Sunday, August 27, 2006

Things Mark does better than me

Mark and I currently have a bit of a jobshare arrangement, owing to having a two-year-old at home, which means we are hardly ever in the shop together. Naturally things have descended into a bit of a competition about 'who's best'. And I have to grudgingly admit, Mark wins hands down on pretty much everything. In fact I'm getting pretty used to a look from customers that hovers hopefully somewhere over my left shoulder. "Oh I spoke to a very nice young man the other day. He was most helpful. and so charming. Not here today?" And Mark finds it so effortless to talk to people I'm sure it's only a few hours later (if ever) that people must look at this package in their hand and wonder if they really wanted that book. I can confidently say hardly anyone ever walks out of the shop if Mark's there without having bought something. Mark is also always utterly super at effortlessly finding the (almost daily) weird requests we get from people. Only this week a customer came in having 'heard an author on the radio beginning with A' and Mark ACTUALLY FOUND IT. I'm there fumbling with the keys, promising to get back to people and wondering why on earth we decided we'd offer to track down hard to find and out of print books. (Although both of us have failed miserably on a request from one of our favourite customers who heard about a book - about a couple who refused to do any shopping for a year. Anyone out there who can help on this? We are still searching in vain.) Mark is also much better at me at remaining chilled at the things that seem to constantly go wrong, particularly with what is turning into a litany of disasters with certain customer orders. For example. In our first week of opening we had a request for a slightly obscure book. Our customer ordered two copies. We contacted our wholesaler and they seemed to think there would be no problem. It took a few weeks, but one copy eventually drifted in. Where was the other? They would chase it. We telephoned and asked every week and only got a 'oh that's very strange' response every time, and an increasingly not-too-pleased look from the customer who dropped in weekly to check up on his order. Eventually I got so fed up, decided to try to track down the book myself. I couldn't find the publisher on the web, but actually managed to find an email for the author (a local academic) and contacted her, half expecting that with the summer break there would be no reply. But she got back to me the same day with contact details of her publisher, who were also most helpful. So far so good. But then unfortunately sent us a copy of the book without attaching a stamp (I tell you, this book is jinxed) and it was a good long time before it drifted through the Royal Mail and ended up at the sorting office where we could collect it after paying an exorbitant sum. Our customer eventually collected the book on Saturday. I have a feeling he won't be rushing to order any more. Why our wholesaler was utterly unable to get hold of more than one copy of the book is still an utter mystery that I guess is all part of the learning curve by two novices stumbling their way through the book trade. Mark is also much better than me at some of the things that go wrong. I am beginning to really gnash my teeth. In fact it's not just the wholesaler who is not in my good books at the moment. As well as Thursday's (Parcelforce) delivery going to Waitrose, Friday's (Parcelforce) delivery was delayed. As ever when there are delays, it was chock full of time-sensitive customer orders. A phone call to the wholesaler assured me the delivery had been despatched and was on its way. First phone call from anxious customer and reassurance. The book that she needed as a present TODAY would definitely arrive. A bit later the customer came in. Had the delivery arrived yet? Another phone call to the wholesaler. They checked and were able to tell me the van had broken down, but the delivery was definitely on the van and it would arrive, only be delayed. Lovely customer very understanding bought two more books (and asked me to track something complicated down which brought on a few minutes of inexpert fumbling with the computer and a promise to 'get back to her'). The book would DEFINITELY be with her, I said. If it was really late we'd drop it in to her at home. Then the said driver arrived in the shop to collect two boxes (wrongly - they had been collected the day before - by Parcelforce. See a pattern emerging?). Yes, he was the driver who had broken down. No, there was no order for us. Panic. Another call to the wholesaler. Oh, in that case your order has gone missing and it DEFINITELY won't arrive today. Aarghh. This was about four o'clock. Phone customer with bad news, or . . . ? A quick phone call to a large, independent bookstore in Oxford ascertained they had the book and I insisted Mark drive in, buy it and deliver it to the customer. Cue 30-mile round trip - major kudos to Bl*ckw*lls. (And don't even ask about the special American wine book order that we were so chuffed we could order that then went AWOL during the recent security scare.) I tell you, every time a customer comes in and wants to order something that isn't actually in stock with our wholesaler I break into a cold sweat. Mark is much more chilled than me about cock-ups. He says it comes from having spent the last few years trying to sort out software problems with people in Indonesia and the Congo. I'm not quite so convinced this bookselling lark is going to be such an effortlessly pleasant and relaxing way to spend the day as Mark seems to be finding it. But I still reckon I'm going to win our 50p bet on whether his obscure American "persuasion architecture" (don't ask) web marketing book 'Waiting for your cat to bark' book will ever sell. I still reckon I'm better at stock choices than him.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The 1000 yard walk - past Waitrose

