I'd like to welcome Katie from Storytellers, Inc. She's here to talk about bookselling, and the story of her bookshop in Lancashire. Make yourself a cup of tea, and have a read!
"I finished my MA in poetic practice and promptly left my production editor job at a medical journal in London. Now that my studies were finished I wanted to make the most of the opportunity of trying something new. I had decided that I definitely didn’t want a desk job and that if I had was serious about writing I better get on with it. I rented a cottage on the Isle of Skye for as long as I could afford (3 months) and began writing a children’s book (this wasn’t a surprise to me, I’d done my undergrad dissertation on Roald Dahl). When I returned to my hometown in Lytham St. Annes with a half written novel I resumed copy-editing work with the journal by post and decided to stay by the sea. I wanted to continue to write but I wanted to find a way to work with children in reading and writing, without becoming a teacher – assessments and reading levels do not interest me. My mum, Carolyn, had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was looking for a new project and we decided that a base for any extra-curricular workshops and creative writing groups would do as well to be a bookshop. St. Annes is a very family-orientated traditional Victorian sea-side town. There are lots of primary schools surrounding in the area so it felt like the place that really needed a children’s bookshop. We opened Storytellers, Inc. a book place for children, in December 2010 after finding the perfect premises complete with a back room for the workshop and a child-sized playroom (originally a data storage cupboard where the previous tenants kept their servers). We’ve got about 2000 books in store. We don’t sell online, where our customer service and facilities can’t make up for the fact we sell at the RRP but our wholesales online service means people can order from a general catalogue through us.
"We run regular storytimes throughout the week, always in our underwater-themed den. I read pictures book and wrestle with a cuddly shark and a furry octopus. I do creative writing sessions in school holidays for juniors and teens and I’m in the process of setting up our first regular junior book clubs. I work with local schools on literacy projects and co-ordinate my own book scheme, Cool Books in School with several schools in St. Annes and Blackpool. We’ve had three author events, held in schools, so far and look forward to planning more in our second year of business.
"We’ve tried to make the shop as child-friendly as possible. We’ve got customer toilets with baby changing facilities, even nappies and baby wipes if you need them. Our drinks machine means we can offer coffees to tired parents and juice for the little ones. We keep the shelves pram-width apart for maximum accessibility and keep toys available for distraction while secret purchases are made. These came in very handy around Christmas. We designed our own shelves and had them built so we could display picture books the way we wanted – face on and at an easy height for children to get to. We’d rather risk a few bent pages than putting children off looking at them. We believe children should be an active part of book shopping and we’re always telling parents who come in alone to bring them with them next time, if they help pick it chances are they’ll be more inclined to read it! All of the logos and branding are our own design and our in-house artist is my partner, Jamie. He is often roped into helping with our homemade window displays and publicity material but they’re frequently commented on and we’re often asked if our shop is part of a chain or franchise.
"The staff is simply me and my mum! After many years of corporate management Carolyn is used to working with all the numbers and accounts and I run the creative side of the business (not to be confused with messing about with glitter glue, though I am quite often covered in the stuff). I think we actually make a great team, if one person makes a pot of tea, the other is happy to drink it. We both enjoy reading at the story times and making props for our window displays, which must be really good because on several occasions people have asked to buy them. We also like any opportunity to bake event-related cakes for our shop which always goes down well with our tinier customers, gingerbread bats at Halloween, lovey-dovey cupcakes at Valentines. Neither of us have any experience in retail or business so we’re making it up as we go along but it seems to be working so far.
"We make a lot of our sales on recommendations so many of my favourites have become good sellers for us. We’ve got family in Cheshire near Alderley Edge so Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a book that I read when I was 10 just as my Mum and Dad had done when they were younger. We have sold that title over and over again because we don’t shut up about it. Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops and Terry Jones’ Fantastic Stories are two more books I am particularly enthusiastic about stocking because they meant so much to me when I was younger. I make time to read as much stock as I can and I review for our website and the BA magazine We Love This Book to keep up on what’s new. I’m only just getting around to reading the giant franchises like The Hunger Games now, and I’ll admit I’ve never read Twilight or Harry Potter but I am always getting side-tracked by new discoveries. Stocking the shop is like buying my personal wish list and sometimes I feel quite attached to the books I buy in, even a little miffed when they leave to live at someone else’s house if it’s something I had my eye on for myself. Which is nearly everything.
