Tuesday 29 October 2013

What seems like an awful long time ago I did an interview with Nic Bottomley of the fantastic Mr B's for the Bristol Review of Books. BRB seems to be on an indefinite hiatus so I'm posting it here in full.

An interview with Nic Bottomley of Mr. B’s Emporium of reading delights



Pete - Tell me a little about Mr. B's


Nic - Mr B's opened in June 2006. I was a derivatives lawyer before that but,
after 8 years as a lawyer in London and Prague, didn't have the appetite or
strength of interest to do it for the rest of my working life. I wanted (a)
to run my own business and (b) to do something that didn't lead to a blank
or vaguely scared expression on people's faces when you told them in the pub
what you did for a living.

When Juliette (my wife and another ex-lawyer) and I were on honeymoon in
Seattle and then Alaska in late 2004 (in the days we could afford to go to
places like Seattle and Alaska - i.e. Before becoming booksellers!) we went
to a couple of amazing bookshops. Most notably we spent time at Elliot Bay
Book Company in Seattle, once of the world's finest and largest independent
bookshops. It inspired us to look into whether an indie bookshop run with
high service standards (the thing we admire most in American independent
businesses) could prosper in the UK.

In October 2005 I finished at my law firm and we left our home in Prague and
moved back to the UK and, specifically, to the Bath area. I then embarked on
a month long tour visiting UK bookshops to get ideas and inspirations and to talk
to other booksellers. We had by then come to the view that whilst lots of
bookshops had failed in the previous decade and that whilst Amazon and
big-chain competition was fierce, that there was the possibility of making
an independent bookshop work if it had a strong identity, rooted itself in
its community and was driven by a passion for books and a love of customer

Of course that's all very nice but we had no idea when we opened the door in
2006 whether anyone would ever walk through it. We barely knew how to
operate the till (we plugged it in at 9am..always the last thing to get
done...and still had the instruction booklet open when the first customer
walked in shortly after we opened the door at noon). People spent the last
six months of my legal career and the first two years of our bookselling
careers telling us how "brave" it was to do what we were doing but I don't
really buy that. It wasn't brave (as we always had the fallback of returning
tail between our legs to our previous careers if it hadn't worked) it just
had a dollop of blind faith about it.

We've been fortunate enough to grow in terms of shop size, staff numbers and
financially every year since we opened, which given the state of the economy
we're very proud of. We've also been lucky enough to pick up a few awards
along the way, most notably twice being named the UK's Independent Bookshop
of the Year in 2008 and 2011.

When asked to say what makes us different and what, touch wood, has enabled
us to continue thriving to date I usually point to five things:

A) Atmosphere - the shop has a very distinctive vibe I now realise. It's to
do with the fact that we all enjoy what we do and love books and are keen to
engage about books rather than stand back. That's not to say we don't
recognise the place for a long private browse, it's just that we always want
to be available to talk books with our customers. This is, hopefully, backed
up by the physical feel and layout of the place - it's full of distinctive
features like book-review papered toilets, a Tintin wall on the stairs, a
bath converted into a book display in the kids room, a lot of cheap chic
antique furnishings and our bibliotherapy room with its comfy chairs and

B) Books - we handpicked our opening stock painstakingly ignoring all
supplier offers of pre-made lists. (e.g. Fiction began with me reading the
Oxford Companion to English Lit cover to cover and listing every author we
clearly couldn't omit) and we continue to have complete control over our
stockholding with all the team being involved. Of course the focus areas
have changed over the years as we adapt to what our customers enjoy (and get
recommendations from them!) but equally our bestsellers and the kind of
books we do particularly well with are often thanks to our own passion for
them. We have books across all sections and of course there's lots of
overlap with other shops, but the books you might see on prominent display
at Mr B's will not always be those that you see given breathing space


C) Service - we have tried to maintain a consistently high-level of customer
service ever since opening. It was service that first got us a fantastic
word-of-mouth reputation when we first opened in Bath - which is key because
although we're central and downtown we're on a side street - and it's still
the single most important thing you can do right as an independent business.
The importance of a stable team of intelligent articulate passionate
full-time staff to creating that service culture cannot be stated enough. We
are now a team of 7 (with the 8th being Juliette who is currently mainly
involved from afar on account of having the far trickier task of managing
our 6 month old twins and 3 year old daughter).

