We Sell Books: ‘I knew I couldn’t expect to live by books alone’

Janet Hawkins is owner of the independent book and coffee shop Blessington Bookstore in the town of the same name in Co Wicklow. It has been shortlisted for the Children’s Bookseller of the Year at the British Book Awards, which will be announced on May 14.

How did you become a bookseller?

I’m from Clontarf in Dublin originally and I studied English literature and philosophy in UCD in the 1970s. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many people queuing up to hire graduates of those subjects so I became a chartered accountant. When I came back to Ireland from the Netherlands in 2003/4, I decided it was time for a complete lifestyle change, to go back to my first passion, which was reading, and also use my accounting knowledge and business sense. I opened the bookshop in 2005.

As a former accountant, is it handy being able to do the books as well as sell books?

Well, yeah [laughs]. Of course, you do anything but. Talk about the cobbler’s children having no shoes. I have actually had to get a friend of mine who is a bookkeeper and tax adviser to help me because he will march into my office at the appropriate time every year and say ‘we are doing the accounts’. We’ve been through the worst recession and come out the other side, so I must have learned something along the way.

Tell us more about that?

It was a difficult time to start, in retrospect, because we were still in the throes of the Celtic Tiger and I was initially paying far too much rent for the small place I was in. On the other hand, it was a good time because the first book conference I went to, there were a lot of booksellers who had been in the business their entire lives and they were really struggling because the world was changing around them with online sales and a different type of consumer behaviour.

Whereas I was coming in fresh at that stage and I knew I couldn’t expect to live by books alone if I was going to make it long-term. In 2009, I had to make a decision as to whether to go up or go out.

We thought at that stage schoolbooks would gradually die away and without that source of income, we could be in trouble.

I decided to go up and we moved to a place two and a half times the size and added a coffee shop. It took a couple of years for the coffee shop to come into its own but now the synergy is fantastic. Both do better because of the other and it gives a lovely club-like atmosphere.

What have you learned?

The early lesson was you must be a destination, people must choose to come to you

The days that you would have a stream of people coming into town to do the shopping once a week and go into all the shops, that’s gone.

How have you navigated the growth of online retail?

Children’s and non-fiction was where I knew I could make the money to pay the bills because you are going to want to go in and see a book you are going to buy for a child. You might want to get advice about what is suitable for their reading age, or ‘my young fella isn’t a great reader, what should I get him?’.

Also, the schoolbook trade, contrary to what I expected in 2009, has remained steady because they are continuing to use workbooks and stationery. So about four or five years ago, we spent a lot of time and energy in putting all the local school booklists up on our website so parents can buy their books online, we also offer discounted stationery packs, and they can collect it all in store. They get free covers and the school gets a 2.5% rebate on everything spent.

We get the parents in the door to see what we have, and they come in again to buy presents and all of that. That is another way we have countered online schoolbooks suppliers who had taken a lot of the sales out of the local store.

You have been shortlisted for the Children’s Bookseller of the Year at the British Book Awards, what do you think makes your children’s section special?

To start with, we give it a lot of space, I’d say almost half of our books section is for children. We also started a local readers panel a number of years back and we are lucky to have number of very keen seven to ten year old readers who read proof copies for us and give us their opinion. A question we often would get is something like, ‘I’ve read all the David Walliams, so what next?’

We would recommend a dozen or so books that other children who had read David Walliams really enjoyed that you wouldn’t think of picking up off the shelf.

Also, we are trying to do more for reluctant readers. My own daughter is dyslexic and I know what a struggle it can be if the words are a barrier to enjoying the story so we’ve given quite an extensive space to Barrington Stoke books. These are books where the reading age is lower than the interest age.

So, you’d have a book that would have an interest age of 11 or 12 but a reading age of eight. That would mean, for example, the colour of the page, the size of the font, the font itself, the words that are used, the number of syllables in the word, would be geared towards a younger age but the story would interest an 11 or 12-year-old.

That is something that we want to develop a lot more because while it is a lot of fun preaching to the converted, it is even better when we can convert more young children to reading. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is a life-changing gift.

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