Nicki and I started Mostly Books for largely lifestyle reasons, and to fulfill our dream. Certainly the "make more money than Croesus and retire early" part of it was scotched early on in the business planning stage, once we 'did the math', but lifestyle is definitely still top of the agenda. There is a very pleasant walk to work from where we live to the shop, along the river. Never mind that often we're running a bit late, and one of us has to drop the other off in the car: the theory is that the day starts with a pleasant walk into work - and this morning I was able to do just that. Bliss.

I read somewhere that - when performing - Elvis Presley would insist on having his trailer exactly 1000 yards from the venue. During this 1000 yard walk, no matter what state he was in (from drugs, drink, squirrel burgers, etc.) by the time he got to the stage, he was in the mindset of 'The King' that would allow him to perform.

I can't say exactly what the mindset of a bookseller is yet, and my walk this morning was a tad over 1000 yards, but there's definitely something in this. A nice walk, fresh air, getting in the mood to talk to people about books. And the walk home this evening allowed me to slough off the day before getting back to the house.

Today we suffered a mix-up with our local Waitrose. At 2pm today we hadn't had our scheduled delivery of books from Gardners, and as there were a couple of customer orders in there ("yes, they will definitely be here today") I was getting a little nervous. I then got a phonecall from someone called Rob at Waitrose: "We've got your books". 

Waitrose is about 5 minutes walk from us (in fact, if I'm in a hurry, it's faster to walk home through their car park). Plenty of our customers take advantage of the car parking there to pop in. So I ran round there to see what had happened. They had received an order from Gardners (now we know where they get their books!) and the Parcel Force guy had lobbed out our box along with theirs (they had more boxes than us - sob). They had already unpacked and checked off all the books, but I think 'Rob' smelled a rat when he came across some Betjeman poetry, a 1940s Agatha Christie anthology, "My Name Is Red" by Orhan Pamuk, and an obscure hardback children's book called "The Runaway Dinner". We're no longer in Kansas, etc. Anyway - thanks to Rob for tracking our shop down and giving us a ring. What a star.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Have we read them all? No.

I am beginning to recognise a look on some customers' faces. It comes when you recommend a book they might like and they fix you with a cobra-like gaze 'Have you read it?' they want to know. And if you confess that, actually, no, you haven't read it yet, they give a superior, sort of knowing smirk that tells you they're thinking 'Call yourself a bookseller'. Which is tricky, really, because, let's face it, you might have a pretty darn good idea of what's in all the books, but you can't read everything. And you sure can't like everything. Mark and I think ourselves pretty lucky as we like utterly different books, which means I can leave all the dull stuff to him. The release of the Booker longlist, once again, has created that feeling in me that far from being a reasonably prolific reader who enjoys keeping up with the latest fads and disasters in the bookworld, actually I have been living on another planet. In fact I'm sure part of the whole point of the booker long list is some private pleasure of the judges, who only live for that moment when they can fix some poor sap with a cobra-like gaze ask 'Have you read it?' and deliver a superior, sort of knowing smirk that tells you they're thinking 'Call yourself a booklover'. Which brings me on to something we've been meaning to do for absolutely ages - update the links on our blog. Since we started the blog, I think it is safe to say we now read very different blogs and probably have some very different aims in what we hope the blog might achieve. So, most importantly, we have given a long overdue update to the list of the blogs we read. There are plenty around that are great for delving into and finding unread or unheard of books we think we might like to read. We've also still got a few to add, but, as ever, Sunday night came around with a list of jobs still to do and no hours left in the week. And we heartily recommend going to look (at least) at the blogs of some favourite booksellers - if not visiting the shops themselves if you get half a chance. And wonderful reviewers like dovegreyreader are (bless her) going to attempt to read the entire booker long list. And she has links to other people attempting the same and offering reviews. Go take a look.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Thursday night bash

