books, but an excellent adaptation. I think I'm going to enjoy this one. But could I be the only person who, when Rochester's horse stumbled, I was half expecting to see Thursday Next lurking on the scene?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Adam Guillain

We had our first author event in the shop today - Bella Balistica author and creative writing consultant Adam Guillain performed storytelling and answered questions about his books. It was a lot of fun. Having got in early, James and I spent the morning moving tables and preparing a space in the front of the shop. We weren't quite sure how many people to expect. Adam arrived with his wife Charlotte and two children (George and Anna), but as 11am neared I got increasingly nervous as we only had one attendee (our nephew Oliver) and I was beginning to think we should have started our publicity earlier. However, by the time Adam started we had a dozen children, and a smattering of adults - and the event was a fantastic success. Adam is a very entertaining storyteller. He used music and props very cleverly to get everyone joining in, and as the children were aged from 1 to 12, he performed brilliantly to keep everyone enthralled (including the shop owners!). Rather than read from his books, he took questions from the children who not only asked him about his books and characters, but took the opportunity to tell him about stories they were writing. For some reason, we had a lot of budding young authors in the audience. Adam then signed copies for some of the children, as well as some for the shop. At one point, someone visiting the shop asked to take a picture, which at the time I thought nothing of. However, it was none other than the mysterious Abingdon blogger (referred to in yesterday's post) who beat us to reporting on the event. It was a really nice write-up - so thanks, whoever you are (at least I now know what he looks like!). Anyway - a big thank you to Adam, and Nicki and I hope this is the shape of events to come. (And a reminder that we have storytime this Monday (and every Monday) - 10am for toddlers, 2pm for under-5s).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Princess Anne and New Piccies

Aha - fooled you. Princess Anne did not come into Mostly Books today, but she is coming to Abingdon tomorrow (Friday) as part of the town's 450th charter aniversary, so we have no idea what to expect. Thanks to current security best practice the whole town will be 'locked down' for the middle of the day, with no traffic allowed from about 11am onwards, so either hoardes will descend and take advantage of the lack of traffic, or they will all be in the main market square and we shall be quiet. Whatever happens - our mysterious but prolific Abingdon blogger (who is creating an incredible piece of social history with his blog) will have full coverage of the event at the end of tomorrow. Anyway - on Sunday and Monday we undertook another round of work in the shop - and we felt regular readers might appreciate some new pictures (and compare them to previous posts). Paul did another superb job - particularly with building the children's bookrack from scratch - and we worked late into the night on both Sunday and Monday to get it done.

We've added an extra bookcase in the front of the shop (far right).

We've extended the counter...and put in new shelves at the back of the shop:

In the children's room we have improved the lighting:

But - taa dah - at the back of the room, where a dark and underused bookcase used to be...

We now have a splendid, custom-built children's bookrack with its own spotlight - here's the reverse view:

And finally - here's the current window from yesterday's Roald Dahl Day:

On Saturday, we have our first author event - Bella Balistica local author Adam Guillain will be performing in store at 11am on Saturday. He will be performing a music and storytelling session, talking about writing and his involvement with the Roald Dahl celebrations. He will also be happy to sign copies of his books. We invite everyone who reads the blog to bring their family to meet and talk to Adam.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Mysterious Flame of Zaphod Beeblebrox

Ahead of next week's Booker shortlist, I've started noticing that a small number of customers have a response to the shop which can be summed up as "oh my god, there are so many books". It's as if they feel they *should* be reading them all, and consequently feel guilty that they can't keep up. I'm reminded of a particularly hideous torture device described in one of the Hitchhiker's books called "The Total Perspective Vortex" which - once strapped in - allows you to fully appreciate your place relative to the entire universe, the shock of which usually sends its victims mad (only Zaphod Beeblebrox has an ego large enough to survive the onslaught). With the sheer number of books published each month, added to the sheer number of books *ever* published, it is pointless to feel that you can read but a fraction of them. (Unless of course you are dovegreyreader, deep into her 2006 Booker-a-Thon. Mind you, I'm beginning to suspect that 'dovegreyreader' is in reality a collective of sock-knitting community nurses locked away in a devonshire farmhouse beavering away at the list, but that may just be my slightly furtive imagination). I guess 'back in the old days' (say, the 1970s) when there were 3 channels on the telly, and the paper you read was indicative of your social status (i.e. there was no real *choice* involved) it was conceivable to cover all the information bases, and keep up with the important stuff going on in the world - and that included books. Now that the world of information has fragmented into a bewildering array of media types, channels, products, etc. it's practically impossible to identify the important or relevant books coming out, much less read them all. I'm sure the blogosphere is evolving too, with a 'blogorati' of publishers, authors and media outlets, which you can track and organise into your own tailored daily newspaper. Anyway, one of the nasty secrets of opening your own bookshop is that suddenly you have less time to read. Nicki and I have thus decided that part of our professional bookseller's duty is to spend a given number of hours per week actually reading the books we sell. This includes reading outside our normal areas of expertise. So this week "I have mostly been reading" a Joanna Trollope, a literary first (for me) and the experience was not unpleasant. After Slaughterhouse 5 (purchased during my recent trip to Crockatt & Powell) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, it was a nice, easy, inoffensive read and outside my normal comfort zone. All this reading, coupled with a sudden increase in the number of visitors (thanks to a piece in the local paper) and the strain of pulling our first events schedule together, has meant the blog has suffered. Our apologies, but expect our first events schedule to be published early next week...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Pride comes before a fall...

