Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bookshop Feng Shui, or "Giving the shop a good stir"

I'd like to say that stocktaking is one of those wonderful, quintessential experiences of bookselling, as enjoyable as spending time with a customer and pressing two or three hitherto undiscovered titles in their hand and watching them leave happy. Well, it may be quintessential, but in my experience stocktaking is tedious, laborious, exhausting and deadly dull. So perhaps we're doing it wrong. (Actually, I know doing it wrong. We use the Gardlink system, and unfortunately - and naïvely - we requested the handheld scanners too late this year, so none were available. Consequently we've had to bring the books to the scanner at the till, slowing down the process considerably. We won't do that again. Grrr.) Anyway, there are several upsides to stocktaking (no really). The big one is the opportunity to give the shop a bit of a spring clean, dig into all the dark and dusty corners and re-aquaint ourselves with some of the less popular titles: dust them down (literally in some cases) and bring them blinking out into the light for customers to see. I like to think of it as giving the shop a big stir. Or bookshop Feng Shui. I'm always amazed how even a minor reshuffle on the shelves can result in titles that have sat quietly for months with nary a glance suddenly get picked up and found a new home. So - what other things have we learned from this annual ritual? Books, CDs, etc with no prices on don't sell. Because the vast majority of books that come into the shop have RRPs (Recommended Retail Prices) on the covers, we've been a bit lax in pricing up those that don't. Audio is particularly bad for this. Customers feel uncomfortable when there isn't a price - I guess it breaks a cardinal rule about how a shop is set up (or perhaps they get a bit intimidated because of the old cliché "if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it"). Either way, people can get quite cross when something isn't priced, bringing it to the till and demanding to know what it is. It's been a bit of an eye-opener just how many items weren't priced correctly, so we've been remedying this (he says guiltily). Books wrapped in cellophane don't sell. When we first opened, some of our initial stock orders came in wrapped in cellophane. "Ooh, dead posh" we thought, "That'll keep the books nice" - and promptly put them on the shelf still wrapped. A few seconds thought should have told us that one of the advantages of coming into a bookshop rather than, say, buying off the web is that you can have a good browse of the books. We had a gorgeous Thai cookbook that sat for a year in cellophane and sold 3 days after we took the cellophane off. Slap. We're less precious about unwrapping them now (or - in the case of very delicate, expensive books with cream coloured jackets for example, we'll have two: one wrapped, one for inspection. You can't do that with every book however). Author balances can get out of whack. Some of our juxtaposed authors were out of kilter. For example, we had - inexplicably - 6 titles by Adriana Trigiani and nothing by William Trevor. Now don't get me wrong, Adriana Trigiani is a fine author, and we have some devotees who come into our shop, but I think we have to work harder at the whole Trigiani/Trevor balance here. We're a small shop. I mean, we only stock a maximum of six plays by Shakespeare... Bookshops get really dusty. Boy, oh, boy. I was like a bituminous miner at the end of Sunday... But the biggest discovery is (as last year): we've got too much stock. We knew we had too much stock. We always have too much stock. We probably always will. We love books. We can't help ourselves. We order more of them in than we should do, and I guess we'll just have to do better at selling them...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mystery Shopper Update

Following my post last week about being mystery shopped as part of our nomination, I thought I'd update you because I am convinced I served one of the Mystery Shoppers earlier this week. I'm a bit twitchy and eager to impress at the best of times when someone new comes into the shop, but it's been much worse since last week. Anyone I don't recognise has been getting a full-on dose of my particular brand of caffeine-fuelled, slightly overenthusiastic bookselling. Other members of staff try to alleviate the effects by jumping on me or giving me suddenly-urgent menial jobs to do to stop me scaring off potential customers. Anyway, a very nice lady came into the shop on Wednesday, and here's the clues that led me to suspect she was in fact a Mystery Shopper:
  • Entered the shop, and spent at least one minute "taking stock" of her surroundings
  • Upon being greeted, she gave me a winning smile, but did not engage in any banter
  • Exuded air of confidence in the retail environment
  • Was dressed smart but not showy, business-like but not corporate
  • Carried smart business-like portfolio, or the kind that I imagine mystery shoppers would carry (containing mystery shopper questionnaires, review documents, feedback forms, training material, etc.)
  • Spent several minutes casually checking the shop
  • Selected a popular title off the fiction shelves from an author who doesn't do well in the shop normally (marking her out as "not a typical Mostly Books customer" and "a stranger in these parts" - that last expression to be said in Oxfordshire or West Country accent)
  • Asked tricky questions about recommendations for a 12-year-old nephew (unnamed). Fortunately, "books for 12 year old boys"would be my chosen specialist subject if I ever appeared on mastermind - ha ha!
  • Appeared slightly stunned once I'd loaded her with books, explained the loyalty card, gave her the current issue of the newsletter. Nevertheless, she clung determinedly to initial purchase selection, and simply said she'd have to "ask about which book her nephew might want".
  • When engaged in casual conversation during sales transaction about where she was from, said she was just "passing through Abingdon" on "business".

