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The White Horse Bookshop, UK

Michael Pooley, owner of the award-winning White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough (Vintage Independent Bookshop of the Year 2011) discusses the impact of e-books on the booktrade.

Update: The shop was taken over by banker Robert Hiscox in 2014.


Where is the shop? It is in the high street of an historic market town. We have this bookshop and the Bell in Henley-on-Thames. In Marlborough, there are four full-time staff.

How long have you had the business? I’ve had the shop forty years and it was a bookshop for thirty years before that. It was started in 1947 and we are the third owners.

What did you do before becoming a bookseller? I was a publisher with Hamish Hamilton for about ten years.

What kind of books do you sell? We sell all new, general trade titles. Sales of children’s books are also important to us.

How do you choose stock? Principally through reps. We do react to reviews in The Times and Telegraph on Saturdays and Sundays, but by the time they come out it’s rather late: we need to have the books in by then.What have been this year’s bestsellers? In fiction it would be The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and we sell lots of that porn book. [50 Shades of Grey] We had a bondage window that attracted a lot of attention and got a mention in the Independent. The most extraordinary thing is that we’ve now got to the stage where people of both sexes and all ages are totally unselfconscious about asking for it. When The Joy of Sex came out we used to find that stuffed all over the place because people were embarrassed to read it. That has all changed now. If it brings people in and doesn’t cause any offence, it’s fair enough. Another title that has done well is The Ship, The Lady and the Lake: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Steamship in the Andes, whose author lives locally.

Above: The bookshop's 'bondage' window earned them an honorable mention in the Independent.

How do you feel about e-books? Bookshops will be a thing of the past within a few years unless e-books can be sold through shops, but I don’t see how it can happen. I am a huge fan of WH Smith’s as a business and think that Kate Swann is impressive. They sell Kobo, and that’s the reason why not to go for Kobo: if someone buys an e-book from me, Smiths will get the benefit.

How do you see the future of the booktrade? It is entirely dependent on how e-books go. If the booktrade can’t get involved in selling e-books, we have about as much chance of being in existence as monks doing their manuscripts in the fifteenth century. The chain in printed books is too long and needs to be chopped in half. But, we need to be able to sell e-books in the shop at a profit. I think children’s books will survive and I’m amazed at the amount of travel books that we still sell. The Richard Burton Diaries are due out this autumn and it will be interesting to see how much of their success will be down to the e-book.

As a book lover, don’t you think printed books and e-books can co-exist? No! I’m not a book lover; I’m a content lover.

Where do your customers come from? We get tourists coming through for ten months of the year. French, Dutch and German visitors buy lots, and are especially keen on children’s books. We also have customers from the surrounding villages. We are very strong on local books, maps and guides to the area.

What non-book items do you sell? The floor upstairs is devoted to arts’ materials (below) and we run art classes and practical workshops two or three times a week. We also sell maps and a small number of cards and CDs.
Do you organise in-store events? Yes, particularly signings and talks with local people. I think it is going to become more difficult to have events because authors will demand payment, and why not? We also do some events in conjunction with Marlborough College and provide books for their residential summer school.

What are the three key things that make a good bookshop? Good staff, good position and good stock.

Do you use Facebook and Twitter? Liz handles that. Who knows what effect if has on trade, but we’ll do it if that’s what people want.

What are you reading at the moment? The Day Parliament Burned Down, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot and Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son.

What do you like and dislike about the business? I like the books. There’s nothing I really dislike.

Right: Tourists are fascinated by local crop circles, seen in the postcards, next to watercolours of Marlborough's elegant High Street.

Batch and Your Business

How long have you been using Batch and Batch Returns? About four years.

How does Batch help your business? It saves us money because we are not sending out a multitude of cheques. I think it also makes sense to use a clearing house, which is what it is.

The White Horse Bookshop
136 High Street
Tel: 01672 512071/513700
Twitter: @whitehorsebooks

Michael Pooley and  Debby Guest (above) were speaking to Janet Ravenscroft