Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas from Mostly Books

A quick post before we head off to spend some time with our families over Christmas, tired but happy. We had a hugely fun day yesterday - dressed in festive gear, handing out Christmas cookies, and counting down the end of our first Mostly Books Christmas. A big thank you to all of our customers - both regular and new - who popped in over the last few days to buy presents and to wish us Happy Christmas - it was much appreciated. Special thanks to Karen and Linzi for assisting superbly this week - and particular thanks to James for his sterling efforts efforts Friday and Saturday. We will open next Saturday, but we look forward to seeing everyone else again in 2007. Happy Christmas! Mark & Nicki

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Did You Know

On Thursday, with several customer orders still AWOL, and a few nervous phonecalls received (none of these were ordered through the wholesaler) one of our specialist suppliers tipped us off to the fact that we might want to make a trip to the local sorting office just on the off chance. So with Nicki esconced in the shop yesterday, I hared down to the sorting office with Alex riding shotgun - and lo and behold, postie had 5 packages waiting for us. Phew! Apparently (aside from closing rural post offices and putting, ooh, 5 minutes effort into this year's Christmas stamp designs) the post office no longer leave notes if they can't post something through your door...

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lastminute dot wrong

Amongst all the visitors to the shop this week, a significant number of people have been commenting on just how awful the shopping experience has been this year - not in the shops around Abingdon, I hasten to add, but at the big supermarket and retail centres (notably Tescos and Oxford town centre). I don't know whether it's the recent weather, with the fog and travel chaos creating a very depressing and oppressive atmosphere, but we've been hearing stories of people being assaulted in shopping aisles, or being bumped, shoved, insulted and generally abused by the masses in scrums outside department stories, etc. I'm sure this happens every year - but of course this is the first year 'behind the counter' (so-to-speak) and therefore the first time I've been able to collect this kind of anecdotal data. I used to be a classic last minute Christmas shopper when I was younger. I still have very fond memories (when I was a teenager, living in Weymouth) of bimbling around the seafront shops, buying a load of inappropriate gifts with the little money I had (more often than not, lent to me by Mum and Dad anyway). There was one particular shop - Austins - which was a treasure trove of both tat, great stuff you couldn't get anywhere else (there was probably a reason for that), as well as records and tapes. One year I bought all my Christmas presents there, including a particularly nasty porcelain statue of an eagle on a rock. As far as I know, my Mum (bless her) still has it. I really hope it's still there (Austins that is - not the eagle). I no longer do stuff at the last minute. The big change these days (apart from having absolutely no time to go Christmas shopping this year) is that Nicki and I have something like six family birthdays in December (including Alex, who turns three on the 29th). So Christmas is now planned like the proverbial military campaign, and planned months before. Tomorrow is our last day before Christmas - and we're obviously expecting it to be busy. So far, however, our experience of the last minute rush has been completely different. People have been friendly, chatty, sometimes a bit stressed, but we usually can help them with a few ideas, etc. It's been exhausting, but a lot of fun. So - is shopping typical this year or has Christmas (in the words of one of our customers this week) snuck up on people this year and created a bit more panic than usual?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last bookgroup of the year

Depending on your viewpoint, it would take a particularly brave or incredibly stupid bookshop owner to run an evening event 4 days before Christmas. But this evening was our joint bookgroup Christmas meeting - the last one of the year. Thanks to everyone who turned up on what was a particularly unpleasant cold and foggy evening. It was great fun, with a hugely enjoyable discussion about Amélie Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling" and I managed to twist everyone's arm into having their piccy taken for the blog. (Totally unposed and au naturelle of course) Also, we must say congratulations to Cindy from our Wednesday bookgroup, who had a great reason for not attending - the birth of her boy Theo last Tuesday. Our first bookgroup new Mum! She's vowed to be at the next meeting in February however... Nicki and I were both able to attend (thanks to my Mum who stepped in for some high-quality childcare), so we were able - just for a couple of hours - to take a break from the Christmas retail madness, and talk about books, which we both very much appreciated.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Trying not to ruin Christmas

