Thursday, April 27, 2006

It’s just us then

We got hold of (borrowed) the keys to the shop at the weekend to go over it, not so much with a fine-tooth comb, as with a tape measure. We worked out just how we’re going to turn something with quite such nooks and crannies into something with shelves. A lot of shelves. As we prodded and delved, the shared unspoken voice said there is probably a reason why it is currently stocked with free-standing shelves. Fortunately we took along with us a friend who’s a bit of a whiz in the shelving line. As Mark and I bit our nails and stared and appreciated that the ceilings sort of starts off high and get lower towards the back, the floor slopes quite a bit and some of the corners just disappear down narrow nooks or finish as somewhat less than ninety-degree angles. But there was no drawing in of breath and tutting, which is why it’s so much better to consult expert friends than, well, experts. After the final measure we got a ‘shouldn’t be a problem’, which was a huge relief to us as in our house there are usually tears and tantrums if so much as a tub of filler and some cream emulsion come out. Talking of tears and tantrums, Mark and I had a conversation about the sort of tables on which our beautiful stock would be laid out for purchase. I had a couple of ideas that were, admittedly, no more scientific than going for money saving options to keep our costs down and minimise our chances of not being able to keep up the payments. After the conversation descended into a decidedly petulant ‘it’ll look like a garage sale’, we agreed I was to head off into Oxford and do some research into what constitutes the ideal table for selling books. What this meant in practise was me sneakily taking piccies with my digital camera, feeling a bit subversive and hoping I wasn’t doing anything that contravened any Acts of Bookselling. Anyway, the sum of my researches was interesting. I mentioned to someone while discussing the bookshop that Mark and I would go into Oxford to go around the bookshops of an evening whereas possibly, some other people might head off to the pub or cinema, if that’s what takes your fancy. The look I received hinted that I’d had just divulged a rather smutty little secret and that I might be ever so slightly mad. But, the thing is, we have spent hours in these bookshops and we could not think how exactly they displayed their merchandise. So, by way of a small (very) quiz without a prize. Can you guess which of these is Borders, which Blackwells and which Waterstones? All the above research I think just goes to show that it doesn’t particularly matter what your tables look like. But just look at all that stock. With Oxford less than ten miles from us it’s not going to be a picnic competing with these giants. But I like to shop local and with all the parking hassles, etc, still view a shopping trip to Oxford as a big event, so hope other Abingdonians will feel the same. We are also neatly positioned near Waitrose, which has a vast car park, and on the basis of exhaustive research, feel that people who shop at Waitrose are the sort of people who buy books and are almost bound to feel irresistibly drawn our way. Anyway, enough of the research. The answers are: 1) Blackwells 2) Waterstones 3) Borders. Cracking research, and I only spent a mere £26 while I was in there. (Well, we are going on holiday soon.)

All is finally revealed

You need be on the edge of your seats no longer. Our meeting with the landlord went swimmingly. We seem to have struck lucky with a landlord that is both kind and enthusiastic and we have her blessing for the setting up of Mostly Books on her premises. So, I think it's probably OK to say now that it will be in Abingdon. Or Abingdon-on-Thames as I believe we are now, although we've always been on the Thames. Before you ask, it is a small market town south of Oxford with fantastic road links (although, sadly, no railway), to make it extremely easy for people to beat a path to our door.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Black books

Since we started this blog we have learned about two independent bookshops which have closed in April - this is obviously pretty distressing, as both seemed to be set up with a combination of experience, passion and vision. The sudden closure of love2read ( on April 1st was quite a shock - we had them on our list as a shop to watch for some of their inspirational and innovative marketing. But the closure of Secession Books in Bath just a few days ago is perhaps even more of a shock. There is a fitting eulogy to its closure by dovegreyreader here (and we found out this news through her excellent blog) - but when it opened less than 2 years ago, there was real expectation (in the Bookseller and further afield) about bucking the trend in independent book retailing. Their slogan was "because a book is not a tin of beans", a brave rallying cry against the wafer thin margins of modern book retailing. These two bits of news - delivered in April - have made sobering reading for Nicki and I. Aside from serving as a momento mori for the undertaking (not a great choice of word in the circumstances) we are embarked upon, it's also made us look very closely at our business model and strategy. On the Secession website (which may disappear any day now) it states "...independent bookshops are critical to maintaining diversity in the marketplace of ideas" and that the founders "encourage people to support their community by patronizing a local shop". These are two ideas we obviously get behind 100% - but fear it may not be enough to survive (and hopefully thrive) in a South Oxfordshire market town street in the 21st century. As worthy as these two goals are, a third one needs to be added - adding superior value by constantly innovating. That may sound like managerial psycho-babble (is that a word?), but it just means constantly striving to create and maintain a great little shop. And I don't think innovations needs to involve massive investment in new technology - remembering people's names and what books they like to read whilst handing them a cup of coffee. Now even Tesco's and Amazon would have difficulty with that one. At least - we hope they do!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