We've finally recovered from our opening do on Thursday evening - although there are still a number of hard-to-shift wine stains to be dealt with, and the biography section might never recover. By which I mean nothing more sinister than the fact that biography buying seemed to be the popular choice of the evening. Although mysteriously we are still left with Jeremy Clarkson. He's proving harder to shift than the wine stains. It was a tremendous evening and - as usual - Nicki and I were a bit bowled over the nice people who continue to support our shop. Our fears about there only being the Mayor, his wife, Nicki, myself, a couple of nervous tummies and the wine stash were realised on the stroke of six, when Peter Green and his wife Hilary arrived - he in full 'mayoral bling' (his words - see photo) were first through the door. But from then on more and more people turned up until the shop was buzzing. It was simply fantastic to see it so packed full, although it got worryingly difficult to get to the wine table until people started drifting into the courtyard garden. It was just a great atmosphere and heralded (we hope) the start of lots of fantastic evening events. We are busily trying to put together a programme from the large number of incredibly generous authors who have already contacted us and offered to do talks. (More info soon.). Kudos to Alison Hoblyn and Ben Jeapes who both came along. The evening was really helped to get into full swing by Jill Carver of Added Ingredients (at the other end of our street, who provides our cookware for our "cooks and books" section and the delicious coffee we serve). She had chosen an inspired range of organic wines for the evening, and a big thank you is due because she spent the evening pretty much serving wine, running up and down the street to fetch more of it, and recycling glasses. Thanks very much Jill. And just in case we did get busy we had hedged our bets and did a quick till training for Nicki's Dad, Maurice, who deserves special thanks as in the end he performed sterling service not moving from the till all evening. I don't think he even had a glass of wine (sorry Maurice). But, as ever, what made it so special was the number of people who, having never met a month ago, turned out in such large numbers to share a glass of wine with us and toast our venture. Now all we are missing is a customer who likes Jeremy Clarkson. Any takers?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

All set for Thursday

Right - the shop is cleaned inside and out. The wine arrives tomorrow and I think we're all ready for our big do tomorrow night (we're ready, although as a first *event* it is possible it'll be me and a lot of wine and books). Oh, and apparently the mayor *is* coming, so shame on me for thinking he wouldn't make time in his busy schedule. So make that me, the mayor, his wife and a load of wine and books. (Am I beginning to sound at all nervous about this?) And a pity that two of our recent orders disappeared en route from Gardners, one of which contained the book our MP ordered... Anyone who may be reading this blog and thinking what a grand life the bookselling life is (we may have given that impression from time to time) should come round and mop the floor. I try to convince myself it's a spiritual activity that connects me in a deeper way to the shop, or somehow generates some form of karma in making the business a success. But let's face it, it's a menial task I find it impossible to get enthusiastic about. I only take heart that when little Johnny is let loose in the children's room whilst Mum browses, he doesn't come out looking like he's been up a chimney. Our post about the risk of Waterstones opening in Abingdon generated quite a bit of advice and comment. Nicki and I really appreciate it. Our strategy will be:
  • Don't worry about it until we know something more tangible (although we took note of all the advice from Mr Laties and others).
  • Continue with our policy of developing our lovely bookshop as our first priority and, really, the only thing we have real control over.
  • Start making offerings and the odd sacrifice to the "Good Luck" message from Tim Waterstone proudly on display on the wall behind our counter. (Perhaps we could start with ritual disembowling of some of our least-loved books??)

I went to a talk given by Tim Waterstone just as our idea of opening a bookshop looked like becoming a reality - and of course, bought his book. I seem to remember that when Tim started Waterstones, he'd been booted out of WHSmith and effectively carried out a 15 year vendetta to squash them into the dirt (they in turn allegedly ran an internal corporate 'book' taking bets on when he'd go bankrupt - nice, eh?).

I don't think Waterstones would be quaking in their boots over anything we do.

Talking of getting inspiration from great booksellers, I had to go to London yesterday, and took the opportunity to wander a couple of times around Waterloo until I located Crockatt & Powell (both the bookshop and the owners themselves). I urge anyone in London (and outside for that matter) to seek them out, marvel in the utter wonderfulness of their stock selection, and (of course) buy a book or seven. Adam, Matthew, it was a pleasure to meet you both, and, as through the blog you were generous to a fault in advice and inspiration.

I'd like to repeat our invite for anyone in the blogosphere thinking of coming tomorrow evening. 6-8pm, wine and books. Lots of both. We hope to see you here.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The pleasures (and perils) of fame

Well we have officially passed our first month of being open. We are starting to feel we are getting the hang of things (starting) and are now hardly ever making a mess of our stock orders (hardly), like mysteriously receiving several copies of things we don't even remember ordering and suddenly having zero books in stock of our bestselling authors. Duh. Anyway, we did plan to open rather quietly so we could practise our novel bookselling skills on just a few unsuspecting people, who have been very wonderful and kind and patient as we look goggle eyed at the till and realise we have no Philip Pullmans. Duh again. However, now we have actually started getting complaints from people for not making greater effort to let people know we are here, we have taken steps. Our first step came in the form of a local journalist, who came along today with her mum, who bought some books and settled down in our fabulous Penguin "The Garden Party" deckchair (in our window) and said it was so comfortable she fell asleep. We expect sales to rocket, and may hire her to sit there full time. Our friendly local journalist listened very charmingly as we went on, literally, for hours, about how totally wonderful it is to open a bookshop. There is always a point when talking to anyone with a tape recorder where you suddenly wonder what on earth you just said and knowing it's going to sound pretty stupid. And there is definitely a danger when we talk about the bookshop that we do sound like a couple of overexcited schoolchildren who are just having the best time in the world. So apologies and thanks for this morning. We were lucky that the lady who came to interview us shares an equal enthusiasm for books and had some great contacts. We really hope to approach some of the lesser known local authors to head up our events list. (Local authors beware - we know who you are.) Our first event, as mentioned previously, will take place next Thursday and is partly an official opening and mostly a thank you to all those wonderful people who have stepped into our shop and made the whole experience come alive for us. We are hoping for a good turn out and good weather so we can make the most of our courtyard garden. We have also invited our local MP - Dr Evan Harris - who was at the local Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting yesterday morning. After the event finished, he came up to the shop and bought/ordered some books (I promised to make it clear they were presents for his long-suffering researchers and assistants!). We were really honoured. Evan is a genuinely nice guy, and an MP who is very well-respected both locally and within Westminster. He also has an excellent taste in books I'm bound to add. (I have, incidentally, been mistaken for him twice. Both times were in B&Q in Abingdon bizarrely. Perhaps it's the lighting?) And then somebody else suggested today that we invite the Mayor, which we then did (we'll find out next week if he's coming, but with six days we can't blame him if he can't make it). So all in one day we seem to have expanded from opening in a very quiet way to being interviewed by the press and having the possibility of having both the local MP and the mayor at our opening do. Which is all rather good news as we did have some bad news the week. It was a bit of a bombshell actually - apparently a group from Waterstones was in Abingdon a few weeks ago investigating the feasibility of opening a bookshop . . .

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One month on

Today was our one month anniversary. Hard to believe we've got a month of bookselling under our belt, and I'm wondering where that fresh-faced, trembling retail virgin has gone that opened the door on day one... I was really delighted when Stephen Bowden (better known as Wenlock in the blogosphere) introduced himself this morning, having taken a detour en route to a meeting in Oxford to negotiate the Abingdon one-way system and seek out the shop. In our high-tech, busy-busy, remote comms world, it is something very special when someone you've got to know on-line materialises in the real world, especially someone like Stephen who has offered us lots of words of encouragement through his blog. Stephen, thanks for taking the time to visit today, it meant a lot to Nicki and I. And I hope my holiday reading recommendation works out (!) - enjoy your upcoming holiday. Next week (Thursday August 10th) we will be holding an official launch party in the shop - and we would of course like to extend an invitation to everyone who reads our blog. It's from 6pm-8pm at the shop, although the wine will be uncorked from 4pm onwards for anyone arriving early. There's a map on our website - email us for tips on deciphering the Abingdon one-way system, and we hope to see you next week...