Thursday, June 29, 2006

Books on shelves, sign on front

We may have mentioned before that we are not closing the shop at all in transitioning it from a cookshop to a bookshop. This has been a real challenge (some might use a stronger word, like 'lunacy'), but with some judicious movement of stock, late night and weekend work swapping in new bookshelves, it's worked really well. We started with the back room (which will be the children's room) and this has allowed the current shop owner (Jill) to provide a sneak peek to her regulars (she has an excellent deli further along Stert Street). Part of the bookshop will be very much a 'lifestyle' section - with cookery and gardening books interspersed with selected lines of her cookware - it looks very classy (but will it sell?). We've worked very closely with Jill over the last few months, she has provided excellent mentoring throughout, and Mostly Books would not be happening without her. Things seem to be progressing smoothly - with the exception of the BT line. Having received a confirmation of the installation date (29th June) in both email and letter, when I phoned this morning, they apologies and said this 'seemed to be a mistake' (only after I'd been put through to several departments). However, the heros over at artsmeetsmatter have begged and bribed to get us some Penguin deckchairs and mugs at short notice which should be arriving tomorrow (these looked particularly splendid in the window of Wenlock Books). We've slowly been slipping books in over the past week - but the pictures I took last night were a tad disappointing (I'll post a couple below). We've put the bare minimum out from the first part of the stock order so far. Tomorrow is the last 'big push' with family and friends helping to get books on shelves and do the finishing touches and I'll post some final photos late tomorrow night/Saturday morning. Now for some sleep...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

T minus three days...

After a brief boiled egg and soldiers with my son, it's back to shop for a mammoth session with the first stock orders. Today was a full day's training on the Gardlink system courtesy of Bob Peel from Gardners, who are currently in the running for "nicest company we've ever dealt with". So tonight there is the small matter of 20 boxes of pristine books awaiting my urgent attention, for booking into the system. Bliss. Tomorrow BT are scheduled to turn up and activate the broadband connection. The front signage is also being changed. The coffee machine is being booted up and tested. Start the Mission Impossible theme tune someone... If my eyelids can be propped open later this evening, I'll post on my return...

A special moment

I few years ago, I used to have a fantasy that someone gave me £1,000 (or similar) which I then had to spend on books. The fantasy also involved blowing the aforementioned grand in a very short space of time in a bookshop closed off for the purpose. Well, this evening I sat in the shop, opening several boxes of books, unwrapping them from the packaging, making mental notes of the ones I'd really like to read. OK, the money has to be paid back, but it came pretty close. It was nevertheless a special moment. Unfortunately (once again) I failed to take any pictures of books on shelves (tomorrow, promise!) but one important thing we did do today was get a bubble machine for the grand opening on Saturday (to try to encourage the customers and - more importantly - their children in). Alex volunteered to test the bubble machine to ensure it complied with all relevant health and safety legislation. Here's some pictures of the chief bubble tester in action.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Has it been that long?