After Nic singing my praises in the last post, several people have come into the shop this week, rolling their sleeves up and ready to challenge my excellent searching techniques. And of course, muggins here has had some notable failures. One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing, etc. (Incidentally, this has shown just how many of our customers are now reading the blog - this has presented a dilemma. Do we carry on revealing our sometimes embarrassing experiences and failures in running Mostly Books, or do we now present ourselves - swan like - as effortlessly professional booksellers. Mmm. Tricky one.) Anyway - admitting defeat, here are a couple of the harder requests this week:
  • A book on the rules of cricket - written for children (10-13 years). I have cheekily posted this query over on Charkblog as well, as cricket is a topic that comes up frequently.
  • Children's book involving a "boy who dreams of a rocket"

Any help gratefully received as always...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Things Mark does better than me

Mark and I currently have a bit of a jobshare arrangement, owing to having a two-year-old at home, which means we are hardly ever in the shop together. Naturally things have descended into a bit of a competition about 'who's best'. And I have to grudgingly admit, Mark wins hands down on pretty much everything. In fact I'm getting pretty used to a look from customers that hovers hopefully somewhere over my left shoulder. "Oh I spoke to a very nice young man the other day. He was most helpful. and so charming. Not here today?" And Mark finds it so effortless to talk to people I'm sure it's only a few hours later (if ever) that people must look at this package in their hand and wonder if they really wanted that book. I can confidently say hardly anyone ever walks out of the shop if Mark's there without having bought something. Mark is also always utterly super at effortlessly finding the (almost daily) weird requests we get from people. Only this week a customer came in having 'heard an author on the radio beginning with A' and Mark ACTUALLY FOUND IT. I'm there fumbling with the keys, promising to get back to people and wondering why on earth we decided we'd offer to track down hard to find and out of print books. (Although both of us have failed miserably on a request from one of our favourite customers who heard about a book - about a couple who refused to do any shopping for a year. Anyone out there who can help on this? We are still searching in vain.) Mark is also much better at me at remaining chilled at the things that seem to constantly go wrong, particularly with what is turning into a litany of disasters with certain customer orders. For example. In our first week of opening we had a request for a slightly obscure book. Our customer ordered two copies. We contacted our wholesaler and they seemed to think there would be no problem. It took a few weeks, but one copy eventually drifted in. Where was the other? They would chase it. We telephoned and asked every week and only got a 'oh that's very strange' response every time, and an increasingly not-too-pleased look from the customer who dropped in weekly to check up on his order. Eventually I got so fed up, decided to try to track down the book myself. I couldn't find the publisher on the web, but actually managed to find an email for the author (a local academic) and contacted her, half expecting that with the summer break there would be no reply. But she got back to me the same day with contact details of her publisher, who were also most helpful. So far so good. But then unfortunately sent us a copy of the book without attaching a stamp (I tell you, this book is jinxed) and it was a good long time before it drifted through the Royal Mail and ended up at the sorting office where we could collect it after paying an exorbitant sum. Our customer eventually collected the book on Saturday. I have a feeling he won't be rushing to order any more. Why our wholesaler was utterly unable to get hold of more than one copy of the book is still an utter mystery that I guess is all part of the learning curve by two novices stumbling their way through the book trade. Mark is also much better than me at some of the things that go wrong. I am beginning to really gnash my teeth. In fact it's not just the wholesaler who is not in my good books at the moment. As well as Thursday's (Parcelforce) delivery going to Waitrose, Friday's (Parcelforce) delivery was delayed. As ever when there are delays, it was chock full of time-sensitive customer orders. A phone call to the wholesaler assured me the delivery had been despatched and was on its way. First phone call from anxious customer and reassurance. The book that she needed as a present TODAY would definitely arrive. A bit later the customer came in. Had the delivery arrived yet? Another phone call to the wholesaler. They checked and were able to tell me the van had broken down, but the delivery was definitely on the van and it would arrive, only be delayed. Lovely customer very understanding bought two more books (and asked me to track something complicated down which brought on a few minutes of inexpert fumbling with the computer and a promise to 'get back to her'). The book would DEFINITELY be with her, I said. If it was really late we'd drop it in to her at home. Then the said driver arrived in the shop to collect two boxes (wrongly - they had been collected the day before - by Parcelforce. See a pattern emerging?). Yes, he was the driver who had broken down. No, there was no order for us. Panic. Another call to the wholesaler. Oh, in that case your order has gone missing and it DEFINITELY won't arrive today. Aarghh. This was about four o'clock. Phone customer with bad news, or . . . ? A quick phone call to a large, independent bookstore in Oxford ascertained they had the book and I insisted Mark drive in, buy it and deliver it to the customer. Cue 30-mile round trip - major kudos to Bl*ckw*lls. (And don't even ask about the special American wine book order that we were so chuffed we could order that then went AWOL during the recent security scare.) I tell you, every time a customer comes in and wants to order something that isn't actually in stock with our wholesaler I break into a cold sweat. Mark is much more chilled than me about cock-ups. He says it comes from having spent the last few years trying to sort out software problems with people in Indonesia and the Congo. I'm not quite so convinced this bookselling lark is going to be such an effortlessly pleasant and relaxing way to spend the day as Mark seems to be finding it. But I still reckon I'm going to win our 50p bet on whether his obscure American "persuasion architecture" (don't ask) web marketing book 'Waiting for your cat to bark' book will ever sell. I still reckon I'm better at stock choices than him.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The 1000 yard walk - past Waitrose

