Bookselling, it’s in the bone

Starting a UK Bookstore

At the end of my interview for Blackwell’s, at its famous Broad Street flagship bookshop in historic Oxford, I was asked, “Where do you see yourself in ten years time?”

It was early 2004. I was a few months out of Durham University, with a degree in English Studies with Classics. Straight after graduating I’d almost literally fallen into a four month stint at the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones, one of the largest academic bookshops in Europe, before I moved to Oxford to become big in publishing. Now I was in Oxford, and the publishing trail had run cold; I was apparently either too inexperienced, or, confusingly, too experienced, to suit any of the roles I’d applied for. I still needed to pay the rent. Bookselling, no matter how insanely poorly-paid, appeared again on my horizon.

I answered the question tactically.

“With my own bookshop.”

Thus I ticked the box, and was led away to begin my bookselling career proper.

I began my time at the Norrington Desk in the Norrington Room, an amazing underground cave under Trinity College that housed three miles of shelving and several departments. I was smack bang in the middle of it, operating the tills, giving customer service, calculating postage and sending out orders and, before long, searching long and hard for obscure books to appease a desperate customer, training the continuous loop of new staff, and running a section of my own – non-book product. In three years I was a Grade 3 Bookseller, I’d helped found a book club that went on to win awards, I’d escorted famous authors such as Philip Pullman and Ted Hughes around the oxford Literary Festival and sold their books for them, and I had generally built up a reputation as someone you went to to get things done and have obscure books found. I loved my job.

Except, I didn’t. I was bored. I felt for a start that I had lied to get my job: my ten-year goal wasn’t going to be selling books in my own twee little shop, it was going to be in publishing them, and as some sort of executive to boot. Now I was mid-twenties and I still wasn’t in publishing, and the scent of that apparent failure hung around in my subconscious. So I picked another prospect-filled (and bookish) career that everyone told me I’d be good at, trained to become a teacher instead, and moved to beautiful, middle-of-nowhere Hampshire to teach English and Classics and live in a country cottage and be happy. Then, years later, after a series of spectacular and mostly unpleasant surprises in my personal life, I moved back to hometown London to teach there, live in an executive-type apartment, and be even happier (and work even longer hours).

Except, I wasn’t. I was bored, and, I realised, somewhat unfulfilled. And I never got to read anything that wasn’t produced by an under-18 and required heavy correction.
The answer began to come to me this year in the months after I’d shamefully handed in my notice at school and was trying to decide what to do with myself. When I had moved to London, into a higher-paid role and my parents’ attic, it was with the aim of saving money for a deposit so I could buy my own flat and become some sort of Successful Young Professional, as expected by the world at large as the proper outcome for a mid-twenties graduate like myself. However, each plan I’d made to move in with a friend had fallen through at the last minute. I was still living in my parents attic in a room inhabited by my brother’s belongings and paying rent on a storage locker with all of my own books and carefully-collected objects d’art heaped in it. Even now, however qualified I thought I’d be for each of the interesting post-teaching Arts jobs I was applying for, my CV seemed not even to warrant a reply. Fate seemed to be pushing me firmly away from ‘the norm’, and subtly suggesting another niche for me to inhabit.

It hit me one night, as I was walking home from a nice, quiet night out with my long-lost friends, where I’d had the opportunity to see that, whatever they were doing, they were actually happy, even if they weren’t the sorted Young Professionals their parents and our younger selves had expected them to be. I realised I could do that too, and had been hiding from the truth I thought was a lie. It wasn’t the idea of publishing in particular that did it for me, nor was it entirely teaching, although I really did love that. In fact, my one true love was really the books, and if they and teaching or giving advice about books were my favourite things, then I actually did want to open my own bookshop.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel such a mixture of inordinate glee and absolute terror as that thought gave me. Opening a bookshop, the very phrase, filled me with paroxysms of delight. I was completely in love with my imagined atmospheric and dark shelves, full of books and decorated with the unpacked knick-knacks of twenty-odd years, secondhand books mingling happily with classics and educational texts, an interesting logo font, a piano in the corner, a damned decent poetry section, tutoring and book groups and study groups and poetry readings and creative writing pamphlets and… and… and… a million different overheads, non-existent startup funding past my little pile of savings, giving up a stable job and starting a tiny-margined business in a worldwide recession, with even Borders shutting down, having to stay living in my parents’ attic… and not being able to get out of it now because I’d even told my students what I was planning. Damn. Terror in the paralysing extreme.

Love is a funny old thing. In the weeks since term ending I’ve registered myself as a limited company, got myself a business bank account, advertised for startup funding, spoken to my main wholesaler, and started tentatively looking at premises. I aim to start off online, offering my own branded website of educational advice and book prescriptions for school, university, and pleasure, with the wholesaler taking and fulfilling orders direct. While that business builds up, I can look for premises and loans to cover rent deposits and initial stock picks – my savings will cover the fun bit of decorating and buying POS equipment and such…and a piano – and building up my already-booming secondhand collection that will be the backbone of my startup stock (everyone likes a good rummage no matter what they’ve come in for). I have my fingers firmly crossed that this will work.

The thing that keeps me going on past the paralysing doubt is that everyone – and I mean everyone – that I have told about my plans has spread a wide, slow grin over their face and said “That’s a brilliant idea,” “That’s perfect for you,” and, the best, “Can I come and work with you please?” Despite the constant terror that it’ll all go wrong, that I’ll never get it off the ground, and that I’m making a long and costly error that could ruin my life, I simultaneously seem to be ‘living the dream’, if as an ex-English teacher I can be allowed such a hackneyed phrase. Bookshops, especially ones like my prospective teeny little community-hearted one and mysteriously decorated one, are dearly missed from most high streets it seems, and over here in the UK there are constant articles in the media repeating this idea. Even despite the current trend for being poor whilst also believing everything should be digitalised and instant, people still love books. I’m really, really looking forward to being a part of that again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Laura Jenkinson (Jenks)

8 thoughts on “Bookselling, it’s in the bone”

  1. Best of luck to you Laura. Although I really don’t believe in luck but for lack of a better line there it is.

    I do believe in hard work, good ideas and a personality that draws in people. From this article you wrote I think you have all three. I see on your website that, although you are not really up and running, you do have links to interesting book related web pages. With a hint at ‘more to come’ you will have people clicking favorite or bookmark your site. I did.

    Now you can link to this posting too. Good job and if you must run through this comment for ‘heavy correction’ please don’t post the results.


  2. What a great story, I always feel bad in those interviews when I have to make up something for the “where do you see yourself?” question. Keep following your dream!

  3. Best of luck to you, very best. I too agree that these shops are missing from our high streets and speaking as some one who has lived on the poverty line for the last 15 years, the one thing I have never stopped buying are books :0)

    I think that if your intentions are good, and you follow a personal passion that will benefit the community then it cannot fail (you may not become a millionaire it’s true but who needs it??)
    I would be very interested in following your success, please do keep us posted x

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