Writing their own success story

THERE'S a local contender for the Independent Bookseller of the Year crown.

Steven Russell

THERE'S a local contender for the Independent Bookseller of the Year crown.

Glad to report on a success story, Steven Russell finds out what gives Wivenhoe Bookshop its bounce

VIDEO failed to kill the radio star, despite the stubborn predictions of the doomsayers, so we probably shouldn't be surprised that the World Wide Web has failed to asphyxiate every local bookshop from Penzance to Peterhead.

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There have been casualties, of course, but others are doing rather well - thanks to hard graft, imagination, and the personal touch.

One of them is Wivenhoe Bookshop, near Colchester, which has been shortlisted for the national Independent Bookseller of the Year award for the way it's made itself a focal point of the community.

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Books might be its raison d'etre but there's a lot more going on besides. Stop by in the middle of the week and you can chat while you clack with members of the Woolly Thoughts knitting group.

Kept awake at night as you ponder the notions of God and evolution, truth and equality? The Philosophy Breakfasts offer food for thought over croissants and coffee.

There's not one but two reading groups, and even a spare patch of wall has become a talking point: the Over the Sofa micro-gallery offers a different view each month and adds a little bit of zest.

Then there was the criteria required to shine as a potential Independent Bookseller of the Year. (The winner will be announced on September 18 at the Natural History Museum in London.)

“You had to show what you've done in the last year to increase your turnover,” explains Wivenhoe Bookshop owner Ginny Waters.

“There were two things: One was Harry Potter. If you're going to sell Harry Potter, you have to do a lot to attract people to buy it from you. Even the Co-op here was selling it half-price. We took £3 off, so it was £14.99. So we organised a huge party at midnight, and that kind of thing. It boosted our turnover hugely. People bought 110 copies.

“The other thing we did was publish Martin Newell's book on Wivenhoe last November, and that boosted our turnover as well. We sold 600 in the first month.”

All very hunky-dory, then. It wasn't always so. Not long after owner Ginny bought the shop, about 18 years ago, she found herself in the middle of some “pretty lean times” during the recession of the early 1990s. The collapse of the net book agreement also caused a lot of turbulence in the industry.

The NBA was essentially a price-fixing deal between publishers and booksellers. It set the prices at which books were sold to the public. Any bookseller who sold them cheaper risked being blackballed by the particular publisher.

In 1991 Dillons and Waterstones began to cut the prices of some books, and in the spring of 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court said the agreement was against the public interest and thus illegal. After that it was open season in the book trade.

“There was lots of heavy discounting, and the supermarkets started selling books very cheaply,” says Ginny. “But we have reinvented ourselves and managed to compete.”

Many didn't. While the large bookstore chains had size on their side and could reduce prices, and the big supermarket firms offered a limited number of massively-discounted bestsellers, many smaller operators were squeezed out.

Interestingly enough, Ginny doesn't think it was all bad.

“I think it has made books much more sexy, in a way,” she says. “You used to see independent bookshops with curled-up books in the window, and flies and things, and, really, it's got rid of that side of bookselling. They've gone to the wall and they've deserved to, really.

“I suppose the competition and the fact everybody's selling books, and programmes like Richard and Judy (and their TV book club) has created a lot more buzz around books.”

Even the boom in online shopping - largely via a company that, like Voldemort in Harry Potter, we'll refer to only as “you-know-who” - hasn't proved fatal for everyone. “Because it was cutting edge, it's made books more interesting,” reckons Ginny.

Wivenhoe Books has got its own web site, where books can be ordered, so all in all she doesn't think the internet has affected them too badly - “but it's because we've done all these other things to keep our sales up. You have to work quite hard so that you don't become a bit boring. You have to keep yourself in people's field of vision all the time.

“I think the thing that affected us most was not so much Amazon” - aka you-know-who - “as supermarkets, especially at Christmas. Christmas is our big time, when we take most money.”

Ginny worked in bookselling and publishing after leaving school: for Dillons and then for Longmans, the educational book publisher at Harlow.

Home was originally in the Brighton area, with her parents making the move to Coggeshall when Ginny was 14. She spent about four years in London when she was older, before moving back to Essex.

She was working for an educational publishing company at Chappel, between Colchester and Halstead, when a friend spotted an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times: Wivenhoe Bookshop was up for sale.

“I think I'd always wanted to run a bookshop. I am completely passionate about books. Just opening parcels of books is like Christmas every day to me.”

She was also looking for something to get her teeth into as her three boys grew. So, when her youngest was about eight, she and husband Bob bought the High Street business.

It's been a bookshop since the autumn of 1976, when Jean Harding (who sadly died recently, at the age of 85) and a business partner spied an opportunity. Having a branch of academia a mile or so up the road - the University of Essex - helped no end.

Ginny loved the life from the word go. “The people who worked here with Jean stayed on, so there was a lot of continuity, and I am very grateful they were there to help me out.”

