Victoria Park Books
174 Victoria Park Road
London, E9 7HD
I am so pleased to be able to feature an interview with a bookshop owner; it’s always been kind of a quiet dream of mine to work in a bookshop. Today’s interviewee is a children’s book store owner who is located in London and who is very passionate about books, children’s literature, and the world of publishing. A vital cog within the publishing machine, the bookseller is one of the most important and influential people in inciting passion and enthusiasm for reading. To be able to do that for children must be a wonderful thing – if I am an example of how childhood reading can play a part in a person’s future career, then encouraging children to read, and to love to read, is essential.
Joanna De Guia, owner of Victoria Park Books in London, has very kindly conducted this interview with me and gives a fascinating and illuminating look into the world of book selling and how the publishing industry has changed things massively for the bookseller over the years..
When you convert a child to reading you know you are potentially having an effect that could improve the quality of their life and job opportunities.
I notice you used to work for Waterstones. What would say are the main differences between working for a chain bookshop and your own, independent bookshop?
When I worked for Waterstones it was still a small personal chain owned by Tim so it felt like a local bookshop. I was in the High St Ken branch and we bought stock with our local customers in mind. There wasn’t a core stock list then or centralised buying. That all came in much later. The main difference then was that we weren’t set up for customer orders as we were so big the idea was that people came in and would find something that would fit their requirements in the shop. As a small independent we can’t do that as we don’t have the room or the capital. So our customer ordering is key.
You first worked for Waterstones in the 80’s. How would you say things have changed in the industry between now and then?
It has changed beyond all recognition. The number of books published has increased exponentially so it is now necessary to return stock. This wasn’t necessary when I worked at Waterstones and in my Mum’s shop, or indeed allowed. Once a book became old stock you put it in the reduced section as there just wasn’t that much in the way of new titles to keep up with. There were several high street chains then (Smiths, Ottakers, Dillons, Books etc). Now there is really only one, which is Waterstones. There was a NET Book Agreement which meant that no retailer could undercut on price except if they were prepared to take a hit on their own profit margins. There was no Amazon; no online. The High Street was King. Books were proportionately more expensive but people didn’t expect them to be rock bottom prices. There were several bookdata providers so all retailers had equal access to a list of books in print (on a microfiche!). Now there is a monopoly of provision – Neilsen – and small retailers can’t afford to purchase that online access except through a wholesaler which means that information can’t be put onto their websites to indicate their ability to provide any book in print. There were no e-books so there wasn’t the huge discrepancy between the offer from indies (unable to make much of a profit on e-books as there is no satisfactory scheme for selling e-books available to us) and that from chains and Amazon. In short the playing field was much more level and the main difference between walking into an indie and a big provider was that you might have to wait 24 hours for a specific title from an indie if they didn’t hold it in stock.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Undoubtedly it is effecting an introduction between a reader and a marvellous book. This is especially satisfying when one is dealing with kids as there is now so much competition for their free time and when you make a convert to reading you know you are potentially having an effect that could improve the quality of their life and job opportunities. I love inventing and running reading festivals and events and reminding children of how much fun reading can be.
Have you found that having your own children allowed you to understand the demands for quality children’s books?
Without a doubt! It is like working in a sweetshop when you have kids and if something especially delicious is shown there is always “one for us” added to the order. Plus I know how deadly dull the process of learning to read is now in schools with everybody required to teach phonics and only phonics. Being able to show children that books are actually a source of pleasure and not just something you have to do to pass an exam ensures lifelong reading and opens up a whole world of enjoyment.
You have recently branched out into selling e-books. When did this begin and has this been successful so far? (If it’s too soon to tell, how successful do you expect it to be?)
I don’t think we have sold a single e-book! The e-book market has been completely cornered by the cut-price big players (Amazon beyond everything and then Waterstone’s and Foyles and Blackwells – all online). Indies get a laughable cut of profits – between 5 and 15% – and so even if you offer the opportunity to buy on your website (and we do) why would anybody do that when they could buy it from one of the others for so much less?
How important is it for your business that the customer trusts your staff’s advice? Do you find it has a big impact on sales?
My staff read a lot and have opinions about what they like and don’t like and they recommend titles happily. Recommendations are crucial for indies. A customer may come in for something specific which we are very likely not to have (given the number of books published and the amount of space and money we have). We can suggest other similar (possibly better) things and thus ensure a sale. The people who use us best are those who are happy to be open to something new and unexpected rather than somebody coming for something specific which is immediately available.
