Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B's, tells us about his bookshop, which is high on the list of places to see for anyone visiting Bath. The shop is on a side street right in the centre of the city, just between historic Milsom Street and Queen Square.
How large is the shop?
We have six rooms and a number of corridors full of bookshelves. The shop is spread out over three floors and feels a little like a lovely labyrinth at times.
How many books do you have on display at any one time?
How many people work in the shop?
There are 11 of us involved with the shop and all of our reading gifts and other projects, though nowhere near that many on the shop floor at any given time!
What type of events do you hold?
We tend to interview our authors and our favourites are the ones with an audience of 35 or so crammed into our Bibliotherapy Room. We’ve been lucky that many authors used to much bigger audiences have agreed to do those intimate events because they’re such great fun and so dynamic. We often have food and music at the events as well – the brilliant Bookshop Band was born at Mr B’s. We also do much larger author events from time to time at venues around Bath and we sell books for many other organisations in and around the city that hold author events.
What are the key things that make a good bookshop?
It depends on so many different factors particular to that shop. The bare minimum is superb service, a great selection of books chosen with passion, and a place and team with stacks of personality. Our shop is built on an opinionated approach to bookselling and on striving for extreme customer service. Mr B’s is a place where there is constant conversation about books.
Why did you become a bookseller?
I wanted to spend my working life doing something I loved and I wanted to run my own business. Books seemed like a great starting point. Before we did this, my wife Juliette and I were lawyers and we just didn’t care enough about it to do it all the time. We saw a stunning independent bookshop in Seattle (The Elliott Bay Book Company) and it made us think how that model of bookselling could work and thrive in the UK.
What do you most enjoy about being a bookseller?
The fact that each day is different and you never know what the next enquiry will be and that you can advise someone on a book and watch them walk out of the door safe in the knowledge that you’ve just granted them 20 hours of reading joy.
What have been your best-selling titles so far this year?
The Power by Naomi Alderman is doing really well. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is doing great too. On the non-fiction side, things are quite political, we’re still doing well with Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall and the superb Interstate by Julian Sayarer. Of course the book that our publishing company has just published, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges is going great guns for us!
What are Mr B’s Reading Gifts?
We have a number of different gifts. First we have our Reading Subscriptions, which involve the recipient filling in a questionnaire from us about their reading tastes and which then helps us choose books for them each month (the subscriptions can last from between three months to a year). We choose personally and with great care for every subscriber. The books get posted out to the subscribers all wrapped theatrically in our brown paper and wax seal.
Our Reading Spas are like an in-house version of the subscription that involves an appointment to talk books one-on-one with one of our team over tea and cake. We then recommend a big stack of books, some of which the recipient can take away thanks to a voucher included in the price of the Reading Spa and the rest of which they might decide to remember for another day.
We also sell themed Reading Bundles – five books on a given theme (our latest is called Banned Voices and focuses on writers from the nations banned from travel to the US). There are beautifully wrapped and bundled with some extra goodies.You can check out all of our gifts at www.mrbsemporium.com.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the booktrade?
Optimistic. I’ve always been optimistic. It’s a vibrant creative industry populated by borderline-obsessive book addicts who collectively are an incredibly commercial and resilient bunch. Like any industry it has some significant challenges and you have to work hard to thrive, but the people in this world do work hard and they love to do so.
In terms of the short-term future, I think we’re on the cusp of a particularly purple patch for high-street bookselling. The UK is going through a reconnection with the physical and with experts (just look at coffee, vinyl, etc.) and bookshops are well placed to tap into that.
What advice would you give to someone considering opening a new bookshop?
Believe it can be done. Ignore the people telling you that you’re insane. Then plan it to within an inch of your lives and assume most stuff connected with set up will cost a little more than you think. Once open concentrate on creating a reputation for great service and building your local loyal following first. Have fun. Do things differently and be distinctive.
When did you last visit a library?
I went with my kids late last year to Bradford on Avon library. They might get bombarded with books from Mr B’s, but I’m always keen for them to go pick out some from a library themselves so they can experience that joy AND I love to take them to other bookshops whenever we’re out of town. I am also lucky to have spent a lot of time at various libraries around the UK talking to librarians about how to engage customers and recommend books to customers. I also discuss how important it is for libraries to keep books at the forefront of all that they do in order to fight back against the cuts that they’re facing.
What was your best/worst bookselling decision?
My best bookselling decision was to create the Reading Spa and believe (against some scepticism from my business partner – by which I mean my wife Juliette!) that people do want to talk about books and listen to the opinions of those who spend their day surrounded by them.
My worst bookselling decision was to believe at the outset that we had to stock certain titles because they sold well in the market generally. We soon learned to stick to our guns, but very early on even if a book seemed not to suit our audience or the shop, we’d tend to stock it if it was top of the sales charts. It didn’t take us long to figure out that our sales charts would often bear little relation to the national ones.
What are you reading at the moment?
Girl at War by Sara Novic and I’ve just finished The Spacemen of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar.
What would be your Desert Island book?
Too tough but I always say Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – though it would be quite a dusty choice for a desert island. Still, no book captures enduring spirit like this.
Which book would you most liked to have written?
Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor – more because I’d like to have made the trip than actually written the book. I’m not sure there are any books I’d like to have written. I’m a reader (and a seller) not a writer.
Which shops give you bookseller-envy?
I almost always have envy for at least one idea or element of any bookshop I visit.
How does Batch help?
Batch is an incredible free resource for us that saves literally hours of administration around invoice payment. Being able to review all invoices speedily at month end and just search for anomalies between the digital and physical is so valuable.
Are you on Batch Returns?
Yes and we use it for many suppliers – again it’s a valuable asset.
Do you use the Claims facility?
I am not sure what that is. Maybe? Do tell in case I’m missing something. [You should use it – it's great!]
Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights
14/15 John Street
Bath BA1 2JL
Tel: 01225 331155