What does it take to run a successful bookshop? We’re constantly told that bookshops are being killed off by e-books and Amazon, yet I’m amazed by the number of exciting, innovative and eclectic booksellers in London. How do they manage to stay buzzing and bustling, when bigger chain bookshops have struggled? I spent a Saturday with Sheila O’Reilly and the team at Dulwich Books in south London to find out.
The first thing that struck me was the speed at which bookshops operate. I’d imagined bookselling as a leisurely activity. Maybe it was once, but no more. Deliveries of stock arrived throughout the morning, needing to be checked, separated out and shelved around the crowds of browsing customers. Many of the deliveries were customer orders to be picked up that morning. I was surprised to learn that books can be ordered for the next day, meaning that customers wanting a book not in stock can get it quicker through the local bookshop than by ordering online.
Stock control is a constant, ever-changing business. Sheila explained they aim to keep no more than one day’s stock of any one book in the shop, so that they can carry the greatest variety of books. Throughout the day, Sheila checked what had been sold and decided whether to add it to the next day’s order. The computer can tell her how long the book has been in stock and whether it’s a regular sale, but her knowledge of the local market informs the decision, too.
Sheila says she is ‘ruthless’ about returning books that aren’t selling, to free up space for new ones. A small bookshop can only host a certain number of books. If you come into the shop and keep seeing the same stock, you’ll soon decide you’ve bought everything you’re going to buy there. New books are essential to keep customers interested.
The other things that make a good bookshop are knowledgeable, patient and friendly staff, which Dulwich Books has in abundance. Whether it was a recommendation for a child’s birthday present, or ‘something different’ for a regular customer, or working out from a vague description what book a customer might be thinking of, the staff were immediately on top of it. My hunch is that it’s that level of personal service that will keep local, independent bookshops in business.
Finally, it’s not just a shop. Like most successful bookshops these days, Dulwich Books organises events from storytelling for children to book clubs for adults, and a programme of hugely impressive author events – talks from the likes of Kate Adie, Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, legendary literary author Margaret Drabble. Perhaps even more fun are the quirky events, such as the evening with Ukulele Handbook authors Gavin Pretor-Pinney and Tom Hodgkinson, which included a slideslow, musical interludes, and culminated in a sing-along, play-along ukulele version of The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon. For a rainy evening in autumn, it was a very jolly night.
I had a terrific day with Dulwich Books, so many thanks to Sheila and the team. Apologies to anyone who had to wait while a slightly flustered woman tried to make the till work. Dulwich Books is great, but it’s not the only bookshop I enjoy – here’s some more of my favourites.
Note: The first version of this article was published on community blog DulwichOnView.