Somebody pointed out yesterday that we have not been keeping up with our daily countdown to opening and, in fact, have not posted since Thursday (has it been that long?). Where has the time gone? So, just in case you were getting worried that we are staggering under a weight of slightly dodgy looking opening stock - here's a quick update. (Actually a few people have said to us recently 'oh won't you be busy when you open', as if we have actually gone to bed before midnight once in the last few months and made us remember we actually started this mad scheme when mark was still in a full-time job and spent large amounts of this time in the jungle where there wasn't even running water, let alone an internet connection. We did also get a terrified text message from the bloke who's stepped into mark's shoes who had just landed after a hair-raising internal flight in the Congo - I believe he's considering opening a bookshop.) Anyway, we did manage to get our initial stock into the back room in a 'not at all we are open' sort of a way for Saturday. The idea was more of a marketing exercise than anything else and has (we think) generated some interest for Saturday, when we are actually opening, although still not in a grand way. (Far to terrified.) We decided we'd need a few weeks to find out what on earth we were doing before we felt confident to ramp up any sort of marketing / publicity as we definitely won't cope if there is anything like a rush. (BTW, I have just checked the weather for this Saturday - 31°C. Coupled with a certain football match in the afternoon, a rush might be a bit hopeful. I think serving lemonade in the garden might be added to the list...) The stock arrived in about twenty boxes, of which all was opened, except one, and all the stock put on the shelves. We opened the last one finally yesterday and that's the one that contained the delivery note. What are the chances of that? Sunday we had a family descent day when a load of people got into the shop and we started to install shelves in earnest in the front room (currently still in use as a cookware shop). The transformation is really beginning to take shape. The cookware was replaced, with just a few books sneaked in here and there. Then yesterday our friend Paul was back and moved the enormous counter from the front of the shop, replaced it with shelves and has built us a nice compact counter and coffee serving area. It has opened up the shop enormously and is now looking really fantastic. Thanks Paul. (There might have been photos of this if Mark had remembered when he returned, bleary eyed at midnight last night.) Our second stock order has arrived. We shall not attempt to get this on the shelves until The Big Push on Friday night, but we think we have enough stock now to open with. Thanks very much for all the helpful display comments. It's all really useful stuff and has halted some of the panic, particularly when we realised about a quarter of our first order wasn't in stock and won't arrive until the middle of next month. Perhaps we have been far too quirky with what we've ordered??? Well, we wanted to look a bit different and our main aim has been to create an interesting browsing experience. Only time will tell whether we are anywhere near getting it right, but we expect things to evolve anyway. Or change utterly. Today our computer should be arriving. So what have we still to do that we should have done? Mark confessed last week that he never, ever read past the first page of our critical to do list as it was just too scary. At the beginning it ran to at least four pages. But it is now down to a manageable one. The main one oustanding is that we haven't actually signed the lease yet! Still. Then the last big list remains for Friday night. When we move current stock out, move our stock in, replace final big shelves with tables and about a million other things that should only take twenty or so hours to do, leaving us with at least one hour's sleep before we open. Let's hope the coffee machine is up and running because we will be drinking it by the gallon to keep ourselves awake through that first day.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A fantastic day

We had a wonderful, inspirational day yesterday and visited the Independent bookseller of the Year, Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock.

The owner, Anna Dreda, could not have been more helpful or welcoming and gave us some brilliant pointers about ranges and titles to sell, new ideas (eg a children's book group) and was generally a source of much inspiration. Most importantly the whole bookshop gave us a first-hand feeling of how much atmosphere can be steeped into a good bookshop by someone with a deep love of books. Thank you Anna for showing us so much kindness and giving us something so clear to aspire to. I can heartily recommend a trip to anyone.

You can read in the visitors book that people literally come from all over the world to drop in and appreciate how a bookshop should be. Anna also dipped into our blog while we were digging around in her shop and commiserated with my enormous task of getting all the ISBN numbers for all the books we want to stock. This has taken an unbelievable amount of time, so much so that I started having nightmares that we would only get to 't' before we opened and wondering whether we could simply turn it into a quirk of the shop of the 'oh no we don't bother to stock anything after the letter T, don't you know no-one reads Minette Walters any more' kind. But I am getting there. I don't know exactly why I thought there would be a simple way, but slogging at the computer hour after hour is the only method I have come up with. Apart from bribing my eleven-year-old nephew with all the Dr Who and goosebumps stories he can read. He's been totally brilliant and we shall be assured a good range of Roald Dahl and Captain Underpants.

So with ten days to opening, how are we faring? Our first order has gone in with Gardners and they have been utterly brilliant and are delivering it TODAY. About twenty boxes. We are unfeasibly excited. The plan is still to sneak in our books around the cookware, building shelves in the evening and gradually turning the shop from mostly a cookshop to mostly a bookshop over the course of this week.

We did have a vague idea that we might not need to fix the bookcases to the wall until we were absolutely sure where they were going to go. But with the listing floor of our listed building we rejected this on health and safety ground as we didn't want anyone suing before we'd even opened by being trampled by 100 Lonely Planet titles.

