Ever felt like making your own Notting Hill-style dream come true? Chrissy Ryan did exactly this by opening her own bookshop. Here’s what you need to know about becoming a bookselling entrepreneur before getting started.
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Starting any business can feel like the ultimate pipe dream, but opening a bookshop undoubtedly has an extra fantastical edge to it. In a digital age, it’s difficult to know where to begin if you want to become a bookselling entrepreneur – would you be able to make any money at it? Where would you even start?
But with reports of the amount of time spent reading books having doubled over lockdown, the number of books sold in the UK steadily on the rise and data revealing that the number of independent book shops grew in 2020, interest in professional involvement in the literary world has undoubtedly grown, too.
After six years working in the publishing industry and travelling all over the world, Chrissy Ryan decided to open her own bookshop and brand: BookBar. Designed to straddle the worlds of a wine bar and a bookshop – and established during the Covid-19 pandemic – Chrissy has forged a rather non-traditional, and intriguingly innovative, path into opening a shop. And people are into it.
She opened BookBar’s doors (figuratively) in February 2021, during the third nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, but had been building an online following for almost a year beforehand. Her Instagram account (@BookBarUK) has over 4,000 followers and she frequently sells out books after recommending them to her loyal following. For Chrissy, it’s all about creating a space where people can feel the emotional connections that you find when you really love a book.
But it’s not just about the books. Chrissy says there’s a lot more to think about when it comes to setting up a bookshop business. From using the internet, the digital age and the bookselling giants to your advantage to cultivating the right contacts to get your space on its feet, Chrissy has all the answers for any budding bookshop entrepreneurs.
Make everything about your bookshop personal
Everyone’s reading experience is unique to them, so Chrissy stresses that it’s important that the space you’re opening feels personal as well. This advice can be applied to the aesthetics of your bookshop – “My friends say the space is a complete reflection of my personality,” she says – or the way that you select what books you are going to sell.
“You should be sure that you can sell books based on your customer’s character and interests,” she adds, and this skill involves knowing the demographic of your customer base really well.
Chrissy offers three key pieces of advice for building your instincts around book recommendations:
1) Read voraciously – “Read books, read reviews, read magazines and newspapers. Consume all the culture you can from all different sources.”
2) Get to know your customer – “Whether that’s a demographic or an individual’s needs and tastes – is so important. Get under the surface of why they have enjoyed a certain book, it will help with future recommendations.”
3) Practice – “If you’ve never been a bookseller before, get some experience selling books before you open your shop,” Chrissy advises. This can be at either an independent or a chain, she says, both are equally as valuable.
The key to making a personal selection for your customer is being able to tell their interests from your own. Chrissy’s offers “Shelf Medicate service”, where she conducts 30-40 minute consultations with her customers before she picks out books that are best suited to what they’re looking for. She also has readymade “prescriptions” for specific moods, for “armchair travelling” and “big thinking”. For Chrissy, it’s important to really zone in on what your customer is looking to get out of their reading experience.
“You should be asking questions like: ‘When you think about reading, what do you think about feeling? And secondly, when you read, what do you want to feel?’” she says.
This is an important way to cater to your prospective bookshop customers, Chrissy says, because people have different reasons for wanting to read. “Some don’t feel like there’s any point unless they’re learning something, some people want to read so that they can relax or escape,” she says. The answers that her customers give marks what books Chrissy chooses for her customers.
When scouting your location, don’t worry about it fitting a stereotypical vision
She may be from a town that champions literature – Cheltenham Literature Festival is close to the hearts of many a book lover – but Chrissy insists that you don’t necessarily need to have a bookish background to get started.
While North London had felt like the perfect place to open for her – she’d built a large number of her industry contacts in the city and had started out working in a North London bookshop herself – Chrissy argues that the key is to find the area of the country that is missing the kind of bookshop you want to open, wherever that is. There, you have your niche and a place where you can offer something new.
Chrissy says to think about two key elements when scouting out your location:
Your footfall – I.e the number of people who are going to be coming into your store in real life. “It’s probably one of the most important aspects of opening a physical shop,” she says. “Your shop front is an advert for your business so if you’re opening somewhere without a lot of footfall you have to work even harder to let people know you’re there.”
