Saturday 17 March 2018

Low overheads allow labour of love to keep 'tipping away'

Loyal customers and camaraderie among local businesses are helping this Co Kerry seller to survive the downturn, learns Siobhan Creaton

'If you ask a business person how things are in Listowel they will all tell you they are tipping away," says Brenda Woulfe who has been running her own bookshop in the north Kerry town for the past six years.

"And once you can tip away," she says, "you are okay and paying your bills."

Her business is "well down" in the past couple of years but Woulfe has loyal customers who come from west Limerick and north Kerry for her book recommendations and know she will find whatever they are looking for. "It's a personal business. That is my selling point," she says.

When she worked in the family pub and restaurant, she loved to discuss what she was reading with the customers. "I was always a reader. I love books. On a quiet night in the pub I would be telling people at the counter about a great book I was reading," she says -- and had toyed with the idea of opening her own bookshop for a while before finally taking the plunge.

And ever since Woulfe's Bookshop started trading on Church Street its founder, and sole employee, has been happy in her work.

It was a good time to open a business and Woulfe says she feels lucky to have made her mistakes in the early days rather than now, where a bad decision can have drastic and sometimes fatal consequences. "My learning curve was in relatively good times."

Business is quieter now so there is less room to make costly mistakes.

"The days when people bought five or six books to bring on holidays are gone and there is a lot of competition from eBooks and from Amazon but people will always want books. They tell you they love the experience of holding a book in their hands and like to talk about their recommendations," says Woulfe.

In these straitened times when consumers are closely watching what they spend, she believes she is also fortunate her costs are relatively low. "I don't have chick nor child to support myself so there is the rent and the rates, which the council haven't increased for the last three years," she says.

Hopefully the introduction of free parking in Listowel on Saturday afternoons for the summer months will help all of the traders and Woulfe says local businesses are very supportive of each other.

"We all recommend local places. There is great camaraderie which we may have taken for granted before but it makes a difference now," she says.

Woulfe's is the only dedicated bookshop in the town. A few tourists strolled in to buy books in May and June but they have been thin on the ground since.

"Perhaps the cost of travelling has gone up for July," Woulfe suggests.

Her customers are mainly local and most people who pop in for a browse buy something.

She will shortly record new videos for Facebook and YouTube where she will discuss popular books and make suggestions for readers as a means to boost her business and its website.

Common sense, she says, tells her she needs to use social media in this way. Customers can also order books from her shop online and she will happily post them as gifts to friends and relatives in every corner of the world.

Being an independent bookseller is a challenge that means going up against the big multiples. It's a six-day-a-week job so she doesn't have the time to see how much Tesco and Eason are promoting or selling new books for, Woulfe says. Over the years she has figured out what Woulfe's needs to do to survive.

"You need to broaden your range because you can't depend on bestsellers," she explains. So for the foreseeable future she will have plenty of crime fiction novels, history books and biographies that her customers love. "Good fiction will always sell -- and a bit of chicklit."

The children's book section is the "most fun" part of the shop, in her view.

"Children know exactly what they want. You can't tempt them to buy something else. They also are really well informed as they see books online they want and will often be looking for something from an author they have just read who is advertising another book but who still hasn't even finished it."

She loves people to tell her what they are reading and what they have enjoyed when they pop in for a browse.

"A friend of mine told me when I was getting started that everything sells and she was right," Woulfe says. "A good book may be on the shelf for up to two years but will eventually sell because it is still a good book."

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