The first stock order is mostly our cookery, garden, homes and lifestyle titles, which will fit in best with the current look and feel of the shop. These were the easiest titles to come up with, although it was a bit of a lesson because when I went through the list getting all the ISBN numbers I did slowly realise that actually most the stock in our shop is going to be a basic extension of the sort of books we have at home. And I thought I was being so objective.

Thus we have quite a stash of titles on healthy living, aren't trees wonderful, going for long walks and you too can grow carrots in an unfeasibly small space. And not a lot on, say, bonsai. (wouldn't every right-minded person prefer to grow tomatoes?) So as long as all our customers are slightly green, keen cooks who like getting their hands dirty we'll be fine.

The fiction has been more problematic as I have desperately tried not to be too judgmental and only include titles I feel I can personally recommend. So going through on my ISBN trawl I have been guilty of thinking 'oh no I read that and it was terrible' and then noticing it's the top one hundred bestseller and gritting my teeth and keeping it in the list. It has not been easy. Even worse, I notice that my highlighted list of 'hot summer reads' is actually mostly my personal list of what I would like to read after the pent-up demand of enforced non-book-buying over the last few months. And I do appreciate I have slightly quirky taste and am now pondering whether the biography of Mrs Beeton is really likely to be considered a 'hot summer read' by anyone other than myself. Still, there you go.

The other problem is that I have a vivid picture of myself slapping people's hand's away as they try to buy the latest Kate Atkinson and snapping I HAVEN'T HAD A CHANCE TO READ THAT YET. (Wouldn't you prefer a nice book on bonsai?) and keep sneakily hoping that no-one turns up to buy anything so I can just lock the door and get on with some serious reading. But it's probably just all down to too many hours at the keyboard tracking down ISBN numbers.

Anyway. We have chic and charming cards, penguin book mugs, charlie and lola notelets and pencil sets all converging on the shop over the next few days. All we need is some customers to buy them. Let's hope it rains. Our major disaster for this week was that we had called BT months ago to check how easy it was to change the phone line and keep the number and install broadband. As they said it was all perfectly simple and only needed a couple of days' notice, we shifted it to the bottom of our somewhat lengthy to do list. Only to discover on phoning on Monday that it's all hideously complicated and will take forever. Not ideal as we have our computerised real-time, on-line stock control and ordering system arriving on Tuesday, about three months ahead of having any phone line.

Mark did get slightly annoyed during the course of the conversation and I have to say, Mark never, ever gets annoyed with anyone. But the upshot is that we can actually keep the same telephone number, which is fortunate as it is appearing all over the 5,000 bags we have ordered which are also arriving just-in-time this week.

Anyway, I shall now let Mark put in some photos of Wenlock books and say thank you once again to Anna. And add what a pleasure it was to actually allow myself to buy some books. I am especially looking forward to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. We hope one day that Mostly Books will be the sort of treasure that people will come miles to visit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Initial stock order in (part 1)!

T-11 days A short one tonight. Nicki is already asleep and the effects of my last coffee have now officially ended. Whilst a large section of the country watched a football match, Nic and I worked on the latest version of the stock list + the shop layout. Both feed off of each other - as we refine the list, we have new ideas for displays and positioning, and this involves a bit of rejiggling of shelves. This impacts on the book numbers, etc, etc. Gardners are allowing us to make our initial stock order over a number of weeks, so today we got the first one in - arrival date either Friday or Monday depending on the impact of Harry Potter deliveries this week on their warehouse. We also ordered display material (from Pennant). Tonight we did the "final final" plan (wait for the "final, final, final" plan tomorrow) - and a step-by-step transition plan to avoid having to close the shop. More tomorrow...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bookshop Tourism part 2

T-12 days. Day spent on stock lists, various admin stuff, and this evening setting up bookshelves in the back of the shop. One last item from our travels last week. After the kick-off of the mostly bookshop tourist network last month, here's another bookshop we managed to visit last week in Portugal. Julie's Bookshop is situated in the town of Albufeira (the quaint, touristy, cobbled-streeted old town, rather than the brash, 24-hour clubbing 'strip' further along the coast). We stumbled upon it by accident, situated just below Albufeira's parish church:

Inside, the shop resembles a grotto of second-hand books, and whilst German, Dutch and French books are stocked, the vast majority are English books:

Julie herself has been running the shop for several years - she was a bit disconcerted with me taken her photo, but here she is:

She is now interested in selling the shop as a going concern. I promised to mention this on the blog. So if you've always wanted to run a bookshop in the Algarve, now's your chance.

