I've chosen to launch this Insider interview series with Stephen Hepburn, owner of Coventry Bookstore, South Melbourne because I shop here all the time.
If you love books, a good independent bookshop is heaven. It's twee I know, but every time I walk in the door my heart flutters like I'm falling in love all over again. It's a weird combination of bliss and panic. The lineup of new releases at the front door, a travel section beckoning in the corner and of course, the glossy large format home and garden books. So many books, a limited budget and frankly … I want them all!
A good bookseller can really help with that dilemma. If you love books, a relationship with your local owner is as important as your GP. So many times I've walked in with a vague idea of the books I'm going to get: I've heard the reviews, someone has recommended it. But Stephen is speaking to all the books reps and he'll stand and talk me through the new releases, ask me what I've been reading and often recommend a few things that were not on my radar. Before I know it, I've dipped into the grocery kitty and grabbed another couple of books I'll come out with a biography, a crime novel and, well, something I've not considered. A debut author I've not heard of - a classic that has passed me by. Books are expensive, but I cannot give them up and once you see the work, the love that has gone into creating these books, the writer alone, the editors, publishers and publicists that are on board really - I feel they are worth every cent.
I badgered Stephen until he agreed to answer my questions about what it takes to be a bookseller, and what we should add to our reading list this spring and summer. Make sure you go right to the end, he has impressive reading list for us all. Yippee! Thanks Stephen!
Stephen, how did you come to own a bookshop? How long have you owned Coventry Bookstore?
I was disenchanted with the corporate world so in a moment of madness signed the lease and got going ... I always loved the idea of it, and we’ve been going for 8 years now ...
Many people dream of running their own little bookstore one day, what have been the highlights for you?
I love coming to work and being surrounded by beautiful books. So much care and effort and wisdom goes into their creation that I am sure a little rubs off on us as we add them to the shelves.
What is the hardest thing about running a bookshop?
Trying to meet customer expectations. There are just so many books produced yet it always feels like a failure if we don’t have that one title a customer is after ... there was a great article in Esquire magazine that suggested the book you want in a bookstore is the one you didn’t know existed. We like that ... surprises and happenstance make life better...
What are the qualities needed to be a good bookseller?
I hope I am qualified to answer. I think you need to be patient and attentive. Books are a magical thing and in discussing and recommending books you often detour deep into personal circumstance and experience ... so customers need to trust you and you need to win and value their trust. It also helps if you love books. I thought I did but Jewelene (our senior buyer) has been known to shed a tear at the mere sight of a beautiful book.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to own their own bookshop one day?
I would say bring a lot of passion and be prepared for a lot of work.
What have you improved since you started?
We are more confident now. We focus on the things we love and want to sell and give less time to the other stuff.
How do you choose your particular lineup of books. What makes it different?
We probably aren’t all that different to other independent bookshops in terms of the main things we sell, just with different emphasis. The great thing about independent bookshops is that they each have a certain personality, that people will respond to for better or worse. You do need to like jazz from the 1920s and 1930s if you’re going to visit us regularly.
What do you think is the key benefit of visiting a bookshop, rather than buying online?
So many reasons ... there are other people there, you can talk to other people about books, you see things that wouldn’t have turned up in a ‘you might also like’ list, you can have fun even if you don’t buy anything, you can ‘look inside’ without the screen freezing up, you don’t have to go to the post office to collect it, you can move away from the computer screen at lunchtime, you can get a dose of ‘real book smell’ ... need I go on?
What are the biggest categories for you? Has that changed since you opened?
Literary fiction is still our single biggest category. This has continued to grow as our clients more and more trust us to recommend good books that are suitable for them.
Everyone knows book selling is a competitive market? How have you managed to carve out such a successful little niche?
Great customer service.
What have been your biggest sellers in the past 12 months?
Rosie Project and Burial Rites – two Australian authors smashing it with two very different but fantastic novels.
What fiction are you predicting will be big for the back half of 2014?
I really think we have our best ever fiction offer for the back half of 2014. Established names like Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Peter Carey, Sarah Waters, and so on ... but the big one will be the follow up to the Rosie Project called The Rosie Effect.
Any new author we should watch out for?
Fiction Emily Bitto – The Strays
Non/fiction Clare Wright – Forgotten Rebels of Eureka
Recommendations for Father's Day?
You have an impressive Children and Young Adults room out the back- what's hot there right now? Especially that tricky 10 y.o. age !
Yeah so tricky ... the latest John Marsden book The Year My Life Broke is a great choice for that age group.
Kids – Spoilt for choice...but gosh we LOVE Mr Chicken Goes to London by Leigh Hobbs and One Sunday by Pamela Allen.
YA Just get them the Divergent trilogy ... it’s what they want. Or maybe John Green The Fault in Our Stars.
Honestly … have you downloaded books? When and why?
Nope. I don’t want any more screen time than I already have.
What will CSB be focusing on over the next 12 months?
Not sure ... we are always so distracted by books.
What would you like to see more of?
Awards and encouragement to young Australian writers.
Other bookshops you love (Can be overseas or interstate)
I love the paperback bookshop in town.
Book/s that changed your life?
Orwell of course
Hemmingway – Men Without Women
Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude
Haruki Murakami – South of the Border West of the Sun
What are you reading now?
I’ve just started The Children Act by Ian McEwan ... I really love his work.
What do you plan to read next?
I just can’t wait to get my hands on the new James Ellroy novel Perfidia.
What do you recommend for a cheeky holiday read?
You really should read Rosie Project if you haven’t already but maybe try St Kilda Blues by Geoffrey McGeachin It’s set in the late 60s early 70s and you get a tour through the seedy backstreets of St Kilda on the hunt for a serial killer... good stuff.