Local poet, author and musician Martin Newell wrote on the occasion of the shop's 30th birthday that it “sits prettily in the High Street with a demure two-fingered salute held up to corporate android culture”.

One of the things he must have had in mind is that micro-gallery: something simple yet appealing, judging by the comments in the visitors' book. The two-seater sofa arrived about six or seven years ago and there was a gap on the wall above where they couldn't put shelves.

The idea to hang pictures might first have been artist Helen Lee's, or it might have come from MA art history student Elaine Maslin, who had a spell working in the store. Anyway, one of Helen's big pictures went up and the Over the Sofa Gallery was born. A different artist's work is displayed each month.

Ginny pays tribute to the ideas and help she's had from her colleagues from day one. Elaine, for instance, started to do “amazing things” with the window display. “We started to think about the whole thing differently and realised you could be dynamic and do lots of things to make your customers really interested in what was going on - just to make the shop a more exciting place to come to.”

Nowadays Helen Lee keeps the shop window looking vibrant. It's refreshed every month or so and that's important, says Ginny, in hooking potential customers.

Helen runs the knitting group, which draws both experienced practitioners and complete novices, ranging in age from 20s and 30s to knitters in their 80s. The idea was adapted from a bookshop in Greece. People knit and talk, usually about books and arty things.

Another colleague, Sue Finn, is credited with increasing the bookshop's appeal to children.

You only have to look back a few months to the last World Book Day, when more than 50 youngsters squeezed in for a party. Many dressed as their favourite character, so Tintin rubbed shoulders with Pippi Longstocking.

The monthly reading groups (featuring some rather yummy food) have, she feels, been one of the most successful innovations. Others think so too: Wivenhoe came second in the 2006 national Penguin/Orange Reading Group Awards - pipped only by a prison group!

Doing up an outbuilding behind the bookshop, known as The Shed, has created the space in which to hold different events, such as those philosophy breakfasts, which started in May last year.

“I go to the Edinburgh Festival every year and they have these breakfast events where they feature writers who are having political problems abroad and I was thinking it would be good to combine breakfast with some kind of interesting discussion.

“Then I met Colin Phillips in the pub. He's a retired lecturer with a really lucid and wonderful way of explaining difficult concepts - completely wasted in the pub! So we talked about it and he decided he'd really like to do it.”

More prosaically, the introduction of greetings cards gave the business a fillip. And more offerings are likely from the bookshop's newish publishing arm, Wivenbooks. The advance of technology, which means copies can be produced on demand and avoids large print-runs that can't be shifted, has made publishing less risky.

Has she ever been tempted to chuck it all in during the past 18 years?

“I think when times were really bad I did think about it, but I thought 'No-one's going to buy it. If I can't run it, no-one else is going to run it.' We did go through a tough time, but that was ages ago, in the '90s.”

Happily, she loves the job - especially those glorious volumes and the lovely colleagues and customers with whom she spends her days.

“The downside is you never really get away from it. It's the same for anyone who runs their own business. There's the accounts, which I don't enjoy very much, but my husband helps me with that.” Bob's an accountant working in London. “That's saved me a bit of money!

“He's been a great support. He's had me going home and moaning about things!”

Doh. We can't end on a downbeat note. Let's have an amusing anecdote.

“I think the funniest was when we were offered by the publisher of a famous children's book about a monster called The Gruffalo the chance to hire a Gruffalo suit to amaze our youngest customers. The excitement mounted as we told people that the Gruffalo was coming to the bookshop and we had to sell tickets due to the huge amount of interest.

“We organised 15-minute slots where we planned to read the story and have the 'Gruffalo' (Helen Lee's daughter, Flora) emerge from behind a huge tree which Helen had made out of hardboard.

“The first group of 20 small children (with mums and dads) was ushered into the back room of the bookshop where the tree stood. Sue sat on the sofa and began to read the story. When she got to the bit which says '...he has terrible tusks and terrible claws . . .' Flora put the Gruffalo's claws around the edge of the tree and a terrible wail went up from the audience as they all burst into tears, many of them making a rush for the door!

“After much consoling, and encouraging the stroking of the 'lovely Gruffalo', they were persuaded to try again. But this time the Gruffalo had to sit where he could be seen at all times and, instead of reading the story, Sue just sang the Gruffalo song!”

GINNY Waters read a lot as a child, and today describes herself as an addicted reader. Who, and what, are her favourite writers and stories?

“You tend to change, don't you? When I was 21 I read The Lord of the Rings and loved it, whereas today I wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole!” she laughs.

Writings about nature appeal at the moment - “I've read a lovely book by Richard Mabey, so I'd choose that” - and she loves the work of Margaret Atwoood, Rose Tremaine and Kazuo Ishiguro. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is “amazing”.

We asked the Wivenhoe Bookshop folk for a list of their favourite reads, and here it is, though Ginny reveals that “one member of staff could not decide between War and Peace and The Secret Garden (!) so we have included both”.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

Boudica by Manda Scott

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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