Today we bring you an inspiring interview with Nic Bottomley – co-owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, an independent bookshop based in Bath that has twice been named UK Independent Bookshop of the Year. In a past life Nic was a capital markets lawyer but in a bid to do what he loves he gave it up to live and work in the world of books. Fast forward 11 years and Nic has never been happier as he continues to play his part in proving how precious well-stocked bookshops, run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, are to our cultural life.
We caught up with Nic to find out what drove him to make such a major career change all those years ago and what life is like now as a successful independent bookseller…
1. You and your wife were lawyers before you decided to quit the rat race and set up your own bookshop. When and why did you decide to take the leap?
The catalyst was, of course, a bookshop. A wonderful bookshop. On day one of our honeymoon, not barely rested enough after a hectic wedding and a lot of flying, we drifted around Seattle in an increasingly caffeinated fog until we stepped into the labyrinth of wooden stairways that was The Elliott Bay Book Company. I say “was” only because now they’ve moved and gone all post-industrial (though folk say that the shop is still just as amazing and I believe them). We spent an hour or so in there and I was back the next day too.
Roll on two days and we were on the terrace of our room at a little clapboard bed and breakfast in Friday Harbor on the San Juan Islands (just North of Seattle) mulling over whether an independent bookshop with the verve, personality, atmosphere and open book-obsessiveness of Elliott Bay could work in the UK. We thought it could and that’s where the day-dreaming began.
It’s worth adding that it wasn’t the first time we’d thought about leaving our previous jobs as city lawyers, it was just that this was the moment we realised that when we did leave those jobs it should be to do something we’d love and therefore (perhaps) be good at. We loved books, we loved bookshops, we didn’t much being lawyers. It all seemed to make perfect sense.
Nic and his wife, Juliette outside their bookshop: Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights bookshop, Bath
2. How did you go about turning your bookshop dream into a reality?
More or less as soon as we got back from that honeymoon trip we started researching the book industry and whether it was remotely plausible that a business like the one in our heads could work. Finding out the basics was surprisingly tricky – how books are distributed; the financial models, etc. Finding out that indie bookshops were more often shutting than opening was easy to discover. But we felt that wasn’t a trend that would impact on a well-run, customer-service orientated business and so we carried on the research.
Once we’d actually left our previous jobs and moved back to the UK (we were living in Prague) I went on a one month tour of the bookshops of Northern England absorbing their atmosphere, looking at what they did well and poorly and talking to many of the extremely helpful owners and managers. It’s something I still do regularly to this day when away from Bath. Some of the contacts I made on that trip – most notably the incredibly helpful Andrew and Sue Cant from Simply Books, in Bramhall, Cheshire – were so supportive and open when it came to answering those seemingly stupid but very important questions on the business of bookselling. I don’t think we had imagined how welcoming the industry as a whole would be.
Getting the right premises was a challenge for sure and one of the lessons we learned early was to have no fear in challenging conceived wisdom where we felt strongly it was misguided. For example for ages we discounted properties close to Waterstones, before figuring out that if all else is great with the location (as with the site we ended up in) then being near a competitor bookstore is a good thing as long as you make friends with them, because customers can easily try one and then the other for their book requirements.
We also nailed our flag to the mast early on with our book selection, going for a curated range that reflected what we thought our customers would enjoy as well as what we were looking forward to sell. A little early mistake though was to fetter that selectiveness a bit for a few months by also feeling pressured to stock some “bestsellers” that actually weren’t going to work for our market (perhaps because most of their bestselling was happening at airports or in supermarkets). It took us a little while to grow sufficiently arrogant in our stock selection.
3. What makes Mr B’s so special and unique?
I think there are a few things at play:
- Even by indie bookshop standards we are very vocal, active and opinionated on the shop floor. The space is primarily one for book conversation – whether that’s informally in the main room around the counter and main table, or in one of our one-on-one recommendation sessions (the Mr B’s Reading Spas). Of course we are equally happy to welcome customers who want to choose their own books and browse alone, but the opportunity for advice and engagement is always there and that’s the overall vibe at most times.