D) Events and Community - we work closely with schools, theatres, the Bath
Lit Fest (for whom we are official booksellers) and many other local groups
and that helps embed us in the community despite our relative youth to some
businesses. We always strive to do things a bit differently so we changed
our author events a couple of years ago to add in food and music. The music
comes from our own band of 3 local very talented musicians called The
Bookshop Band who, in just 2 years, have written over 60 songs inspired by
our guest authors' books and played them at the events of those authors.
They have been featured on Front Row, 6 Music, BBC 6 o'clock news, they've
toured the UK's other independent bookshops and played to 240 people at the
Wiltshire Music Centre. We're incredibly proud of this project and 2013 is
shaping up to be huge for them. [We have Christmas concerts by The Bookshop
Band at Mr B's on 6th and 11th December]

Profile picture for The Bookshop Band


E) Innovation - the thing we believe in most is being different to other
shops and how vital it is to come up with new ways to sell books. The two
most obvious examples are with our reading gifts - the ideas for both of
which came to us in the pub of course. The Mr B's Reading Spa is a gift that
involves the recipient booking in a time to come into Mr B's to talk books
with one of the team over tea and cake and to be introduced by that
team-member to lots of new books based on what we learn about their reading
tastes. The £55 gift voucher for the standard version of the spa includes
£40 to spend on the books as well as a goody bag. These have been huge fun
and a big success for us and in December we're set to sell our 1000th spa
for sure.

The follow-on gift that resulted from a couple of years of talking books
during Reading Spas was the "Mr B's Reading Year" subscription which can be
for customers further afield and involves the recipient completing a
questionnaire as to their reading tastes and then receiving from their
dedicated Mr B's bibliotherapist, a hand-selected book each month (all
wrapped in brown paper, string and our wax seal) for a year. The
subscriptions are growing at a speedy rate especially as The Guardian picked
it as their last-minute Christmas gift recommendation in 2011. They're also
incredibly enjoyable and useful as they give us the chance to constantly
hone our recommendation skills.


Pete - Tell me a little about the Howling Miller

Nic - So The Howling Miller is a book we came across upon UK publication back in
2007. It immediately appealed to me, to Juliette and to my brother-in-law
Harvey who was also instrumental in the shop's planning, launch and early
success. It was therefore one of the first books that we sold in
proportionately higher volumes than other shops were probably doing, as
whilst it has a small cult following I think it's fair to say it wasn't a
mainstream success.

More recently two more of the team, Kate and Libby, have read it and also
loved it, so with that consistency of recommendation within the team and
lots of good customer feedback it made it an obvious choice when we started
thinking about books to have a hand in publishing.

For my part, the reason I love it is the endearing anti-hero and the
atmosphere created. The novel feels like a fable in many respects as it
tells the story of this slightly awkward man returning from the war to
resurrect an old mill who faces prejudice from small-minded villagers nearby. The miller (Gunnar) is far from perfect but he's closer to the mark than
most of the people who harangue him and seeing how that tension between the
community and the miller plays out, against a crisply described Finnish
backdrop of racing streams and woodland, is a joy.

I believe The Howling Miller has been published in over 40 countries.
Paasilinna is relatively popular in France and so the English version
emerges from the French translation rather than the Finnish original. This
isn't so unusual where very complex European languages are involved - the
author that springs to mind is Albanian Ismail Kadare, some of whose novels
have been translated into English via their French incarnation.


Pete – how did the with Canongate come about? and how has the industry reacted?


Nic - SO Jamie Byng, the very creative and talented head of Canongate Books, and I
sat down at their offices on the last day of the torch relay (I mention it
as we began the meeting by running out onto the streets of Notting Hill with
most of Team Canongate to watch the torch go by) and brainstormed whether
there were ways we could collaborate more closely - and that bookshops and
publishers generally could work together more cooperatively.