So what do you think? Prime candidate or what? Or perhaps I simply need to go and lie down... ...or alternatively spend a day stocktaking, which is (groan) what will be happening in the shop all day tomorrow...

The Great Carnegie Book Hunt

Last year, when the Carnegie and Greenaway shortlists were announced, we naively thought "ooh, we'll have one of each of the shortlist for the shop, make a nice display". After a quick call to one of the major wholesalers, it dawned on us that we had somewhat missed the boat. 'Ere, Bert, gentleman on line two says he wants some carnegie shortlist titles dear oh dear, you're 'aving' a laugh, etc. It quickly became clear that a) before the shortlist was announced, half the titles were OP in hardback and not yet published in paperback, and b) the ones that weren't available were snapped up by 8.15 the following morning. So this year we were ready. This year, we have launched a Greenaway shadowing group in the shop, and we also had some orders for titles off the Carnegie list to fulfill, so the whole thing was planned like the proverbial military campaign. First, the entire longlist was recced, titles were noted in terms of availability in hardback, paperback, stock amounts for all major wholesalers. Then a number of pre-order baskets were prepared ready for the off. After staying up past midnight (joined by Timothy who wanted to know what all the excitement was about) the moment the shortlist came through on email, the baskets were stripped to their shortlisted essentials and sent off ASAP in the wee small hours. We will discover Saturday morning if our meticulous planning has paid more about the Carnegie shortlist here. Mind you, 3 out of the 7 titles could not be had for love nor money. Elizabeth Laird's Crusade, Tanya Landman's Apache and Meg Rosoff's What I Was are not yet printed in paperback (well, not that we could see) so we have four of the titles coming in (hopefully). It must be a total nightmare for publishers if you have a title on either of the longlists. You can't rush forward the publication date or go for a reprint before the list announcement, just in case it isn't shortlisted. But as soon as it *is* shortlisted, everyone wants a copy. Ho hum...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


We've been shortlisted for this. Yoinks. This means (apparently) that we will be mystery-shopped twice in the next fortnight as part of the judging process. I will try to remain calm and not act like a grinning, over-friendly idiot every time someone new enters the shop over the next two weeks... Congratulations to our other shortlistees: Bookstór in Cork, Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath and Seven Stories Bookshop in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New shops!

Nicki and I are taking Alex and Timothy off for a few days by the seaside from tomorrow - a big milestone for us as the shop will remain open for business as usual for the first time whilst we're away. This is testament to the fantastic team we now have at Mostly Books, although I'm sure everyone will be relieved when we've finally gone and stopped leaving huge to-do lists, contingency plans, operating procedures and other nonsense from their slightly neurotic and panicky employers. Good luck to everyone over the next few days - we promise not to phone up every five minutes to check how it's all going... Anyway, before we go - two bits of news that each probably warrant their own blog post, but I don't have time before we leave tomorrow. Firstly, we've discovered another new bookshop on the cusp of opening. Now that Simon and Tim are well and truly up and running, with events and school accounts coming thick and fast, I call upon Tim and Simon to pass the "new bookshop" staff of blog power (passed to them from us, passed to us from Crockett & Powell) to Karen at Inkspot and Silverleaf, which is opening imminently in Bo'ness, Scotland (my Scottish geography is not too good - I'm guessing that's near Falkirk?). That picture of all those boxes of Gardners books stacked up sent shivers down my spine - that's a big, exciting, exhausting job ahead for someone... Good luck to Karen and I&S - and let us know how we can help. Much closer to home, we have a splendid new shop opening right here in Abingdon. Local Roots will be officially opened this Friday by Sophie Grigson, and Chris and Sukey have been slaving hard over the past month turning #4 East St. Helen Street into a beautiful shop, which will sell local produce sourced within a 30-mile radius of the shop. With innovations such as a cycle-delivery service, and plenty of organic and smallholders supplying produce, this is an exciting new addition for Abingdon and just the kind of independent shop towns like Abingdon need to thrive in the future. Sorry we can't be there at the opening guys, but we hope it goes extremely well, and we'll be round next week when we get back...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Royal Visit