We can probably, almost definitely . . .

Things are moving. In fact, we can almost definitely reveal where it is going to be sometime this week. And you will be the first to know.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

This is the sort of story we like

It's always great to hear stories where sheer good writing gets recognised and wins through and gets the publishing deals, so we loved the story of Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora. It was discovered in 2004 by Gollancz publishing director Simon Spanton, not by Scott Lynch sending it to a thousand agents, but because Simon Spanton found excerpts posted on Scott Lynch's web journal. Two years on, The Lies of Locke Lamora has found an American publisher and is confidently predicted to manage to achieve the holy grail of cross-genre success and appeal to readers who don’t usually like fantasy. His hero is imaginative and goes against type and it all sounds rollicking good fun, with dark bits. Just two months ago film rights were bought by Warner Bros. We hope it’ll be out in Britain soon. And another good story came to me from the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger bulletin. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s been posted onto their web site, so I can’t do a link, but it’s a great story about how Canadian writer Louise Penny has achieved success. She entered the Debut Dagger after spending a year and a half sending query letters to all sorts of agents and publishers, without luck. But all those people who turned her down were proved to have been short-sighted when, undaunted, she entered the Debut Dagger competition for new writers. She was shortlisted and found an agent. Still Life was published in Canada last autumn and swiftly climbed to number five in the bestseller list. It was published in the UK two months ago, so I will definitely be looking that one out. If anyone has a crime novel waiting to get out the deadline for the Debut Dagger is almost upon us (April 29): A great competition that seems to read new writers with a more sympathetic eye than perhaps they get through the usual channels.

It’s not about the books

I think we can say we are reaching an easy consensus about what people want from a bookshop, except in one big area. I’m afraid that’s the – er – books. Coffee, somewhere to sit and browse, staff who don’t scowl at you when you walk in the door, have some attempt to remember you’ve been in before and don’t spend their time ignoring you and scattering their lunch crumbs on the merchandise. But the big one of ‘I want it to be full of books I want to read’ is going to be the real challenge. I’m beginning to have some sympathy with publishers having to decide from all the submissions, which books they will actually publish and try to guess what the dear old public are going to take to their hearts. It is, as everyone recognises, such a subjective thing. I have to particularly thank for such a great (dismal) picture of her local bookshop I am quite tempted to visit, and also for her cracking piece about trying to guess the shortlist after gamely reading the Mann Booker long list. It is a lesson that sometimes you simply cannot see why everyone seems to love a book. I have long realised that I have reading tastes entirely at odds with what the rest of the world thinks is any good. I was looking at the long list for the crime novel of the year Now I do love crime novels, but have never warmed to the whole forensics and science of crime genre. It’s just a big turn off for me. And frankly, if I read one more serial killer yarn it’ll probably be one too many. So I wasn’t at all surprised when last year all the books I loved best never made it to the shortlist. Today’s crime is wanted gritty and realistic and the more blood and bodies the better. But I was thrilled to see a few of my favourites have at least made it to the long list again this year. It also means I know I can confidently predict exactly which ones won't make it to ths shortlist. Sorry Simon Brett, although he may sneak through as I have to confess that although I love his Fethering series mysteries, this one is actually far from being my favourite. Kate Atkinson has written a crime novel and has long been one of my adored favourite writers. But I really was knocked out to see Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley by MC Beaton make an appearance as Agatha Raisin is a quintessential cosy, set with a female amateur sleuth in the Cotswolds. Of course Agatha Raisin herself is hardly quintessential or cosy. She has various vices, makes pointedly little effort at the bring and buy sales and invites a lot of awful media types to her cottage that shock the villagers. But despite her generally appalling behaviour, she usually manages to win the sneaking admiration of the local eligible bachelors whom all the good-works spinsters of the parish are swooning after. Brilliant stuff. And I thought it was only me and half of America who was reading. Although I suspect Penelope Keith’s marvellous portrayal on Radio Four may go some way to explaining why suddenly Agatha has popped into the longlist. No guesses as to where my vote will be going. Anyway. I feel I may have digressed somewhat from the main subject. We promise we will have books people actually want to read – or, at the very least, we shall do our humble best. Do keep the suggestions coming please.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

