I was about to interview the owners of independent bookshops to try and help support them. Towns stay alive as long as they are going strong, along with libraries and post offices. Then I recently met several authors who also run bookshops. It seemed to me to be a brilliant thing to write books and earn a living from selling them: or is it? So I kick off the series with a man who I've yet to meet in person but greatly admire for managing to write well-loved books, as well as reading widely and inclusively providing what it says on the shopfront above: Books. Coffee. Space.
Who are you and what do you do?
I'm Bob Stone, proprietor of Write Blend, an independent bookshop and coffee shop in Waterloo, a suburb of Liverpool. In what spare time I have, I am also an author and have two Young Adult books Missing Beat and Beat Surrender published by Beaten Track Publishing. The third book in the series, Perfect Beat is due out early 2020.
What was your aim in opening a bookshop and when did it open? Has it worked out as planned?
The aim was to provide a creative hub, an inspiring environment in which people can relax, buy books, read and even write in relative peace. As coffee and books go so well together, having a coffee shop as well seemed like the perfect combination. We opened just over four years ago. Has it worked out as planned? Good question – does anything? Some things have worked out better than I imagined; I have made some very good, lasting friends and seen what wonderful people populate the book world. Some things haven't gone as well as I might have planned, but then who could plan for the state of the country just at the moment?
How do you make your customers feel welcome?
Because I am usually on my own in the bookshop, I get to know my regular customers quite well, so they always get a warm, personal welcome. New customers are warmly welcomed too, because new customers are the regular customers of the future. Whatever the weather, whatever else is going on, everyone is welcomed with a smile.
Has any book made you view the world differently?
I'm not sure if any one book has made done that. There's something to learn from every book you read, whether it be fiction or non fiction.
What is your most memorable book and where were you when you read it?
Again, with the number of books I have read over the years, it's very hard to single one out. I have read so many books which have been memorable for a whole variety of reasons. I won't ever forget the first time I read Stephen King's The Stand, in my room in the halls of residence when I was a student. There were a lot of late nights reading that one. Two of the most memorable books I have read lately are More of Me by Kathryn Evans, and Grace and the Ghost by Estelle Maher, both of which I read while sitting in the shop and they both blew me away. The former was the book that opened my eyes to just how good Young Adult fiction can be, while the latter has to be by far and away the best self-published book I have read.
What is a good night out?
At my age, any night out is a good one! These days, a meal with friends is my idea of a pleasant night.
Or in? If you have to choose one film or box set, which one?
I'm just working my way through the complete box set of Peaky Blinders and wondering why I never watched it before. If I had to pick one film, it would probably be It's a Wonderful Life, which is so good, it doesn't need to be saved for Christmas.
Do you write to music; like café noise or need silence?
I used to have music on in the background whatever I was doing, but these days, I'm a bit too easily distracted and write in silence (if I can get it).
If you could time travel, where, when and why would you visit?
There are so many bits of history I'd love to see, but can't help feeling they might prove to be a little disappointing in reality. I would, however, like to go back a few years and talk to my parents more about my own family history, the things I only half-listened to and now that I want to know more, I can't because there's no-one left to ask.
Do you have a typical day?
Not really. I have a morning routine – I shop for stock for the coffee shop on the way into work and there is a routine to setting up. After that, the day is often more reactive. Usually you have no idea who is going to walk through the door at any time. It's what makes retail unpredictable, but also makes it interesting.
Do strong men cry?
It takes more strength to cry than it does not to, in my experience.
Who would you like to visit the shop? (Living, dead or fictional)
I love author visits and I have met some terrific writers, some I knew of, some I didn't. To me, an author visit is like going backstage to meet the band. I'd love to do a book signing with Oscar Wilde though. Or Suzie Wilde. Either would do. [SW: I'm willing! :)]
What one thing would improve your writing life?
More time. That's it.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had to do?
I was a double glazing salesman for a day once. The fact that it was only for a day probably tells you everything.
You’re awake at 3am. What are you thinking about?