Last Tuesday we welcomed a very special visitor to Mostly Books. The bunting was up, the shelves had been dusted, the stock had been rigorously checked. Although the council had refused permission to stop traffic from coming down Stert Street for the morning, we had managed to gather together some of our customer's children, form them into a makeshift choir, and - dressed in matching sailor suits - assembled them near the door for a specially-written, literary-reference-strewed version of "My Favourite Things".

And then we waited.

The visit had been meticulously planned. Aside from the official paperwork that is always needed for anything this high profile (mostly involving liaison between the respective embassies in Devon and Oxfordshire) the complications of coordinating all the parties behind the scenes had led to two previous visits falling through. But this was a case of third time lucky.

And at about 11am our patience was rewarded. Her entourage opened the door, the children burst into song - and we welcomed dovegreyreader to Mostly Books.

(OK - some of this might have been exaggerated - but I did sweep the shop that morning specially).
It was particularly delighted to meet Lynne in the flesh (so-to-speak) after two years of virtual communication. She has been a massive supporter of the shop since before we opened, she was as delightful as I imagined she would be, and I can only hope the visit - coming as it did after her stonking appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival - lived up to all her expectations.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Monster Truck Mayhem!

(OK, OK - but I felt that title was better than the two alternatives I came up with of "Keep on Trucking" and "Truck-tastic" but I expect the organisers have heard it all before...)

At 10.30 we had a few people in the shop already...
...but no queue outside.
However, as 11.11 approached, the queue grew. Some of our regulars were a bit surprised...

These were the first - I'll resist referring to them as "lucky truckers":

But I'm pleased to report - with the help of the wonderful Deborah and Claire - that sales went smoothly, we sold out of our initial 200 allocation, and there was no BA-style screw-up (phew)!

We've got more tickets, so they are still available. More about Truck and Wood can be found here.

All of this has overshadowed an important royal visitor we had earlier in the week. More on this exciting and eagerly anticipated milestone for Mostly Books shortly...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Truck Festival 2008

Back at the beginning of the year we got a call from someone asking us if we wanted to sell tickets for the Truck Festival this year. Apparently Dawsons (RIP) and Modern Music before them used to sell tickets locally. Since their demise last year the organisers were looking for another outlet in Abingdon. Since we've started to sell music, they came to check us out - and offered us the gig. Of course, I was completely ignorant of what the Truck Festival actually was (I've never been a festival kind of guy). But, it is a local festival - and we liked the sound of the ethos (that and the fact that we're usually willing to give something a go often before examining some of the finer implications). I blithely said "sure thing" - so consequently we're the Abingdon outlet for Truck Festival tickets this year. We're also selling tickets to the inaugural Wood Festival at Braziers Park in May. I guess I assumed that this was some small festival, the vast majority of tickets would sell online, and we'd get a few people coming to get them from us. Au contraire. We began to get a hint about this when people started to phone us to find out when tickets would be available. When several of our customers said they would be coming in on the morning the tickets go on sale, and even our DHL delivery driver got all excited and commented on the expected demand, we began to get a bit worried. Then I spotted this article in our local paper. Eh? Queues expected??! Truck - it turns out - is somewhat of a big deal, as this article in the Guardian suggests (although well done to the Gruaniad for getting the ticket price wrong - it's £60). In addition, the organisers are very keen to give local people the best possible chance of getting tickets, meaning the tickets go on sale locally a week before they go on sale nationally. This will be Wednesday morning at 11.11am (it's the 11th Truck Festival apparently, do you see what they've done there?) We were consequently fearing some sort of British Airways T5-style fiasco on Wednesday morning when our usual 2 members of staff (me, and Ali who only started last week) will be faced with hundreds of festival goers queuing up Stert Street eager for tickets. However, unlike BA, help is at hand - one of the festival organisers appeciates that this is our 'first time' and will be on hand to come to the shop and assist us in selling the tickets. It still might get a bit hairy for a while though, so perhaps some sort of storytelling to the queues might be in order... So - if you're up for Truck tickets, we'll see you in the shop at 11.11am on Wednesday...