Thursday, December 20, 2007
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
The truth is that on Friday, we had a visit from Oxford-based author Sam Jordison, in our first "return" of an author since we opened. When Sam visited us last year, he'd just published "Bad Dates" and his latest book, "Annus Horribilis" takes the idea further, with a collection of generally bad things that have befallen the famous (and not-so-famous), one for each day of the year (hence the title).
So why controversial? And what was the storm?
Sam originally shot to fame (or, more accurately, infamy) with a book called Crap Towns, which he wrote whilst working as a journlist on the Idler magazine. Memorably described by the Sunday Telegraph as "The Domesday Book of Misery" the book listed the 50 worst places to live in Britain. The inclusion of Hull near the top of the list was perhaps not surprising, but the inclusion of home town Oxford was. However, at #20 on the list was our geographical neighbour Didcot.
Didcot gets a bad rap around here, mostly because of the iconic Didcot Power Station which can be seen from large parts of Southern England and thus rather dominates most of the town.
When we first publicised Sam's visit, an organisation called Didcot First heard about it, and invited Sam to visit Didcot before the event to spend a day sampling the delights that the town has to offer, and to try to convince him that Didcot isn't actually that crap. The Oxford Mail trailed the visit (as well as listing ten reasons why Didcot isn't crap - some of these look a bit dodgy to me...)
This explains why, at 5pm, Sam (right), me (left) and local MP, Ed Vaizey (middle) can be seen hanging out together at Splitz in Didcot, drinking champagne, eating canapes and getting along famously. I took the opportunity to sell copies of Sam's book to the assembled throng of Didcot luminaries, and judging by the take-up, decided that Sam must have won over the townsfolk during a successful charm offensive.
It was then a quick car journey up the A34 to Abingdon for the event itself.
I think there is probably only one major faux pas which must not be committed when you organise an author signing. Assuming you actually turn up to open the shop, you can probably get away with all kinds of gaffes - including, perhaps, getting the author's name wrong in the intro, or forgetting to bring any wine. No, I think the only thing you might do that would cause you all kinds of "swallow-me-now-earth" shame and humiliation is not to have any copies of his latest book to sell...
(This happened at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2006 to Melvyn Bragg. Myself and over a thousand people packed into a large marquee being told they could fill in an order slip for a copy once it arrived from the publisher).
...OK, it wasn't quite that bad, but thanks to my persuasive sales patter over at Didcot, I realised with mounting horror that we didn't have that many copies of Annus Horribilis in the shop. Of Sam's other books, Crap Towns was only available on Amazon, Crap Towns II was RPU, and The Joy of Sects (Sam's account of inveigling his way into a number of religious cults) couldn't be had anywhere. This ensured that I sweated profusely as the event progressed, awaiting the signing with a growing sense of dread.
At least no-one had started digging up the road...
Sam is a fantastic raconteur - engaging and disarming, with anedotes peppered with the crazy stuff he does to research his books. Sam started with a few tales from Sects, followed by stories from his recent year in the US, trying to get under the skin of small town America (and succeeding by all accounts).
It was then on to Annus Horribilis itself. Here's Sam explaining how the book came about:
We finished the evening with the dreaded signings - and, yes, we ran out of books. Luckily, Sam is such a nice chap, he came back with his girlfriend yesterday and signed some more. And luckily we have such lovely customers, they came back in today to buy them.
And hopefully, both forgave the bookshop owner for being a bit, well, crap.
We got some good coverage in the Oxford Mail and (gasp!) the Abingdon Herald (or perhaps the Didcot Herald, I can never work out just how different those two papers are...).
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
It wasn't a pretty sight.
Customers were threatened and told to "buy on Amazon". It was a terrifying ordeal for some:
Luckily, our customers fought back, and the naughty pirates saw the error of their ways. They eventually agreed to leave the shop, taking with them some improving literature and some fun books for the kiddies.
OK - perhaps that's not quite what happened...
The annual Abingdon Extravaganza is the cue for turning on the Christmas Lights. There's a parade through the town, and then fireworks later in the evening. Here's the parade passing the shop:
Here's some of our esteemed town councillors dressed in their finery. If you look *really* closely you can make out a few of our regulars:
Finally, here's Father Christmas himself whooshing past the shop (with obligatory health an safety elves behind).
The Abingdon blogger has more.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
We welcomed her to Mostly Books last night for a stunning event which - if you missed it - we'll definitely do again in the next few months.
