Like many a bookworm, writer Megan Murray has often fantasised about the whimsy of running her own little bookshop. But what’s the reality of having a small business in a difficult industry?
When it was still a thing to ask “what do you want to be when you grow up”, what did you say? For me, there was no talk of ballerinas or astronauts; I wanted to own a bookshop.
From a young age I’d already absorbed the romanticism of books. The feel of a battered hardback’s spine, the fusty smell locked within its pages and its ability to transport me to another world all held a special magical. And it still does.
I saw books portrayed through a rose-tinted lens in the stories around me. From Belle swinging through her local bookshop on a library ladder in Beauty And The Beast to Roald Dahl’s Matilda whiling away hours in a library, my favourite female protagonists loved these Meccas of knowledge, stories and beautiful book covers, which upped the appeal for me even more.
Being a bookseller only appeared more charming to me the older I got. Films like 1999’s Notting Hill, for example, make owning a bookshop look irresistibly cute. Who wouldn’t want to own a travel bookshop on Portobello Road, where film stars haplessly wander in and you’re surrounded by pastel boutiques at every turn?
For example, in January quaint bookshop Woodstock Books in Oxfordshire announced it was looking for a new owner and Twitter fizzed with excitement as hundreds of tweeters practically fell over themselves to monologue about what a dream job it would be.
“This would be a dream for me,” wrote one social media user. “I would love to! It’s an ambition I’ve long held,” chimed another. One more commented: “I have long nursed such a wish.”
You get the picture.
But would running a bookshop really be everything we’ve been promised?
I was keen to find out, so when Airbnb invited me to spend the day at Offside Books in north-west London to try their run a bookshop for a day experience, I saw this as my chance to test the theory. I wondered, Carrie Bradshaw-style, would my life be as charming as I imagine if I had my own bookshop?
To set the scene, Offside Books is a small shop where every wall is covered top-to-bottom with books. With a table in the centre, there’s just about enough room for a small sofa pushed up against the till. Positioned down a side road in Kilburn, it doesn’t get the best of exposure – something I later found out was reflected in its footfall.
At the helm of the good ship Offside is Mark (pictured above), who has been running the shop with his wife Fatma for six years, after leaving Madrid where they also owned a bookshop together.
Arriving at the bookshop I felt full of nerves and excitement, asking myself: “will this live up to the picture I’ve painted in my head?”
My first impression was true to that idealised vision I’d created. As I regarded the books that piled on top of tables, stacked up against walls and lay in boxes, I concluded that stepping into a world where books lie at its equator is a wonderful feeling.
But that sense of peace didn’t last for long. Mark explained to me that owning a shop comes with a lot of laborious tasks. “Dog mess”, as he calls it, can often be found left outside the shop by a dog walker who couldn’t be bothered to pick it up. As can vomit, sometimes unfortunately splashed at the bottom of the shop’s windows, especially after a Saturday night.
These things – as well as fume debris on the windows and dust that settles around the doors – have to be cleaned most days, or it’d be walked into the shop with customers. It’s not all Julia Roberts in the bookshop industry, you know.
Despite Offside Books’ intimate size it holds 1,500 books which means… a lot of dusting. So, up I went. Balancing on top of a stool (no Beauty And The Beast library ladders this time) to get stuck in with a feather duster – especially those at the back.
Next job? To familiarise myself with the different genre sections and pick out a selection for the front window display. Now this is more like it.
Slowly floating my way around the different shelves, taking the time to read each title, I felt a serene feeling wash over me. I had no idea where my phone was, I was in the moment. As I concentrated only on what lay right in front of me, it felt like an act of mindfulness as my usually restless thoughts ebbed into quietness and I was totally absorbed by the (rather lovely) task at hand.
Mark explained that for anyone who does the Airbnb Experience, choosing the titles for the display becomes their responsibility. Whether you want to create a theme, pick your favourite authors or stick to one genre, it’s totally up to you.
Browsing the shelves, I noticed Mark and Fatma had carved out a space especially for writers of colour and LGBTQ+ literature. He explained that this came from increasing demand and that purchases from the black writers’ section were some of their most frequent, especially Zadie Smith who is a local and creates quite the buzz when she’s in town.
“I believe she lives in New York most of the time, but when she’s back we hear about it. I’ve seen her a few times. The minute she’s spotted on the main road word travels fast – people pop in and tell us she’s here!” he exclaimed.
This is one of the things I felt comforted to learn about running a bookshop – people do just “pop in”. In a similar way that any small business might get to know the other shop owners in the area and have regular customers, Mark says that he feels connected to the community. As the nature of a bookshop invites people in to have a look around, he says people love to come in and reel off their life story. Being as naturally curious (read: nosy) as I am, this sounds like heaven.
Throughout the day I’m there, though, not many people come into the shop. In total, there are three sales (including me – I couldn’t help myself). This is, of course, where the magic begins to shatter a little bit.
Although I doubt anyone who dreams of owning their own bookshop imagines it would be the making of their fortune, Mark confirms that the worst thing about being in that industry is struggling to make ends meet.
“The shop can get busy at the weekend, but in the week it really drops off,” he explains. “Since Brexit even, we’ve seen a lot of non-UK residents leave the area and our business has suffered. Over the years we’ve tried lots of things to bring people in from cinema nights to serving ice cream, we’ve even hosted language classes. But often things are slow and customers are lacking.”
But the best thing? Well it has to be reading books, of course! Mark confirms for me, happily, that one of his favourite things about having the shop is the autonomy it provides and that when things are a little quiet, he can sit back with a good book.
So, would I still endeavour, one day, to own my own bookshop?
I have to admit, the experience has made me take off those rose-tinted glasses and give them a thorough clean. Long days, money worries and dwindling customers does sound tough.
But still… I loved my day at Offside Books. The day-to-day tasks are all part of the job, and there’s something soothing about using your hands and working to present your little pocket of the world however you like.
I adored not being on a computer all day and interacting with customers (something Mark says is what Airbnb Experience guests enjoy the most). There’s also a lot to be said for being in that environment. Swapping office desks for walls of books had a positive effect on mental wellbeing for the day, and there’s something very appealing about a slower pace of life.
It might not be all movie stars and weirdly affordable west London rent like Notting Hill would have you believe, but a dreamer I still am and hopefully, one day, I’ll have a bookshop of my own.
Images: Emma Block / Airbnb