The most independent booksellers in Herts
To celebrate World Book Day, rather than dress up as Hermione, I talk to the two main independent bookshop owners in Herts. Sheryl Shurville is the owner of Chorleywood Bookshop and also the Gerrards Cross Bookshop in Bucks. She has been a bookseller for 16 years. Paul Wallace is the owner of David’s Bookshop in Letchworth and has been selling books for 22 years. While other bookshops have had to close their doors, these two seem to have the Midas touch. I ask them how they do it.
Why do you think you have succeeded to stay in business, when other bookshops in the county have had to close?
Sheryl: Having a positive attitude. And we have diversified over the years and embraced challenges.
Paul: 50 years of community involvement have embedded the business in the town and surrounding area, changing with the times, and having a very wide range of products and depth of stock. The size of the shop is a draw in itself.
Approximately what percentage of your customers are long-term, loyal customers? What makes new people come in?
Sheryl: I’m not sure. We have a lot of lovely loyal customers; the events bring people in when they buy their tickets, although they can buy them online.
Paul: I couldn’t put a percentage on it but we would not survive without our large band of loyal customers. In the last 2 or 3 years we have noticed an influx of young families moving into Letchworth and discovering the bookshop.
Paul, you also sell music and secondhand books, and you have just opened a café. Would you say that selling new books is just one part of your business?
Selling books is the main part of our business and gives the shop its identity, but music has always been and remains a vital part of the business. There is a synergy between all the things we do, although some music buyers don’t buy books, and vice versa.
Sheryl, how do you manage having two shops? Are they very different in character?
Yes they are different in character even though they are about 12 minutes apart by car. The events side of the business has flourished at Chorleywood where I would say there is more of a community feel.
Sheryl, I believe you recently launched a mobile bookshop?
Our boring white van has had a makeover in the way of a wrap. This was achieved with some funding from the James Patterson grant and our own, plus help with the design and rights issues from Pan Macmillan Children’s Books.
Paul, Letchworth is a place with a very particular heritage and character. How much would you say that David’s is part of the fabric of the town?
Eccentric, do you mean? Yes very much part of the fabric, we have always been individual and have valued alternative ways of doing things. The Letchworth Ideas Fair was launched from the bookshop, as was the still-thriving Letchworth Arts & Leisure Group, and in recent years we have hosted a series of popular public debates with high-profile speakers on subjects like ‘The route to happiness’ and ‘I’m still proud to be British’.
I imagine that when supermarkets first started selling books, together with Amazon and ebooks, your shops suffered hugely. Have you got used to having them in the picture?
Sheryl: I don’t moan about Amazon. I do things that they can’t do, such as be an integral part of the community and organise events, getting people to meet the authors and give them a great experience around books and reading, added value.
Paul: They are both so much part of the landscape now that we don’t give them much thought. Neither supermarkets nor online retailers can offer the authentic bookshop experience and the public are recognising that fact. And online prices are not as attractive as maybe they once were.
Is it important for both of you to be seen in the shop? Are you both the face of your business?
Sheryl: As the business has grown I would say less so. Our customers love all the staff as they are so friendly and helpful.
Paul: We have a large and highly experienced, motivated staff, but yes, I think it is important to be seen around the place and to nurture relationships with customers.
How far do people travel to come to your shops? Would you say that your customers fall into a particular age range?
Sheryl: People travel long distances to come to the events which are around the Chorleywood area. We have a great mix of customers, probably more ladies in the week; the men come in at weekends!
Paul: Letchworth and the surrounding towns of Baldock and Hitchin, and the ring of villages nearby such as Ashwell and Weston provide most of our customer base. However, people will travel longer distances, especially for collectable books and vinyl records – we have regular visits from collectors and dealers from all over the country.
How many hours would you say that you work in a week? Do you have time to read?
Sheryl: I work in excess of 60 hours a week, often more, rarely less. I love reading and have recently had the honour of being a Costa judge for the debut author category when I had to read just under 50 books in 6 months.
Paul: At the moment I’m working most of the 7 days in a week with the opening of the café, but normally it’s about 60 hours. Don’t feel sorry for me though, it’s rewarding work. I try to have a book on the go all the time, but often fall asleep reading it!
Have you both embraced social media? Do you enjoy using it?
Sheryl: Social media is very important to us and a great way of engaging with our customers and people who aren’t our customers yet!
Paul: We use Twitter and Facebook mostly. I wouldn’t use them for myself, but I’m quite happy doing it for the shop. Social media is especially useful for events.
You both seem to attract many well-known names to your events – who has been the most popular?
Sheryl: Every event however big or small has been brilliant. The authors are very generous with their time and without fail, are always interesting and funny. The largest number to an event was Michael Palin when we had 600 at Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood.
Paul: Mary Berry was the fastest selling author we’ve had over the last few years. She was amazing: she signed nearly 500 books before the event had even started.
Do people ever use your shops as libraries?
Sheryl: No, sometimes they take down a title or ISBN and then go away and order it somewhere else!
Describe your best and worst moments ever in the history of your bookshops.
Sheryl: Worst was when we had to cancel a sold-out event of over 200 as the author was unable to attend and we had to phone 200 disappointed people. Best was when we had Mary Berry come to the shop for a signing just before Christmas.
Paul: The best moments are when our customers show us how much they value the shop – for example when Jacqueline Wilson visited last year to open our children’s department and there was such excitement, or on Record Store Day when people queue all night and stay all day. There haven’t been too many bad moments, but I could mention (from before my time of course) the time an event was sold out and the author hadn’t actually been asked to appear!
Have you ever thought about introducing completely new things, such as ‘Enjoy a head massage while you read’?
Sheryl: We always have lots of new ideas but lack space!
Paul: My wife spent many years as a hairdresser and it’s a possibility…
What advice would you give to someone who dreams of having their own bookshop?
Sheryl: Embrace it. Bookselling is a brilliant occupation, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!
Paul: Don’t underestimate the physical side – long hours standing and carrying books!