I'm 55. I'm often awake at 3am and I'm usually thinking about whether or not I really need to go to the bathroom.
Do books sell faster from tables? How do you decide what to put on them? Can you champion books you love?
I mostly have books on shelves, but that's a question of space rather than anything else. I try and put new titles and books I want to promote in the window to attract people in. I am quite lucky, in that it's usually me in the shop talking to the customers, so if there are books I want to champion, I'm able to do so, when customers need a recommendation.
And some questions for booksellers put by fellow Unbound authors in our Facebook group:
Ewan Lawrie: How can I persuade you to stock my book? Then I'd know.
Personally, it's usually a question of asking me nicely. Not all bookshops operate in the same way as I do and may ask about price/discount but very often, if I can get books on sale or return, for example, I'll say yes.
Gail Thibert: What kind of books do your customers buy? What are your best sellers?
Children's books, for me, outsell adult books by two to one. It doesn't matter what great books you have in, books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and David Walliams books still sell in bucketloads. It's really down to me to recommend alternatives.
Mel Davies (author and bookshop owner) replied: Some independent bookshops post these on their social media pages, the Margate Bookshop is a great one for that.
Eamonn Griffin: Why does your part of the industry do so much to discourage reading, treating book retail as a middle-class escapist fantasy rather than being genuinely inclusive and welcoming to all? Too much focus on organic cupcakes and not enough on selling books to all-comers.
I think you're mistaking me for someone else. I'd like to think my shop is the polar opposite to what you describe. Yes, we have a gluten free lemon drizzle cake in the coffee shop, but only because it's delicious. Any shop in any sector which doesn't go all out to be completely inclusive and welcoming to all, probably deserves all it gets.
Daniel Ross (author and bookshop owner) replied: Just wanted to raise my hand as the co-owner of an independent bookshop and say that in my opinion and experience this is absolutely not the case.
[SW: I’ll be interviewing Daniel later in the series. I remember fainting the first time I went into a bookshop alone - but it wasn't a shop like Bob's.]
Lulu Allison: As you are running a difficult business, how do you manage what you expect will sell against what you think is brilliant? Or does that not come into it? And how do you get customers to branch out?
That is the major challenge we all face in this business. Very often, the same books are being heavily promoted all the time and there is a very definite trend towards “If you like that, you'll like this”. We have two distinct kinds of customer; the ones who come in specifically for that book they've heard about and others who want to browse and discover. We have to cater for both. Again, it's largely down to engaging with the customers, talking to them, but above all, listening.
Mary Monro: What do you do to compete against online book buying?
It's difficult. You're competing against some huge organisations who can offer price, vast stock lists and the convenience of ordering from your armchair. We have to offer a reason to come and that means authors signings and events, but also in our case, having lovely coffee and cake to tempt people in helps. I also work with a great many independent authors and small publishers so that I can have books on my shelf that you won't find in other shops.
Stevyn Colgan: Running any business - no matter how ethical or inclusive you want to be - does require making a profit. How do you balance selling surefire sellers (celeb stuff, cookbooks etc.) against books by authors like us who are not known to the majority of visitors to the shop? How far can you afford to ignore the big guns?
The simple answer is, you can't ignore them. You have to give customers what they want. At the same time, it's tricky when all the current bestsellers are being sold in the supermarkets for less than you can buy them. There are books I have to grit my teeth to stock, but have to do so. Selling books by authors the public may not have heard of is down to two things; one is the bookseller's enthusiasm for the book, but there is also an element of participation on the part of the author. Some authors are happy for their book to be in my shop and expect me to recommend it to everyone who walks through the door (clue, I can't!). It helps a lot if the author uses their own social media and directs people to my shop to buy their book. It's sometimes a little known fact that booksellers have a great many other titles to sell too.
Claire Amy Handscombe: Can I have a job please?
Well you did ask very nicely. I'll see what I can do.
[SW: Form an orderly queue.]
Please get in touch if you're an author and/or bookshop owner and would like a shout out for your shop.