Nicki and I started Mostly Books for largely lifestyle reasons, and to fulfill our dream. Certainly the "make more money than Croesus and retire early" part of it was scotched early on in the business planning stage, once we 'did the math', but lifestyle is definitely still top of the agenda. There is a very pleasant walk to work from where we live to the shop, along the river. Never mind that often we're running a bit late, and one of us has to drop the other off in the car: the theory is that the day starts with a pleasant walk into work - and this morning I was able to do just that. Bliss.

I read somewhere that - when performing - Elvis Presley would insist on having his trailer exactly 1000 yards from the venue. During this 1000 yard walk, no matter what state he was in (from drugs, drink, squirrel burgers, etc.) by the time he got to the stage, he was in the mindset of 'The King' that would allow him to perform.

I can't say exactly what the mindset of a bookseller is yet, and my walk this morning was a tad over 1000 yards, but there's definitely something in this. A nice walk, fresh air, getting in the mood to talk to people about books. And the walk home this evening allowed me to slough off the day before getting back to the house.

Today we suffered a mix-up with our local Waitrose. At 2pm today we hadn't had our scheduled delivery of books from Gardners, and as there were a couple of customer orders in there ("yes, they will definitely be here today") I was getting a little nervous. I then got a phonecall from someone called Rob at Waitrose: "We've got your books". 

Waitrose is about 5 minutes walk from us (in fact, if I'm in a hurry, it's faster to walk home through their car park). Plenty of our customers take advantage of the car parking there to pop in. So I ran round there to see what had happened. They had received an order from Gardners (now we know where they get their books!) and the Parcel Force guy had lobbed out our box along with theirs (they had more boxes than us - sob). They had already unpacked and checked off all the books, but I think 'Rob' smelled a rat when he came across some Betjeman poetry, a 1940s Agatha Christie anthology, "My Name Is Red" by Orhan Pamuk, and an obscure hardback children's book called "The Runaway Dinner". We're no longer in Kansas, etc. Anyway - thanks to Rob for tracking our shop down and giving us a ring. What a star.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Have we read them all? No.

