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Primrose Hill Bookshop, UK

Jessica Graham talks about life in her north London shop, Primrose Hill Books.

Where is your shop? The area is densely residential, and there are a lot of small businesses and people working from home.

How many people work there? Three: me, my husband Marek and Kelly.

How long have you had the business? Since 1987. I originally went in with a partner, but bought him out after a couple of years. My parents remortgaged their home and I got a government-backed bank loan. The manager from the Midland Bank in Camden came and spent a day with me at the shop, seeing what I did and, at the end of it, he agreed to lend me the money!

How did you become a bookseller? After university I worked in an antiquarian bookshop in Bloomsbury. The two guys who owned that shop also owned this one. I used to come up here and cover one day a week and that’s when I fell in love with selling new books. Eventually I bought the freehold and expanded a bit.

What did you do at university? I did English at York then a Masters in English and History.

What does a typical day involve? I spend most of my time on the shop floor. I see two or three reps a day, and spend the rest of the time unpacking boxes, putting books out, answering the phone and talking to people. I do all my admin and reading at home after hours.

What kind of books do you sell? General new books with a heavy bias towards the arts because of our demographic: fiction is our main thing, then history, biography, reference, children’s books, travel, current affairs, poetry, theatre. Many of the people who live around here are connected with the publishing world, TV and film; there are lots of journalists and writers, so we cater for them.

What about second-hand titles? We sell some paperbacks outside the shop for £1 to £3, but we sell the bulk of the second-hand titles over the internet. There’s nothing under £5 and most titles sell for between £10 and £40. We have our own site for internet sales which we’ve had for about 12 years. My husband and now business partner Marek Laskowski was a customer! He computerised the shop and does the accounts and takes care of second-hand book sales.

Where do your customers come from? On Monday to Friday it’s people who live and work in the area; on Saturday those people tend to be away so then we get the people who live locally but work in town. On Sundays we get visitors from other parts of London, and American and Japanese tourists visiting Camden Market, London Zoo and Primrose Hill.

What do visitors buy? Books on London, children’s books; Americans read a lot of British fiction, including Harry Potter. Business people might take a Paddington Bear or something by Beatrix Potter back for their children. Americans come in for the joy of exploring a bookshop as they have lost so many of their own.

Why are bookshops important? They are important for the dissemination of ideas, particularly here, as the local library is under threat. Where else can you go to find like-minded people, or find out about local events and reading groups? A shop can be at the heart of a small community. We have links with the local church, schools and the local community centre. We’re trying to stay connected so that people know one another. We have between 70 and 100 active book account customers, some of whom have had accounts for 30 years. I took that over when I bought the business.

How would you describe the current state of the trade? Oh dear! Nervous, uncertain, lacking coherence and direction. The trade is so fractured and its objections and aims or so diverse. We are in direct competition with the supermarkets, which was not the case when I took over the business.

How do you feel about the future? Optimistic that people will always read, but very pessimistic about the high street. People have lost sight of the fact that by shopping on Amazon all the money goes overseas and the company doesn’t even pay tax or VAT in the UK. You can’t have a local, vibrant community if you’re not prepared to buy your bread, or whatever, from the shop around the corner. Perhaps when the last bookshop has gone and people have nowhere to go to look at a book they will understand.

What do you think about ebooks? At the moment we can’t sell ebooks because we have no way of doing it. Publishers should come up with an alternative to the Kindle (which only links to Amazon), and have ebooks available through another source.

How do you compete with the multiples? Supermarkets are focused on the bottom end of the market, so they don’t affect us. It’s important that Waterstone’s is strong. When it was bad, it put people off terrestrial book buying. It needs to be good to get people in again. We all need to raise our game.

What aspect of the business do you most enjoy? I just love it! I love every day. I enjoy finding like-minded people through reading.

Is there anything you dislike about the business? There’s a lot of admin that revolves around people’s errors and damages. That can be very time-wasting and frustrating.

How do you choose stock? We’re subbing six months in advance. It’s a combination of knowledge and instinct. You have to know your market and what will work and what won’t. The fun part for me is spotting a winner. Last year it was The Hare with Amber Eyes. That’s what keeps the customers coming back.

Do you organise in-store events? No because we don’t have room, but we do have events in other locations. We do get authors coming in to sign and meet readers. We have also produced two catalogues a year for 12 or 15 years. We started off with the BA catalogue but that was too mass-market for us. We needed it to be tailored to our stock. We do a Christmas one with over 100 new books broken into categories, and we write a little bit about each title ourselves. We include children’s titles with an age guide that grandparents can use. We print 3,500 copies and mail a few hundred. The rest are dropped door-to-door and we have them in the shops.

Who and what have been this year’s bestsellers? Alan Bennett, because he’s local. Literary fiction and non-fiction, such as Sebag Montefiore, The Hare with Amber Eyes and Colin Thubron’s latest.

How do you keep up? I read all the review: I get the Guardian all week; the Guardian and The Times on Saturday and the Observer and The Times on a Sunday. I also read the New York and London Review of Books and the two local newspapers, which have good arts coverage.

How important is the children’s side of things? Children’s books are 15 to 20% of the business and those are our readers of the future! It’s gratifying to do their reading lists for university and eventually books for someone’s wedding list. The woeful state of education is a worry. If children don’t read or aren’t read to at home, how will the market ever grow? We used to sell more books to local schools, but now they don’t have the budget. SureStart was fantastic and it didn’t cost that much. It’s things like that that nourish the book trade.

What advice would you give to someone considering opening a new bookshop? You would have to be tremendously confident in your location and you need to have had experience in the trade; buying stock is a real skill. I don’t think I would do it now. People have no idea what hard, physical work it is, being on your feet all day. Customers can be very demanding and they expect you to know everything.

What are you reading at the moment? The new Barry Unsworth novel (sequel to Sacred Hunger). I’ve just finished The Cat’s Table by Ondatje, which is wonderful, and the new Julian Barnes.

Do you sell non-book items? We sell quite a lot of books on CD for people driving down to Cornwall. We sell a lot of children’s titles because people in London have a lot of ‘car time’. We also have greetings cards and our own linen shopping bags.

Batch and Your Business

How long have you been using Batch? We’ve used it from the beginning. We knew Simon Parker when he was our Bertrams rep and I think we were guinea pigs!

How does Batch help your business? It makes us more efficient. Batch is invaluable, quick, cheap and convenient. Batch Returns has transformed that side of the business. Anything that has speeded up the process of returns has been very welcome. My only quibble is why doesn’t everyone use it? Why do some publishers still insist on their own methods? The wastage is criminal and shocking; the Returns service should be standardised.

Which BA facilities do you use? We don’t use the IndieBound material or the BA catalogue because these are pitched at the middle market. Book Tokens are great and we have our own gift tokens. I don’t attend IBFs unless there’s something that’s going to be worthwhile although this year Marek went to LBF to attend events.

Is there anything Batch could do to make your life easier? Standardise Batch Returns for publishers and suppliers. The BA tries to represent all us, but has an impossible task because our needs are so different. They need to help nourish the industry.

Primrose Hill Books
134 Regent’s Park Road
London NW1 8XL
Contact: 020 7586 2022

Jessica Graham was talking to Janet Ravenscroft