I first met Judith earlier this year at the Society of Authors in London, and again at her eponymous (and completely gorgeous) Flower School in Knightsbridge (in Kinnerton Place, just round the back of Harvey Nicks). As well as running the school, and teaching flower design to students from all over the world, Judith has written a number of bestselling books on flower design - including a title for the Teach Yourself series which is (I believe) their biggest ever seller. Judith is also the editor of the Flower Arranger magazine.
Now, I have to admit first off that my knowledge of flower arranging (and floral design books specifically) is not as great as my knowledge of, say, cookery books. Having got to know her, and now having seen her in action, however, I would say her style is a combination of Sophie Grigson and Heston Blumental (bear with me on this one). She has a very down-to-earth attitude that belies an utter professionalism and passion for her craft, but she also has Heston's pursuit of the fundamental principles that underlie the subject. If all that sounds a bit pompous, what I'm trying to say is that Judith believes there are fundamental principles which anyone can learn in flower arranging - even if it's just placing a few flowers in a jug - and she is remarkably effective at getting them across to her students or an audience.
She came to Mostly Books Wednesday night to do just that.
The event didn't start in the most auspicious way. Attrocious traffic conditions in London meant that Judith was delayed - and of course, we have the ongoing Stert Street resurfacing which meant that the road was due to be closed. Now, I've mentioned before that for some reason our events often seem to coincide with some major highway maintenance. Little did we know, however, that later that evening, the workman - probably under pressure to re-open the road as quickly as possible - were to slice through a major electricity cable and black out the entire street. The road was closed all day today, gridlocking most of this part of South Oxfordshire. Nice one.
Earlier in the day a delivery of six fine Amaryllis had arrived, courtesy of Gary and Matthew at Fabulous Flowers in Abingdon. By the way, if there is anyone in Abingdon who doesn't know what a gem of a flower shop we have in the town, their shop is on Bridge Street. And the boys have just opened their second shop next to Gees, on the Banbury Road in Oxford.
We had wine, gentle music and the shop decked out in its Christmas finery - and Judith hit the ground running from the moment she arrived.
My shaky camera work really doesn't do justice to the demonstration she gave, but here we go. Note how the arrangements - music like - build into a grand finale which I've tried to show at the end of the post.
Starting with some basic principles (including vase and foliage selection) she proceeded to show techniques for vase and hand-tied arrangments.
She was also keen to get everyone involved, so those sitting on the front row were busy for most of the evening.
Here's the basic technique for hand-tied arrangements:
Now, I've never heard people gasp at one of our events before - but when we got onto "leaf manipulation" everyone was gripped. I'll not reveal too many of Judith's top tips in this post, but I glimpsed the reasons why George Orwell satirized the plant - it lasts for a long time, surviving all kinds of indignities. It's a firm favourite amongst flower arrangers.
Here's a tutorial of how to produce a stunning floral mount using the humble leaf:
By the end of the evening, Judith had produced a fabulous collection - including a stunning arrangment of the Amaryllis (seen here on the left of the photo).
(We now have the best-dressed shop in Abingdon by the way!)
Judith answers questions, signed books, and was whisked away by her husband after staying to chat to everyone who came.
It was a wonderful evening, and my thanks to Judith for accepting our invitation. Everyone had a wonderful and inspiring time. Pop into the shop to get signed copies of her Encyclopedia of Flower Design and Flower Recipes for Winter books - or to have a look at the flowers!
Friday, November 16, 2007
Almost a whole girl I thought. But it did get me thinking - are there any other cover designs that go together this well?
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Friday, November 09, 2007
Last year we didn't really know what to expect, and the festive season hit us like a particularly overloaded sleigh. This year, we feel a bit more prepared.
So it was with nervous anticipation that we kicked off the seasonal spendfest in style last night with our "Champagne and Stollen" Christmas Shopping Event:
The invites had been sent out, I was dressed in my Christmas waistcoat, and the shop was decked out in its Christmas finery. We're not actually putting up decorations until the end of November, but there were a few subtle hints dotted around the place:
The main event of the evening was the launch of our Christmas catalogue. Last year we gave out the standard wholesaler catalogues, but a) as they were a bit cheesy, and b) we didn't actually have that many books from those catalogues in the shop, we thought we might be able to do a bit better by getting reviews and recommends from everyone who works for us and putting them together in our own publication:
We had plenty of champagne and punch, and six different types of stollen (which might have been a tad over the-top) courtesy of Added Ingredients up the road.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Anyway, some of our customers were quite upset at not being able to order music in the town. We discussed it with them, and we also had the opportunity to talk to a major music wholesaler at the recent Gardners Trade Show. After some consideration, we said - why don't we offer sheet music and music book ordering as a service?
