nic-video
09/02/2022

Meet the bookseller: Nic Bottomley

  • 09/02/2022

In the second post from the ‘Booksellers revealed’ series, get to know bookseller Nic Bottomley from Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

We feature a transcript of a video interview with Nic Bottomley, bookseller and co-owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, United Kingdom, hosted by Oana Doboși and Raluca Selejan, booksellers and co-owners of La Două Bufnițe, an independent bookshop in Timișoara, Romania. 

The video was originally published on 25 October 2020 on La Două Bufnițe’s YouTube channel.

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Raluca Selejan: We’re here today with Nic Bottomley, co-owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a place to discover and talk about books, from Bath, UK. Thank you, Nic, for being here with us today.

Nic Bottomley: You’re welcome.

Raluca Selejan: For the beginning of our discussion, can you tell the people that are watching us how did you decide to open an independent bookshop? How did you take this decision, was it an impulse or was it something you’ve always wanted? 

Nic Bottomley: So, it wasn’t! But it was something in between those two things, I guess. It wasn’t something we always wanted to do, but we, my wife Julia and I, realized that the jobs we were doing – we were lawyers – were definitely not what we always wanted to do. We started thinking about what would be a better way to spend the time. You know, you spend at least five sevenths of your life working. Or, as any bookseller will tell you, this is more like seven sevenths of your life working. We decided that we better do that around something that we love. So, we were toying around with ‘What could we spend our time with?’. 

We both loved books, we haven’t really thought about retail, and we haven’t really thought about bookselling, but we both loved books. We had a romanticized idea of it, I guess. And then we were on holiday, on our honeymoon actually, and we went to The Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle. I always credit them with the kind of spark that got us started with the bookshop idea, and we just sort of said ‘Hey, you know, what about a bookshop like that?’.  

Independent bookshops like that could really do well in the UK and could work well. We didn’t know of any – there were some – but didn’t know of many ourselves. What if you had a bookshop modelled on service? That’s what really got us thinking about it. From then on, we researched and we ploughed in. But yeah, the spark was just seeing another great independent bookshop and thinking ‘Hey, this would be a good way to build a career and spend a life’.

Raluca Selejan: What do you think of this romantic image of a bookseller that reads all day, meets interesting and fascinating people and authors each day and has all the time in the world, which he spends smiling and dreaming and reading and writing? Do you think it’s good to keep this image alive for the readers and customers or it’s better to be honest, as you are in your books also, and crush that dream? 

Nic Bottomley: I think it’s really important that customers know how hard we all work to deliver the kind of really good service that we do. Not because we want any thanks from the customer, but because we appreciate their repeat business. We appreciate it when they buy from us and not from Amazon or something similar. We’re putting in a lot of work and it is based around a passion for books. I think it’s important. 

I do not want my customers ever to see us or think that we would have time to kickback and read, you know, because that would mean we’ve done everything we could already in terms of shouting about books to them and making the shop beautiful and answering their many emails and phone calls. That’s what we need to be spending our time doing, and not using our worktime for reading books. But, it’s very important as well that bookshops are run by people who do love books and who still pick up books and read in any spare time they have and have a genuine passion for it. That is what makes us different from car salesmen and saleswomen, because we love our product. But reading books, in that kind of old fashion way, where someone is waiting for a customer and just sitting there reading, I think that in the 21st century is not possible. Customers would never come, if you are just sitting there, reading and waiting for them. 

But what we do like to do is talk about books. The other side is, if any of our team of booksellers are with a costumer, then there is nothing I’d rather they were doing than talk about books: it doesn’t have to be selling, it’s just talking about books and that’s great because that’s what we are about. You know as you said when you introduced us, the tagline on our website is something around being a place for conversation about books, that’s what it’s all about. And same if it’s two members of staff just having a chat about what they just read, that’s all great, it all feeds this world where we can recommend things to all our customers.

Raluca Selejan: Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights first opened in June 2006 at a time when many bookshops were folding under the pressure from online competition. Tell us about the shop and about how you always talk about books… You do a lot of things and events and as booksellers and as an independent bookshop from Romania, we’re always looking up to what you’re doing. How do you do all the things now during the pandemic?   

Nic Bottomley: Sure! Well thank you for the kind words and hopefully one day I’m going to make it over to see your shop as well, we are equally excited to see it and spend time in it. I love what you guys are doing. 