Contact Julie at: Julie's Bookshop, Rua Igreja Nova, No 6 , 8200 Albufeira, Portugal. Telephone: 0035 289 58 54 96 (Email me for her mobile number - I didn't get her email address).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Poolside reading

Opening: T-13 days Nicki and I have just returned from the Algarve. On first inspection, fitting in another holiday so close to opening seems to be bordering on lunacy. However:
  • The trip was for Mum's 60th birthday, and the entire family was gathered together for the week
  • It had been organised about 2 years ago whilst Mostly Books was but a mere twinkle in our eyes
  • We spent a large part of the week making phone calls, sending emails and making last minute revisions to the shop layout / stock order
  • It's the last holiday we'll be having for some time we think...

It is now less than two weeks until opening and we're trying not to panic. We'll try to keep short updates throughout the entire time (probably in the wee small hours by either myself or Nicki, eyelids drooping).

Anyway, back to the Algarve. In between sitting on the beach, playing huge games of highly competitive family french cricket, and sitting round sneaking the odd bit of World Cup footy, books were never far from our thoughts.

Unable to relax by the pool, I decided instead to perform a (completely unscientific) poll of poolside reading amongst the overwhelmingly British clientele. I tried to do it surreptitiously, but I'm sure at least one of the woman reading thought I was oggling her. Anyway, the results (in the order I furtively scrawled them down over the course of the day) were as follows - and an interesting breakdown they make:

  • Alan Titchmarsh (hardback) - title unknown
  • Tongue in Cheek - Fiona Walker
  • Latest John Grisham
  • 3 Dan Browns (but no Da Vinci Code - probably no-one left in the Western world who hasn't read it yet, and if there are, they don't holiday in the Algarve)
  • Philip Short - Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (jolly holiday reading I thought)
  • Jarhead - Anthony Swofford
  • Lace 2 - Shirley Conran (unnamed middle-aged male reading this one)
  • Faithless - Karin Slaughter
  • A Man Named Dave - Dave Pelzer
  • We need to talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver
  • Jordan: A Whole New World - Katie Price (woman reading it without a cover, so not obvious from a distance. Some guilt involved?)
  • On Ice - David Ramus
  • The Seventh Wave - Emma Sinclair
  • A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil - Christopher Brookmyre
  • Blackout - Chris Ryan
  • A Jackie Collins novel (moved away before noting title due to potential oggling accusations)
  • A walk to remember - Nicholas Sparks
  • Sheer Abandon - Penny Vincenzi
  • A Cuppa Tea and an Aspirin - Helen Forrester
  • Vanishing Acts - Jodi Picoult

Serendipity in a list. I'm sure someone could write a PhD thesis on this: Influence of size of pool, average daytime temperature, etc. But for now, it's back to the shopfitting...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Sneak peek

Slightly later than promised - a sneak peek of the shop. Here's what the shop (currently) looks like from Stert Street. Some imagination is required for the following pictures:

Here's a view inside the front of the shop (imagine the warm welcome from the knowledgable and enthusiastic staff):

The view through the rear window onto the courtyard garden (imagine passing this en route to the garden, a couple of volumes and a coffee in hand):

And finally out into the garden (imagine lounging in what is a suntrap with book + coffee - I'm afraid I don't know what the shrubbery is):

Finally, a shot from the back of the shop. The wall on the right is part of the original Abingdon 'city wall'. The whole building is listed (and listing in places - there isn't a straight line in the entire shop) which makes fitting bookshelves a bit of a challenge:

