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).

Friday, July 14, 2006

First in-shop blog

Be still my beating heart - we have broadband. After another collection of BT hoops to jump through, a completely marvellous woman called Janine at a call centre in Sheffield sorted everything out and yesterday afternoon we went live. Janine has single-handedly resuccitated the BT brand in my eyes and deserves a medal. (She'll probably be rewarded by BT outsourcing her function overseas of course, but let's hope not). So this blog is the first to come to you from inside the shop. I read recently that fast Internet connectivity is increasingly being described as "online oxygen" for the generation who have grown up with "always-on" connectivity. Speaking as someone who used his first computer at 11 (a ZX81), and who has essentially worked for Internet-based businesses for 10 years, being without it for large parts of the day has been a bit disconcerting, and, well, distressing at times (which is a bit sad when you come to think about it). Thanks to Nuno, Josh and Susmit from my old company Helveta who visited yesterday, and beavered away getting the PC connection whilst I served customers. It is our two-week anniversary tomorrow. The coffee is well and truly up and running now, and with the lovely weather demand for our courtyard garden is growing. So much so in fact that we have someone starting tomorrow (James) who will be assisting us Saturdays. On Sunday we are having an impromptu party in the garden, to say thanks to our family and friends who have helped make the bookshop a reality over the past few weeks. As we get some of our big jobs out of the way, a whole slew of smaller jobs hove into view. And visitors to the shop have given us many ideas for events and activities to do in the shop, so hopefully the first of our toddler readings wil start next week. This morning, one 7 year old with his Mum looked at me thoughtfully, and said "you know what's brilliant about this shop. It's got really good books, but not many people know about it, so it's nice and peaceful and you can drink coffee outside". I looked at this precocious entrepreneur-in-the-making who had just rumbled our top secret bookshop strategy, congratulated him on his brilliant summary, and then recommended he move on from Captain Underpants to reading of our more advanced business strategy books... Anyway, I'm still getting over the heady experience of being able to use my email, and perform real-time checks of wholesalers, so I will post this now...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Mostly Books top selling authors

Our second Saturday ended a very positive week, with our first regulars (well, 'regular') coming in to sample some coffee, sit and read the paper. He gave the coffee the thumbs up, and we served up coffee and cake for the rest of the day. Our website is (finally) up - simple, basic, but like the blog something that can grow with regular attention (and which can be worked on in the shop if and when BT get their paperwork together for this Thursday - pause while I offer up a small prayer to the telecoms god). I thought a list of our bestselling authors might be of interest after our first week. An eclectic mix: 1=Dav Pilkey / Lauren Child 3 Roald Dahl 4 Daisy Meadows 5= Terry Deary / Joanne Harris 7= Zadie Smith / Sebastian Faulks / Richard Mabey / Ian Rankin / Julia Donaldson / Heather Amery / Alexander McCall-Smith / Malcolm Gladwell I can see now why top ten lists split out the children's bestsellers. Captain Underpants is sweeping all before him...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Coffee ahoy!

As I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog, I am a bit of a connoisseur for the old "success literature". Chances are that if there's a book on positive thinking, succeeding in business, making a million, etc. I not only have read it, but can quote extensively from it, and it's most likely in my personal 'stash'. A favourite quote of mine is from a guy called Kemmons Wilson, who you probably have never heard of. However, you will almost certainly have heard of the chain of hotels he founded - Holiday Inn. One of his 'twenty tips for success' is "Work only half a day; it makes no difference which half - it can be either the first 12 hours or the last 12 hours". Arf arf. I was thinking of Kemmons this evening. Nicki and I are on another mammoth umpteen hour day (it's currently 11pm and she's working on some point of sale material). This evening we moved a fridge-freezer into the back of the shop, dismantled some existing shelving to do so, and did some more work on the children's room. But tomorrow...taa daa! We shall be serving coffee. The grandparents are babysitting Alex, and a good friend of ours is volunteering to help out in the shop, so we're going for it. The Gaggia has been dumped in the back of the shop, so we shall be going with cafetieres. Today (Friday) was a slow day until the afternoon (when I took over from Nicki). Firstly a teacher enthused over the shop and went off with armfuls of children's books (the children's book room is proving really popular). Hooray. Then several things happened which kind of illustrate just why I'm genuinely having the time of my life being a bookseller:
  • I'd just finished putting out our new range of Persephone Books, when someone walked in who collects them. She was able to tell me all about various books, to such an extent that I was able to recommend one to a customer later in the afternoon. She was delighted - a gift for a difficult-to-buy-for gardening and literature lover.
  • We've started writing "mostly books" recommendations. The rule is we have to write sincere recommendations about books we have read or authors we are passionate about - or else stick to facts (e.g. "won the booker prize in 2001"). My first attempt was for an Elizabeth David volume of collected cookery writing, and today a customer bought one on the strength of that recommendation.
  • A customer came in asking if we had "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers. Now, I read this book and loved it (not my usual reading material I have to say), and felt sure we had it, and thus blithely leapt from behind the counter to get it for the customer. But we didn't have it. So I rashly promised it to the customer by Tuesday - and if we can't get it, I've promised to lend her mine (I've since found out it's in reprint and won't be available until mid-July, so I'd better dig it out over the weekend).