It's a bit like buying a house, really

After all, for one of the major decisions in your life, how difficult is buying a house? You drop in, have a bit of a poke around, a quick call to an estate agent to put in an offer. A couple of weeks later and you may have had one brief chat with a solicitor, fill in a form for the bank, by which time you can’t remember whether the kitchen looked as if it had been redecorated in the last decade and if all the curtain rails looked like they’d been put up by DIY first-timers after one too many cherry brandies. A few weeks later and you’ve got all your possessions in a big van and you arrive at your new home without really feeling you’ve done anything for such a life-changing event to have occurred. It’s beginning to feel like that with the bookshop. The odd telephone call here and there, and it really looks like everything is going to go ahead. Not that we’re exactly waiting for someone to raise a hand and say a big ‘no’. But when you’ve never done anything like this before, to suddenly realise that in approximately ten weeks’ time you’ll be sitting behind a counter of a shop that you actually own and run. It’s, well, a bit scary. So what have we actually been doing? The big one is that our accountant has said we need to be a limited company. But he can do that for us. It’ll take seven to ten days. The name Mostly Books Ltd is available, which is a bit lucky really. One telephone call from Mark and apparently we now have a web site and email. (Nothing on it yet, of course.) One phone call to a solicitor – lease can be reassigned, local searches done. July 1. No problem. (Hefty quote in the post any day now.) We have a computer system. Second hand. We phoned the computer company, who couldn't have been more helpful and said they are happy to set it up for a bookshop. We need to set up account with Nielsen first. (Very reasonable quote in the post any day now.) Mark took a trip to the south coast to pick up computer. That has saved us spending weeks trying to find the best system and doing a comparison. It was more a case of - it's available, it'll do the job. Hooray for ebay. Shelving. Several people have recommended Ikea. Much cheaper than we thought possible. Several people have offered assistance putting up a few shelves (!). Even the dreaded bags are looking possible for opening. Saw some bags we liked when out shopping – quick email to the shop concerned, quick telephone call to the printer – samples arriving in the post any day now. Delivery six to eight weeks, can probably produce art work from anything we send in an email. Brilliant. I have read on several occasions that you can’t wish to find a nicer bunch of people than crime writers – something about killing all those people on the page. Well everything that’s happened to us so far has made us think you can’t get a better bunch of people than small business owners (although I dread to think what their equivalent of killing all those people on the page might be). The two big ones that we haven’t yet achieved are: to meet with the freeholder to see if she likes the idea of a bookshop and actually wants us to go ahead. The meeting with the bank (gulp) to see if they like our plan enough to lend us shedloads of money to help realise the dream. The first of those is happening tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Friday, April 14, 2006