What you need from the size and feel of the space – “Is your bookshop going to be stocked floor-ceiling or would you prefer a more paired back approach? Knowing the feel of the shop you want to open will affect the size of the space you’ll choose.”
The internet and social media are both friends to your bookshop – use them
Chrissy calls opening Bookbar’s Instagram account in June 2020 – roughly eight months before opening the physical doors to her book shop – as a “really good decision”, as it was a “risk-free” way to find out what her customers might want from a physical space. But she says that it’s important to bear in mind that this means things are likely to “start slower” as you begin to build a following.
The community you cultivate then becomes really crucial when you eventually open in real life, because they will already be invested in the brand and its extension through a shop’s doors being opened. For Chrissy, one of the biggest outcomes of fully utilising social media is that she was able to replicate the physical experience of being in a bookshop, before anyone could ever enter.
She encourages using the thriving “Bookstagram” community to get your bookshop brand out into people’s minds, the perfect way to bridge the gap between you and your potential customers. One big lesson she learned – and cautions any bookshop entrepreneur to be careful of – is to use the right social media app for your target age demographic.
“Does your target audience use Instagram, Facebook or Twitter more?” she asks. “This is crucial in getting your message to the right people.”
For example, Bookbar’s social media reach and following as led to Chrissy being able to book authors like Curtis Sittenfeld (of Rodham and American Wife fame) and Brit Bennett (who penned The Vanishing Half) as part of a series of “book club” events.
Find your point of difference from Amazon and other large-scale bookshops
Quick to stress that there is space in the bookselling world for both large-scale and smaller, independent bookshops, Chrissy says that the key is recognising where your business differs from the big conglomerates.
“It’s important to recognise the place of these larger brands, I’m really pro any kind of bookshop,” she says. “But as an independent bookshop, you have to be savvy – we can all learn from each other, so work out what you can take from what these brands are doing well and make it your own.”
She warns against dismissing the big bookselling brands completely: “Shutting your eyes to the reality of the world that we live in, and the business you’re going into, it’s not a very helpful thing to do.”
Instead, work out what you are giving your book-loving audience access to that they haven’t already got. Is it intimate interviews with niche or popular authors? Is it all in the way the books are delivered or curated?
“One example is I hand-wrap every book I send out in a signature colour and tie it with ribbon. Again, a personal touch,” Chrissy says.
Build close relationships within the bookselling community
In terms of sourcing your books, Chrissy recommends joining up with a book wholesaler as they can get you any book next-day delivery. She also recommends making ties with the larger bookselling community.
“Reach out to book publishers (Harper Collins, for example), as well as publicists – these are the people at the publishing houses who are looking after the authors and getting press for them,” she says. “When you know titles that you might like, they will send you advanced copies, to see if they’re right for your shop, and can help you arrange events.”
These relationships benefit both parties – Chrissy says that, during the pandemic, publishers have discovered just how much they need independent bookshops to market their books.
Chrissy also advises that you get on Twitter to join up with fellow independent bookshops, as it’s a very warm and welcoming community and you can ask them any burning questions about how different businesses have done things.
She also recommends joining the Booksellers Association, an organisation that she feels has been “absolutely invaluable” during the pandemic. “They’ve been offering grants and have lobbied the government to make bookshops essential shops,” she says.
Planning out your bookshop in your mind
Chrissy says that the below components are “fundamental to the way you’re going to run your business” – flesh them out, they may not end up being exactly as you imagine, but having a clear view of what you want is crucial.
- Your ideal customer
- Your ideal location
- Your ideal authors
- Your ideal events that you’d like to run
- Your ideal book selection
- Any particular niches your shop will have
But above all, Chrissy says a love for reading and books is not enough – you need to have a clear idea of what makes your bookshop different. “Don’t start a bookshop just because you love books – start one because you have something new to bring to the table. Figuring out what that is will be a crucial move.”
Chrissy Ryan, founder of Bookbar
Chrissy Ryan is the founder of BookBar, a bookshop, wine bar, event and social space in London. Having travelled the world selling books – including a stint running a bookshop on a remote tropical island in the Maldives – she decided to create her own.