Anyway - a full coffee report will follow tomorrow evening or Sunday. I'm sure we're pushing the boundaries of our lease by serving coffee (and possibly some cake as well) , but we've plastered 'and coffee too' over all our marketing materials and everyone tells us that coffee is an essential part of the whole book browsing experience, we're going to have to dig around and find out exactly what we can do and find some way of making it work...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Too many books!

Apologies if you felt we'd stopped the blog now that we've actually opened. Far from it. But it's been a busy yet heady week so far, with evenings spent getting more books on shelves, and sorting out more mundane stuff such as:
  • working out how the price gun works for non-book items.
  • dealing with more genre infractions (Samuel Delany's excellent Sci-fi masterpiece "Nova" fraternizing with the Booker Prize nominees in the general fiction was one dealt with summarily by me today)
  • getting in a blue funk 'cos the Gaggia is dispensing coffee that we can't, in all honesty, sell because it tastes foul.

However, these are very minor grumbles. We are still having a great time in our honeymoon period. And despite some doubts posted in response to our last blog about the wisdom of "cooks and books" it is at least proving a novelty amongst a significant number of customers who seem to like the concept. We're monitoring it closely however.

We experimented with late-night opening tonight (Thursday), to be rewarded with a sale of the Hairy Bikers Cookbook at 8.30pm (I would have been in the shop anyway, and the people who bought it were a delight to serve). As complete novice booksellers, one thing that is very disconcerting is the hole left after you sell a book. We have worked very hard over the last few days to use face-out boxes, shuffling up authors to have the shelves looking good, and then the books get sold, and you have to shuffle everyone up again. Then more books come in. I'm sure this Sisyphean challenge is well appreciated by other booksellers. I've come to see it as an opportunity for some of our lowlier books to have 'their chance' once others are sold. We now officially have "too many books". Two more bookshelves are going up, but we are now going to have to exercise extreme discipline to stop ordering large numbers of new books, and start intelligently selling what we have. We have also well and truly entered the sometimes strange world of "customer requests". I thought we'd share some with you in the hope of advice and recommendations from the blogosphere: 1. Customer listened to Sandy Tostvig on Radio 4, and there was a book "confession of..." but that's as far as she got. Anyone know what book was discussed? The website didn't yield anything. If you type "confessions of" into the Gardners system you get some very exotic possibilities. I'm sure Sandy wouldn't discuss *those* on radio 4... 2. Customer has requested help to find a book that has detailed instructions on how to prepare cuts of meat. Hugh Fernley-Wittingstall perhaps? 3. Customer has a 15 year old boy who is a reluctant reader. His teacher had suggested getting hold of a book containing short stories from classic authors that can be read in one sitting (a story, not the whole book). He's very into computer games. This last one is quite important. I was a reluctant reader at school (I used to read the first two chapters and then get my mates to tell me what happened) and the intervention of a few key people got me back into books. Anyway - Nicki and I will endeavour to sort the coffee machine out tomorrow. In the meantime, here's how the shop is looking after the book sorting (and our mona lisa curtain into the stock room which has suffered a lot in the last week and may have to go): P.S. BT royally screwed up the broadband installation today. They went to the wrong address on Stert Street. The engineer actually came round to apologise, but because the address didn't match his paperwork he couldn't do the line installation. Several calls to BT later, no-one seemed able to rectify the error. Smashing.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Better than we could have wished for

Well, the doors are locked, the till is closed. It's been a quite incredible day. Despite the lack of sleep and the emotional rollercoaster of the past 48 hours, I'm still very much 'up', so for everyone who has read this blog, followed us and sent their good wishes over the past few months, here's a proper blog entry with pictures and all about what happened on our first day.

After our 1am finish this morning, I returned to the shop for 8am. The credit card machine had yet to be plugged in, there was still cardboard and sacks of rubbish dotted around the place and - most importantly - there were still books in boxes. Our personal heroes Paul and Karen were also back in the shop, and they set about the books whilst I set about sweeping, carrying out cardboard to the car, and wrestling with the till float and HSBC as the seconds ticked by up to 9am.

The one thing we'd focused on the night before was getting the window ready - and there had already been a few people peering in whilst I stood behind the till.

