This date also reminds me of a discussion with Shivaun. W&T's refurb of the empty shell that was Retail Unit 13 was delayed. We were hoping to open by 1 September, but some red tape and miscommunication had meant that work had begun later than expected. The earliest date then was 9/11. We talked about the significance of that date; about whether it would be appropriate to open then. We decided it would be life-affirming, rather than an insensitive gesture.
Two years have passed since we opened our doors. There's been ups and downs to be sure, but we're still here. Last year, I reflected on the day by reaffirming our commitment to not flee for the hills, yet - to borrow Shivaun's phrase. This morning, Shivaun told me that a customer asked, 'How long have you been here, now? Is it three years?' and Shivaun wasn't sure, she thought it was three years too. It may be only two but it certainly feels like three. W&T has become like a second home to us. It's occupied our thoughts daily for three years, from the moment the idea was conceived till now.
In the interim, we have traversed an amazing, sometimes unexpected, often rewarding, journey. We have made friends, cultivated some fans, received encouragement from supporters, and our team has become family. We have hosted a range of author events, laughed ourselves silly at funny performances, hosted open mic poetry, true storytelling sessions, creative writing workshops, pregnancy yoga and tai chi classes, become a meeting place for the Southwark community (councillors advice surgery, fostering care clinics, elders group monthly meetings, LGBT Network monthly events), even allowed tap dancers to pound our floorboards :)
Recently, we decided to revamp our gallery space and turn it into Creative@W&T. I admit, the decision was primarily financial. We just couldn't justify the rent for that amount of floorspace relying on gallery hire fees alone. (We'll still be displaying artists' work in the future albeit on a smaller scale.)
As another year comes to a close, and another begins, I am of course reminded yet again of the precarious state of affairs that indie booksellers face. There's been a lot of discussion and lobbying by the Booksellers Association to recognise bookshops as community spaces in order to avail of lower council rates. Supposedly, councils in the future will have the authority to do so, but the fine print is that it will be at their jurisdiction. In the press, you often read fearful indictments on why indie bookshops should be kept alive; that each indie bookshop closure will result in 'a hole in the community.' Personally, I almost feel that that is too heavy a burden to foist onto customers. I don't think people should be made to feel guilty if they don't buy their books from an indie bookshop.
I think that booksellers, like any retailers, do their best to create a worthwhile shopping experience. If a customer sees the value in shopping for books at an indie bookshop, they will do so. If they don't, they won't. I admit I am not thrilled at customers who browse the shelves or ask for recommendations with their notepads or Blackberrys in hand, so that they can do comparison shopping afterwards online. But you can't hold back the tide of 'progress,' or can you?
I believe that shopping at indie bookshops isn't just about buying books. To me, it's almost a voyeuristic exercise. Allow me to explain: If you like the selection at a shop because you like the owner or the team's picks, chances are you'll come across titles or selections you never thought of, or that Amazon's 'Other Customers Also Bought' prompts did not lead you to. It's almost like wandering into your neighbour's house and checking out their bookshelves, and getting a sense of who they are, what they stand for, what they like, and what they aspire to. At this stage, you'd either reject or embrace what this collection says to you.
Whether a bookshop generates enough sales to cover its cost for existing depends on so many factors: whether its regular customers and 'accidental' visitors 'embrace' the handselected titles, and if they do, whether they 'vouch' for your existence with their wallets, whether there is enough shelving, stock and footfall to generate volume, whether it has a good product mix to generate an aggregate margin that is healthy, whether its overheads are manageable, and so on. Any one of these factors, like the legs on a table, if unbalanced, can affect sustainability.
So here's to another year, and another dollar (pound just doesn't roll off the tongue quite so smoothly). It's not the main reason for running a bookshop, it often isn't, and it certainly isn't ours. But we will keep trying, to balance between the need to stay afloat, and what W&T means to us - a second home. We hope you receive a warm welcome as our guest whenever you visit. If we have been lacking in anyway, we apologise. We promise to keep trying.