On Running a Pop-up Bookshop
Recently, someone emailed me to ask for advice on starting a bookshop business. At first this seemed absurd to me, for who am I to give people advice on how to start a bookshop, when I don't actually have a bookshop myself? The lack of a permanent space often feels like I don't have much to go by, that my business lacks a tangibility. The words "I own a bookshop" still sit uncomfortably on my tongue as I'm not able to point people in the direction of said shop. But actually, I have a registered business, a business that broke even within a few months of trading, I have a growing stock and books I know to be my bestsellers and I even have returning customers and "regulars". Surely, in the twenty-first century, a bookshop can exist outside of a conventional four-walls space.
Maybe I am someone who can offer some advice as to how to go about setting up a pop-up bookshop. In reply to Rachel's email, here's what I've learnt so far:
Find a team
Readers, book lovers, poets, performers and writers will all move within the same circles, especially within one city or town. Reach out to a few people such as event organisers, hosts of book clubs and writing groups, and you’ll soon enough find yourself with a strong network to start from as well as many a new friend. Tying your own project in with someone else’s allows you to exchange ideas and look at things from angles you might not have considered. It doesn’t mean someone else will be doing the work for you, it just means that you’ll have someone to back you up. While conducting market research online and trawling through recent articles is a crucial part of any business plan, getting out there and creating collaborations with like-minded people will give you a much broader insight into your future audience.
Independents are lovely
Small publishers are an absolute pleasure to work with. As together we stand proud in the revival of printed books, you’ll find any small publisher will inherently be extremely supportive of your project. Stocking titles from independents separates you from chain bookstores and this will be one of your strongest selling points. The ordering process is usually very straightforward.
Nowadays, when people want to buy a book they’re likely also after the experience. Good bookshops and chain bookstores know this, and it’s why they build them beautiful and often incorporate café spaces. As you don’t just want to offer customers a product, but really should be sharing with them your love for something, find ways to improve their day; draw them into your space, have them linger and explore. Engage with people, recommend books and ask them for recommendations. As a predominately timid person I sometimes feel limited by this, but I tell myself that as my market is made up of readers I can just about get away with it.
Some things are easy
There's nothing easier than selling a book you've read and loved. This is a sort of magical golden rule of bookselling. You don't necessarily have to have read thousands of books (although in London I sell books alongside Jon, who somehow has read every single book that a customer brings up to him), even selling a book you'd like to read, or picked out because it sounded interesting, is easy. It follows that it's harder to sell a book you know nothing about.
Curation is perhaps the fundamental key to a good bookshop. To make a reader fall in love with a book - that is a writer’s job, but to lead a reader to a book - that is the bookseller’s job. When a person’s gaze is drawn across the spines or covers of a row of books, so much must happen on both a conscious level and a subconscious one, it’s a bit magical. I can’t really expand on this one, it might be something one slowly perfects. Follow your instinct.
Have a car
By this I don’t mean learn to drive and buy a car, I mean have a car to begin with. Or partner up with someone who has a car. Or have a partner who has a car. Running a mobile bookshop and relying on public transport and your upper body strength alone is hard work. I never learnt to drive and I’m still trying to crack this one.
You don’t have to worry about everything
Public liability, licensing and trading regulations will vary from space to space, and should be simply agreed upon with whomever manages the premises you’re trading in. I’ve found that I’ve rarely had to worry about these things myself, simply because the spaces I’ve traded in had hosted other pop-ups before. Bear in mind that if you’re trading within someone else’s premises it’s good to have a clear agreement in writing. Books readily make people happy and the majority of shops, exhibition spaces and public areas will be thrilled to host a small bookshop. Having said that...
Haters will hate
There will always be people who can find something to criticise in even the ventures coming from places of kindness and good intentions. My favourite criticisms so far include: “There are no cool, rare or vintage books”, "It's a bit like the emperor’s new clothes” (I don’t even know if that was criticism), “You've sold out? Clearly you didn’t order enough copies!” (after which it’s a bit awkward to explain you’re only there for the weekend) and “She obviously just ordered books from a catalogue”.
Ask for help
The minute you do reach out and ask for a hand you realise that everyone has a small fantasy of running a bookshop. And while it’s possible to do all the research and preparation yourself, it can be a challenge to run a pop-up shop on your own, as this will make loo and lunch breaks rather unlikely.
Where that leaves you
While you might end up spending a lot of time explaining to people that “there is no permanent shop”, you shouldn’t have to feel that there’s an abyss separating your work from that of any fine, well-established bookshop. I always try to look at it as being all in the simple gesture of one book passing from a bookseller’s hands to that of a reader, and it doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.