This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
There are two independent bookshops in Abingdon, near Oxford, and the Novelicious Indie Bookshop Tour visits them both. There is continuous debate in the bookselling industry about the need for change and innovation for booksellers – the two independent booksellers in Abingdon demonstrate different aspects of such change. Today, we visit Abingdon Books…
I arrive at Abingdon on a beautiful May morning, and the trees in the market square are heavy with white blossom. It’s Thursday, and the town already bustles with shoppers. Abingdon Books is in a newly-blonde shopping precinct, with vast tubs of violas and primroses placed about. I can smell fresh bread from a bakery somewhere.
I find the shop about halfway up the precinct, and it all looks very smart. I can’t help but notice though, that a WH Smiths is right next door.
I stand in the sunshine for a moment and admire the window display – handbags and beaded jewellery tucked between best sellers. Abingdon Books, it seems, is not just about books.
Inside, the shop is very traditional, and reminiscent of Ottakars’ – all ash-shelving and thick carpet. There are further examples of product diversification – high-quality greetings cards on spinning racks, pretty wrapping paper. The scarves, jewellery and handbags are arranged just so, in appealing displays with jolly felt bunting. I’m greeted by one of the owners, Jane, who smiles at me from behind her till.
‘Ian?’ she says, when I say who I am. ‘Just a moment-’
Ian, it transpires, is the wiry chap in spectacles, currently up a little step ladder, replacing a blown bulb.
‘Couldn’t leave it,’ he says, shaking my hand. ‘Doesn’t look good, does it?’
He whisks me into the back store room, and stands where he can watch his shop.
I ask him how he manages to run an independent bookshop right next to a branded chain-store.
‘Loyalty,’ says Ian, promptly. ‘Our customers are loyal. We were shocked, three years ago, when WH Smiths moved in. But we’ve coped.’
He goes on to explain that Abingdon Books traditionally relies on footfall, and return custom won from excellent service. But life does become challenging, he admits, when customers swerve into WH Smiths on autopilot.
‘Smiths have these posters. Giant and glossy. Big campaigns. We can’t do stuff like that.’
I ask if he plans to update his website, to engage in social media.
‘Not really’ he says. ‘We’re a high street retailer. We rely on footfall. Besides, not everyone has computers, or shops on the internet.’ He goes on to tell me about the shopping centre refurbishment, and how his loyal customers fought to reach him through the building rubble. I have visions of old ladies in hiking boots.
The council weren’t particularly helpful during this period, dropping his rates by 10%, just after they’d raised them by 6%.
‘Wasn’t great,’ he says. He tells me about the Home Secretary’s recent visit. ‘Theresa May came in,’ he pauses, checking I know who he means. I nod hastily, and he carries on. ‘I told her I have to sell 400 of these a week’ – he brandishes a paperback – ‘to pay my weekly rates.’
Just as I’m struggling with the maths, there’s a tremendous banging on the backdoor. I jump out of my skin, then expect some capped delivery driver.
But it’s not. It’s a splendid old lady on double walking sticks with a cut-glass accent and a lot of scarves.
‘Parked!’ she bellows. ‘Come in for a gift for a friend.’
Ian laughs and jokes with her as she stumps through the store room to the shop. ‘Ex-judge,’ he whispers to me. ‘We let her use our spaces.’
He sees her safely through and another lady catches his eye and waves. Ian smiles, and waves back. Two more ladies are turning one of the card carousels, nudging each other with pleasure as they read the messages.
‘People don’t buy cards on line,’ says Ian, watching with a professional’s peripheral vision. ‘And these are such good quality.’
Do people come in to buy books, or to buy gifts, I ask.
‘Both,’ says Ian. ‘Nip in for this or that. Or to have a chat. You don’t get that on the internet either.’
No, I agree. A lady approaches the till, carrying a couple of bracelets and a Hairy Bikers cook book.
‘Now then,’ she says. ‘Can you reach down that bag for me? No, the red one. Thank you. And do you have a copy of The Highway Code? My granddaughter’s learning to drive.’
Ian leaps into action, gathering books and bags as Jane mans the till. A small queue has formed, but Jane still takes time to smile and chat.
Earlier, Ian told me they’d had their shop for fifteen years. In an era when High Street shops change hands every season, there is something dependable and solid about this particular one.
Economic down-turn, WH Smiths opening, digital revolution, decline of the High Street – all those things have had an impact.
Abingdon Books may not be a traditional bookshop anymore, and more a shop with books, but no one seems to mind. Least of all its loyal customers.