Sunday 25 February 2018

Gripping tales of bookshop survival

Don't write off the independents of the bookselling world, they've loads of fight in them yet, discovers Alison Walsh

BEST SELLER: The Gutter Bookshop’s Bob Johnston believes that independent book shops can
take on the big boys by offering a personalised service and staff recommendations
BEST SELLER: The Gutter Bookshop’s Bob Johnston believes that independent book shops can take on the big boys by offering a personalised service and staff recommendations

Alison Walsh

In the UK in 2009, 109 independent bookshops closed their doors, according to the Booksellers' Association, a rate of two a week. In Ireland, the book market has never looked bleaker. Surely with the emphasis on value for money above all else, the power of the e-book and, whisper it, Amazon, independent bookselling is a fool's game?

Well, not according to three Irish independent booksellers, each of whom is bucking the recession with gusto, ingenuity and lots of hard work. But how exactly are they doing it?

Well, knowing your market is key, according to Nicole Shanahan and Maura O'Halloran of the Clifden Bookshop. In business since 1997, this independent bookshop in Connemara's capital is packed to the ceiling with books, cards and art supplies. Through a combination of canny stock management and a lively local community with a strong arts presence, the bookshop manages to ride out the seasonal fluctuations that are the bugbear of any rural bookshop.

Sure, according to Nicole, "January and February are the worst times: it's grim to keep going", in the summer, the tourist market keeps them busy, and their season is extended by Clifden Arts Week at the end of September, which brings in a vibrant cultural visitor.

Nonetheless, in a town where the population goes from around 2,000 in the winter to three times that size in the summer, they have to be careful about shaping their product to their market: they produce their own range of cards and stationery -- big sellers in this tourist town -- carry art supplies for the small, but significant number of their customers who are artists, and have even dabbled in self-publishing, producing a trilingual book for tourists, Connemara, Land of Contrasts.

Maura and Nicole are clear that things were certainly easier in the boom, but they are well enough established in the community to ride out the downturn, and can rely on the support of other small retailers in the town: "We try to shop locally. When we do our shopping, we try to visit a different butcher each day, all the local businesses support each other," Maura explains.

But what if you decide to fulfil your dream of opening an independent bookshop in the teeth of a recession? The Company of Books in tranquil Ranelagh is run by Anne Macdona and Gwen Allman, who took the plunge into independent bookselling in 2009. While to some this might seem like madness, to Anne and Gwen, who had previously owned a framing business in the area, the lease on the old Irish School of Motoring office becoming available was a sign. "I don't think you can get a better area, it's fantastic. And as a native, I'd have been very conscious that there wasn't a bookshop in Ranelagh," says Anne, adding "we think we were lucky to start in the middle of a recession because we're not in it long enough to notice the slump."

Small but perfectly formed, with a carefully chosen range, the bookshop is now well established in Ranelagh, but Anne and Gwen are frank about their early mistakes: before they knew their customer base as well as they do now, they accepted advice to stock "plenty of everything" for the Christmas rush, as Anne explains: "We had a whole bay of popular women's fiction and I'd say we sold a half a dozen titles."

Now, they know what their customer is looking for: literary fiction and non-fiction with a smattering of crime. They have also learned the art of talking to their customers to see what they'd like to read, as Anne explains: "People sometimes ask us if we have those little cards," referring to the staff picks that are now a feature of many bookshops, where the staff will lovingly recommend a title, marking it on the shelf with a card, "but for us, every book is a staff pick. Because the place is small and we know what's on the shelf, we talk to the customer and guide them towards something. Ninety per cent of the customers who come in will chat; telling us what they've read or asking us what we think of a particular book, and that's something we encourage."

Personal service and discussion are key to the success of the independent bookshop, but one person who does believe in the power of Staff Picks is Bob Johnston, of The Gutter Bookshop, in Temple Bar, an airy, spacious shop in the bustle of Cow's Lane, which opened in 2009. For Bob, a bookselling veteran with 22 years' experience, most recently as buyer for children's books at Hughes & Hughes, "recommendation is key to what we do in an independent bookshop, it's what most independent bookshops do. So when I look at our bookshop bestsellers each month, staff picks are always our bestsellers, and not something that's been heavily promoted," he says, referring to the three-for-two and other promotions that are the lifeblood of the larger chains.

But how can he compete with the larger chains? Well, he doesn't -- at least not in that way. "Well, we've done the thinking for our customers already, because we're small, we're thinking about the range. We can't do the whole throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what sticks approach -- there's a selected range and our customers like that because they know that it's something that someone's got behind and it's a really good book -- it's almost like a boutique versus a big fashion chain."

Maura and Nicole, in Clifden, agree. "This is the strength of the independents: they are owner-occupied and we can advise people and offer guidance and knowledge, because we've personally chosen every book," says Nicole.

But what about Amazon, the elephant in the room? As one customer lamented in the money pages of a national newspaper recently: "I want to support the lovely independent store in our town -- but I can save so much money by buying online..." For a start, that's not entirely true. The big sellers will be available at knockdown prices on Amazon -- they are buying huge quantities from publishers and can negotiate tough discounts, after all -- but on the less obvious books, independent bookshops certainly hold their own. And, as Bob says, it all depends on your notion of value.

"There's a good chance that people choose to shop in an independent retailer, whether it's a bookshop or hardware store, because they value service and what they get for their money, which isn't always the cheapest price."

And all the booksellers are surprisingly relaxed about the e-book, and the technology that will supposedly wipe all known book life off the map. "Of course they've impacted on sales, but we need to accept it and honour it," says Nicole. "We're not Luddites: we know what our role is" -- to supply the kind of knowledge and expertise that their clients expect.

For Gwen, e-books need not be that scary.

Bookshops "might become a conduit for selling e-books, just like audiobooks", she explains. "We want to get involved without turning into a photo booth, where people come in and plug something in. We're still an interface, keeping people in there, not just technology." For her, "you don't have to buy e-books on the internet". And e-books are more expensive than you think at the moment.

A quick glance at the New York Times' bestseller lists on Amazon reveals an average US price of $12-$14.99. So for these thriving businesses, in the short term, the challenges are more immediate and each has to constantly look at ways to grow their businesses.

Nicole and Maura make sure that every local author -- from Tim Robinson to Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill -- is represented in their shop; in The Company of Books, schools and supplying cultural festivals are key to driving sales -- and TV3's September Bookclub will be filmed in the shop. For The Gutter Bookshop, "it's always important for small businesses to know who they are and who they want to be, and people really respond to that".

Perhaps Irish retailers aren't quite at the level of Omnivore Books, in San Francisco, the location for a marriage proposal recently, when a customer asked for his girlfriend's hand over a cookbook, but it's clear that they have proved themselves real Irish success stories at a time when they are needed most.

The Clifden Bookshop, Main St, Clifden, Co Galway. Tel: 095 22020;

The Gutter Bookshop, Cow's Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin. Tel: (01) 679 9206;

The Company of Books, 96 Ranelagh Village, Dublin 6. Tel: (01) 497 5413;

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