The Independent Bookseller

Book Mirror

Last week, Jenny’s post about the future of bookselling popped into my feed reader and it stuck a chord with me. Independent booksellers are close to my heart. It’s all tied up with family too.

My mother is an independent bookseller. To understand why she does it, you have to understand her.

After raising a third (and surprise) baby to school-going age, she decided she had enough of staying at home with the kids. She likes say she was never a housewife, never married to the house and that her third baby made her younger.

She made choices that perhaps that I would have shook her physically had I a time machine, but c’est la vie. Despite doing well in her Inter Cert in the Sixties and was offered a scholorship to become a chef. She passed on it. Preferring to stay home and become a carer for a relative. Opportunity gone, she settled into shop work. She’s always excelled at everything she’s done. She loved her work, her customers and the little shop she worked in. Fond stories are always at her fingertips.

That’s where books come in. Being absolute book obsessives, our house was always stuffed with books of all types – Mills & Boon, Choose Your Own Adventure, classics, library books, encyclopedias, second-hand tomes, audio books, pre-reader books with magic pens that read out the words, pop-up books, Dick Francis. It was really was Pick Your Poison. The converted cottage we used to live in, had a mini-landing-come-book-graveyard where we’d stack them high.

We’d go to the same bookshops and library trips were once a week. Book people became part of our family and us, theirs. Hearing that one of the bookshops we’d frequent was looking for someone part-time, she jumped the chance. The timing was right, the shop was right.

The shop was a mix of old books and new. Customers were regulars, people who’d pop in for a chat as much as a book. Books were laid away for people. Facebook a social network? Your independent bookseller is ultimate social network. All walks of life come in. Everything in every shape and size.

I dare anyone to spend a day in your local independent bookseller that sells new and *old* books and not be impressed. The old part is important. Second-hand booksellers are social treasure troves. Beat the joy of helping three generations of the same family buy books and leave the shop happy and enthused.

Things have changed in some ways for my mother. The bookshop she worked in closed. She decided that she’d open her own. So with some of the stock of the old shop, she moved up the street and around the corner in a little nook of a shop. She sells second-hand books. Competing with chains is impossible if you depend on selling new books and you’re a small bookshop. The margins you make on new books are just too small. Eason 3 for 2, Amazon and the Book Depository etc make it impossible.

I like to teasingly call her bookshop a drop-in centre. She’ll berate me, I am sure. Customers pop in with coffee for her.  Thieves reselling dubious books in perfect nick. Nurses traveling from Cork in for reads for a holiday in sun.

She’s a massive crime thriller fan. When she isn’t buying books off the Book Depository or Amazon for herself (American editions are treasured as the UK/Ireland publication dates trail US ones significantly), she’s buying books for customers and selling for little more than cost or just passing her reads onto them. It’s important to her that her customers are happy. Customer loyalty is her number one priority.

It seems to me that the independent bookseller has so many lessons for so many other businesses today. The ones that are doing well, are doing well because of their customers. Loyalty goes both ways.

Bookselling has changed in the last twenty years, it’s more than a book on a shelf. It seems to me that the really great independent booksellers will continue to stay in business, because they’ll just do what comes naturally. We could learn a little from their passion.

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  1. I really liked this post – not least because it reminds me of my only family. The comment about visiting other bookshops and libraries particularly resonates – growing up a visit to the library was a mandatory weekly affair.

    My sister now runs what was my parents business, and I can’t believe how hard it has become.

    When the Hughes&Hughes story broke I was dismayed at the way people spoke of H&H as an “independant”. I’m even more dismayed that H&H, free of debts, are now back at a number of locations, while independants have to struggle on.

  2. I love this post.

    There is nothing like having your favourite book shop to visit, and you are right, half the time it’s about the chat, and meeting somebody with a shared love of books. I much prefer buying second hand books, it means that you find gems after searching through, like a treasure that was made just for me.

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