An easy way to find the needle in a haystack?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any aspiring writer in possession of a good manuscript must be in want of an agent. I’m just gearing up for that part of the writing that requires screwing up enormous courage - to send your nurtured off-spring out from the cosy, intimate world of your study and into the cold, commercial world of the agent. As with any small objects of desire, agents can afford to be choosy. You’re going to have to put all your big guns up front as there is no place for the modest wall flower, unless you happen to be the daughter of a celebrity or duchess. So are there any the rules today for sure-fire success? And how about shortcuts that will save all the agony of waiting for the telephone call and rejection? My recent researches have revealed that the whole business of securing an agent is one that has not changed all that much for centuries. Does that mean all that’s left open to us is a blind date with the Writer’s Handbook and a pin? Rather than going for a scatter-gun approach, the best tip appears to be to try to find a like mind – an agent who handles an author you like. It used to be a pretty lucky find if you discovered a thank you to an agent in an acknowledgement. But a quick web browse on an author’s name can often track down a press release, or press reference to who their agent is. Trouble is, if you like Ian Rankin and PD James, isn’t this aiming, well, a little high? It seems an open secret that not all agents are equally in need of new authors. Those well-established with a few big names that churn out bestsellers reliably every year are probably only going to launch those new hopefuls they feel will enhance their reputation. Fine if you’ve got Booker potential. You probably won’t be reading this. This is where finding, perhaps, a newly published author you enjoy reading is more likely to point you in the direction of someone who likes the same things as you and is actively looking for people to sign. One of the big steps forward into the modern age appears to be that many agents are generous enough to have web sites these days. Websites also have useful submission guidelines. appears to keep a pretty comprehensive list of agents, and links to their websites. Although any browse through who an agent already handles usually leaves you gasping and thinking ‘well they won’t want me’. Then there is that wonderful piece of advice about not going with the first agent that offers a deal and meeting several and considering offers. Well, hey ho, I’ll be sure to follow that suggestion. Most aspiring writers get a sniff of an agent being interested and it’s a blushing ‘yes please’ and straight to contracts (not to say bite their hand off) before they can withdraw their offer. Anyway, those are my nuggets. I am spending this week trying to put together my hit list following the above advice. They don’t know who they are, but there are lucky, lucky, individuals who will find my work on the slush pile that’s propping open the door this summer. Additional tips, comments on the above and any other helpful advice all gratefully received. I shall keep you posted on whether the agents are behaving themselves as they are supposed to over the coming months.

Shhh it's a secret

Hope you don't think we're being deliberately provocative in our not yet revealing where the shop is going to be. It's more of a case of not wanting to jinx things as we haven't yet signed the lease and there is still time for it to slip through our fingers. We love the marvellous picture from Wenlock's blog (always essential reading). Ours (hopefully) is a grade II listed building and kind of looks like it was always meant to be a bookshop (on one floor only, sadly). I don't like the fact that in the picture it looks like there are more staff than customers. category tags:

Three confessions

I did say I would let you know how the no-book-buying has been going, especially as we were heading off to Waterstones to take our son to meet Kipper. I know Kipper wasn’t actually signing them (perhaps if he’d had smaller paws . . ), but we managed to escape having successfully resisted buying any books, which I was pleased about for about five minutes before the guilt swept over me. I had attended an event a bookshop had organised and I didn’t even buy a book. The horror. I have definitely never, ever done that before and felt truly terrible. But I spied redemption as a sign loomed in front of me like a second chance. An Oxfam book fair. Well . . . that was for charity, and second-hand. So that didn’t count as book buying. And I felt especially good when I saw the light in their eyes as I staggered through with my purchases. I probably didn’t exactly need two carrier bags full . . . but I do confess a particular weakness for second-hand books, which will be the subject of another blog soon (will we/won’t we have a small second-hand shelf in the shop??). Anyway, that’s two confessions out of the way. The third is that I do actually write as well. One of the reasons behind the bookshop thing was I felt it was a good sort of a job for an aspiring writer to do. In his talk Tim Waterstone said half his staff would be scribbling away in quiet moments, so I am obviously no alone in this. I had planned this blog to point aspiring writers in the direction of good help on the web. But as we seem to be getting quite a few published authors visiting the site I was having second thoughts as I am still at the bright-eyed-and-hopeful, just a couple of short stories published stage. But what the heck. My first recommendation is a site I have recently joined. There are several writing critique sites out there, but many suffer from a few too many very new writers and no-one offering that much by way of constructive criticism, probably because it is an expensive commodity. is supported by the Arts Council, giving members the opportunity to review and rate another member’s opening chapters and the highest rated chapters receive a free critique from literary professionals - and there is a self-publishing element that I hope has big potential. It’s a great way to read the wonderful selection of stories in every genre and get a fascinating inside view on what all those fantastically imaginative other writers out there are doing. I have recently bravely posted my first chpaters. A very nerve-racking business, particularly in view of the high standards. I already feel I have been far too mean and critical of all the work I’ve read and hope anyone reading my stuff is going to be gentle. category tags:

