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The shops rekindling our interest in books
Buy this photo Mark Thornton, owner of Mostly Books in Abingdon
WHEN Mark Thornton opened Mostly Books in Abingdon in 2006, he continued to sell the pots and pans the cookware store had left behind.
Eight years on, the kitchen utensils at the Stert Street store are long gone.
But the father-of-two is constantly cooking up ideas to bring in shoppers.
He is aware that stores like Tesco pile books high and sell them very cheap so he has to offer something special to the readers who come into his store.
The recent National Booksellers Week, which finished on Saturday, July 5, gave the shop a boost worth several hundreds of pounds in extra takings.
But Mr Thornton said he has to work hard all year round to keep existing customers loyal and to generate new custom.
And his innovations, including author events, a shop newsletter, blogs and tweets, appear to be working.
“The retail world is now a very different place – when we opened in 2006 there was no digital reading as such, and Kindle was launched in 2007 and 2008, although Amazon was already a major player,” said Mr Thornton.
“People have busy lives and they need convincing to come into the store to see what we have to offer.
“We do in-store readings, author events and give readers personalised recommendations.
“We tried making customers coffee but, to be honest, we weren’t that good at it, so we have stopped doing it to concentrate on the bookselling.
“We have a garden out the back where we do hold some author events, but you can’t rely on the weather so you can’t use it for a cafe and there isn’t room for a cafe inside.”
Mr Thornton said he hosts a number of events in schools for reluctant readers, and spends time in the store with customers who want particular help and advice.
“This mum came in with her nine-year-old boy and he was a reluctant reader and I spent 20 minutes talking to him about books I thought he might like to read,” he said.
“He told me he watched the Merlin series on TV so I showed him some books from the Young Merlin series and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Cosmic.
“When I give these recommendations I always appreciate it if I get feedback from the children themselves on whether they have enjoyed the books or not.
“When you spend time with customers like this, they then recommend the store to their friends, so although it’s hard to give that level of care to every single customer, it does make commercial sense because then your reputation grows in the community.
“We signed that family up to a loyalty card and will email them our newsletter.
“You have to work on building up customers’ loyalty because there’s quite a fast turnover in the local population so you have to work hard to recruit the next group of customers.”
Mr Thornton, from Abingdon, who lives with wife Nicky and sons Alex, 10, and Timothy, seven, said the store does not sell tablets, but it sells some ebooks through the National Book Tokens scheme.
“When the recession hit, people definitely had a feeling that they had a bit too much cheap stuff.
“So we don’t see our job as loading up people with books when they go out of the shop but helping them to find a book they will really appreciate.
“People can come in and find a new author or a different direction in their lives. Customers do come in if they have lost their jobs or relationship and stopping off in a bookshop can open new doors.
“We talk about social networks and books and libraries are the original social networks.
“I don’t see the local library as competition – I work with it to organise events and I welcome the presence of the Oxfam shop in the same street because customers will visit them as well as us.
“I think there is a positive future for independent booksellers but perhaps not quite so many, as quite a few have been closing every year.
“There are about 1,000 at the moment so maybe the total number will be down to about 600 in five or six years’ time.
“Before Independent Booksellers Week we hosted a group event on what would make a good book group book – something like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon which is a good read but also contains some quite deep themes.
“Then during the week we had an author event with journalist Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon.
“We have a viable business but we do have to work hard to keep it going.”
Tough times, but booksellers have reason for optimism
UNTIL the end of 2009, book lovers in Oxford were in dreamland.
They could choose between Blackwell’s in Broad Street, Waterstones on the corner of Cornmarket Street and Broad Street, and American chain Borders across the road in Magdalen Street.
Then Borders pulled the plug on all its 45 UK stores, leaving just Blackwell’s and Waterstones remaining out of the big three.
Blackwell’s has been a literary stalwart in the city. It was founded in 1879 in Broad Street by Benjamin Blackwell.
The Oxford-based book merchants now have a reported 46 branches across the UK.
The Book Lover is one independent bookshop which closed in Oxford in recent years.
Julian Tester, who ran the store in Woodin’s Way, which sold second-hand comics, children’s books and history books, said: “We opened in 2006 and I closed the shop in September 2011.
“We weren’t getting the footfall because of the recession, but I think independent bookshops will have their time again once people start to realise how much they are missing them.
“I’m trading online now and I’m doing okay.”
In Walton Street, Jericho, there is the Albion Beatnik bookshop, and there is a large network of specialist Oxfam bookshops across Oxfordshire, including specialist bookshops in St Giles and Turl Street, in Oxford, and in Thame and Chipping Norton.
Independent bookshops still going in Oxfordshire include The Book House and Barefoot Books in Summertown, and Coles Books in Bicester. Evenlode Books in Charlbury closed at the end of last year after trading since 2000.
- Author Kathryn White reads to children at Barefoot Books, Summertown
The number of independent bookshops in the UK fell below 1,000 for the first time earlier this year as a combination of Amazon, e-books and High Street rent increases put them out of business. Another 67 bookshops closed last year, leaving just 987 across the country. In 2005, the figure was 1,535.
The figures were released by the Booksellers Association, which has warned that the situation has reached crisis point.
However, booksellers appear to be optimistic about the future and 26 new bookshops opened last year.
Jaffe & Neale, Chipping Norton
PATRICK Neale, of Jaffe and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton, is perhaps as well-known for his cafe as he is for the bookstore he runs.
The two go well together — people visit the cafe to meet their friends and then buy a book, or if they do drop in to the store to buy a book they inevitably end up buying a coffee and a slice of cake as well.
Like Mark Thornton at Mostly Books, Mr Neale hosts lots of author events, including those who dropped in at the store for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.
Recently Nell Gifford, who runs Giffords Circus, called in to promote her book about the first 10 years of the circus.
But Mr Neale does not rest on his bookselling laurels — he is constantly looking for new selling opportunities.
He is a familiar face at music festivals including the Big Feastival at Alex James’s farm at nearby Kingham, and at Wilderness Festival, also in West Oxfordshire.
But he is prepared to go further afield and even travelled to Yorkshire to sell cycling books when the Tour de France arrived.
- Patrick Neale in Jaffe & Neale
“If the customers don’t come to you then you have to take the books to them,” he said.
“We won’t be able to retire on the money we made but it was worth the trip.
“Gone are the days when you could stay behind the till and wait for the customers to come to you.
“We put the cafe in in 2006 and it has been a great success — we love selling books but we are very careful with our coffee and cakes and were recently shortlisted for the Cotswold Cafe of the Year.
“You have to have a way of enticing people in and once you have got people to relax and enjoy themselves they will start to open their wallets.
“When people can buy books online you have to make a visit to the bookshop an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.
“I think independent booksellers are doing well — the chains which cannot give the lowest price or the best customer service might suffer.”
RACHEL Phipps, who runs the Woodstock Bookshop, which opened in May 2008, welcomes the boost that Independent Booksellers Week gives the store.
But she says she needs customers to show the same loyalty all year round.
In return, she can offer a friendly, personal service the chains can’t offer and talk to them about books, or anything else.
She organises author events, and the Woodstock Poetry Festival, and sometimes stages readings in Woodstock Methodist Church.
Ms Phipps also runs two book clubs at at Woodstock Primary School and arranges author visits to other schools.
- Rachel Phipps
She said: “I think people are prepared to pay a few more pounds for a book to keep their independent bookshop alive.
“And you can’t have a good chat on Amazon.
“I think the independent bookshops that have closed down are the ones where they haven’t done anything more than sell books.”