A good read: Two top Lancashire booksellers reveal secrets of survival in a changing industry and explain why books make the perfect present!
It takes dedication and determination to keep an independent bookshop open nowadays. Fiona Finch met two local booksellers who, at one of the busiest times of their year, took time out to share the secrets of their success..
Did a good book feature on your Christmas wish list this year?
If so, that appetite to devour the latest novel, cook book, gardening tome or how to guide will bring much needed seasonal joy to independent bookshop owners.
Across the county in recent years book shops have opened - and then closed. The rise of e-books, then the switch to online entertainment and 24 hour access to information damaged the industry.
But it turns out this was but a lover’s tiff – as books are once again becoming valued for their beguiling beauty, the joy they can bring, their permanence and their potential to change lives.
From stocking fillers to treasured first editions and self-published surprise best-sellers the choice for customers seeking the perfect present is enormous.
So what does it take for a book business to endure?
We turned to two experienced booksellers to ask what has been the secret of survival in a competitive market with competing attractions?
Michael Halewood, can trace the Preston-based family business back to the 19th century. He and his brother David – who runs the city’s other and older Halewood’s bookshop, both run shops on Friargate and take pride in being the fifth generation in the family business.
The fact that Halewood’s has been a go-to bookshop in Preston for decades and its staff have coped with changing times, has meant taking the long view.
When Michael was younger his shop, which opened in 1969 at the university end of the street, sold mainly new academic books, serving the Harris College, Preston Polytechnic and local schools.
As time went on his father decided to concentrate on selling rarer, more specialist collectable books there.
Now Halewood’ & Sons at 68, Friargate is a haven for those in search of second hand and rare volumes, as is the city’s oldest Halewood’s store, with its distinctive Temple of The Muses sign higher up at number 37.
Michael said: “The secret of how we survive is we’ve built up our stock over generations. We’re the fifth generation of booksellers and hence we’ve always got plenty of choice for people who come in and there’s no shortage of books here. We’ve a reputation. People will come and know us - that’s something we’ve always relied on.”
The original shop, which David runs, was founded in 1867. Michael recalled: “It used to be, in the old days, the family home. My father was born there. He was born above the shop and he spent his early apprenticeship taking barrows of books up to the market and had a stall on the market as well.”
After A-levels there were no options as to what Michael would do – it was back to the bookshop where he had served on Saturday afternoons as a schoolboy after playing rugby in the morning.
He said the business “ticks over” and adds: “Like my father before me I’m just a book lover. I’ve always appreciated the aesthetic of having a book in your hand. It’s not something I do to get rich quick!”
But he cautions: “There’s no guarantee when I buy more I’m going to sell them immediately. Sometimes books I bought 10 years ago are still here.”
He has particular enthusiasms. “I’ve always maintained an interest in local history,” he said, adding: “My own interest is Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. We still sell some new books. If a new local history book comes out then I will stock it.”
He is pleased that customers can get half an hour’s on street parking opposite his shop, but is concerned that recent roadworks have kept customers away and has hit passing trade pre-Christmas.
Roadworks too proved an unexpected commercial headache for Elaine Silverwood and her shop Book, Bean & Ice Cream (formerly SilverDell) on Poulton Street, Kirkham.
She says that her shop has endured because it has always been diversified – selling coffee and ice cream as well as books.
The shop, which markets itself as a “thriving independent café and boutique book and gift shop” is renowned for its stock of signed editions too. Elaine’s main business life now involves organising book related events and author visits, across the country, including many to schools, through her Silverwood Events business, but she has retained her passion for the bookshop which she launched as SilverDell with her friend Sue Wardell in 2000.
When Sue retired in 2015 Elaine decided it was time to concentrate on her events business and the cafe/bookshop was sold to new owners.
But when it looked like the premises might close she returned, renaming and refurbishing the shop.
She notes that anyone who keeps a bookshop going in recent times is unusual. “We’re quite a rare breed. We’ve ridden a recession, the ebooks and everything that goes with that,” she said.
But more recently things have got significantly harder on the high street with reduced footfall. She said: “The closure of the banks – that’s the biggest, biggest hit we’ve all felt.”
The publishing industry itself has also changed in terms of book promotion. She has moved to organising events where the ticket price includes a copy of the author’s book and an author talk.
Elaine traces her love of books to when she and her mother ran a newsagent’s in Blackpool: “We specialised in magazines and importing magazines. I just used to get a buzz out of making people happy getting difficult (to find) magazines.”
She has continued to get that buzz by locating the perfect book for people. As for people who say they don’t enjoy reading she has an answer: “Just because you’re not enjoying it is because you’ve not had the right book put into your hands.”
Top Christmas reads
Got a book token or Christmas money to spend? Elaine's top 10 titles for Christmas 2019 are:
· The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse – Charlie Mackesy
· Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas – Adam Kay
· Taskmaster, 220 Extraordinary Tasks – Alex Horne
· Rick Stein’s Secret France
· Through the Mist of Time (Kirkham local history) – Michael Townsend
· The Hunting Party – Lucy Foley
· The Book of Dust – Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman
· The Fear Bubble – Ant Middleton
· No One is Too Small to Make a Difference – Greta Thunberg
· The Body – Bill Bryson