Saturday, April 08, 2006

No turning back

It's been an exciting week as we finally have our grubby mitts on the lease and a verbal agreement to take over a shop in a rather innovative and exciting way that we hope will work well. We are going to take control and transition an existing shop over a 3-month period in a way that should ensure we can both continue to trade with no downtime for either of the shops, and will allow us to get to grips with learning the ropes before we make much of a song and dance about the fact we are there (I may have mentioned our lack of retail experience - this is one way to quickly plug that gap). In short, we have found a brilliant leaseholder who couldn't have been more helpful about helping us get started. (Sorry that we can't yet reveal where the bookshop is actually going to be - but there are still a few hurdles to negotiate, so bear with us for a few more weeks.) It was certainly all enough for us to realise this thing is going to happen, so first step was Mark letting his company know his plans, and give his notice. Cue a somewhat stunned silence, followed by lots of 'are you sure you're doing the right thing?' conversations. Probably not, but we're going to do it anyway. On a sad and worrying note we also got news this week that one recent bookshop start-up we'd been watching with interest has closed after less than a year's trading. It's a serious business to try to get things right. We realised how green we were about the whole thing when we vaguely mentioned we should get some bags sorted to put all our lovely sold books in when our friendly leaseholder pointed out it had taken her more than six months to get hers arranged. Oops. And we are opening on July 1. We had better start getting organised. So what are our first steps? Aside from the business admin part of things (company, bank account, etc.) we need to get an account set up with a wholesaler, and this ties in to the EPOS system that we will eventually get. No-one we've asked in the booktrade can agree on who is the market leader here, we've had recommendations for Bertrams, Gardners, THE, etc. and this usually goes hand-in-hand with the kind of stock management/ordering technology you select. So it's a big decision, we haven't really got the luxury of 'try before you buy'. (We have taken steps on an EPOS system as Mark is all keen to be computerised from day one. We are hoping to save some money and get a second hand one, but the person we were negotiating with has suddenly gone very quiet on us, so I hope that deal isn't going to fall through.) So we haven't been idle. Just a bit overwhelmed. We also need to decide on oh, small things like shelving (type/height etc) and get the whole thing fitted, although we are hoping to do this gradually and initally sell books alongside the current shop stock (this is the innovative bit I mentioned earlier). Then we have the fun/daunting task of deciding exactly what stock to put in. Here's your chance to live vicariously through us - what would you buy with £10,000 of the bank's money to spend on books? (That's something else for the list - negotiating a business loan with the bank) That's quite a list. And I haven't even started on the whole 'which font are we going to use' discussions in our house. And someone was asking how the no-book buying rule was going. Well, so badly, I may have to do a confessional soon just about how badly and get it off my chest in the next blog. WTS. Finally. Yes, there will be coffee. That's a definite. In fact, the way things are going and the tight deadline we have set ourselves there is a small that on the first day there will be coffee but no books. But hopefully we can get our act together and that won't be true by July 1! We are prepared for a very steep learning curve and plenty of mistakes along the way. But so far our experiences could not have been more positive, particularly in terms of the support and help from everyone who has heard of our venture. category tags: mbbookshop

Full steam ahead!

Apologies for the lack of posting of late - but a momentous week. Hubby gave his notice in at work (Wednesday), and we agreed terms to take over the lease. Full steam ahead for a July 1st opening. The clock is now ticking. A bigger post over the weekend with a few more juicy details... category tags: mbbookshop