We do a few things differently and I talked about conversations about books. So certainly compared to a lot of shops in the UK, in to our shop everybody is given a chance to receive a recommendation, to have a conversation. They don’t have to, if they want to browse for themselves, that’s fine. But, like, just before you rang, I popped in on the shop floor and there were a lot of conversations going on with customers. That goes on in all the best independent bookshops around the world, I think, but still, even some of the very best independents, they don’t do it enough. Sometimes they don’t have that constant buzz around books that I think is absolutely crucial. 

A more formal thing with our reading spa gift, which we do, which is where people can book in one-on-one sessions. It’s a gift people buy and it includes a voucher to spend on books. And they book in time to spend time with one of the booksellers, talking about what they like reading, talking about what they don’t like reading, and receiving a lot of recommendations. It takes an hour, hour and a half in normal times. And they’re so popular, they get booked up so far in advance, and it’s a big part of what we do. 

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We also then do this reading subscription. Everything is geared towards matching the right book to the right costumer, matching people to books, you know, in as kind of a forensic way as possible, because anyone can sell someone a book, but if you sell them the right book, that’s what will get them coming back again and again. The right books for them, as you know everybody likes different things. 

Our approach with events is that we only host events with authors where again we are passionate about their work. We don’t take on just any events, but we limit ourselves to where we’ve got a real passion for an author’s work and their writing. What we like is for there to be a dialogue, rather than an event where the author is just sort of up and doing their own thing.

As for 2020, I mean, where do you start with 2020. There’s definitely no events of course. We have done a few online events, and we’ve done author interviews, you know, in a kind of similar way to what we’re doing now. We’ve done informal chats with writers throughout lockdown on YouTube. I think we all as an industry have to be quite patient, the events are great, they have served a purpose, they’re particularly good when people can’t go out, but really, I can’t wait to be able to have people back in the same room as the writer, that’s where people really get the buzz from. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it’s not just… It’s filling time, the online events. We’re not seeing a huge demand for customers right now to spend their evenings on Zoom and YouTube and all this stuff, as well as their days, if they’ve been working that way. So we do not see a huge demand for it. 

We’ll do them again where it makes sense, but won’t it be great just to be able just to get a glass of wine in a lot of people’s hand and get them back in a room with a writer? Because we’re definitely looking forward to that already.

Raluca Selejan: So are we. What happened for you and for your bookshop during the lockdown that gave you hope in this business and in people? And how can we defend our businesses from online giants and from the online environment that now with the pandemic and lockdowns gain more customers and more income? What about us the bricks and mortars stores?

Nic Bottomley: I kind of look at it from both our point of view and all the other booksellers I chat to. People did different things here in the UK. We all have to close up physical shops. Some people chose to step back completely. We carried on running our business from kitchen tables, you know, communicating with people through our website, through phones, through e-mail. Some person coming into their closed shop and sending out some books here and there, you know… We did just whatever we could and kept things going. 

So the first thing… We saw a huge appetite from costumers, bigger than ever appetite, to have advice. Whether it was people wanting to understand the pandemic or, more usually, it was people wanting escape; escape through books, or happiness, or just wanting to read books – but as their comfort books, you know, whatever that might be, whatever subject or type. So we saw a lot of that, that’s a thing of hope that people reached out to booksellers as experts, you know, I saw that happening.

So, yeah. I was going to say that you’re right, the big online retailer, Amazon, will have profited enormously, bigger than ever, from this pandemic. But I think it’s also, I don’t know how it has been in Romania, but here it has been a push to help bookshops. Think about how they can reach people through their websites. Of course, no one is going to go build something like Amazon have, of course we don’t want to become online booksellers, you know, it’s much more fun to do the bricks and mortar, to have that connection. But I think we’ve probably all have been forced into a better understanding of how you link the online connection with your costumers and the physical. So, you know, I know lots of booksellers who never got round to having transactional website, who’ve hastily got something together. We did that a few years ago, we tried to make it a reflection of our shop and for us obviously that worked really well. But there are lots of shop who hadn’t got round to it, have managed to find a way and they’re creating new costumers further afield from them. So, they’re building something for the future, you know, a broader range of people within that field, not just the people of their town. I think that’s good, we’re all widening our market.

I’ve never been one for thinking about what’s going on with Amazon, and with their business. Because we know that they will do all that they can… It’s more about what we do ourselves and how we’re confident in what we can do, and what we can do to provide the very best level of service and I think we’ve learned something about new ways to give great costumer service, you know. Whether it’s hand delivering to people who can’t go out because they’re vulnerable, whether it’s speaking to people through websites as well as through telephones as through email you know, we’ve got all these different ways. I think that’s valuable. 