How do you measure your bookshop’s success? Hard sales, or customer satisfaction and loyalty? How do ensure you continue to be successful?
Both hard sales and customer satisfaction are crucial yardsticks. However without hard sales it doesn’t matter how satisfied customers are; we cannot continue. So the final measure is whether we make a profit. I don’t know if I would describe us as successful yet. Our customers definitely love us and so do “our” authors. And some of our publishers love us too. And we have a legacy already of reading events and children who without us would not have developed a love of reading. But it is such a struggle and the industry is so clueless about how to deal with its independent sector. And high street shopping appears to be dying a slow and painful death right now. There is very little help out there for small businesses. The banks are sitting on our money and refusing to lend it to ensure survival. It is quite hard to see where the future lies.
In what ways would you say your bookshop is unique? How do you go above and beyond for your customers?
All indies are unique. That is what is great and what is annoying about them. They reflect their community and the personality of the owners and staff. We reflect this specifically in the stock we sell and the books which interest us. We stock books which would never sell outside London or a big city; showing diverse communities and liberal lifestyles. The events we run are very realistic in their aims, understanding that most of our potential customers come from very poor families (Hackney is the second poorest borough and Tower Hamlets is the poorest borough in the country – and we border both) and/or from non-English speaking families. Therefore we need to evangelise about reading and ensure it is the most exciting thing those children encounter – more exciting than their Xbox or the latest Pixar movie! We go above and beyond what is expected of a corporate bookshop which only needs to show a profit. We feel we should be selling children quality and not the latest pap. But the quality has to be fun to read and sometimes pap is necessary to entice children into reading something better. We have a great responsibility to our young customers. We know them all and have watched many of them grow from primary school to A Level students and make their move out into the real world.
Your bookshop is based in London. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?
The advantages are that reps still visit London bookshops regularly so we are more up-to-date on new titles; and we have a significant population. However we are not on a high street as such. Very few indies can afford to be placed so well now. We are in a (lovely) backwater of boutique-y shops. But this means we don’t get the footfall you would get on a high street, even one outside of a big city. We don’t have the disadvantages of leasing our building – London rents are extortionate and I have no idea how anybody keeps going having to pay those – but our business rates are affected by the relatively high cost of renting and so we pay more rates. We didn’t have the problems of having to contend with out of town shopping centres…until they built Westfield 20 minutes away in Stratford. Now we have a Foyles right on our doorstep, alongside a Primark and a John Lewis, etc, etc. So the attractions of mall shopping are becoming apparent. Mostly the advantages of being in London are personal; I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else!
What are your goals for the future?
Our goals are to survive. And to continue to produce our reading festival at Shoreditch Town Hall – Town Hall Tales – and to make a success of our bookstall at the Half Moon Theatre in Limehouse. And eventually to be able to pay myself a reasonable salary; nothing greedy mind, just enough to make a proper contribution to the household bills which are not particularly high!
What do you and your partner most enjoy reading? What do your children most enjoy reading?
I read anything at all. But the things I have read recently which I loved are the new Michel Faber – The Book of Strange New Things – and a new book unpublished ‘til May called The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger. I guess I especially like literary novels with a great plot. And I love graphics – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel being one I read last year which blew me away. And then I love reading anything by Shaun Tan and good gritty kids’ fiction like Sally Gardner and E Lockhart.
Cris likes crime fiction and has just finished the Gold Finch by Donna Tartt.
Tilly and I are currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird and she loves graphics – Jane, the Fox and Me, for example. She gets the Phoenix comic every week – and she reads absolutely anything from picture books to teen novels to poetry. She is obsessed with The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent trilogy and the Hunger Games. And we are especially fond of Carol Anne Duffy.
Which would you say has been your most rewarding job/career so far and why?
I have had many careers(!) and even more jobs. I am quite old! I have probably found the bookshop my most rewarding so far but also my most stressful because it is my thing. I created it from scratch so its successes are all mine. But so are its failures. Mostly I am proud of every child we convert to reading for pleasure and every book we recommend which we get a positive report on!
Have you shopped here before? What did you think of your experience? Or perhaps you know of a similar book store that you would like to recommend and publicize? Please, let’s get discussing and as always leave a comment below!