I mean, the books all have ISBNs. Said wholesaler says they stock loads of them. Some are even available through our usual book wholesaler. How difficult can it be?
So, a few weeks ago, with a bit of a flurry, we announced the launch of our music ordering service. It also gave us a wonderful excuse to beef up our music section.
The response was hugely positive. Lots of people were very impressed that we decided to move into this area, and we started receiving our first orders.
Which is where the problems started.
Admittedly we were a bit speculative about the whole thing, and realised that there might be a bit of a learning curve (ho ho) and some jargon to learn. Well, I've learned a lot. For example, when someone asks for a title containing the words "flute with bass continuo", I now know that "bass continuo" isn't a musical instrument. That sort of thing.
But I hadn't appreciated just what a challenge getting hold of books would be. Of the first six orders, one was available through our music wholesaler. We discovered that we would have to set up additional accounts with another 3 wholesalers (which we did, albeit on a pro-forma basis - they always want about 6 trade references, and our existing suppliers get a teensy bit hacked off when you keep asking them to provide a reference). One title was so obscure, it is only available as a print-on-demand title from an obscure source in the US and (technically) qualifies as a Googlewhack when you search for it.
So, 6 books, 5 seperate sources. As you can appreciate, these are hardly huge volumes we're putting through each of them. And it's a bit of a shock when you start seeing terms and conditions like "free postage only for orders above £2,500" (it's £100 for our usual wholesalers). So it started to dawn on us that our service was going to be slightly less appealing to customers if they were going to have to pay the full whack of delivery charge for just one of little Johnny's flute books.
But it got worse. We tried to order a piano grade book set by the UK's largest examination board (this is a reasonable popular title). The response we got was "we don't sell that book to trade anymore". I'm sorry? But how on earth can we get it then?Anyway, with our first few orders fulfilled, and only two customers severely hacked off with the delay (to whom I have already offered our sincerest apologies) we are now committed to cracking the music wholesaler 'code'. Our strategy now will be to talk directly to some of the music teachers in Abingdon (some of whom have already come into the shop) and try to anticipate which books are likely to be in demand in the future. And we're going to establish a service-level in terms of timescales for ordering, which should allow us to bulk up orders ourselves and absorb the delivery charges.
Other than that, I may just take up the piano myself.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Abingdon should be very proud of Julie Hearn. She was born here, and returned after spells in Australia and Spain. And her books are amazing. I'm always pretty fulsome in my praise of writers who have come to the shop, but it's been a complete joy for Nicki and I to discover Julie's books, and we're very lucky that she lives on our doorstep.
No matter that the books are aimed at the teen market - it's the ideas that do it for me. Neal Stephenson is my ur-author, and although the style is obviously different, for me, Julie's books have that same heady mix of deeply engaging characters, resonant historical settings and powerful ideas - whether it's witchcraft, social justice or suffragettes.
One reviewer praised her skills at 'weaving together folklore and history' (in The Merrybegot), and another describes her writing thus: "She takes scraps from history and creates characters so vivacious that they walk right out of history, off the page and into life cursing, kicking, scabby and loving.". Spot on.
In the end I needn't have worried about numbers. We had enough to keep Julie signing for the period, but not so busy that she couldn't spend time talking to everyone who turned up. It was a delightful afternoon, and we're really pleased she was able to come to the shop.
Having spent the last few weeks poring over the somewhat meagre offering for girls this Christmas (and for teenage girls in particular), I'd definitely recommend giving her books: Hazel, Ivy, The Merrybegot and Follow Me Down - a try.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Language teaching is undergoing something of a revolution at the moment. The biggest change is the gradual introduction of language teaching aimed at 7-11 over the next few years. I can't profess to be expert on this, but it sounds a fantastic idea. Language teaching when I was a kid seemed to consist of endless rote-learning of verbs, accompanied by the reading of dull 60s-era textbooks about "Cos Le Facteur" (from memory) which has left me with huge mental block every time I've ever tried to speak French since.
Our event couldn't have been more different. Gwen is a local French teacher, and put together a series of songs, stories and games for the children who came along. What was impressive to watch was the kids learning and remembering the new words, and obviously enjoying the experience to boot.