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Some humble pie

"How to Win Friends and Influence People" was first published in the US in 1936. It was published for the first time in the UK in 1953 and has been republished many times since. It has (along with As A Man Thinketh and Think and Grow Rich) some claim to be the grandaddy of the modern self-help / self-improvement / success literature genre. Anyway, the reason I mention it is that the very first chapter, and the first principle in improving your ability to win friends and influence people, contains the advice "Don't criticize, condemn or complain". Apparently, Dale says "any fool can criticize, condemn or complain - and most fools do". Well - in my last blog entry, fuelled by a 4-hour stock list compilation binge, and frustrated with some usability gripes, I made some derogatory comments about the Gardners website. Yesterday, I had the great pleasure to spend several hours with Jim Youell of Gardners, and now that they have answered all our questions, and frankly exceeded all our expectations in terms of the services they can offer us, I feel obliged to offer an apology. In addition, now that I understand how the system is *supposed* to work, I will now eat this large slice of humble pie regarding the website design. Sounds of pie being swallowed. Glad that's done. It's fair to say that, thus far, everything Susan Hill said about Gardners has been true, and more so. I cannot praise them highly enough, and we look forward to working with Jim and the rest of the Gardners team in the weeks and months ahead. And while I'm in the confessional, Nicki referred to the 'vile green' wall we've recently redecorated in the shop. That was my comment Jill, and I had no idea it was the colour you chose when you originally moved in. Profuse apologies. Gosh, I feel much better... (BTW, a geeky factoid about Dale Carnegie: he was originally Dale Carnagey, but he changed the spelling of his surname in the 1920s to be the same as that of the phenomenally successful Scots-born steel baron Andrew Carnegie...)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Now the hard work begins

Last Friday was my last day at my 'old' job, so now the hard works begins as we've less than a month before our self-imposed opening date of July 1st. We are currently in the labour of love / long, dark teatime of the soul that is "putting together our initial stock order". With all the excellent advice we've had over the past few weeks, we have been busy making stock idea raids into bookshops all over the south-east of England but Amazon is providing the major source of information for the list itself. An anonymous comment back in April suggested that rather than looking at Amazon as a competitor to be feared, there might be potential synergies for independents; and that's the conclusion we're coming to. There is tremendous information to be mined on Amazon, and although we're having to be very disciplined in order not to get sucked into endless niche categories of which we were previously unaware ("supernatural romances for teenagers" anyone???) we are busily putting together mini-canons for all the categories that we've decided to stock. (Amanda, your comment about ISBN numbers is well taken - I'm cut and pasting away into our master Excel spreadsheet as I speak, or rather, blog). Our initial order will be with Gardners - and (as an ex-website designer) the Gardners website is pretty cutting-edge...for 1999. In Internet years, that's about 30 years ago. I recently read an article by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen that quotes him as saying "Business-to-business websites still live in the 90s in terms of interacting with customers online". Of course, Gardners might say "if we redesigned the website, that'd be 1% less discount" which is a fair point, but tomorrow, when Jim Youell (our regional account manager) visits us, we're hoping the whole order can be done from our spreadsheet without having to manually type in 2,000+ titles into their web interface. This may be somewhat tedious... Other jobs for this week:
  • More in-store preparation - and a sneak peak on the blog inside the Stert Street site
  • Following up with those authors who have contacted us over the past month with suggestions on stocking their books.
  • Coffee-related shenanigans (barista training!)
  • Me coming to terms with the loss of my works' laptop......

OK - back to the cut and pasting...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Not for the fainthearted

