How do independent bookshops survive? That’s a question I often get asked and my response is “oh there are hundreds of thriving, successful independent bookshops throughout the UK & Ireland”. Quickly followed by “seriously, but how do they survive? I say that they are run by passionate booksellers with a drive that every customers leaves the bookshop having bought a great read and that equals a successful business.
For me it is all very simple: excellent customer service. Know your customers, and by that I am not referring to sexy IT systems to tell you who bought what and when. That’s for a chain, managed by anonymous figures at head office, no, as an independent bookseller you know your customers, often by name, certainly by their likes, their dislikes and always by face.
One might go so far as to say that loving your customers more than loving books could be the key to success. Making your customers and your community the centre of the bookshop’s world, building relationships with customers means they will respond. It’s not unusual to be unpacking a box of new books to pick one up and say “oh I must show that to Ms X when they are next in the bookshop, they’ll love this author.
I was reminded of this on many occasions on a recent holiday in Ireland. In many of the shops I visited, and yup I did frequent quite a number, there was a smile, a nod of the head to acknowledge my entrance, and always a bit of a chat when I made purchase. At my local bookshop in Dublin – Rathfarnham Bookshop I was ordering Solar Bones by Mike McCormick and when a customer came up to the till to buy Light Between The Oceans we all had a good long discussion about that book, the story and who was right for the movie roles. This book was a joy to hand sell to customers over the years, a wonderful story, well written and thought provoking.
That scenario is repeated throughout the hundreds of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. Independent booksellers that have survived the challenges of the past 10 or more years are passionate about their work, love books and dedicated to ensuring that more people read, more people buy books and love introducing authors to their customers.
The most brilliant aspect of working in an independent bookshop is the opportunity to talk to customers, about books. Being out on the shop floor no matter how small the bookshop is, tidying and shelving ensures you are there on hand to strike up a conversation.
Where bookshops have a greater challenge than other high street retailers is that every product they sell can normally be purchased cheaper somewhere else. My philosophy is that you have to offer what a strategist probably calls “added value” but I would call good old fashioned service to your customers. A place where customers are the sole focus of attention, a place where they feel comfortable and welcomed and not an interruption. Most of all that they can ask you if you know the book mentioned last week on the radio, about a man or was it a woman, set in 18th, no maybe 19th century that they’d like to buy. The best independent bookshop and booksellers will know immediately what book that is and that knowledge comes from immersing ourselves in all things books.
It’s not easy being an independent bookshop and now I realise there is no training course or computer system to prepare you for the job. It’s about loving people and books, about seeing a child’s eyes light up when they find the book they cannot wait to read and most of all it’s about hand selling a book to a customer for them to come back in a week or so later so say thanks, they loved it and have recommended it to friends.