And here's the proof:
Her books came about after Gwen - a French teacher of almost 30 years - became frustrated by the lack of simple story books for kids learning French, and wrote and self-published La Semaine de Berthe. Her visit to the shop coincided with the publication of the next two books in the series: Bonjour Berthe and Les Amis de Berthe.
The Times Educational Supplement said this about the first book: "The language is repetitive without being boring and a good basic vocabulary is introduced using common sentence structures children will be familiar with...there is a wealth of work to be obtained from this book. I look forward to seeing more in this series."
Each book retails for £3.99 - and if your interest is piqued and you can't pop into the shop in the foreseeable future, £14.00 buys you all three and shipping to anywhere in the UK...
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Friday, August 03, 2007
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Stars of the day included Sophie Grigson (who compared the Rangemaster Cookery Theatre (1 500-seat audio-vidual live cooking demonstration theatre - awesome) and then demonstrated herself.
Monday, July 09, 2007
Friday, June 29, 2007
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Usually, I finish an event report by thanking the author, but in this instance I'm going to start by thanking him (and may do so several times below). In theory, we had planned two 45-60 minute sessions at 11am and 2pm respectively, but Korky slaved away almost solidly from 11am until 4pm.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Thursday, May 17, 2007
As you might expect given its situation and student population, Oxford has three large bookshops. Blackwells is far and away the best, and is good to pop into for general inspiration, replenishment of the soul, and worshipping at this cathedral of books. Waterstones and Borders on the other hand are good for the odd spying raid (mentioned before on this blog), and having Alex with me is a good excuse to hang around the children's room for a while without being escorted from the premises.
Being anonymous in these places allows me to engage the staff in conversation about business - and everyone agreed that the last month or so has been quieter than normal. I got this message from several other (non-book-related) businesses as well.
But it was the very revealing chat I had with one business owner that got me thinking. He runs a fantastic little shop in Oxford (which will have to remain anonymous for the moment as I was sworn to secrecy). Apparently, he had been approached by the manager of a well-known UK chain in the same line - who was a bit desperate, having seen a massive fall in sales over the past couple of months, and had come in to ask, with much humility, what on earth was going on.
Now, my sample here is small, and it could be due to lots of factors such as the weather, rising interest rates, etc. But I think we're about to see some dramatic changes in retail (a Tipping Point if you like), partly due to the inexorable rise of the Internet, but mostly due to what I like to call the Tesco Effect.
Back in April Tesco posted record profits (again) of approximately £2.5 billion. Sales increased in excess of 10%, and if you are the size of Tescos, and increasing sales by that much, your competitors must be suffering pretty badly. Add increased sales by Sainsburys, and that's a big hit for anyone competing with the big supermarkets.
And that can be just about anyone. I don't think it's any surprise that the retail chains suffering the most at the moment are media (including books), clothing and electricals. These are all the areas that have fuelled the impressive sales growth of Tescos et al. Next Wednesday sees sales figures released by Next, DSGI (what used to be Dixons), and Sainsburys. What's the betting that Next (clothing) and Dixons (electricals) are hurting, whilst Sainsburys post some new records?
In their seminal (though slightly clumsily-titled) book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout explain that, as any market matures, usually only two major players are left in the game (the others having gone bust, or have been bought out). These would be Tesco and Sainsbury then. However, what market are we talking about? Not the grocery market - after all, we can't be using 10% more toilet paper every year. No, the eventual market will be "everything-that-can-be-sold-by-a-supermarket" market. And what can't they sell?
So if you're selling something that's sold by the supermarkets, and haven't worked out your niche yet, start getting worried. Depressing? I don't think so. You just need to work out your niche (if you're not a big supermarket). And this report from the US - who are a few years ahead of us on this, having been battered by Wal-Mart - say that there are fantastic opportunities for independents.
I think if there is going to be an imminent massacre on the British High Street, people are going to want to do something, and supporting local shops might be an easy, rewarding way for people to feel empowered in the face of these retail behemoths.
Abingdon is in the front-line of this paradigm-change in consumer habits BTW. We have one of the UK's most profitable Tescos on the outskirts. Fed up with several years of small expansions (which don't trigger planning reviews, but are slow and messy) Tesco has now decided to go for broke and apply to increase its store by a third (or 19 independent shop sizes). I wouldn't mind, but the store is already huge. It's a Tesco Extra store. You have to walk half a mile to find the milk. On a foggy day, you can't see the far wall. On Monday, the District Council will decide to approve this application. They can't really do anything else. If they oppose it, Tesco will continue to appeal until they win, and then the council will have to pay Tesco's legal bills. Tesco has deeper pockets than the council (and better lawyers and expert witnesses probably). Sad, and democratically-emasculating, but that's the modern world for you. If I were Tesco, I'd do exactly the same. The politicians set the rules, Tesco maximise their shareholders profits within them. And don't forget, Tesco got so big by being brilliant at customer service. If Tesco weren't #1, we'd be moaning about Asda Wal-Mart. I think Tesco is actually a great business. But it's ironic that I get several communications a week asking my opinion about THE taking over Bertrams (Titanic and deckchairs anyone?) and a deafening silence about the big supermarkets taking over the world.
