Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bookshop Tourism

A few weeks ago Nic and I came across a US site Bookstore Tourism and we were both taken with the idea of booklovers either making pilgrimages to specific bookstores or, more likely, adding a bookshop or two on an upcoming business or holiday trip. We liked this idea for purely selfish commercial reasons - hopefully people will make a special trip to come and see us when visiting Oxford (for example). However, it also started a germ of an idea of a global network of small, independent bookstores all promoting each other to their regular customers who come in looking for travel books: "Oh, going to Devon this Summer, here's a list of bookshops you might like to pop into if you have a chance". Not exactly the "Bookstore Tourism Movement" talked about at the BookExpo America last week, but something nevertheless positive, inspirational, and easy to start in a small way. I think it works well with the whole blogging culture to boot. As I discussed here previously, my job for the last few years has taken me to a few exotic locations, and I'm currently in Medan, Sumatra on my (last ever) business trip for my current company. So - to kick off the "mostly bookshop tourist network", I decided to seek out and report on a bookshop cafe here in Medan called "Socrates". Medan doesn't have many English language bookshops, I didn't have a great deal of time on the trip, and it's a national holiday today in Indonesia. I did visit one Indonesian bookshop in the Thamrin Plaza, but it was small, crowded and seemed to be mostly full of comics. Someone had recommended Socrates to me at one of the business meetings here earlier in the week - so I jumped into an air-conditioned taxi (it was 32 degrees C here today) and went for lunch. I have to say upfront - the place is definitely more cafe than bookshop. With a name like "Socrates" it reminds me of the QI bookstore in Oxford, as the books on display are an eclectic mix of philosophy and business success - mostly in Indonesian, but some in English. There are also plenty of other second-hand books that you can read whilst eating and drinking your (frankly excellent) vegetarian food and fresh juices. The cafe is split into two - the top has a very low ceiling, so the seating upstairs is Japanese style with low tables and you sit on cushions - surrounded by second-hand books to read, and some books for sale at the far end. Downstairs is more traditional cafe decor. (The Socratic quote on the far wall was a nice touch "Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.". Underneath was an array of self-help books). The waiters didn't speak any English, so after some interesting exchanges using my limited Bahasa Indonesian (and a Lonely Planet phrasebook) and I sat down to eat. Whilst I was there, I was fortunate that the owner - an Indonesian-Chinese man called Benny - came in and we got chatting. His English was excellent, and I asked him how the bookshop idea came about. He said it was simply a combination of two passions - vegetarian foods and books - and although the bookselling was not the core part of the business, he had regular customers who liked the ambience and bought books fairly regularly. Nice to know that even on a small scale, creating a place that people like to return to often translates into regular books sales! After taking a few piccies, and finishing my meal, Benny offered to pick me up that evening and take me to "Plato" - his new place also in Medan. I declined (I leave tomorrow) and besides, this one doesn't have a bookshop. I guess I should finish off the report like a proper travel writer, and tell you that dishes cost approximately Rp19,000 (that's about, ooh, £1.00) and I can particularly recommend the freshly squeezed juices (at about 50p a pop). I appreciate that the chances of anyone reading this blog a) being into books, b) being a vegetarian, and c) being in Medan are somewhat remote, but FYI "Socrates" is on Jl Airlangga No.14-C, Medan. Nic and I will try to bring you some more bookshop tourism in the run-up to our July 1st opening. Feel free to recommend any bookshops that people should take a detour to visit, post them here and we'll add them to the network. Next stop, KL tomorrow on the way back to the UK. Meanwhile, Nic has been busy sorting out shelving (involving a nightmare visit into the strange world that is Ikea) and more bookstore stock-idea raids into chains (Ottakars). More news on the store next week...

Friday, May 12, 2006

We've decided to forget all about it

Just in case our regular readers have noticed we haven't been keeping up to date on all the nitty gritty of what's been going on, you're right. We have decided to forget all about it. We're going to forget all about it for a whole week while we're on holiday. We booked this a while back as a 'we probably won't get one for a while' last chance. But when Mark's company asked him to also do one last trip to Indonesia before the end of May, the holiday has been not so much a sunny peak to look forward to at the beginning of summer as looming like a big dread deadline on the horizon (OK, not quite that bad). So have we been panicking? Panicking? Has the fact that we still have no loan agreement with the bank been bothering us? Or the fact that we still haven't had confirmation from our wholesaler that they actually want us to sell their books? Have we been on stock compiling raids at every neighbouring bookshop? Have we spent hours compiling a beautiful list of wonderful books we want to sell that seems to be growing easily by the day that we probably won't even have room for, let alone will be able to afford? Have we packed for the holiday? When are we leaving? In about an hour. Did the Rebel Bookseller arrive hot from America just in time to be essential holiday reading (yes!)? I think 'frenzy' might describe quite well what has been happening in our household. So perhaps I'd better go and finish that packing. Don't worry if you don't hear anything more for a couple of weeks. It's all going really well and is so exciting and I think a week by the pool might actually be the good idea we thought it would be. We really appreciate all the help and comments and suggestions for books and other groovy stuff to have in our shop. We'll look forward to reading all your latest ideas when we come back.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sustainable bookselling

Another busy week, and a manic weekend. A decision made on the stock sourcing, company formed, first stock purchased (thanks Lou!), two Andy Laties-inspired intelligence-gathering forays by Nic deep into enemy territory (two unnamed Oxford chain bookstores) and an almost overwhelming amount of goodwill and practical advice received which we can (to quote Dale Carnegie) "set our teeth in".