- The space is eclectic and full of character like all the best high street bookshops – from the moment you see the claw—foot bath in the kids’ room you know all bets are off and that feeling is enhanced when you pass the TinTin Wall, the life-size wooden reading man, the table made from Penguin books etc.
- We don’t much like rest or normality which means we are forever trying to innovate the way we sell books (e.g. our Reading Spas, our many different Reading Subscriptions and our new themed Reading Bundles) and our take on normal bookshop activities (e.g. adding in food and The Bookshop Band’s music to our events).
4. One of your favourite spaces in the shop is the ‘Bibliotherapy Room’. What is it and why do customers love it?
I hope it’s a warm, welcoming, comfy space – with its armchairs, pot of coffee, lovely light and focus on face-out displays – where customers feel happy to spend time whether or not they’re planning to buy many books that day. Of course it’s also where many of our Reading Spas take place so that gives it a certain dynamic and with a conversation about books almost always going on up there we know that lots of our regular customers and visitors alike enjoy drifting up there, taking a seat and listening in to the book recommending that’s going on whilst also browsing for themselves.
5. What do you most enjoy about being your own boss and what do you enjoy least?
I enjoy that it means that most of the time you’re doing what you want to be doing. Of course there are scales of enjoyment within the required tasks but ultimately if there’s something taking up your time and causing you stress because you really don’t want to be doing it, then it should be in your control to stop or reduce the impact of that thing.
I love to try to do things differently as well and I love that, as your own boss, if you want to give something a go then you can make that happen (provided you apply business acumen to the decision). The beauty of independent businesses across the board is their ability to create and then act – though of course space, money and time are sometimes barriers.
And that question of “time” takes us into the thing that I like least. At any one time at Mr B’s there can be a dozen projects or initiatives that have been suggested and that seem like great ideas – but finding the time to move them forward is not so easy so many simply have to fall by the wayside or take an inordinate length of time to action. That’s the only big frustration I think.
Oh, and one last positive, you get to choose the people you work with and put together a talented and energized team.
6. Talk us through a typical day in your life…
That genuinely doesn’t exist. During a typical week I will spend some days largely on or around the shop floor – at the counter, greeting and helping customers, maybe running a Reading Spa.
Another day might be more focused on helping get us back on track with back office functions if we’ve got a large amount of books arriving or event stock needing ordering or backing up on returns in need of work or sections requiring an audit.
And then there’ll be a day that’s more desk-based overseeing or feeding into whatever big project we might be undertaking at any given time – so it could be reviewing blurb for event programmes, working on the development of a new book-related product, discussing addition of a new product line (we’ve just increased our range of very high-end pencils for example!), doing general paperwork or PR work.
And then again then I might be off to a meeting connected with interests impacting the book industry generally (as I sit on the Council and Board of the Booksellers Association) or I might be spending time working on the next publication of our fledgling publishing outfit (www.foxfinchtepper.com).
I think the life of a bookshop owner is infinitely varied. Perhaps because we push that to the limit a bit sometimes with having a go at all kinds of things, but I bet any bookseller would tell you – that variety is one of the joys of the job (even if it’s just the variety of the main product we sell).
7. How much time do you actually have to read these days?
Not as much as you’d think, thanks to a phenomenally busy business and three wonderful young kids (assuming you’re not counting what I’m reading to them). But I do go out of my way to make time for reading because it’s a passion and it’s important to be full of fresh recommendation ideas and because at our events we always interview our guest authors and so I have lots of preparatory reading to get done by deadlines for those events.
8. What book/s are you personally recommending/hand-selling right now?
It’s never just one. Right now front and centre is the new Bruce Springsteen autobiography Born to Run but that’s because he has been the soundtrack to my life to date and for me personally this is the biggest and most anticipated book of my bookselling career to date. It’s written with the same honesty and openness as you can find in his lyrics and at his concerts and, even being dispassionate for a moment, I think anyone who’s a music fan would find it fascinating even if Bruce isn’t quite their thing.