Every movement has a counter-movement, and can you imagine what one day, when we actually feel confident again, and it won’t happen overnight, to gather around without masks, without whatever restrictions are in place, can you imagine the pent-up desire to go hang out in bookshops as groups of people? It’ll come back and the way I see it, I’m more worried about the state of our high streets generally, and whether there are going to be a lot of gaps on a high street. I think that bookshops are going to be crucial, are going to be one of the things… Everyone is thinking ‘What have I missed?’, and I think they’ve missed bookshops, that’s what our customers say, they’ve missed it when they’ve not been able to go in and for three months, you know, they weren’t able to go in at all. Yeah, so I don’t know, maybe that’s too much hope and it’s not right around the corner.

Raluca Selejan: No, I don’t think it’s too much hope. It’s what they saw also here when we were closed, people are writing to us exactly the same thing, that they miss the bookshops and coming in. And after all these years, after this year, after all these years of owning Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, after the process of running a bookshop, after the people you’ve met, after the relationships you’ve formed along the way with your colleagues and with your customers, is there something you would have done differently in running it these years?

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Nic Bottomley: That’s a good question. That’s a difficult question, it’s always more difficult to think about the things you didn’t do, then all the great stuff you’ve done (laughs). What would I have done differently? I think… We planned to set up a bookshop that was based around service and based around our love of books. Whenever we thought of something that we wanted to do, we’ve tended to do it or have a go at doing it. 

So, if I think about what would I’ve done differently, maybe all I’ve to say is I would have maybe… There are certain things, like last year, we expanded the space so we have a much bigger kids’ room and that’s really great and I would love to have been in a position to do that five years earlier. But you know, money and space, and time, are the things that we all lack at different degrees. Well, I don’t know, my American bookselling friends don’t lack space, they always have incredible space. But universally all independent bookshops lack time and money, and so I guess it’s more about what else could we have done if we’d had more time to push things through. I guess we would have pushed through getting youngsters in by having a more magical space even sooner that we managed to get it all organized. 

I’d love to be able to have more people in an event within the walls of the shop, you know, but that’s not possible with the property. So it’s also the specific little things. I don’t regret at all the approach we’ve taken and the way we’ve kind of organically built the business. A lot of people at various points have asked us if we are going to have more bookshops and that’s a route we could have taken but on a personal level I don’t regret that because after setting up the bookshop, Juliet and I, we were also raising three kids. It wasn’t the right time for us then. I won’t rule it out ever, but it would have to be for, you know, I don’t know. It’s more likely to be a collaboration or something, if some opportunity came up. 

That’s just where a bookshop was needed by a place than… It’s always been about, for us, building up this place. I guess I would have done the things I mentioned about the subscriptions and all of those things. You know, that has worked really well for us and maybe we should have started all that even earlier than we did. So it’s more about what you prioritize along the way, what you learn from it. I mean don’t get me wrong, along the way, they’ve been all sort of idiotic decisions as well, small ones. I’m not saying that (laughter). But I’m assuming you mean the big picture, you know.

Raluca Selejan: Yes. 

Nic Bottomley: I mean I’m in… Some of the shelves behind will represent bad buying decisions, so you know (laughter). You don’t have to look too far for that.

Raluca Selejan: So what would you say to someone who thinks that going into the book business by opening a shop or by getting a job at a bookshop? What is your advice to them?

Nic Bottomley: I think treat it as a career, it is a career, it can be a great career and you can do so much with bookselling. It’s so much different from other… Not all forms of retail, I’m not putting down retail. But it is not many areas of retail where the product range… you might add 500 new lines to a product range every month potentially, you know. That’s quite unusual and so, but also there’s just so many possibilities and so many ways you can communicate book advice and recommendations of so many displays, things you can do, there is so much creativity in this industry. If you think about doing it, if you think about ‘hey, this could be something’ you know, there is all sorts of opportunities, all sorts of strange things… 

And the other thing is, I’d say to them, you know as you and I know, they would be thinking about entering the most, I truly believe, the most collaborative industry that there is. You know, it’s so interesting to spend time talking to booksellers from different countries. We’re lucky enough to get the chance to realize that that’s a big opportunity and to make sure that we do that a few times a year in normal world. And you can get so much from it and same here within the UK. I think that’s really rare because it is in the independent booksellers a kind of a united front and they kind of rarely, they rarely compete in a true sort of geographic sense for the same business. So really, they’re presenting… They’re effectively like a team, you know, against the world and on behalf of book lovers everywhere.

Raluca Selejan: Jorge Carrion writes in his book, Bookshops, that a bookshop can regenerate the social and economic fabric of an area, because it represents the present and because they represent the change. What do you think is the role of bookshops in their local community?

