Today I’m continuing my series of posts about independent bookshops around the UK, and this month we visit Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. It’s a beautiful shop with lots of small rooms leading one from the other, which include a bath, displays of books suggested by the staff, armchairs for reading in (which are also used for the bibliotherapy spa sessions) and fresh coffee.
My questions were helpfully answered by Nic Bottomley, one of the owners, and Danielle, one of the booksellers.
Can you tell me something about the history of Mr B’s Emporium?
Well, we’re ten years old this summer. We (my wife Juliette and I) decided to have a go at opening an indie bookshop on honeymoon in Alaska and, after a year or so of researching and resigning and relocating and whatnot (we were lawyers living in Prague previously) we opened the doors (with no retail experience and a lot of blind faith) in June 2006. [Nic]
What’s your favourite section?
My favourite section is more of a space, and that is the bibliotherapy room. With the cosy armchairs and fire to warm yourself by, we can chat to customers up here, and the shelves surrounding this space are curated. We have a section for a guest bookshop to display their current favourite reads and each team member has a ‘favourites’ shelf. I love it there because you never know what you are going to come across. [Danielle]
If you had infinite space what would you add?
There are sections we would definitely expand, for instance a children’s section can never be big enough, give little readers lots of room to roam and read in! We’d add more space for our Reading Spas too – we offer these reading experience gifts where we sit one-on-one with a customer and recommend books to them (and they have a voucher to spend on the ones they are most keen on). We have sold so many of these experiences it’s incredible and we’re adding another new small but extremely funky room to host them in, but if we had infinite space we’d gear the whole shop around spaces for book conversation. [Nic]
What’s the hardest thing about running an independent bookshop?
Finding time to put into effect all of the ideas and all of the improvements you’d like to make. Although as an industry the hardest challenge we face is Amazon – we, like many independents and many branches of chain bookshops, have a strategy and identity that differentiates us through service and experience from Amazon’s offer. But that doesn’t get away from the fact that they are a dominant and negative force in terms of high-street bookselling. [Nic]
Who is your favourite customer?
It’s all about the kids! We have a soft spot for over enthusiastic youngsters who want to tell us about EVERY book they have ever read and for the kids like the chap who once wrote in our guest book “I love this bookshop and I thought I didn’t even like books!” [Danielle]
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the bookshop?
I once I had to chase a colossal dog across Bath after it got confused thinking its owner had left when in fact she was browsing upstairs. The dog won the race, but was recovered eventually (by someone else). [Nic]
What’s your best/first memory of visiting a bookshop?
I remember being a young girl and taken into my local bookshop by my mam. I tucked up in a corner with the next in the ‘Saddle Club’ series while my mam told me she was going off shopping and leaving me there. She was secretly just about in the bookstore but I remember being thrilled at being left alone in my dream place! [Danielle]
What would you like your customers to do differently?
We don’t require anything of our customers. They should feel free to enjoy our shop in whatever they choose, be that browsing in peace, popping in to place an order or spending hours talking with us about books. [Nic]
What would you like authors or publishers to do differently?
We are supported wonderfully by the vast majority of authors and publishers. If I had one general request for authors it would be to replace the links on personal or publisher-requested websites that points book buyers to Amazon with one that points to either their favourite high street bookshop, the “Find Your Local Bookshop” logo OR at least a website like www.hive.co.uk which permits buyers to elect a high street bookshop to receive a small commission on all sales. As for publishers well really this now happens 95% of the time anyway these days but I just love it when a publisher supports us to the max whenever we back a title and start recommending it like crazy and understands that the books we do that with might not always be the ones they thought would be the big bestseller. Most publishers understand nowadays that each bookshop and its booksellers are different and it’s a joy when you form a close collaboration with a publisher to shout about a great book. [Nic]
What’s been the biggest surprise of owning an independent bookshop?
Compared to day 1 when we opened the door with zero experience and a bucketful of hope, it’s that the shop has been so popular and that after a decade it’s still so much fun to work in. [Nic]
What fairly unknown book do you think more people should know about?
We are really passionate about bringing back titles that deserve attention here at Mr B’s
which is why we set up our publishing venture ‘Fox, Finch & Tepper’, finding books we adore and bringing them to a wider audience. So far we have published four books that are all classics in their own right. We all have our own personal favourite out of the four, but mine would have to be The Story of Mr Sommer by Patrick Suskind, which features stunning illustrations by Sempe. To have a look at all of the books we have a handy website though, www.foxfinch
What book are you currently recommending / hand-selling?
At the moment there are two books I am really passionate about and hand selling. One is non-fiction, a stunningly moving letter from Marceline Loridan-Ivens to her father, ‘But You Did Not Come Back’. They were both arrested and taken into Auschwitz when she was a young girl, she survived but her father did not. In her 80’s she has written this moving letter to her father, talking about their experience and what it was like afterwards, trying to move on without him. It is incredibly powerful and touching.
The second book is a young adult read called ‘Beautiful Broken Things’ by Sara Barnard. This is an absorbing story of two young women who struggle with the difficulties of trying to support a friend who has had a difficult past and has consequently suffered from mental health problems due to this. It feels incredibly well researched, sensitively handled and completely honest. [Danielle]
I have just read an incredible memoir by Patrick McGuinness that came out a couple of years ago called “Other People’s Countries”. It’s really a musing on the way that place evokes memory. You are taken around the Belgian town of Bouillon by the author whose mother’s family have lived there for generations and who still takes his own kids there himself each year. In short chapters with occasionally black and white photos you hear the stories the old fellows are telling one another in the cafes and you get a blend of funny and poignant anecdotes about the place and its inhabitants as well as Patrick’s light-touch entertaining philosophy on the passage of time and nostalgia. [Nic]
How can people visit / get in touch with you?
If folk reading this would like to come and visit us they can find us at 14/15 John Street, Bath, BA1 2JL. We’re open nearly every day of the year. We also have our online shop which is handily always open www.mrbsemporium.com and for chatter/photos of beautiful literary goodness our twitter handle is @mrbsemporium and Instagram mr_bs_emporium.