For lovers of “quiet” fiction I recently loved The Nakano Thrift-Shop by Hiromi Kawakami a Japanese novel set in the eponymous store and centering on the lives (and almost loves) of three characters who work there. I also adored Carol Birch’s historical novel based around the life of the C19 Mexican heroine of the global freak-show circuit Julia Pastrana. You know how sometimes the bits you really adore and remember from a novel are often in the earlier sections? Well not this one – the last third above all is just staggering
On the non-fiction front, the last two books I really enjoyed were not that new. First was the devastating but vitally important Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich which recounts the occurrence and aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster from nearly every imaginable perspective through the author’s conversations with the people there. The second was Out of My League by George Plimpton which was one of the first examples of immersive sports-writing as the author managed to get himself the opportunity to pitch at all the batsmen in all-star game – a hilarious and chastening experience.
Of course I have to give a mention to one of the books we’ve published too. When we find a wonderful novel that we love recommending is out of print (or has never been printed) here in the UK we look at bringing it back into print in a fresh lovely edition. We’ve done four so far and I love them all but perhaps the one to try in this Autumn of American political focus is Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin, a hilarious New York novel with a refreshing innocence and warmth. It centres on a chap whose greatest joy in life is his ability to navigate Manhattan’s impenetrable parking regulations and who, when he finds a great spot, sits and reads in his car for his full paid-up hour to the chagrin and amusement of his fellow citizens.
9. What sections of the shop would you most like to expand?
I guess I’d have to say children’s books. We have a fantastic selection and it’s already one of our largest offerings but it would be wonderful to have the space to go all guns blazing in terms of kids’ books including more space for events for younger readers to inspire the next generation of loyal independent bookstore customers.
10. Who are your favourite customers and why?
It’s like with the kids. It would be wrong to have favourites.
My favourite customer on any given day is the one stood in front of me asking me for a recommendation on what to read next. But really any customer who chooses to buy a book from us – whether that’s once; daily; weekly; monthly; annually – becomes part of the rich tapestry of our customer-base and is therefore incredibly valuable to us as an independent high-street business.
11. Is there anything that you would like authors or publishers to do differently?
As far as publishers go I must say we have a very open and clear relationship with most large and small publishers. Publishers in 2016 are very conscious that independent bookshops (and indeed all high street bookshops) are a crucial sales and discovery channel for books and we get great support from them just as we support their titles. If there’s a particular book they think we should be excited about, then they tell us and do all that they can to help us sell it. If there’s a particular book of theirs that we’re excited about (often an entirely different one!) then they get excited with us and back up any plans we have to spread the word. There’s nothing general I’d have them do differently, and if there’s anything specific to a publisher I know that in our industry I can just pick up the phone.
We love working closely with authors whether it’s on events, our podcasts or other promotion work about their titles. Again I couldn’t specifically point to anything that authors should or could do differently. Just keep writing!
12. What advice would you give anyone who isn’t doing what they love?
Ask yourself whether you care. I have plenty of respect for people spending their lives doing something they don’t love as long as they’re doing so consciously. If you’ve made the conscious decision to do something you don’t much care about because, for you, financial security or some other factor or practicality outweighs the temptation of switching, then so be it.
But if you’re not doing something you love, you know it and it bothers you, then don’t waste another minute. Definitely don’t fritter your life away moaning about it. Ask yourself what you would love to be doing – make a list. Then ask yourself which of those things might conceivably pay the bills eventually even if you have to sail close to the wind for a bit to get to that point. Then talk to people already doing that thing and pick their brains for how to go about making your dream switch.
13. Finally, a quote you live by…
Wouldn’t it be clever of me to be able to point to some great literary quote that I carry as a maxim for life and/or work? Sadly though that isn’t the case and so this is the trickiest question you’ve asked me! I can think of a few I’d like to say I live by, but apparently I’m far too inconsistent in my approach for any of those to ring true. The essential truth (rather than a quote) that I try to remember though is that more than 5/7ths of your life is spent on work, so if you don’t enjoy that work time you are doing yourself a big disservice. That’s what drove us to create Mr B’s and what we live by now.
For more information about Nic and Mr B’s Emporium Of Reading Delights visit the shop at: 14-15 John Street, Bath, Avon BA12JL or browse the website. You can also connect via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.