How independent book stores can succeed

With the spotlight firmly on saving further shops in our high street from closure following the demise of HMV, Blockbuster, and, a favourite of mine, Jessop’s, there is one independent store in Ely that shines like a beacon and has the support and admiration of its local community, and that is Topping bookstore.

I placed my Christmas orders there instead of Amazon, and their helpful staff were able to supply any books which were not in stock within a couple of days. Their heaving shelves on three floors are packed, and it is a joy to just stand and look around, picking up copies signed by authors.  I can never resist booking a ticket for their popular author speaking events which has packed Ely cathedral, and I have promised myself I will join one of their book club evenings.. Topping also serves the best coffee in town, which they provide free. That is certainly a first. Books are a very personal experience and Topping captures the emotions and pleasure behind that for their loyal customers. They really go the extra mile, and reap the rewards.

I was thrilled to learn that Robert Jones, the brains behind Topping (which also has a shop in Bath) was coming to speak at a new group I have joined, Creative Ely. However, as my father-in-law was unexpectedly admitted to hospital that night, I was unable to attend.  Creative Ely founder Sue Keogh wrote up Robert’s top tips  about running a successful independent book store, and many of them are relevant for other shops too. The key to success is clearly about sharing the passion of your business and engaging with customers. My view about business is that if you are not doing your best to look after your clients, then somebody else will be only too happy to.  Robert and his staff have clearly succeeded, and this is his advice as reported by Sue for Creative Ely:

Author events

These bring people to the shop, helps them sell books and brings cultural life to the city. The tickets are good value – you get a discount on the book equal to the cost of the ticket and the opportunity to get it signed by the author, plus a glass of wine thrown in. Publishers like it too because it gets their authors on the road and selling more books, and as a result of this they act favourably towards the bookshop and help them commercially.

A strong commercial focus

Topping & Co is a commercial enterprise. They don’t devalue their products by offering discounts – in fact sometimes they have to mark books up to cover the postage from overseas. And while the author events and reading groups have an incredible cultural value, “We we try to run them so they’re profitable,” says Robert. “We don’t really do things for free.”

Getting the atmosphere right

With the better rates they can negotiate from publishers as a result of running their author events, they can invest money back into making the shop a lovely place to be, for example offering customers tea and coffee in nice china and adding wooden furnishings. “We try to do things economically, but not on the cheap.”

Making the basic feel like luxury

Certain books are bound in cellophane with a branded wrapper, making them feel a bit more special than normal. Some are signed by the author. There are also free Topping & Co bookmarks, made from quality paper rather than anything flimsy. All these things make the simple purchase of a book feel like a treat.

Knowing their stuff

“It’s important that people perceive the place as being about books and run by people who care about books,” says Robert. Everyone who works in Topping & Co is a big reader; they all have different tastes and recommend books to each other, which means they can help customers even when they’re asking about something that’s not their specialist area. This is in contrast to some modern chain bookstores, where the staff aren’t expected to know the latest titles and those with a love of books are regarded with suspicion.

Looking after their staff

“We try to let them express their enthusiasm for books, giving them choice over what goes in their section. It’s not determined by head office.” Customers pick up on this too – happy staff mean happy customers!”

I certainly agree with the last point too as well trained and nurtured staff will not only want to give their best, but the customer picks up on this when they walk into a shop. Thank you Robert!

*Please follow @Your_Ely if you want to support local businesses in Ely, which is being announced next week.