On April 24-25, Álvaro Martínez benefited from a bookshop training at Mr B’s Emporium in Bath (UK), where he had the chance to learn the work that lies behind this successful independent bookshop. As part of EIBF’s training, all staff members are encouraged to benefit from this opportunity and get an insight into the daily reality of a bookshop of the EIBF network. Read Álvaro’s takeaways from this placement and how it will enhance his work for EIBF.
Nic Bottomley and his wife Juliette founded Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in 2006, leaving their careers as lawyers to pursue his dream of becoming booksellers. Seventeen years later, Mr B’s has consolidated itself as an example of how dedication and an unapologetically personal approach to bookselling can go a long way.
Amongst other achievements, Mr B’s has been awarded with the Bookseller’s Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2008 and 2011. The bookshop is also the official bookseller at The Bath Festival. Last but not least, the literary preferences of each of the more than 20 staff members finds its place on the shelves, which boasts a selection of around 25,000 books.
I venture myself into the shop—always located on John Street, although it has undergone a progressive expansion in size over the years—where I am welcomed by Nic and Juliette. After being introduced to some of the staff members, and going on a quick tour of the shop, we go to their office space, just across the street.
One of the most renowned services that Mr B’s Emporium offers is their bespoke reading subscription system. Through this model, readers are appointed to one of their booksellers, who becomes their ‘bibliotherapist’ for the duration of their subscription (which can last 3,6 or 11 months). This selection is based on the reading interests expressed by the subscriber in the questionnaire they are asked to fill out. All subscriptions are monitored by the staff from an app that has been specifically developed, from which each bibliotherapist can communicate with their allocated subscribers, follow the status of their subscription and send recommendations. Once a recommendation is accepted by the customer, the title is approved for delivery which, due to the high popularity of the service, is shipped directly from Gardners.
Next up, I had the opportunity to join one of the staff members, Tom, in one of the Reading Spa sessions. In a reading spa session, the beneficiary sits down with one of Mr B’s booksellers, having an informal chat about books. Once the customer’s interests are outlined, the bibliotherapist leaves the customer to enjoy their cake and cup of tea and goes on a quest for some books that they think will fulfil their reading likes. Then, the bibliotherapist will introduce the titles to them, leaving the customer to decide which ones to take home. This subscription includes a £60 book voucher, a tote bag and a Mr. B’s mug.
This session’s customer was Frank, who had just retired from a long career in finance and received the voucher as a gift from his daughter. He also proved to be a true book lover, eager to discover new recommendations from his bibliotherapist and to enjoy them in his recently inaugurated chapter in life. After the session, Frank’s limitless curiosity led him to leave the bookshop with three of Mr B’s tote bags full of books!
And just like that, the bookshop opening hours came to an end. I wasn’t the only guest in the shop that day, as the artist Daniela Terrazini spent the day decorating the shop window with a full-size illustration from her artwork for Emma Carroll’s The Tale of Truthwater Lake.
Book events are also an integral part of Mr B’s identity, and Nic hosted an interview in the shop that evening with explorer and writer Benedict Allen, who explained some of his adventures around the world to those who joined the event. After listening to some of Allen’s fascinating stories and following a signing session, it was time to call it a night.
The second day started with a quick session shelving new arrivals. This way, I could get a glimpse of how books are distributed around the shop. Besides arranging books by different sections –fiction, history, children, etc– some other shelves boast staff-curated picks, which reveal the diversity of interests among Mr B’s staff members.
I spent the rest of the morning shadowing Rohan, who showed me how returns are managed. It was fascinating to see how low the return figures were for most of the books in the list –rarely exceeding 2 units of the same title. To my understanding, this is caused by careful attention to book orders, which is proceeded with attention to what titles would suit their audience, rather than relying on national sales charts.
It is worth noting that Mr B’s Emporium uses Batch Returns to track the returns from most of their suppliers, thus simplifying the process and getting a more accurate information on return requests.
To conclude my training, I joined Nic and event manager Lottie in an organizational meeting ahead of the Bath Literary Festival, of which Mr B’s Emporium is once again the official bookseller. Sitting next to them, I had the chance to go through the list of authors participating in the upcoming edition of the festival, and to get an idea of the criteria used when placing orders for this kind of event.
With this experience, I had the privilege of exploring first-hand the practicalities and principles of bookselling, and to strengthen the idea that for a bookshop to thrive and stand out, it is essential to work collectively and to have all opinions on board. It was also an honour to share this time with Nic, Juliette and their staff members, who kindly shared their passion for books with me and made of this experience something memorable.