By Richard Kemp Open YOUR bookshop now. You can. Here’s how. James Patterson is offering £250k to support independent bookshops in the UK. He is doing this because he believes that bookshops help children in particular develop the literacy and reading skills that will equip them for success in later life. This is an issue that matters to Education Secretary Michael Gove (since replaced) who during his term in office called for better performance around literacy in primary schools. I agree with Patterson that bookshops support literacy in a way that is crucial to children, schools and community alike. I have direct experience of opening three indie bookshops in three very different High Streets over the last three years — including Madcap, a in London (run by my sister, and Books Yule Love, in Moreton in Marsh — with the aim of bringing bookshops back to the 1,000 towns in the UK that have no bookselling presence of any kind. I am just about to open my fourth in Pontyclun in Wales. I have done this because I do not believe we can wait for Mary Portas, David Cameron, a reality TV crew or government initiative to regenerate our high streets. However, Patterson’s offer of a donation up to £5k does give impetus to bringing about this sort of change for bookshops now. If you want to open a bookshop, there’s never been a better time. People will still think you are mad. Most people think bookshops are doomed to die. My experience over the last three years challenges this and shows you can succeed in a hostile trading environment. But be warned. It takes a lot of hard work. You will not be rich. But you will have a sustainable business along with just about the best job of any on the high street. So, here goes.
1. You don’t need to be a reader to be a great bookseller.
To succeed you need to care about your customers and your community. You will beat Amazon, charity shops, the supermarkets and big bookstore chains with their discounted book prices on service, service, service alone. Even if you do read, you can’t read every book in stock. The key is to focus on your customers’ needs and to care passionately that they get from you what they need to read. People will talk to you about things that really matter to them when they talk about books. Seeing their children get into reading is hugely important to most adults. So more than anything you need to understand the books that help give children the reading bug. My sister who is profoundly dyselxic and does not read gets this. Some of the best books around are highly visual, simple to read and very addictive. This is the most important role you will play, guiding kids into great reading.
2 You need to understand why the last bookshop failed and shut up shop..
When I did my research for the first bookshop, most shops that shut did so because they could no longer afford their rent or rates with falling sales. Many shop owners nearing retirement age quit as their leases came up because, with the coming of the kindle, they feared the remaining sales they had would simply fall off a cliff. The good news is, the kindle has come, and there is still a market for books.
3. Know your customer.
I have set up a number of books groups as part of opening the various different shops. Most people coming to the book group download their book to a kindle. You need to focus on older readers who love their books, children and those in between who do not regularly read books. You will succeed when parents and grandparents bring children in the shop to browse for books or start asking what books they should buy to encourage their kids to read at home. When you have parents saying they can’t believe their kids now ask them to come to the bookshop, you will know you have succeeded. When you have kids coming in to the shop after school to buy books on their own, you know your next generation of book buyers is guaranteed to be on its way to you. You will discover that many people have very long memories and a lot of affection for bookshops.
4. Become expert at finding any book your customers want.
It is surprising how quickly you can learn to find books that people half remember, call by the wrong name or describe by cover. Again, the key to success here is delivering on your promise to get the right book in at the right price – usually overnight. The brilliant thing is you can do this working with the major book wholesalers or specialist publishers that matter to you.
5. Don’t be tempted to run complicated loyalty and discount schemes.
You will quickly come to know your best customers by name, the authors they love and the last book they read. Look after these customers and they will look after you. Tell everyone else that you do so. Your bookshop will be all about relationship selling. Be proud of it. It is what makes you different and why your customers will come to care about you and committed to seeing you succeed.
6. Make your bookshop a friendly destination that people want to come.
A lot of browsing goes on in bookshops. Customers can spend hours musing over the books on your shelves and then leave without buying a single thing. Don’t worry. They will be back. Sometimes it takes a customer three visits to decide they will buy from you. Book buying is a more complex buying process than you think. You will also have to learn to grin and bear it on occasion when a child mangles up a book. If you build in stock damage and theft, you should be able to cope with this without losing your temper. having books stolen is another matter. It feels like a personal violation as well as a damaging business loss. Learn to look at it this way. If someone wants to steal a book, you are doing something right in terms of creating the reading bug. I’ve experienced most thefts when giving storytelling sessions at school fairs or village fetes. Even when this happens, these are some of the most rewarding things I ever do.
7. Make your bookshop welcoming in ways that stand out.
Combine your passion for the things that matter to you alongside your commitment to books. Hats, cats and Christmas are among some of the combinations I have found work surprisingly well together. Your bookshop is not a library or a school. It needs to be an inviting place that takes away any pressure people, and children of school age in particular, may associate around reading as a chore or bore. However, you do need to be able to go out to schools and companies with the offer of being able to bulk supply. This is demanding work and an area where price is very important. But it is worth it to build strong relationships with your community. But make sure that pupils and parents know all about you. This is important both for your reputation and to make it easy for new customers to find you.
8. Expect competition to follow.
The High Street is a very competitive place. The moment you succeed, someone will notice it. Some of the best indies in the country operate cheek by jowl with a discount book store. They survive on service, not on discount. As you learn your customers’ needs you will find you start to offer books not available next door. This becomes most rewarding in the children’s section where you can build up a real reputation for having the best books around. Most of your customers do not come in to the shop with a fixed idea to buy a specific book. The books they buy from you are mostly books they would never sit down to buy online. Over time they will come to you precisely because they want these kinds of books. A good indie grows the book market because their relationship with their customers stimulates the urge to read in a way that no algorithm online can.
9. Care about your stock turnover.
Seeing your books sell off the shelf is a very satisfying thing. It is also important because books can wear poorly if they are handled by browsing customers all the time. I have found that many customers look at hardbacks only to put them down and the go out to buy them online. You need to be really ruthless about hardbacks. Most customers will prefer to wait for a paperback edition of a new title they want. A few of your most committed book lovers will want hardbacks as soon as they come out. So you may need to offer hardbacks as an on-demand service or by special arrangement. the exception is the run up to Christmas when having the right hardbacks immediately to hand is crucial for the gift market.
10. It takes an absolute minimum of £3k book stock to open a half decent bookshop, I have found.
You can grow this as you get to know your customers and build up your sales. I can give advice on what opening stock I have found sells best. Getting this first step right is going to be essential to your success. the good news is that there is no need to get this wrong.Then you can then specialize as you go. You will make a difference not only to the landscape of the High Street. but to the cultural life and reading habits of your community as well. So have no fear about setting up a bookshop to bring vitality and reading back to your High Street and town. My case studies show conclusively that there is no reason for you not to thrive. Patterson has put bookselling as a proposition back on the cultural map. The old saying goes that reading opens up a thousand lives to you. 1000 towns, 1000 livelihoods, 1000×1000 reading lives. Open your bookshop. If you need it, I’ll help you with the how!
Article has been updated to reflect corrections made on behalf of the author.