I got increasingly nervous, and felt like I was going to be sick when I opened the door at 9am. (That slight grimace isn't fooling anyone...)

The first person into the shop was the postman (Roger) after about 5 minutes, who welcomed us to the street and wished us all luck. Then about 15 minutes later we had our first proper visitor (I think her name was Angela - I was a bit out of it, I must admit). She was a bit puzzled because the shop had been a cookware shop the day before. She looked around the shop, enthused about it, bought a book. She said some wonderful things about what we had done and what we were trying to achieve. In my weakened, slightly sick state I was a bit overwhelmed, but this was exactly what Nicki and I needed to hear.

It was a great start, and things just got better as the day went on. Our ploy was to sidle up to visitors and offer them some champagne as it was our first day - it worked a treat.

As the day wore on and the heat became more oppressive people started turning down the champagne in favour of water. We had a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom were as excited as we were about there being a new bookshop in Abingdon. One lady came in with her family and so enthused about the shop she phoned her husband, and they spent half an hour piling books up on the counter to buy, as well as and giving us lists of things we might want to stock (she's a teacher). Someone volunteered to come in and do toddler readings once a week (we took her name - thanks Belinda). Two people asked about part-time work. We took customer orders, people bought cards, mugs - and the cookware sold as well. Someone enquired about the deckchairs - did they do them with a Pride & Prejudice design? If they did - could they have one? We'll pass it on to the supplier.

There was a lot of things we didn't do - the Gaggia coffee machine never got set-up properly, but it was so hot offering cold drinks seemed much more appropriate. Nicki's parents and her sister Karen helped Paul and Karen sort out the sci-fi from the chick-lit, and the fiction shelves started taking shape as *all* we managed to do the night before (apart from still building shelves and opening and checking around 1000 titles) was get them on the shelf in no particular order. However, this didn't deter the shoppers who seemed to enjoy rummaging around while the shelves gradually took on some proper order throughout the day. Paul took on the role of "genre policeman", looking for offending rogue titles in the wrong section. (Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management under 'crime fiction' was a particularly heinous offender. Nancy Mitford's biography of Madame de Pompadour under chick lit was perhaps understandable given the heat/lack of sleep).

Nicki and I were stunned with the comments, but mostly we were stunned because people did seem to actually find things they wanted to buy and then we had to remember our Gardners training and work the till. Several times books which we had hand picked for table displays, or face-outs on shelves got, well, bought. I can understand some of the comments from Andy Laties and Anna Dreda now - as sometimes we felt like saying "excuse me, you can't buy that, it's a book we took a lot of time over and it looks just perfect where it is". In fact sales went so well the credit card machine blew up (OK, it was probably more down to the searing temperatures). Luckily it wasn't until about 4.30 and the football had started, as despite HSBC's heroics from their Indian call centre, it will never work again and we'll be getting a new one Tuesday. The customer whose card failed decently emptied the contents of her purse onto the counter, and I ran it through staff discount to make sure she could afford it.

Considering we weren't exactly sure we were ready for customers so deliberately avoided any marketing activities at all, we simply could not believe that there was hardly a moment in the day when there wasn't someone in the shop. Where did they all come from? It was the hottest day of the year, Wimbledon and the football were on and the rest of the town centre looked deserted. Thanks to every customer who came in and made our first day so exciting. We now have absolutely no idea how we will manage to sell coffees as well as books on a Saturday if we get that busy again. And the challenge now will be to try to get anywhere near that many people in every week, not just when it's new and exciting - and during the week. (But we've got lots of ideas.)

We finally closed up shop around 5.30. We'd sold books, as well as assorted cards, wrapping, mugs and cookware. Hooray particularly to Charlie and Lola, Rainbow Fairies, Captain Underpants and Jilly Cooper - her latest straight out the door in hardback. Admittedly, lots of sales were to family and friends who turned out in force to support us (thanks also for the champagne and cake, Jackie, it was about the only thing we ate all day), but we'd sold some great books, which just gave us enormous pleasure. We are elated, we are exhausted. We are stunned by the long way we have to go and the work still needed on the shop - this is just the start, and we've got to do the whole show again without a team of helpers. But most of all, we have a bookshop - and we're booksellers. It still doesn't seem real.

Today's the Big Day

A big (and brief) thank you to the volunteers last night who worked tirelessly to transform the shop. Ian, Oliver and Simon, Guy, Matt and Tom and especially Paul and Karen who stuck with us until approximately 1am building tables, unpacking books, arranging displays. Everyone worked incredibly hard in very muggy conditions. The shop looks like a bookshop - it's incredible. We do not know quite what to expect today - but we'll try to tell you all about it later this evening.