The Secret Bookshelf is a newly opened shop in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Jo Zebedde, who is both a sci-fi and fantasy author and the owner of this independent book shop, tells us why buying locally from indies is so important whilst being so enjoyable.
For years, I talked about opening a small bookstore with my husband. We bought books for it, stored in our house. We thought about locations and what we might stock and worked out figures and never quite went for it. This year, we decided to, eventually finding a very quirky unit in a lovely local shopping complex.
The space in the unit allowed us to have room for different small bookstores – a bargain room, children’s room, sci fi and fantasy ‘geek den’ and the corridor became crime alley, as well as a stunning show room and a dinky reading den. We opened on 22nd Jan, with a great launch day and excited shoppers, delighted to have a bookstore in town, and had to lock down on 20th March. Timing was never my strong suit!
We have now reopened, with all sorts of additional precautions and the support we’ve had has been amazing, and touching. We can’t offer the same prices as Amazon or the supermarkets. We don’t order in 15 of a title. That’s not our model. Often, we will have a single copy of a book, especially if it’s quirky and hard to source.
So, why buy from us?
Well, firstly, it’s about customer service. We will order books in, search for books for customers, deliver locally free of charge, gift wrap, suggest books for presents. We offer a good sized reading nook for families who want to drop in and spend a while together and we have a reading room for those who just want, or need, some time out in a quiet place. It’s important to us that coming to the shop is relaxing, a place to escape and spend time away.
Secondly, we offer extra events. We had plans to host a writing group (I’m also a writer), with some light mentoring included; a reading group; author events. These are currently on hold due to COVID safety restrictions, so we turned our minds to what we could safely do. We know our customers like to connect with authors, and we know our local authors are struggling to get visibility through the pandemic. So we host events after we close, just the authors there, and we record them and put them out on our various Social Media pages.
That’s another important element in the indie bookseller offering – our close links with local authors and local publishers who are often too small to be taken up by the larger outlets. We provide a lifeblood to the diversity in the market readers love, to the quirky publishers who put out beautiful, exciting books that can’t be found on supermarket shelves (but will be in Amazon – they have carved out a lot of that market). We do it by also showcasing their writers and by viewing the relationship as one of mutual passion for books. And, of course, by offering a beautiful space for customers to enjoy browsing in.
We realise not everyone has the money for the latest hardback, or to keep their voracious kids in books (anyone who thinks young people don’t read anymore is mistaken). We know we can’t compete with daily 99p kindle deals.
That’s when our bargain books become important. We curate them carefully. Whilst many are donations, we go through them (after three days in quarantine, at the moment!) and keep the ones we think our customers will want (the remainder get popped into local wee free libraries, or donated to the charity shops). We have selections in each of the sections of the shop – including the kids’ room. If someone has two quid to spend, not twenty, they can still pick up something nice.
But the bulk of the bargain room has been chosen by us. We buy from all sorts of places – private collections, high-end second hand stores, specialist conventions, EBay – with a view to quality in mind. We seek out local history and books about Northern Ireland. It is time consuming – normally a day a week is spent on searching – but it’s this connection with the community that’s so important in an independent bookstore, that focus on serving those who want new books, to those seeking gifts, to those wanting to leave with an armful for less than a tenner.
We are conscious that shopping with us is a choice. Tescos, 3 miles away, are selling new releases for half what I do – and yet, still customers buy from us. For that reason, we’ve just started a loyalty card. But that’s not what will bring people in to us, that’s really just a thank you from us. What brings people – I think! – is the shopping experience, being part of their local community, the choice and range and, I guess, the relationship of it being ‘their’ bookstore, in their town, where they can get to know us, become regular visitors, and be welcomed back and made comfortable.
Words and picture by Jo Zebedee. Have a look at The Secret Bookshelf’s website here.