I am beginning to recognise a look on some customers' faces. It comes when you recommend a book they might like and they fix you with a cobra-like gaze 'Have you read it?' they want to know. And if you confess that, actually, no, you haven't read it yet, they give a superior, sort of knowing smirk that tells you they're thinking 'Call yourself a bookseller'. Which is tricky, really, because, let's face it, you might have a pretty darn good idea of what's in all the books, but you can't read everything. And you sure can't like everything. Mark and I think ourselves pretty lucky as we like utterly different books, which means I can leave all the dull stuff to him. The release of the Booker longlist, once again, has created that feeling in me that far from being a reasonably prolific reader who enjoys keeping up with the latest fads and disasters in the bookworld, actually I have been living on another planet. In fact I'm sure part of the whole point of the booker long list is some private pleasure of the judges, who only live for that moment when they can fix some poor sap with a cobra-like gaze ask 'Have you read it?' and deliver a superior, sort of knowing smirk that tells you they're thinking 'Call yourself a booklover'. Which brings me on to something we've been meaning to do for absolutely ages - update the links on our blog. Since we started the blog, I think it is safe to say we now read very different blogs and probably have some very different aims in what we hope the blog might achieve. So, most importantly, we have given a long overdue update to the list of the blogs we read. There are plenty around that are great for delving into and finding unread or unheard of books we think we might like to read. We've also still got a few to add, but, as ever, Sunday night came around with a list of jobs still to do and no hours left in the week. And we heartily recommend going to look (at least) at the blogs of some favourite booksellers - if not visiting the shops themselves if you get half a chance. And wonderful reviewers like dovegreyreader are (bless her) going to attempt to read the entire booker long list. And she has links to other people attempting the same and offering reviews. Go take a look.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Thursday night bash

We've finally recovered from our opening do on Thursday evening - although there are still a number of hard-to-shift wine stains to be dealt with, and the biography section might never recover. By which I mean nothing more sinister than the fact that biography buying seemed to be the popular choice of the evening. Although mysteriously we are still left with Jeremy Clarkson. He's proving harder to shift than the wine stains. It was a tremendous evening and - as usual - Nicki and I were a bit bowled over the nice people who continue to support our shop. Our fears about there only being the Mayor, his wife, Nicki, myself, a couple of nervous tummies and the wine stash were realised on the stroke of six, when Peter Green and his wife Hilary arrived - he in full 'mayoral bling' (his words - see photo) were first through the door. But from then on more and more people turned up until the shop was buzzing. It was simply fantastic to see it so packed full, although it got worryingly difficult to get to the wine table until people started drifting into the courtyard garden. It was just a great atmosphere and heralded (we hope) the start of lots of fantastic evening events. We are busily trying to put together a programme from the large number of incredibly generous authors who have already contacted us and offered to do talks. (More info soon.). Kudos to Alison Hoblyn and Ben Jeapes who both came along. The evening was really helped to get into full swing by Jill Carver of Added Ingredients (at the other end of our street, who provides our cookware for our "cooks and books" section and the delicious coffee we serve). She had chosen an inspired range of organic wines for the evening, and a big thank you is due because she spent the evening pretty much serving wine, running up and down the street to fetch more of it, and recycling glasses. Thanks very much Jill. And just in case we did get busy we had hedged our bets and did a quick till training for Nicki's Dad, Maurice, who deserves special thanks as in the end he performed sterling service not moving from the till all evening. I don't think he even had a glass of wine (sorry Maurice). But, as ever, what made it so special was the number of people who, having never met a month ago, turned out in such large numbers to share a glass of wine with us and toast our venture. Now all we are missing is a customer who likes Jeremy Clarkson. Any takers?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

All set for Thursday

Right - the shop is cleaned inside and out. The wine arrives tomorrow and I think we're all ready for our big do tomorrow night (we're ready, although as a first *event* it is possible it'll be me and a lot of wine and books). Oh, and apparently the mayor *is* coming, so shame on me for thinking he wouldn't make time in his busy schedule. So make that me, the mayor, his wife and a load of wine and books. (Am I beginning to sound at all nervous about this?) And a pity that two of our recent orders disappeared en route from Gardners, one of which contained the book our MP ordered... Anyone who may be reading this blog and thinking what a grand life the bookselling life is (we may have given that impression from time to time) should come round and mop the floor. I try to convince myself it's a spiritual activity that connects me in a deeper way to the shop, or somehow generates some form of karma in making the business a success. But let's face it, it's a menial task I find it impossible to get enthusiastic about. I only take heart that when little Johnny is let loose in the children's room whilst Mum browses, he doesn't come out looking like he's been up a chimney. Our post about the risk of Waterstones opening in Abingdon generated quite a bit of advice and comment. Nicki and I really appreciate it. Our strategy will be:
  • Don't worry about it until we know something more tangible (although we took note of all the advice from Mr Laties and others).
  • Continue with our policy of developing our lovely bookshop as our first priority and, really, the only thing we have real control over.
  • Start making offerings and the odd sacrifice to the "Good Luck" message from Tim Waterstone proudly on display on the wall behind our counter. (Perhaps we could start with ritual disembowling of some of our least-loved books??)

