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Unicorn Tree Books & Crafts, UK

Melanie Carroll has been the owner of Unicorn Tree Books & Crafts in Lincoln city centre since August 2007. Here she shares her views on Christian bookselling, e-readers and her hopes for the future of the trade.

What kind of books do you sell? We are unusual in a way because we are 50/50 Christian and general books. We are a dedicated Christian bookshop with everything that entails – so not just books but church supplies, stationery, requisites, gifts, CDs etc, but we are a little different here too because we sell across the breadth of Christian books, from academic theology and philosophy all the way across to the 'God TV' type authors and children’s books. We also carry books for all denominations without any bias and have books on other faiths and religions. That’s the great thing with being an Indie: the ability to stock what we/our customers and the local community want and need rather than having to conform to someone else’s stock profile image.
   On the general side of it we do mostly stock fiction and paperbacks, spanning all price points from remainder titles to the latest bestsellers or good lit. Originally we aimed at focusing on Romance, Crime, Sci-Fi with an emphasis on US imports, and children’s books. In recent years we have found our market broadening with a good interest in Local and Military History books. We serve the local university and student population much more. We carry a wide range of second-hand books too, as well as the new stock.

How many titles do you generally have in stock? Currently on the system (this only lists new books) and in stock we have just over 3,100 individual Christian titles in, and just under 3,200 individual general titles. In addition we have about 5,500 second-hand titles. My accountant likes to tell me I’m overstocked (it’s her job and to be fair she might be a little right; she frequently tells me I could run with fewer books, but oh the pain of that idea!) however we’ve agreed it’s not because they aren’t selling through, it’s just because of the second-hand books and all the space they take. But second hand should be crowded and full with little piles scattered around because how else are you going to find the gem of a book you’ve been looking for all those years?
   I’m a breadth over bulk buyer, that’s to say I’d rather buy single copies of multiple titles, than multiple copies of single titles. A few people keep telling me that the shop is not really that little - they might be right because we have a slightly unfair advantage in that we have no real walls being in an indoor market, so we gain extra shelf space by using them as our walls and putting all our second-hand books facing out into the public aisles.

What are your current bestsellers? On a general level I can tell you that Bibles are our bestsellers by far: hardly a day goes by that I don’t sell at least a £1.50 New Testament if not a £9.99-£34.99 full Bible. In general books, Margaret Dickinson titles (she’s a local author) are our Bible equivalent with copies of her books going out each week.
   Specifically in the last week or so [January 2013] our best sellers have been: Christian: The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven by Kevin and Alex Malarkey (Tynedale); Christ in the Wilderness by Stephen Cottrell (SPCK). General: RAF Skellingthorpe: Lancaster Station at War by Derek Brammer (Tucann); Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson (Arrow). Pre-order: Clippie Girls by Margaret Dickinson (Macmillan).

How many people work at the shop? Just me since all my minions flew the coop to own their own businesses. One is now a qualified counsellor with her own practice and the other now runs the pet stall just opposite me, she took it on when my dad finally retired from his ‘retirement’ job.

Where do your customers come from? Most of our regular customers are local(ish). Some of our regular Christian customers come from all across Lincolnshire: sea, wold and fen! And we get a fair few crossing over from parts of Norfolk and Newark and Nottingham, too. We do very well during tourist season with visitors drifting in, and our local RAF bases seem to provide a regular turnover in Canadian and American customers.
   Spain, France and The Netherlands are also well represented in that we have a number of customers who come visit us to stock up every time they are back in the area.

Are online sales important to you? The answer to that one has to be ‘Yes’, even though in terms of sales turnover it’s not very big at all, though it is still a regular monthly contribution. Our customers and potential customers all like to shop online these days so it’s of major importance to us that we provide a medium that allows them to do so and still support us a little and keep us in their minds. To that aim we have affiliate schemes we work with both through our own websites and through the wonderful www.hive.co.uk that Gardners has done marvels in producing. There is more I could be doing if time and circumstance were different and it is something I have on the ‘really must do soon’ list.

How do you feel about e-books and e-readers? If I say I love e-books do I get strung up? Because I really do. I’ve been an e-book reader since they weren’t formatted well and you used a Palm Pilot and iSilo to read them. These days I read them on my smart phone and have multiple apps to do it – but I don’t like Kindle or any other closed system, but then that’s true of how I feel about all digital media. In terms of e-readers we stock the Kobo offering and we also push the Go-Tab that’s available from Gardners and Hive. I’d like there to be many more options for Indie bookshops to get in on.
   My heroes in the e-book/book publishing world are Angry Robot and their Clonefiles initiative because they have shown how much a publisher can work with bookshops in terms of e-books. I wish I could hype them even more, they really deserve full kudos and unremitting support. More publishers should be out there doing these things and looking at ways to tie e-books and bookshops together.

