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London Review Bookshop, UK

Deputy Manager David Lea and Claire Williams (Mail Order Manager) of London Review Bookshop talk about business in the old publishing heart of the city.

Where is the shop? We’re very close to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, in Central London. The shop has been here for nine years.

How many people work there? There are six permanent members of staff in the bookshop. There are more staff in the LRB cafe, but they don’t work in the shop.

What did you do before becoming a bookseller? (David) I’m afraid I can’t remember that far back! Before coming here I worked at Blackwell’s and Books Etc. on Charing Cross Road. (Claire) I worked for Waterstone’s in Kensington before this and in a tiny independent bookshop (now closed) in Liverpool. I’ve been in the trade for ten years.

What kind of books do you sell? All new books: general with a leaning towards literary fiction, poetry and history. We also have a children’s section downstairs. It’s more what we don’t sell than what we do in a way: we don’t have computer, business, EFL or accountancy books. We haven’t got Fifty Shades of Grey. We were tempted from a commercial point of view until one of our colleagues pointed out that it was dreadful and very poorly written.

How many books do you have? About 25,000 books, mainly single copies and unusual editions of things. We have books from a lot of small presses.

How do you choose stock? By publishers’ reps, reviews in The Times, Sunday Times, Observer and London Review of Books, and recommendations from customers and on Twitter. We’re owned by the same people as the LRB magazine, but run as separate businesses; we share marketing and accounts departments but otherwise we’re independent from them.

What have been this year’s bestsellers? Railtracks by John Berger and Anne Michaels has been our bestseller for a year and a half because no one else has it. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is still selling very well; Tony Judt’s two books The Memory Chalet and Ill Fairs the Land. Another title that has been doing well is Iain Sinclair’s book on Blake’s London: the Topographic Sublime. We should also mention Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

Where do your customers come from? It’s a combination of locals, tourists from hotels and the British Museum, and online. There’s quite a regular local fan base (people work or live in the area) because of our events. A lot of publishers and authors use the shop because of our location. We don’t get as many students as you might expect but academics do use us.

Are online sales important to you? They account for about 10% of our sales so, yes, they are quite important.

What non-book items do you sell? Moleskin notebooks, DVDs, greetings cards, wrapping paper, Penguin mugs and LRB merchandise, such as bags.

How do you feel about e-books? We would like to be able to sell them, profitably! We would sell them from the website, principally, rather than in-store, but it depends on how the market develops.

What are the three key things that make a good bookshop? Having a wide range of good books, good staff and location, location, location!

Do you organise in-store events? We would normally have one or two events every week, although we have a break in summer and in December. They tend to be discussions and debates between authors rather than just readings.

Tell me about the cafe. The LRB Cake Shop has existed for about five years. It has certainly brought more people into the bookshop and lots of publishers have their meetings in there. It’s a separate company to the shop but run by the LRB.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the booktrade? (David) Both! I’m pessimistic in that it is inevitable that fewer books are going to be sold, but optimistic that for the foreseeable future people will still want books and will buy them, so long as they are printed well. There are still a lot of shoddy books being churned out by major publishers, whom we won’t name!

What do you most enjoy about the business? (David) Customers and matching the book to the customer. (Claire) There are nice moments like when someone comes in and you get excited about a book and the customer gets excited and buys it. Or when you see someone picks up a book that you really love. That’s cool.

Are there aspects that you dislike? No, not really. (Claire) Because it’s a small shop we all have lots of different things to do.

What advice would you give to someone considering opening a new bookshop? (David) Don’t expect to make a fortune. Don’t just jump at any property that comes up but wait until the right place becomes available. (Claire) Do it for the love of it. Obviously you’ve got to be commercial but it would be really obvious to customers if you weren’t passionate about your work.

What are you reading at the moment? (David) The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth and the Selected Poems of Robert Minhinnick. (Claire) Art in Nature by Tove Jansson and a book about Cartooning by Ivan Brunetti.

Batch and Your Business

How long have you been using Batch? For at least four years. Batch has grown in usefulness.

Are you on Batch Returns? We are. It’s difficult to get excited about any aspect of returns, but it just makes things easier.

Do you use the Claims facility? Not at the moment, but we will look into it.

How does Batch help your business? (David) It saves me from getting cramp signing all those cheques. (Claire) It’s efficient. It’s useful if the paperwork goes missing and it also allows us to anticipate what’s coming in. There are lots of nice little things you can do with it that make your life easier. I just did a piece of work using one of your reports so we could negotiate with reps to get a better discount. There’s another report you can run that gives you a financial summary. It also allows us to analyse how much business we do with certain suppliers. This is probably going to sound really sad, but when NBN and Marston went onto Batch it made my day! You just think ‘There’s another chunk of work that’s going to be so much easier to do now.’

What BA services do you use? Book Tokens, seminars and training facilities.

London Review Bookshop
14 Bury Place
Tel: 00 44 (0)20 7269 9030
Fax: 00 44 (0)20 7269 9033

David Lea and Claire Williams were talking to Janet Ravenscroft.