I went to a talk given by Tim Waterstone just as our idea of opening a bookshop looked like becoming a reality - and of course, bought his book. I seem to remember that when Tim started Waterstones, he'd been booted out of WHSmith and effectively carried out a 15 year vendetta to squash them into the dirt (they in turn allegedly ran an internal corporate 'book' taking bets on when he'd go bankrupt - nice, eh?).

I don't think Waterstones would be quaking in their boots over anything we do.

Talking of getting inspiration from great booksellers, I had to go to London yesterday, and took the opportunity to wander a couple of times around Waterloo until I located Crockatt & Powell (both the bookshop and the owners themselves). I urge anyone in London (and outside for that matter) to seek them out, marvel in the utter wonderfulness of their stock selection, and (of course) buy a book or seven. Adam, Matthew, it was a pleasure to meet you both, and, as through the blog you were generous to a fault in advice and inspiration.

I'd like to repeat our invite for anyone in the blogosphere thinking of coming tomorrow evening. 6-8pm, wine and books. Lots of both. We hope to see you here.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The pleasures (and perils) of fame

Well we have officially passed our first month of being open. We are starting to feel we are getting the hang of things (starting) and are now hardly ever making a mess of our stock orders (hardly), like mysteriously receiving several copies of things we don't even remember ordering and suddenly having zero books in stock of our bestselling authors. Duh. Anyway, we did plan to open rather quietly so we could practise our novel bookselling skills on just a few unsuspecting people, who have been very wonderful and kind and patient as we look goggle eyed at the till and realise we have no Philip Pullmans. Duh again. However, now we have actually started getting complaints from people for not making greater effort to let people know we are here, we have taken steps. Our first step came in the form of a local journalist, who came along today with her mum, who bought some books and settled down in our fabulous Penguin "The Garden Party" deckchair (in our window) and said it was so comfortable she fell asleep. We expect sales to rocket, and may hire her to sit there full time. Our friendly local journalist listened very charmingly as we went on, literally, for hours, about how totally wonderful it is to open a bookshop. There is always a point when talking to anyone with a tape recorder where you suddenly wonder what on earth you just said and knowing it's going to sound pretty stupid. And there is definitely a danger when we talk about the bookshop that we do sound like a couple of overexcited schoolchildren who are just having the best time in the world. So apologies and thanks for this morning. We were lucky that the lady who came to interview us shares an equal enthusiasm for books and had some great contacts. We really hope to approach some of the lesser known local authors to head up our events list. (Local authors beware - we know who you are.) Our first event, as mentioned previously, will take place next Thursday and is partly an official opening and mostly a thank you to all those wonderful people who have stepped into our shop and made the whole experience come alive for us. We are hoping for a good turn out and good weather so we can make the most of our courtyard garden. We have also invited our local MP - Dr Evan Harris - who was at the local Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting yesterday morning. After the event finished, he came up to the shop and bought/ordered some books (I promised to make it clear they were presents for his long-suffering researchers and assistants!). We were really honoured. Evan is a genuinely nice guy, and an MP who is very well-respected both locally and within Westminster. He also has an excellent taste in books I'm bound to add. (I have, incidentally, been mistaken for him twice. Both times were in B&Q in Abingdon bizarrely. Perhaps it's the lighting?) And then somebody else suggested today that we invite the Mayor, which we then did (we'll find out next week if he's coming, but with six days we can't blame him if he can't make it). So all in one day we seem to have expanded from opening in a very quiet way to being interviewed by the press and having the possibility of having both the local MP and the mayor at our opening do. Which is all rather good news as we did have some bad news the week. It was a bit of a bombshell actually - apparently a group from Waterstones was in Abingdon a few weeks ago investigating the feasibility of opening a bookshop . . .