So - I think we can forget some brave local councillors standing up for choice and biodiversity in retailing. Instead, I think we need to get creative, and work out what competitive advantage we have over Tesco. I think it's a lot - but what does everyone else think?
Saturday, May 12, 2007
It has been drawing admiring glances all morning, and is (conservatively) now on two people's Christmas lists. You have no idea how much fun this job can be sometimes...
The sooner Nicki is back in the shop the better I think...
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Thursday, May 03, 2007
This year I was able to introduce Alex to the concept of local democracy, and although my first explanation got a response of "wot?"he did manage to post my ballot papers for me to a round of applause from the polling station staff. Heady stuff.
Back in 1992, and the general election that year, on what was also a gloriously sunny May day, I was a fresh-faced(ish) fairweather-lefty student (in Birmingham's Selly Oak - where crusty Tory Anthony Beaumont-Darke was about to get dumped by a Labour newbie much to our delight). I walked up to the polling booth with a mate of mine Denis - who was most definitely a committed lefty - and he asked me to take a picture of him in front of the polling station sign. He had been born on an election day, and there were photographs of him on every polling day ever since. I remember that walk vividly, and the excitement and optimism that Kinnock would trump Major, not knowing that "The Sun Would Win It", etc.
I thought the photo thing was a nice tradition - so hence the above picture.
Talking of elections (well, votes) is a thinly-veiled segue to say congratulations to Much Ado Books, in Alfriston, East Sussex - voted Independent Bookshop of the Year at the recent British Book Industry Awards. It looks a fantastic shop, as does the website. Nicki and I will be shamelessly pouring over the site in the weeks to come for ideas and inspiration, but I have to say the Paperback Piazza is a stroke of genius...
I notice that Charkblog noted the lack of booksellers who attended the awards this year - well, we would have been there apart from recent family developments, so we'll definitely try to go next year...
Friday, April 27, 2007
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Thursday, April 12, 2007
David Melling is a star children's illustrator and author or several critically-acclaimed children's books including Jack Frost, The Kiss That Missed and the Fidget and Quilly books. He also happens to live in Abingdon, so hits pretty much all our targets in terms of our perfect author.
We laid on copious amounts of pens, pencils, crayons, paper and some splendid original artwork provided by David for everyone to colour in.
David was a bit nervous, he'd only done this type of gig in schools, and this was his first bookshop. I was also nervous and twitchy (big author, had I taken too many bookings, plus ever so slightly sleep-deprived after recent momentous events). But...David was a big hit and everyone had a great deal of fun.
David started off reading from The Kiss That Missed - and talking about where his ideas come from. He sketched along the way.
Here's an excerpt:
At one point he invited audience participation...drawing around hands and even heads...
...to create a new character.
(not sure what the young chap thinks of the result).
We're getting a good feel for how events work best, and having a formal/informal split to proceedings is working really well. It lets us have a initial, scheduled and well-planned format, which we can run for 30 minutes to an hour, then people who need to go can slip away, and others can stay and chat to the author during the informal bit.
In this case, David was a complete star and spent some time with the kids who were busy creating their own masterpieces:
And we also had a question and answer session as well.
This evening I brought home a (signed) copy of David's new book - Two By Two and a Half - for some user feedback (Alex, aged 3). It was a big hit. As an illustrator, David has an uncanny knack of communicating movement and dynamism into his work, and Alex particularly liked the bit where the bear rips up the tree and starts chasing Miss Moo Hoo and the animals:
More signed copies in the shop of course...
Our thanks to David for giving up his time, I know he put a lot of effort into the event (and thanks for the great artwork too). Thanks to everyone who came along and made the event so much fun. We'll definitely be doing this again...
Our next events include an evening with Tim Pears (April 25th) and the return of storyteller Peter Hearn (May 5th - see what happened when he came last time). More in our next newsletter...but for now, watch our for those raggamuffins...