I mentioned an interest in championing books by actually having our own
edition and Jamie immediately threw The Howling Miller into the ring as he
knew how much we raved about it. We explored the idea for half an hour and
came up with a plan which eventually took the following form. We would
provide new artwork and jacket wording for a limited edition hardback of the
book that Mr B's would have exclusive rights to. Canongate would arrange
printing based on that artwork and the full print-run of just 300 copies
would be delivered to us and paid for by us.

For us, the appeal is (a) having a piece of unique content to sell about
which we are massively passionate (b) having a very gentle dabble in the
creative publishing side of the industry and (c) doing something else that
hasn't been done before which is always fun and usually leads to interesting
things and useful publicity. For Canongate the appeal is the latter and also
an interesting experiment to see whether sales of their original paperback
edition of the book increase at all as a knock-on effect (particularly of
trade publicity for the project).

Jamie and I are both very big believers in the robust future of high-street
bookselling and independent publishing not just as curios but as profitable
businesses with a loyal customer base. Bookshops are crying out for help
from publishers in small elements of uniqueness that they can point to as
against chains/internet suppliers, so with this project we also hoped to
prove more generally that publishers and booksellers that communicate
closely with one another might come up with a few appealing and different
projects together to help boost the sales of great books.

Pete -  How did you choose the cover art?

Nic - We really wanted to fill the jacket with our own thoughts on the book so we
rewrote the blurb on the back and covered the jacket flaps with an
explanation of what the book means to us and with some details of the
project and those involved with it.

The artwork was done by Sarah-Jane Griffey. We approached her (a) because
she's a young recently graduated designer who should be getting loads of
great commissions and job offers and so we wanted to highlight her talents;
and (b) because we found out how good an artist she is when she drew an
awesome batman image on my colleague Ed's coffee cup a few months ago!
Sarah-Jane read the book and then we sat down to talk about some of the key
images and about how we all wanted to highlight the setting of the book as
well as the exasperated main character. The result is a much less angry
cover than the Canongate paperback version which, personally, I feel is more
appropriate since the "howling" that the miller does at a few key points in
the book is borne equally out of joy and frustration.

By the by, howling woodsmen may be proliferating in literature. I just read
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson which follows one man's life on America's
railways and wooded hills and eventually the main character there resorts to
a bit of stress-relieving conversation with the neighbourhood wolfs.

Pete - Has it been a success?

Nic - Well it's already been a success in terms of getting a positive reaction
within the trade and contributing to the continued dialogue about how the
two sides of the trade can communicate better and work together more closely
to boost high-street bookselling. Jamie and I "launched" the book, for the
want of a better word, at the Booksellers Association Conference and it
certainly seemed to get people thinking and talking

We have 300 copies to sell which will inevitably take us a little while, but
it's looking like we'll have sold more than half by Christmas and from
around then it will become a profitable project as well as a very enjoyable
one. To be honest though, cliched though it sounds, this first testing out
of a very unusual publishing collaboration was genuinely first and foremost
not about making money but about enjoying it, getting a lovely edition of a
book we love to be able to sell and demonstrating that something can be done
swiftly (there were 3 months from first conversation to printing) if you all
work together.


Pete – have you been inspired by this success and the example of  Shakespeare &
Co/Ulysses story? To create a Mr B's publishing imprint?

Nic - A Mr B's publishing imprint would be an altogether different proposition -
the beauty of what we've done here is that we've worked together with a
publisher and borrowed their expertise on the printing side and used an
existing title but just created our own special edition to get a bit of
artwork experience. I'm not sure we're ready to dedicate the time to
producing a book from scratch (and all the other complications that go with

We are however looking at repeating this model with other publishers and in
fact we've released a second book in its Mr B's Special Edition hardback form in 2013 collaborating with a celebrated local artist, a larger publisher and an
author who shares our love of this title. This is Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is a fantastic independent book shop in Bath UK


01225 331155


Twitter - @Mrbsemporium


No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog