To read more about Michael's story and a review of Sisyphusa, click here.
Debut author Michael Richmond addressed a well-packed audience at Woolfson & Tay this evening. Sharing his personal experiences of depression, Michael recounted how he was homebound for 2 years not so long ago. In conversation with Christopher Somerville, Michael spoke frankly about his battle with mental illness, his impressions of the treatment process and his road to recovery, interspersed with readings of excerpts from his compelling and highly regarded first novel Sisyphusa. He fielded questions from the audience, many of whom later told us how inspired they were by Michael's story. Thank you Michael for your courage and honesty, and to Christopher for facilitating a beautiful event.
To read more about Michael's story and a review of Sisyphusa, click here.
I am constantly astounded by the many things I learn from authors and speakers at our events and last night was not any different. Barry Albin-Dyer OBE, of F.A. Albin & Sons, the famed funeral directors of Bermondsey, shared his recollections of growing up in Bermondsey and of the changes in the community and his trade over the decades he has lived in the area. The business has been in his family for 221 years. The secret to business longevity? 'You have to love what you do, you have to love the people you work with, and the people you work for' (the customers), according to Barry.
Barry shared some memories of conducting his first funeral when he was a young man of 17, that of a West Indian child and of how he realised different cultures mourn in different ways; of attending to the the servicemen who have lost their lives in distant lands like Iraq and Afghanistan (where he or his colleagues stay with the body from the moment they arrive at the mortuary until he/she arrives home); of passing through towns like Wootton Bassett which for many years had the responsibility of welcoming home British war heroes and had done so of their own accord in their bit to honour the fallen men and women and their grieving families (Barry spoke of how he was choked with emotion when leading a convoy of hearses once, and the crowd broke out into spontaneous clapping - see this Daily Mail article about the voluntary service Wootton Bassett residents have given); of the day he received a letter from the PM's office about his nomination for an OBE (it was on the day of his father's funeral; distracted and grief-stricken, he put the letter into his father's coat pocket and forgot about it); of the mother who stayed with her son's body over several days at the funeral parlour and later informed Barry she was a clairvoyant and told him things only he could have known...
Thank you Barry for sharing these memories and thoughts with us, Greg Watts who collaborated with Barry on his latest book Square Pegs In Round Holes, and Cllr Anood Al-Samerai for saying a few words about Barry. Thank you to Steve Punter who generously allowed us to share his photographs of Barry attending to Jade Goody's funeral, and all who joined us on this very special evening.
13 September 2011
Okay, so there's been a lot of reflecting going on this past week, seeing as we have just made it past our first year in business.
It's very encouraging that we're still afloat, and this is a testimony to the conscientiousness and consciousness of the British consumer, for as Shivaun noted, "Many people are very supportive of independent bookshops as they recognise it as a courageous thing to do." Nevertheless, while it's been a milestone in one way, it's also a marker on what could be a very long road to becoming even remotely solvent. After all, there's always the spectre of sobering reality looming in the distance, especially when I read the posting about our bookshop celebrating our first year including the comment "Woolfson & Tay's celebration comes just a week after four well-known independent bookshops have closed and Waterstone's announced major changes in its marketing policy." (SE1 article)
This made me ponder as to the challenges faced by indie bookshops everywhere, just like ours. I have come to the conclusion that, putting it very simply, the sums have to add up. We may love what we do but we have to keep being innovative and offering more than just a retail experience, and at a margin that sustains the business side of things. Why? Because selling books is hard work. The margins simply aren't there. The costs are steep, even if you discount the initial investment that goes into fitting out a shop; there's the repeating monthly stuff - rent and service charges, council fees, cleaning costs, staff and overtime wage bills, utility charges, and these for us represent on average about 80% of monthly sales - and all these before we have even considered the purchasing costs for reordering or new stock.
Looking over our daily sales figures, I can see that the worst day for us ever in terms of sales - books + gifts + cafe - was £126.80. That's earning an average of £15.85 per hour while open. Based on an estimated average gross margin of 50%, the profit for the day would be £63.40. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that with that sort of takings, one would be hard pressed to break even.
And that I reckon is the reason why so many indie bookshops close down.
We knew it was going to be a challenge to garner footfall for our first year celebrations on 10 September 2011; seeing that it coincided with the Thames Festival. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise as regulars dropped by throughout the day to wish us well, write messages on our birthday notice board, and drop off greeting cards. Thank you very much! Jazz guitarist Tomas Ciucelis played a range of soothing original pieces, followed by the 4-piece Lemon And Lime Band. Lead singer Rachel wooed the guests with her sultry, jazzy renditions of hits from the 70s to the 90s. Thank you all for making our first year celebrations a wonderful one and for your the warm wishes for many more to come!
Woke up this morning and had my usual cup of coffee and a smoke (bad, nasty habit I know). Thought to myself, "well that's it, a year has passed" and remembering what it was like this time last year - the frantic unpacking and shelving of books, the nail-biting, hair-tearing suspense when we couldn't get the electricity hooked up (until just the day before the doors officially opened), the half-finished works around the store - cupboards with no doors, displays with no slot walls, the bare walls in the gallery... And yet, the excitement, riding on an effervescent sparkling optimism, fuelled in part by the encouragement and excitement of people in the neighbourhood, who had dropped by throughout the fit-out period, poked their heads around the door, peered at our construction site, wished us well, told us how they were looking forward to when we opened...
Well, a year has indeed passed, and as Shivaun likes to say, We haven't run for the hills yet. We may be a bit ragged and rough round the edges but we're intact. Our passion is intact, our hopefulness is intact, our ethos is intact. We haven't stopped trying; trying to do better events, trying to have a varied program, trying to deliver quality and value in what we do - whether it's cooking and serving simple Asian lunches, hosting an exhibition launch, promoting an author event, cranking up potential ideas to do collaborations with local community groups...
And this morning, even as I sip my coffee, I reflect on what has kept us going. It's cliched but it's the truth - it's the customers. Those who drop by with a print out of an Amazon page to order a book ("because I'd rather get it from you"); who make a point to tell us they appreciate when we try (like the lady yesterday who dropped by, having tried our Asian lunch a few days ago, just to give us feedback - "it was lovely! and the lemon drizzle cake was wonderful!" before nicking back to work); who have told us how much they like our selection of books ("real care must have gone into curating this collection"; and in one case, when I said, well we have to be selective because we don't have that much shelf space, she said "yes, but you have the ones that matter"); and who let us know we are on the right track ("everything you do is quality," from a customer after an event). What can I say? As I reminisce over these precious nuggets of compliments, which I store in my memory for retrieval during times I need them most, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation.
A regular customer came in a week ago and asked how things were? (A question we get quite often by the way; it always fills me with an inexplicable tenderness to know the shop matters to some people). I knew she meant financially; in this age of doom and gloom, the senselessness of the London riots but a short while ago, small businesses going bust... the economic landscape is littered with the corpses of hopefuls. I was honest, Well if you mean are we paying the bills yet? The answer is no, I told her, but as Shivaun keeps saying, We are not running for the hills yet. Thank you to all W&T customers for your support - and even more than that, thank you for letting us know we matter in your lives.
With warmest wishes from the W&T team