This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
By Carlie Lee
I always think of bookshops as hushed, expensive places, where people peer over their glasses at me if I talk to the books. I haven’t actually been to a bookshop for a very long time – although I have a giant Amazon bill every month, and I’m a voracious reader of anything.
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My local bookshop,‘Books & Ink’ of Banbury, is up a pretty alley I’ve never noticed before. There’s a music centre up here too, and as I admire an ancient wisteria, I can hear someone practising scales. It’s just gone four on a Friday, and as I linger in the sunshine, a tall man strides past in brown corduroy. He ducks briskly into Books & Ink, and I follow, noticing the cheerful pot of narcissus in the window. A ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ poster catches my eye, along with the shortlist. I really should read one, I think, opening the door.
I’m to meet the owner, Samantha Barnes, but I can’t ask the young girl on the till, because she’s besieged by a queue. I slide past an ancient academic looking for an obscure American text, and immediately see row upon row of all my best childhood friends. Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome. I mouth ‘hello’, and touch each one with a finger-tip.
The bookcases reach almost to the ceiling, and I feel dizzy with memories – me aged fifteen, falling in love with Yeats. Or aged twelve, ‘Harriet’; my first Jilly Cooper.
The girl on the till is still busy with customers, so I go for a poke upstairs. There’s a young man painting in a corner, surrounded by half-finished canvases and tubes of squeezed acrylics. His name is Barry Whitehouse, and he’s been renting this corner of the bookshop for about a year. There’s something very lovely about books and paintings sharing the same space.
Downstairs, I join the queue.
‘That’s me,’ says the young girl, when I ask to speak to the manager.
‘You’re Sam?’ I say. God. She looks so very young. ‘I’m from Novelicious,’ I add, but trail off as a lady and her teenaged son come to stand behind me. ‘But you’re busy,’ I say.
Sam smiles, and shrugs in apology, and we arrange for me to return tomorrow, when she has help. A man in top-to-toe green tweed comes to join the queue, and I wave, and promise to come back.
The next morning, I meet Sam’s mum. ‘Sam was caught up,’ she says. ‘But she’ll be here soon.’
I tell her I don’t mind, and ask how long Sam has had the shop.
‘Seven years,’ says her mum, with pride. ‘It was always her dream. And here it is. In the cultural centre of Banbury. Music, art, books, antiques…’ She trails off, carefully firing up the computer.
‘Will you be busy today,’ I ask.
‘Oh yes. People come for miles.’
Sam arrives, and bears me off for coffee in the nearby Pinto Lounge.
She has creamy skin and long-lashed eyes behind thick spectacles. She’s softly-spoken, but not at all shy, and is endlessly enthusiastic about her shop, and its future. She doesn’t view Amazon as competition, nor the local super-sized supermarkets. ‘We do different things,’ she explains. ‘And it’s much easier to buy antiquarian from us, as customers can hold the book, look at it. Or else buy and trust our reputation.’
Almost three quarters of Sam’s 25,000 books are used or antiquarian, and a quarter are new. ‘Although we can order in anything. And we’ll spend hours tracking down a specific edition.’
Understandably, Sam likes to sell ‘big’ books,
rather than cheap paperbacks. Most independent booksellers buy books for
between 40-45% of their recommended retail, and although she likes to run
special offers, she doesn’t see discounting as a way of building her client
base. ‘Not a lot of point doing it for free,’ she says. Quite.
Tiny margins mean super hard work, and Sam runs the shop single-handedly apart from her mum.
It’s too expensive to hold signing-events (there’s no space in the shop), and all the other recommended things – blogging, social-media – all take resources which she doesn’t have. ‘As you saw,’ she says. ‘If I’m behind the till, there’s not really time for anything but customers. Twitter’s brilliant though. I’ve had customers come up from London that found us on Twitter.’
A lot of her customers are buying for someone else. ‘Grandparents, looking for presents, or mothers, looking for YA. Anything to keep teens off smart phones.’
One of Sam’s secret weapons is community. She’s an active member of the Banbury Old Town Association, and campaigns constantly to improve Banbury’s High Street. I ask about customer parking and Sam becomes indignant, frustration with the council flushing her cheeks. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘But it’s so annoying. Although they tried at Christmas,’ she adds hastily.
We’re running out of time, and I ask her how she views her future. ‘Are bookshops so under threat?’
She looks surprised. ‘No,’ she says. ‘Well, anyway. Not mine. We’ve a loyal base of customers, both in the shop and online. And we seem to pick up new ones all the time.’
I nod, believing her. Yes, I think. Well, I think you’ve just added one more.
Who was on that Women’s Prize for Fiction list that I fancied? Oh golly, yes. All of them.
I’ll ask Sam to help me choose.