Mark touched down at Heathrow at 5.50 am Saturday. By midnight the shop's back room was beginning to take shape and was no longer a vile green (much relief all round) or had a sticky carpet. The bank holiday saw the transformation of the back room, which will be our fantastic children's area. It had been rather neglected and is now looking absolutely fantastic, thanks entirely to our friend Paul, who spent gloriously long hours magicking it into something even better than expected. And room for more shelves than we thought . . . better up that book order again. Anyway, enormous thanks to Paul. And thanks to for the ideas and suggestions that keep coming in to us. If we haven't replied (and I know we haven't) it just means that we've been a tad swamped. But Mark finally will leave his job on Friday, which will mean more time to devote to all the things we need to do, although will also mean a final wave good-bye to a salary. The next time we pay ourselves it will be because we have sold some books. (That's Plan A anyway.) While Mark was braving the traffic and fumes of Medan, I braved the hostile wastes of Ikea. And as a bit of an Ikea virgin, I have to say, with hindsight, I definitely picked the tougher assignment. Approaching Wembley, and being reminded of what London traffic was like might have given me an inkling that it might not be the gentle browsing experience I might have pictured. Noticing the half-price sale stickers and driving three times around the car park probably should have had me heading straight back home. As a full-time mum I am pretty used to having a wriggly and impatient two-year-old accompany me doing everything, but as Ikea offered a play area I thought I was sorted for what proposed to be a pretty major purchase. However, children are not even allowed in there under the age of three, so Alex and I did all the shopping together. I think the least said the better about trying to push two enormous trolleys of bookcases while making sure Alex didn't get squashed under the rampaging bargain hunters. And I'm barely going to mention the £115 delivery charge which no-one will actually give you a figure for until you've paid for your furniture and are standing in the loading bay feeling a tad hot and bothered. Wrestling with big companies has been the order of this week. Despite appearances to the contrary, Mark and I have actually been planning this venture for a while. So we have squirrelled away enough savings to make sure we don't need much of a salary for the first year and can cover all the set-up costs ourselves. But we did approach the bank for what we thought was a fairly modest £5,000 for contingencies. The offer of a loan at 15% made us decide perhaps we didn't need a contingency all that badly. How do these firms make any money? Anyway, that's the gripes out of the way. Onto the positive stuff. We do have some before and after photos, but I shall get Mark to show you those later as I can't remember how to do photos on the blog. But if you could see the photos you would notice that the shop currently sells cookware. Have we mentioned that part of the plan is to transform the shop into a bookshop without actually closing the shop even for one day? Ah-ha How are they going to do that? You might well ask. We had been trying to find a shop for a while without much luck. We'd gone so far as considering taking over a bookshop up for sale and moving as nothing seemed to come up. Abingdon is going through something of a population boom at the moment. Whereas not long ago half the shops seemed to be empty, as soon as we decided we wanted one, nothing was remotely available. Mark put a few feelers out and one lady, Jill, who runs two shops - one a deli, with food from all over the world, and the second the cookware shop - got in touch. She was thinking about trying to expand in a different way as having two separate shops wasn't working in the way she'd hoped, but she was loathe simply to let the shop go. But we thought it might make for an interesting shop to sell some of the cookware lines alongside the books, partiuclarly being between a deli and Waitrose. It'll certainly make the shop pretty interesting and attractive and, hopefully, will keep some of the current customers coming in - at least until we feel we've got a clue what we're doing. We're also hoping to run some fun travel/food/drink themed events over the summer, particularly as we've been told we can share the courtyard garden with the flat upstairs. Extremely welcome news. We think it'll also make a lovely setting for some author talks (we will be in touch very soon to those who have made kind offers to do one of these for us). Other plans? Well, Abingdon is also turning into a good shopping centre for children. As well as the deli, in our street we have a large and wonderful nursery shop and a newly-opened designer children's clothes shop, and just around the corner is a new children's shoe shop and a toy shop. And none of the them sell children's books. With the safe garden to play in (and the coffee for the mums), we hope to run a few children's activities over the summer. And with a two-year-old ourselves, we've become pretty expert in the things children like too. So we're hoping that will be a big draw for shoppers. Well, that's been a bumper blog. Oh, a final thought on something we really could have done better. We've been getting our stock lists together (this is a job I really wish we'd started earlier). I have to say it has cured me of book buying, because now every time I'm in a bookshop I am too busy trying to scribble down titles surreptitiously on a piece of paper. But (this is where being a bookselling novice has really shown itself), I've hardly got any of the ISBN nos. And having finally got our account from the wholesaler, we have realised that ISBNs are the only way. Bit of a major oversight there and just a couple of thousand titles we need to trawl through and find the ISBN nos for. Ho hum. I'm in Cheltenham at the weekend and I daresay I shall find some time to slip in and get a few more titles from the bookshops there before we put our first big order in. I am now addicted to doing this. Don't tell them I'm coming.