We kind of assumed that customer orders would start easing up this week as we get closer to Christmas Day - but they are still coming in thick and fast. This presents us with two worries: 1) will the orders themselves arrive before the big day, and 2) what to say on the phone when the books come in. The first problem is fairly straightforward. Aside from the wholesaler (where an order typically comes in within a day or two, if it's in stock), we source books from a variety of other sources. Since mid-way through last week, if an order isn't in stock with the wholesaler, and we have to go elsewhere, then we've adopted a "best endeavour" approach to fulfillment (i.e. we'll do everything in our power to get the book in, but it might just not make it). At this point there's a bit of a struggle in the mind of the customer, depending on whether they'll take a risk on the delivery date versus how likely it is that they might get the book elsewhere. The second problem is handled through the patent-pending Mostly Books Customer Order Master File in which we record any complex instructions for phoning up once the book comes in (e.g. "now, if my husband/wife answers the phone, give them your name, but don't mention the shop, and just say that 'the item' has arrived and is awaiting collection." or "if it's before Wednesday next week, phone this number, but after Thursday you'll need to phone my son, but don't leave a message if you get his answering machine"). For the last few weeks, whenever I've been making phonecalls, I have had in the back of my mind that I have the power, if not to ruin Christmas, at least make a dent in the overall enjoyment factor. Back when we first opened, a customer ordered one of our Penguin-design deckchairs. When it arrived, muggins here left a message on the answering machine to the effect that "your deckchair has arrived" then, realising there was a note about it being a birthday gift, compounded the problem several minutes later by phoning up and leaving another message to apologise for blowing the gaff. Just in case the first message was missed...this experience left an indelible impression on me about the importance of not blowing the gaff where presents are concerned. Talking of not ruining Christmas, this morning was a bit touch-and-go about the shop opening at all. Whilst no-one has ever said as much, I've kind of picked up on the fact that not opening your shop is one of the major no-nos in retailing at any time - let alone one week before Christmas. What had happened was this. Last week Alex got a nasty 24 hour bug, but when Nicki and I went down with it over the weekend, things looked pretty grim, particularly as a) we knew none of our staff were able to make it on Monday, and b) we'd hyped up today's storytime as being the last one this year. Without going into the gory details, I managed finally to get to sleep at about 3am, and to be honest when Alex woke up at 05.30 this morning I can safely say there are times when I've felt better. However, with hastily arranged babysitting (courtesy of Nicki's Mum and Sister) we struggled down to the shop and opened at about 9.02. Nicki had to leave at just after 10 - and when at 10.30 four little children had turned up for storytime, I had to explain to them and their parents that it wasn't going to happen. However, at this point the bookselling gods smiled on us. In what was a very busy day, by a curious quirk of footfall fate, no-one else (aside from postie) came into the shop for 20 minutes. Asking their parents to watch the front of shop for me, I rolled out the big storytelling rug, and we did the show right there. Relying on some old stalwarts: v.hungry caterpillar, dear zoo, dinosaur roar and owl babies, and finishing with some liberally dished-out chocolate santas, I returned to the till just as the next customer came in. Perfect. I almost feel Christmassy. Or at less a heck of a lot better than I was feeling last night... Anyway, the last big event before Christmas is the joint bookgroup Christmas meeting this Wednesday evening. We'll be discussing Amelie Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling", then having some appropriate festive celebrations. It'll be a nice end to the year, and Nicki and I are looking forward to it...

Friday, December 15, 2006

They know where we live

I was cooking pasta this evening after a busy day at the shop. There is a knock at the door. One of my neighbours is clutching a sheet of paper with two ISBNs on them. "Can you get these for me please?...". Help - customer order requests at home!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas Analysis

I'll refrain from using a cheesy line like "so this is Christmas" but we are now deep into the strange twilight world that I guess is retail in mid-December. Occasionally (when I get to bed in the wee small hours) I have this sense of the billions of items currently hurtling inexorably through the global supply chain, each one some key element in someone's perfect Christmas. Scary trousers. Currently Nicki and I have nightly review and planning meetings, which inevitably mean us huddled over the tea leaves looking for patterns to try to predict what might happen in the next 10 days. Are our regular customers more organised than the general populace (i.e. everyone's done the bulk of their shopping = sales peaked)? Are they less organised (i.e. will everyone come in next Monday expecting upteen copies of our Christmas newsletter recommends that have just gone out of stock)? Will 30 children turn up for storytime on Monday now that school's finished? This Saturday (December 16th) is the first big test. Abingdon's town council have granted free parking all day (they do this every year apparently), and this often corresponds to Abingdon's busiest shopping day. It's a great opportunity for people to support their local town (as an aside, we've had conversations with several people who have decided to 'buy local' for Christmas, hurrah). We've tried to set some 'last order' dates regarding customer orders, but plenty will be arriving during that last week. We have organised a local delivery service for one day next week (the 'delivery service' will consist of me, with Alex riding shotgun in a santa hat handing over the Christmas orders to customers and looking cute). This is just in case of any last minute orders that cannot be collected, the absence of which on Christmas morning may impact negatively on the general goodwill quotient. Anyway - enough Christmas madness. Here's a few bits and pieces from the shop this week: - The "Give a Poem for Christmas" campaign has upped a few gears. Sister Wendy is still miles out in front, but Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy and a couple of anthologies are in the chasing pack. And a new book "Generation TXT" is making rapid progress up the outside rail (mostly by dint of me shoving it in front of anyone I suspect of being into new poetry who comes into the shop). - A big thank you to Ali for our Christmas pressie (special hi-tech water-washable chalk markers for our chalkboard, as befits someone who is a bit of a craftmeister). The home-made bag it came in was also hugely impressive... - Respect to the couple last week who had a coffee each and *sat outside* in the courtyard garden. Global warming or not, that was a brave move. - Some mutterings about the shop being not Christmassy enough made me panic and rush out and get some spray-on snow. I haven't done anything with it yet. Snowy-effect windows with ah-factor v 2 hours in the new year with a cloth soaked in alcohol. Should I or shouldn't I?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Another poem