How important are Facebook and Twitter for your business? Massively important: not just for the sales side, but for the business-to-business networking and support that’s out there too. In terms of customer-facing, I’ve made many a sale from my Facebook page and Twitter stream from posting either pictures of new stock in or mentioning it, and I have a whole group of customers that order and are notified solely through Facebook and Twitter.
   Facebook is a really good place for finding groups of other booksellers, publishers and authors to speak to – my favourite group on the Christian bookselling side of things is the ‘closed’ professional group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/christianauthorsbooksellersandpublishers/ (It is closed so as to maintain a place where booksellers, publishers and authors can speak honestly about things.) There are other groups that do similar things and they can be a great place to share ideas and get support, which can be nearly as important as making the sales sometimes.

Do you organise in-store events? We do author events (normally on a Saturday) and we love to support independent authors and publishers where we can, as well as children’s authors. We love any excuse to dress up and be silly, so ‘Talk Like A Pirate Day’, ‘Children in Need’ etc, all involve doing something fun and active in the shop. We also love to take part in publisher promotions, so the ‘Where’s Wally in ...’ promotion was great fun; we did the Snow Day in December for Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, and we had great fun with Anthony Horrowitz Oblivion T-shirts in the run up to the Mayan End Of the World (but we are still here - hurray!).
   Doing events is about making the shop a fun place to be (after all I have to be here so I want to have fun and everyone else might as well join in); it’s about getting the community active and invested in the shop, and promoting the shop and what’s in it wherever we can.

What aspects of the business do you most enjoy/dislike? I really, really enjoy the books. Dislikes: sorting out credits and returns and, more importantly, I dislike how much it seems there is a real air of separation in some ways between bookshops and publishing these days. I’d like to see us working together much more, building each other up and working in real partnership together for the better of both.

 

Where do you see the book trade five years from now? That’s a really hard one to answer. As it currently stands I think there are likely to be a lot less publishers and bookshops around in five years’ time if we don’t start working cohesively and supportively together. The culture of online, digital and cut price can only be navigated safely if we take action together to work to educate not just our customers but ourselves as a trade – whichever side we are part of. We need to be looking at the long-term plan and not the short term, which I think is sometimes where we find ourselves due to our fears and responses, especially in a time of such hardship as we are currently in. It’s a bit like being on a sinking ship with everyone rushing to be on the lifeboats, but with careful and controlled planning and everyone working to help each other then there’s actually more than enough room for everyone to be safe and secure.
   I do think that in five years’ time we will still have independent bookshops out there, but as we can see already there are likely to be less of them or at least less that are simply bookshops. I’d like to think that those bookshops will be places where people can come in and get books, including e-books, then and there and not just places that they come in to browse and then go away to download or buy online because it’s ‘cheaper’. This is where we need to be working together as a trade and I do think that if the will is there then the way could be found too…

What did you do before becoming a bookseller? Wow – that’s going back some! Residential Youth Retreat Worker and Life Coach, but that was nearly 20 years ago. Before I had my own bookshop I worked for the SPCK Bookshop Chain and was manager of three of their stores (Brighton, London and Lincoln). I was also their e-commerce manager running spckonline as well as being one of their training managers. I took on my own shop when SPCK Bookshops when into decline just before ceasing to exist.

What are you reading at the moment? Abiding by Ben Quash (Bloomsbury); From Willow Creek To Sacred Heart by Chris Haw (Ave Maria Press); The Social Animal by David Brooks (Short Books); The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland by C. Valente (proof copy – Constable & Robinson). I’m a book hopper! They are scattered all around my house, bedroom, living room, bathroom etc. Sometimes they wander from room to room with me if they are really good and I can’t put them down.

What book would you most like to have written? The one that hasn’t been written yet: so my next read that I can’t stop thinking about, telling people about, etc. I’d like to have written that one. Then there’s the one I really haven’t written yet but have done lots of work on so far; it is called something like The Diary of a Beleagured Bookseller: a bit of a comedy of errors for the most part really.

Batch and Your Business

How long have you been using Batch? Just a year now.

Do you use the Claims facility? Oh yes, though I do sometimes wonder if some of the suppliers do too!

How does Batch help your business? It makes my month end much easier and faster. Just a few clicks and ticks and it’s sorted, with the money leaving my bank by Direct Debit. I love it as it does exactly what it says on the tin. For a time-poor, hard-working Indie bookshop boss that’s more of a boon than many people realise. Now, if only all my suppliers were on Batch!

Is there anything Batch could do to make your life easier? Have a claim bit on the claims section for when a supplier only sends me a partial credit for the claim! Bribe more of my other suppliers to join up with you. Oh yes – can’t believe I almost forgot this one – send me chocolate occasionally.

Unicorn Tree Books & Crafts
35/40 Central Market
Sincil Street
Lincoln LN5 7ET
Tel: 01522 525557
Contact: unicorntreebooks@aol.com
Website: www.lincolnbookshop.co.uk or www.lincolnchristianbookshop.co.uk
Facebook: www.facebook.com/UnicornTreeBooks
Twitter: www.twitter.com/unicorntreebks