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?