Nicki and I managed to have a day off from the shop today - don't get me wrong, there are a thousand things to do, but I reckon if we had flogged ourselves today, we might have got that list down to, ooh, 970 things - and been totally exhausted. So - a nice game of scrabble last night, and today a winter walk with some friends near Nettlebed. Lovely. Pass the dressing gown and comfy slippers someone... It all kicks off again tomorrow of course, but sometimes you have to create some space... BTW, here's poem #2 that appeared outside the shop on Saturday, as part of the so-far moderately successful "Give A Poem for Christmas" campaign (note to self: needs better POS inside the shop). My poetry skills are giving my US-book ordering skills a run for their money methinks, but hopefully people see this as a bit of fun at least...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Overpriced and over here

Christmas has well and truly hit us like, well, a large pile of snow which has slid off the roof after having shut the door too hard (not the best metaphor in the world, but - dammit Jim - I'm a bookseller, not a writer). You get the idea. Crockatt & Powell (those punk rockers of the bookselling world) describe the feeling quite well. We had an issue this week involving a US book, and it's something that I can't for the life of me work out. If we buy a US book from a wholesaler, they treat the dollar value as pounds, which would cause no problems if a) the Internet wasn't around to compare prices, and b) the pound wasn't currently trading at close to $2, which makes "doing the math" (as our US friends might say) a snap. Customer comes in, brings a book to the desk, sees $40 on the book and thinks "must be approximately £20". Oh no, our system says £40. Our invoice from the wholesalers says we bought it for £40 (minus our discount). A phonecall to the wholesaler says "we charge the full UK currency equivalent to cover the costs of getting the book over from the US". What? But it's Dorling Kindersley. They're a UK publisher (well, they were). And the book was probably printed in China anyway. How did you bring the book over from the US? In a sponsored canoe, one at a time? (My bonhomie has become slightly dented during the conversation) The annoying thing is - there's no way to spot a US book before we order it (at least, not that I know of in my time-challenged, customer-needs-it-yesterday, work-environment) So - anyone out there like to enlighten me (a very ignorant bookseller) if there is an explanation about why this situation exists, and tips on how to handle it? THE used to have an American Bookshop (operated on their behalf by but it closed recently as being non-viable. Perhaps there's a clue there...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Humanity in Print

I always think EM Forster would have loved to have lived in modern times. He'd have been right at home with blogging, using social networking tools to turbo-charge his "Only Connect" and humanist philosophies. Mind you, he'd have had his spam filter firmly in place, being wise to the dangers posed by new technology. Forster wrote a hugely prophetic, and little known short-story The Machine Stops (well worth a read) warning about the dangers of reliance on virtual communities (amongst lots of other things). I shall heed his warning this morning, and go back to doing some pressing admin work which I've been putting off... However, I thought of Forster this morning, having spotted this excellent Forbes' Special Report on the current healthy state of "The Book". My discussions with Sam Jordison last week led me to discover McSweeney's, and - lo and behold - they feature in the report. Life has a habit of throwing up coincidences when you become particularly focused in pursuit of a goal. Forster was, amongst many other things, an optimist, writing one of the most positive essays on humanity (What I Believe) in the increasingly bleak months before the second world war. I've not read the whole report, but - to a bookseller - this report seems marvellously optimistic too.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


When we first started, we were concerned that some of the books arriving were damaged. Slight marks here and there, the occasional crease, some minor wear around the edges, etc. In the few short months (5) since we opened, we've become a little more tolerant, and a better judge of what is acceptable and what isn't. Occasionally, however, a book arrives looking like this.

Tough one to call, huh? Why are these always customer orders...