This week for the BookBrunch interview, I visited independent booksellers Hazel Broadfoot and Julian Toland of Village Books in Dulwich. After an extraordinary 46 years in bookselling, Toland is retiring, leaving the business in Broadfoot’s capable hands. We discuss how bookselling has changed, what the future holds, and the incredible value of the independent.
Twenty years of bookselling
Village Books is cozy and homely, even by independent bookshop standards. There is no office because every available space is given over to books, so my interview with Broadfoot and Toland takes place right there on the shop floor.
The bookshop itself started life in the 1930s, Broadfoot explains, proudly showing off an age-stained picture of the original shop front. She and Toland took the premises over in 1996, and have been running it independently ever since.
Over the last twenty years, there have been some huge changes in the bookselling industry, not least of which was the collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. "Everyone thought it would be the end of the world," Toland says matter-of-factly, "but we saw it coming."
"It had been on the agenda for years," agrees Broadfoot. "It wasn’t too bad actually, and there were nice things about it. If we liked something, we could take money off it and sell more copies. The ability to get extra discount was really good too because you could improve your margin."
"It was pre-Amazon too, so it was really only Smiths and Waterstones that were major competition," Toland says. "Amazon obviously has affected us, but no more than other bookshops really, and we’ve got some very good competition round here."
For the locals, this is part of a healthy eco-system, but for Village Books it represents serious competition. While they’ve always had to compete, there are significantly more independent bookshops in Dulwich now than when they first opened. Children’s books are strong sellers for Village Books, for instance, but a competing children’s bookstore opening in Herne Hill not far away has already affected sales.
"It’s competitive," Toland says, "especially when it comes to events because we’re basically all after the same people. There’s not that big of a pool!"
"You just have to work much harder than when we first started and we have got far fewer books in stock than we would have had fifteen years ago."
Village Books does order books for next-day delivery when people ask for them, but even so, the difference is apparently quite large. They are also taking less money than they used to, and sales are supplemented by non-book stock such as bookmarks, cards and reading lamps. "I used be so sniffy about non-book stock. I used to go into Waterstones and think, ‘My God, what’s it coming to?’ But of course now we can’t keep the furry bookmarks in stock."
One area where Village Books seems to have come off lightly is the rise of ebooks and, to Toland, there’s no question the ebook market has levelled off now. "I don’t think that impacted on us as much as we thought."
"The physical book is still going to be around," Broadfoot agrees. "Though you see less of it here, because Dulwich is educationally a different planet, it is a bit concerning when you see toddlers with a tablet and they don’t know their way around a book. But if you’d been here at nine o’clock this morning, there were pushchairs everywhere and toddlers coming in to play. Parents still want their children to have proper books."
Long live the independent
Having said all this, Village Books remains a hugely successful bookstore and "incredibly financially viable." This success coincides with a renewed interest in independent bookshops.
Broadfoot thinks the general climate has helped create this change. "At a certain level, people are less concerned with price, and are more politically aware of local economy. Things like Amazon not paying tax have definitely caused a movement in favour of local shops. Since that happened, we’ve had people coming back to us who we haven’t seen in years!"
Broadfoot and Toland really do recognize their customers, most of whom are regular. Yet, perhaps because of this, they find schemes like Books Are My Bag and Independent Bookshop Week have little impact on footfall overall. "I’m not knocking it as a concept though," Toland says. "People round here know we’re an independent bookshop and they know what an independent bookshop is. If you’re in a town with a Waterstones and a Smiths, you need to shout about being an independent more than we do."
All the same, they celebrate these occasions in style. This Saturday, for Independent Book Week, they’ll have balloons, treats for children, 10% off all day and Prosecco for the grown-ups. "We get the Prosecco out for any reason!" Broadfoot laughs, "Any excuse!"
Alongside the opinions of the general public, the attitudes of publishers towards independents has changed too. "Publishers are much more supportive than they used to be," says Broadfoot. "The Booksellers Association has done a really good job of highlighting the problems of being an independent bookshop, so I think there is much more good will towards us."
Larger publishers now have dedicated contacts whose sole job is took look after independent bookshops, which didn’t exist years ago. The sales from independent shops can vary vastly from chain stores’. Colouring books, for example, have sold well for Village Books but proportionally not as well as they have nationwide. Often Village Books doesn’t even bother stocking half the titles on the national bestseller lists, because nobody asks for them. Counter-intuitively, this is part of independents’ value to publishers.
"Independents do things that aren’t done elsewhere: we sell backlists, for example, and we recommend and hand-sell," says Broadfoot. "Without independents, some authors would just vanish. Waterstones aren’t going to sell them, Amazon don’t care. But we believe they’re wonderful writers and their books deserve to be read."
Toland claims they know what to stock because they’ve been doing it for years and really understand their customers. This will be Toland’s 46th year in bookselling, starting in a small shop, moving to Hatchards for ten years, and then joining Waterstones at the start. Broadfoot, too, has been bookselling far longer than she’s been at Village Books, joining Waterstones alongside Toland during the ‘80s.
"We do benefit from the huge bestsellers, but obviously as they go on, we’re unable to compete financially with the offers that the big guys do," Toland says. "Half price is just ridiculous, we can’t do that. Like anything else, if you can’t compete on price, you have to compete on service and add-ons, be it for children or adults or whoever they are. You have to look after them."
Offering what the internet can’t
This commitment to service is where independents outstrip the cheap prices of the internet. What’s more, they can act as a contact point between authors and the public.
"As an independent, the one thing you can do that the internet can’t do is create that lovely social feeling between authors and publishers, so all the events are really important," says Broadfoot. "If we have an event, people come in the following week saying how wonderful it was, and how much they like the writer. Usually. Occasionally they will say that the writer wasn’t quite what they expected, that doesn’t happen often though!"
Village Books holds regular author events, often set up directly with the author through Twitter, which Broadfoot says has changed the landscape of bookselling significantly. "It’s much easier to get hold of authors now. You don’t have that soul-destroying trying to get the author through the publisher."
They both remain positive about the future of the independent as well, though not unrealistically so. "There are less independents than there used to be, but a lot more of them are thriving and earning good livings for the people who work in them than they used to," says Toland. "The average independent is better than it used to be, too. I think the good bookshops will survive and the bad ones won’t. The good ones will have to work harder, of course, and they will have to continue to work harder.
"Even if I had the choice, I’d choose to work in an independent bookshop because you can do your own thing much more. When it started Waterstone's was great, but by the time we left, it was corporate and monstrous, which wasn’t a lot of fun."
Broadfoot and Toland are clearly passionate about their work. "We both love unpacking a box of books, because it smells fantastic and you never quite know what’s going to come out of it," says Broadfoot. "We like to see an author grow from the beginning. I love finding a great book and being able to translate that into sales. Getting children reading is a highlight too!"
"My favourite bit is putting a book into somebody’s hand and knowing that they want it before they do," grins Toland. "You can send someone on holiday with a book and say, ‘If you don’t like it, come back and throw it at me,’ because you know they’re going to like it. You get to know the customer."
Speaking of customers, the lull in visitors that has blessed our interview is diminishing, and I take it as my cue to leave. As I leave, huddled under an umbrella in an English summer downpour, I hear Toland behind me greeting a new visitor, "Dodge the rain, do! Come on in!"