"I love fiction from the David Fickling List – to me it always stands out on the shelf, as do picture books from Andersen. I will read anything Meg Rosoff writes and frequently recommend her books to customers. I think Moon Pie by Simon Mason was my favourite book last year and Unhooking The Moon by Gregory Hughes in 2010. I put ‘Katie’s Seal of Approval’ bookmarks in these books.
"I love poetry and have a copy of Gertrude Stein’s only book for children, A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, in our small but special poetry shelf which also features the brilliant Children’s Poetry Series from Salt, waiting for a child who wants to talk about words. I order as many titles from the brilliant Gecko Press as I can; I love their multi-cultural picture books which can surprise teachers who thought they knew what they came in for, particularly the wordless The Chicken Thief! The re-issues of William Stieg’s amazing picture books are another shelf delight (my favourite is Amos and Boris) and we always make sure we have a Robert Sabuda pop-up to show people looking for something really special. Orlando the Marmalade Cat picture books from the 30s (reprints) always get attention and we keep some Edward Gorey books in stock for something a little darker. There are certainly books we order that we know won’t be bought for children but as the majority of the shop is children’s stock we make some allowances for grown-up gifts – so as we were able to stock the amazing Ammo board books that feature artwork by one of my favourite artists, Charley Harper. We sold a copy of gorgeous coffee table book, The Art of Charley Harper and Birds and Words to display alongside the alphabet cards and stationary. I don’t think we’ve ever sold a Moomin book (or a Moomin toy!) that was actually for a child and Mr Benn birthday cards are sold over and over again for adults. We love it when someone sees something they had when they were little – everyone has fond memories of their childhood books and the characters in them.
"We are always on hand to offer advice but quite a few of our customers are looking for a mind-reading service too. We often get approached with queries along the lines of I’m looking for a book, I don’t know the name or author, I had it when I was 6, it was blue…’ We’re both Google savvy so throw a bit more information at us and we’ll do our best to dig up your beloved books.
"Like a small business, a lot changes to a child in just one year so customers who got pushed through the door in a pram to our opening party are now walking over the step on their own two feet. We’re getting to know more and more about our customers and making friends as we go. We can remember names and past purchases, we even think about some of our loyal customers when preparing the order for the next month, knowing what they’ll be looking for next.
"Our first customer was an 80-something old ex-teacher called Horace, who bought Elmer the Elephant as present to take back to his old school. His friend filmed the purchase because apparently he videoed everything that Horace did on his trips; it certainly made our first sale memorable. Our youngest customer (not including bumps) was 3 days old – it’s lovely to think that something we sell could go on to be a child’s first or favourite book. We’ve wrapped birthday presents en route to the party and helped multiple guests avoid buying the same presents for the christening. Owning a business really makes you feel part of the community and in a small town like St. Annes that makes a big difference. I’m a funny sort of local celebrity to a large portion of the under-12s in this town; chances are they’ve seen me in the shop, at their school, reading at a library event or judging at the town’s charity carnival. They shout ‘HI KATIE’ across the supermarket, or whisper it in the queue at the coffee shop much to the mystification of their parents. It’s brilliant.
"The future for Storytellers, Inc. I hope is big and bright. Of course I’d like to imagine we open another branch in another town and another town and another town and each shop would have its own feature area like the den that was strictly for stories and children’s laughter. But we don’t make a great deal on day to day sales, whilst our first year has shown a good development, our customer loyalty scheme is proving popular and our workshops are well attended-even sold out- it’s clear that the business won’t make our fortune. We will continue to work hard on building links with schools and nurseries that might translate to supplying orders but it will be a constant challenge to find new ways of drumming up sales and support. It’s a challenge I’m willing to accept! At 26, I count myself very lucky to have my own business and spend one day cutting out penguins and reading rhymes in silly voices the next."