Nic Bottomley: Yeah, I mean like I said I think the high streets are going to end up after this pandemic full of gaps unfortunately, and I think bookshops can really be keystones in that recovery, I really think that. I think that they will be one of the most sought after tenants, you know, provided they’ve made it worked out a way to make it through this. So that’s the first thing, they got a kind of crucial role in the business community and to help that rebuild of the high streets. 

But more generally, you know, I talked about the career thing, booksellers are regarded by costumers as they’re almost like a semi-professional ring.  I don’t know what it’s like in your place, but I bet you get asked everything about ‘Where do I buy this from? Where do I buy that from?’, you know, seems like a bookseller is going to know the answer to that. So, it’s this connection with all those other local businesses, you know. When we’re doing our readings spas, we make sure we get cake from a local independent guy who makes cakes. 

We run events with all those other local organizations, we support local authors, support local illustrators, you know, use local people to look after the building, the fabric of the shop, you know, it’s about how you conduct yourself and your part in the ecosystem working with all these different people and organizations and spending your money in wherever you can supporting other hard-working independent business owners, that’s part of it. And I think in normal times events are usually a big part of it, events and book clubs and that kind of thing, that’s a bookshop’s most obvious route to bringing people together around books and that’s a really important community thing and it can help with loneliness for a lot of people and that’s a big issue I think in 2020 for a large chunks of the community.

Raluca Selejan: Nic Bottomley is Executive Chair of the BA Group. He took up the role of Executive Chair in June 2020 following the end of his turn as BA President in March 2020, and he will be focusing on internal governance and group strategy, and will be sitting on BA Group, BA Divisional, Book Tokens, and the Batch boards. 

And because you’re in that position and that’s something we always admire that as an independent bookseller you have such a big and important role in the BA, what do you think about us, the independent booksellers? Are we a dying breed? And how do you see the future of independent bookshops?

Nic Bottomley: We’re not a dying breed, you know I’m going to say that, but we’re definitely not a dying breed.

Raluca Selejan: We don’t believe it, but a lot of people are saying this.

Nic Bottomley: Yeah, I know. But I mean and nationally here in the UK and for lots of other countries around the world where I talked to booksellers, I think we’re far from it. I think we’re more alive and kicking now than we were 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Because, maybe that image that you kind of painted at the beginning of the bookseller who sits and reads books and, you know, dreams a little waiting for someone to come buy a book from him, that image is dead and it’s rightly dead. And people who are running bookshops now are highly professional, understand business or try to, we try to, and you know, I’m thinking hard about this stuff, about collaboration, about what our industry needs in term technology to support our physical shops, you know. We’re not taking orders on scraps of paper just because we’re a physical shop, you know, they’re highly digitized actually even the bricks and mortar businesses. Plus, we understand costumer service on an entirely different level to organizations like Amazon. Our collective ability to understand what impact our customer service represents should not be underestimated. It is a hugely talented and creative pool of people that are running the bookshops of Britain, Europe and beyond now. So I’m very confident that bookshops will remain. 

And that’s even a side from the fact that we also have a much better and deeper relationship I think with the people who make the books, whether that’s the writers, the authors, even the people… You know, we spend a lot of time for the booksellers’ association talking to people who get the books from the publishers to us, you know, the distributors. We understand things about the supply chain in a far deeper way so that we’re making sure everything can run smoothly. And I think having deepened all that understanding and having… We’re just far better equipped to survive and to thrive and I really think there’s no doubt whatsoever the independent bookshops… they’re here to stay. 

And we’re helped in that because they’re so many great books being written, we don’t forget it is actually all about the books, as well otherwise it’s all about the costumers, but it’s all about the books and publishers are doing a great job as well. You know for a couple of years it looked rocky there when the eBooks first came out and then all the publishers got a little distracted maybe… But then there was this counter-movement, because there is always a counter-movement to make books more beautiful than ever, more interesting than ever and costumers still want physical books as well as digital. 

So, it’s all fine in terms of the customer demand and the ability of bookshops to survive. But hey, the other thing is, last thing on it, we’re also the most resilient species out there, right? There are other areas to retail that are just learning that stuff now, but for 24 years booksellers have been competing with Amazon. We’ve had a few recessions, we’ve all as a society had the pandemic, booksellers were frankly in a far better place than some other industries when it’s come to the pandemic, so we’ve not had the worst of it there. But yeah we’ve had recessions, we’ve had the rise of the eBook, we’ve had huge expansions of chain bookshops, we’ve had the rise of Amazon and somehow, bookshops as a whole are still standing so I recon it will all continue for a long time to come.

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