It’s two months since we started this blog – and I think it’s appropriate at this juncture to thank everyone for the advice that has been received. Really – at times we’ve been overwhelmed. Aside from the comments posted directly to this blog, a few people have taken the considerable trouble and effort to contact us directly and share tips, strategies, experiences and industry contacts.

I don’t think I’m overstating the case by saying that the information received is probably going to make the difference between success and failure. Saying thank you doesn’t really cover it – but the best way we can say thanks is to channel our energies up to and beyond July 1st (our opening date) and make the shop a great success. Whatever happens – you’ll read about it here first (let’s hope it doesn’t make too agonising reading).

As you can imagine with a heavily pregnant bookshop-to-be (to continue dovegreyreader’s slightly disconcerting analogy) the atmosphere in the Nicki and Mark household is fairly intense- defcon 3 I would say. Even our two year-old uses words like ‘blog’ and ‘bookshop’ in casual conversation (at least that’s what I think he’s saying – he may just be asking for more chocolate) and we are having to introduce time-out periods and ‘no-bookshop’ zones into our daily lives (“first rule of bookshop – don’t talk about bookshop”).

One of the things that we have discussed a great deal about is how to make the bookshop as green as possible – and we’re not just talking about our lack of experience here. My background is in sustainable technology – first in renewable energy, and for the last few years, in sustainable forestry. I don’t leave my job for a few more weeks – you can get a flavour of what I currently do for a living here. I’ve seen something of what havoc consumer behaviour can wreak on remote communities at the wrong end of the supply chain. Cheap hardwood patio furniture can often translate to stolen timber, degraded forests, corruption and oppression of very poor communities. OK, that’s a simplification of a complex situation, but all I would say is if you are planning on buying some patio furniture this Summer, check this out first (OK, there’s my plug for certified timber done – I’ll put my soapbox away).

There are a number of campaigns going on to make books themselves greener – but there’s precious little an independent bookshop can do to influence them (I know – I spoke to Greenpeace about it and they said as much). I can really see publishers quaking in their boots when I threaten to boycott their books unless they start sourcing FSC-certified paper…

However, if you look at sustainability in its broadest sense, leave out the blatant eco-friendly stuff, and consider it from a business point of view, isn’t it just doing things in a way that ensures you’ll be around in the future? Looking at the carnage of bookshop closures recently, I’d suggest sustainability is something that everyone should get more interested in. 

Along those lines then – what’s our big plan to be sustainable? Firstly, get the basics right, and ensure that the business is viable. Costs down, income up, don’t drop the ball on the three biggies: happy customers, happy employees, healthy cashflow. (The “happy employees” are Nic and I by the way).

Secondly – realise that long term sustainability is only possible if you are growing. Sustainable forests are partially harvested – some trees are left to grow and seed the next generation. We’ve got to try to grow everything – sales, profits, our expertise in finding great books, our understanding of what customers want from “their bookshop”.

Finally – everything is interconnected, and (without disappearing up my own backside here) you need to respect and contribute to your ‘ecosystem’. Simply put, you set out to make a positive impact on your local community, something I think the best bookshops do par excellance. And I think we’ve proven (to ourselves at least) there is just as valid a community of people online that is essential to bookselling success as there are traipsing off the street gagging for decent reading material.

So – there you go – sustainable bookselling. And on that note… There was a grass-roots independent bookshop campaign launched on April 6th by Books@Hoddesdon called “Love your Local Bookshop” which we are keen to get involved in. But people shouldn’t commit to patronise local bookshops just out of some sense of duty – that’s just not sustainable. They should commit because in loving their local bookshop, their local bookshop will love them back, delivering a fantastic retail experience that enriches their life and that of their community. And without sounding too much like an old hippy, that’s a great basis for a beautiful (and sustainable) relationship.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Getting the stock in

The decision about who to go with to get our stock is now upon us - and it's come down to a decision between Nielsen Bookdata and Gardners. The latter is one of the leading wholesalers for book retailing in the UK - offering a whole range of services that makes them very attractive for a small independent. However, Nielsen are a little more of an enigma. Since buying Whitakers, they have (I feel) attempted to combine the excellent bibliographic information with TeleOrdering into what might be a very innovative system. I've had several chats with various people in the organisation, and they've been very helpful, although (as they themselves have admitted) they offer so much flexibility in tailoring services to lots of different client sectors, sometimes it all gets a bit confusing. My concern is that - for a small independent, especially one that needs to keep a close eye on budgets initially - Nielsen is a bit of a Rolls Royce system more suitable to larger operations. As I understand it, Nielsen is trying to provide a fully-flexible system of allowing you to order directly from the widest range of publishers (getting round some of the restrictions of a wholesaler) - without having to go to the publishers themselves. This is combined with their innovative data services. However, you have to pay a significant premium over the (essentially free) wholesaler ordering system. We're faced by this decision in part because of our EPOS system (Oscar Book) which integrates with both (or more accurately either) system. So how both systems integrate with Oscar is also something to bear in mind - Nielsen are very much the preferred candidate. We have more information arriving from both companies this week - any experiences of recommendations out there would also be gratefully received...