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Meeting The Big Man

Bit of a red letter day on Tuesday. I met Tim Waterstone. OK, that sounds a bit like we went out for a drink, or we had a meeting where I pitched him our bookshop plan. I actually met him briefly at a talk and book signing he gave (where I broke our ‘no new books rule’. Tut tut). I’m not sure who or what I was expecting – but I guess in my own mind the man credited with single-handedly changing the nature of bookselling in this country was going to be a brash, dynamic, aggressive man – and for some reason I thought he was going to be 50ish. Tim Waterstone was certainly dynamic – and a very entertaining speaker. My initial impression though was of a favourite uncle (or rather great uncle – Tim is in his mid 60s). He was self-effacing and softly-spoken. Many of his anecdotes belied his strong love and passion for his family. His revelation (to me anyway) that he was clinically deaf communicated an unanticipated vulnerability completely at odds with what I was expecting. However, as the talk went on, what began to come across very strongly was a very hard-edged, driven and passionate individual who had – for many years – pursued with single-minded ruthlessness the goal of building up Waterstone’s. The story of Waterstone’s – for those who don’t know it (and I didn’t) is worth recounting. He was sacked by WHSmith in 1982 at the age of 41, with £6,000 redundancy to his name, and a wife and 6 kids to support. In firing him, the WHSmith Chairman told him “I don’t mind much what you do now.” before adding, as an afterthought “Maybe we’d prefer it if you didn’t open any bookshops”. At this point WHSmith had 40% of the UK book market (difficult to believe). From this point on, and driven by what he cheerfully admits to be “psychological issues” which translated into an almost pathological desire to destroy WHSmith’s market share, Waterstone’s began its meteoric rise, culminating in a failed attempt to takeover WHSmith. It is interesting (to me anyway) that one crucial element that allowed Waterstones to succeed was the Net Book Agreement. Nowadays, if some aggressive start-up opened opposite Borders, they could simply brutally discount or run endless 3-for-2s in a war of attrition. But in those days, with no discounts allowed, Waterstones was able to take on WHSmith simply in the art of selling books. The masterstroke was to recruit staff who were qualified, passionate and knowledgeable about literature – transforming bookselling into a retail experience where that passion and enthusiasm communicated directly to customers – and translated into ever-increasing sales and market share. The one big thing I take from all this is – bookselling is mostly about people, the ones selling and the ones buying, and the way they connect. I’m reading Tim Waterstone’s book “Swimming Against the Tide” and really enjoying it – but not for the reasons I thought. As a “business success book” (a subject on which I feel qualified to judge because I must have read over 200 self-help, business success books in my time) it is, frankly, a bit of a disappointment (sorry Tim). Perhaps I’ve read so much of this stuff, that – really – another treatise on the genius of the Wal-Mart founders, Branson, Dyson, et al is a bit of a well-worn path. However, the bits of bookselling and the Waterstone’s experience are tremendously inspirational – and therefore priceless as we count down to opening the shop. Here’s a guy who walked the walked. One of breed of entrepreneurs who changed the business landscape in this country in the 80s and 90s, and is a big part of the modern book world. Despite his declaration for the need for utter ruthlessness in the pursuit of your dreams, he comes over as a genuinely nice guy, something that anyone who ever worked for him will testify to. I was inspired to meet him, and came away buzzing with ideas. Obviously, I bought his book, and naturally he signed it. But he also wrote and signed a good luck message for Mostly Books, and when we open, you can bet that this will be hanging prominently on display. Back to reality – there’s the small matter of the POS system to sort out this week. Any advice gratefully accepted... category tags: mbbookshop

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Oh no it’s Kipper Day

Mark and I have introduced a TOTAL ban on book buying ahead of M day – when we launch Mostly Books (current aim July 1). That is a COMPLETE ban on ANY book buying. I wasn’t really standing with my nose pressed against Oxford Waterstone’s this week, but I did happen to notice Kipper is in town this weekend. Kipper (for the uninitiated) is a laid-back dog and Martin Clunes does the voiceover for the television series, and is on the essential purchase list for our two-year-old, Alex. But I’m afraid Kipper is not going to be our first lapse. Mark had a three week business trip involving over forty hours of flights, so felt he needed a book of Su duko puzzles and a copy of Moon Dust. A breathtakingly good account of man’s experiences in space (so he tells me). Then we bought a Little Robots book and audio CD for a little boy going into hospital. And for Mark’s birthday I bought him Space Race, the book of the recent televisions series (spot a space theme here? yes, so did I). Then Mark had to buy Tim Waterstone’s business book when he went to a talk recently. Well, not too bad. Well, actually, (including an inevitable Kipper purchase or two this morning) it’s seven purchases in just over a month – and a month with a ban on at that. That’s more than one a week. Oh no. We are addicts. Still, let’s hope we get a few customers like us in our shop. category tags: mbbookshop