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One month on

Today was our one month anniversary. Hard to believe we've got a month of bookselling under our belt, and I'm wondering where that fresh-faced, trembling retail virgin has gone that opened the door on day one... I was really delighted when Stephen Bowden (better known as Wenlock in the blogosphere) introduced himself this morning, having taken a detour en route to a meeting in Oxford to negotiate the Abingdon one-way system and seek out the shop. In our high-tech, busy-busy, remote comms world, it is something very special when someone you've got to know on-line materialises in the real world, especially someone like Stephen who has offered us lots of words of encouragement through his blog. Stephen, thanks for taking the time to visit today, it meant a lot to Nicki and I. And I hope my holiday reading recommendation works out (!) - enjoy your upcoming holiday. Next week (Thursday August 10th) we will be holding an official launch party in the shop - and we would of course like to extend an invitation to everyone who reads our blog. It's from 6pm-8pm at the shop, although the wine will be uncorked from 4pm onwards for anyone arriving early. There's a map on our website - email us for tips on deciphering the Abingdon one-way system, and we hope to see you next week...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Our youngest customer

We think we may already have achieved some sort of a record - one of our most regular customers started coming in before he was born. Now, most definitely our youngest customer is the delightful (well, difficult to tell really as he has been blissfully asleep on most of his visits) Oscar, aged about one week. His Mum (Sophie) came into the shop a couple of weeks ago, heavily pregnant, and then came in the following week with new-born Oscar to have a coffee in the courtyard garden. She came in the shop this morning, as did Oscar's two older brothers Fin and Barney (and gave us permission to mention him on the blog). They also seem to be more at home in the children's book room than we are. On being asked about having a new baby brother, Barney (aged 5) commented "It's Nice". Early days of course.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bookseller paranoia

I'm sure anyone in the bookselling business will know the symptoms well, but Nicki and I have identified a malaise we have started referring to as 'bookseller's paranoia' (or BP). Some of the symptoms are as follows:
  • A creeping fear that - during a slow day - a minor change made to the window display has somehow deterred book buyers;
  • A nagging doubt that after the first customer has purchased one of your star books in pride of place on the front table, the next 4 visitors to the shop who left without buying anything wanted that exact book;
  • The fact that the pirate-related titles you ordered from the wholesaler are currently out-of-stock is not because you're new to this and didn't order in time, but is, in fact a cunning spoiler from rival bookshops;
  • The face-out biography of Jeremy Clarkson leering at you across the room is blighting your entire biography section;
  • Everything you've heard about or read about that should be selling, isn't - so why aren't people buying those titles from our shop?

Of course, it's a bit much for us to start drawing too many conclusions from two and a bit weeks of bookselling, but I think focusing on chatting with and getting to know our customers has been a good antidote to BP.

Paranoia aside, one official thing we have learned from our 2.5 weeks is that we absolutely love this job. We knew we liked books. But now there are the customers. And we love them too. Yacking all day with people about their enthusiasm for books has got to be the best way to spend the day. It is a privilege.

Here's a few other things we've learned so far:

  • The demand for coffee seems to drop off exponentially above 30 degrees.
  • You wouldn't believe how long it takes to mop the floor of a small shop (when do normal booksellers get their cleaning done? Not sneaking in on a Sunday, the only day we're closed, I'll be bound).
  • We have a lot to learn about stock ordering and management - but thanks to advice from Crockatt & Powell, Andy Laties and Wenlock Books (amongst many others) our opening stock was well received. It's such a joy when people tell you it's like the library of every book they'd like to have at home, or that it's so nice to have a bookshop run by people who obviously read books.
  • Displays make a huge difference, and one of the big jobs we have hardly scratched the surface of yet is writing our recommendations.
  • DHL have the most cheerful delivery drivers.
  • You don't sell any Fifi and the Flowertot activity packs - and then three go in one day.
  • It turns out you can have too many copies of the Da Vinci Code.
  • No matter what you've got in stock and what you think you've got a small knowledge about, people ask for help choosing the most bizarre catagories.
  • Just as we're breathing a sigh of relief about getting our opening stock looking nice, we realise we should be ordering for pre-Christmas.
  • People do want to shop local.
  • I think the biggest thing we've learned is that Abingdon is full of delightful people who love books and do seem to want a shop in their town centre where they can enjoy shopping. The positive feedback we've received from people wanting us to do well has been tremendous. Aside from the fact that it's where we live, we couldn't have wished for a better place to open our shop, or receive a warmer welcome from everyone (literally today - it was 33 degrees).