How we got into bookselling: Storysmith Books

Storysmith Books is an independent bookshop in Bristol, selling books, subscription gifts and coffee, while running events and working with schools. Their online shop has a great selection of books. Here, they talk about how they got into bookselling and some of the skills that booksellers need.

So many people I know have an in-the-future dream of opening a bookshop, but you actually did it! So, how did you come to run your own bookshop?

We lived in London for about ten years after we both graduated from university: Emily worked in publishing in a variety of production roles at Hachette, Usborne and Bloomsbury, and Dan worked in radio, as a journalist and as an occasional author. We’d always nursed a dream of opening a bookshop inspired by our favourite local establishments (Review in Peckham, Rye Books in East Dulwich, occasional trips up to Phlox Books in Leyton), but we knew the scene around us was saturated and maybe even slightly drowning in brilliant independent bookshops, so it had to happen somewhere outside of London.

Bristol ticked so many boxes: we’d loved it from afar (thanks to several unrelated work trips and having family nearby), and it seemed like the natural choice for somewhere to open our shop. We took so many things into account – the distance to our families, the needs of the community, the high street around us, access for touring authors, the health of the literary community in Bristol as a whole… endless considerations for what turned out to be the biggest (and best) decision of our lives.

Storysmith opened in October 2018 and, we’re not too sheepish to say, has become a fixture for South Bristol and beyond. We’re very happy with our growth as a business so far and have managed to emerge intact on the other side of lockdown. We’re now tentatively optimistic about the future and excited to be properly planning for it.

Working in a bookshop gives you a very specific overview of the publishing industry. What are some of the most useful things you’ve learned on the job?

Sifting through the literally hundreds of releases each week gives you an excellent sense of your own curatorial opinion, which doesn’t sound like much of a transferable skill. But when you think about it, that ability to discern what is relevant not only to your business but to your community can be the difference between a boom in sales and a total flop (we have experienced both, naturally). We like to think we’re always honing and evolving our ability to get that right so that we’re commercially viable but also satisfying our own literary tastes.

Occupying that ‘funnel’ position means your customers get a completely curated experience in the shop, on our website and with our (temporarily paused) events programme. The relationships you create with publishers and presses are just as important and need similar attention. It’s time-consuming, but to us it’s the essence of the business – basically you just need to keep reading and loving books and challenging your habits, which is kind-of why we got into this in the first place.

That’s so true – I feel like building solid and effective working relationships is one of the essentials for any publishing-related job, and so is the ability to pick out a mix of books that feels right for your particular business (whether you’re selling or publishing them). There are so many transferable skills between bookselling and publishing roles. What advice would you give to someone looking to get their first bookselling job?

We get a lot of inquiries about part-time work and a lot of CVs emailed to us, and the thing we react to most is a love and knowledge of books that is separate to an applicant’s need for a job. It is, in essence, a retail role, but a deeply idiosyncratic one which requires knowledge and passion and taste and the ability to convey those things to absolutely anyone – if you don’t have an easily demonstrable enthusiasm for reading widely then it’s going to be a tough job.

Before lockdown we were in a position where we could do most things between the two of us with a bit of part-time help, but very soon we’re going to be in need of a more permanent solution as we grow other areas of the business, so we already have an idea of which applicants we’ll be returning to – those hit-and-hope applications are often just as important as the ones in response to a specific ad.

I completely agree – even if there’s not an actual role available, it’s always worth making contact with someone and putting yourself out there. Even if a job doesn’t come out of it immediately, extending our network helps keep us in people’s minds.

Is there specific prep that you would recommend for anyone currently interviewing – or hoping to interview – for a bookselling job?

It might seem elementary, but having a real grasp of the bookshop you’re applying to is absolutely essential: do you have the same taste as them? Would your taste maybe complement and extend the shop’s selection into new areas? What does their social media say about how they connect with their customers and the audience beyond their local area? Have you been to any of their events? Do you get their sense of humour?

A general awareness of the publishing industry would also be useful, as we deal directly with so many elements of it (authors, agents, publishers, marketing and PR departments, suppliers, sales reps etc). Register for free with The Bookseller and read the news, follow everyone you can on Twitter and try to assimilate some gossip, treat the whole business like an unmissable soap opera.

Which sometimes it totally can feel like, haha. That’s very good advice and definitely applies for other publishing-related roles. What are some of the skills that a person will develop while working as a bookseller?

Your people skills will drastically improve, as they probably would do in a lot of retail roles, but booksellers are in a uniquely privileged position of providing customers with an essential indulgence. Customers are very rarely unhappy to be in a bookshop, so you do tend to get people at their best, but occasionally your diplomacy skills are called into action.

In its best and most effective incarnations, being a bookseller is not just a stopgap retail job. It’s specialised, it’s demanding and it thrusts you into an extremely fast-moving and high-volume production landscape. While the insight into the wider publishing industry can make bookselling a brilliant first notch on your CV, the right bookshop can also provide a significant project role for someone with plenty of experience from elsewhere in the industry – managing specific revenue strands like events, external bookings and festivals, schools, social media or subscription boxes for a bookshop can literally be a separate and self-sustaining business in itself.

What personality traits do you feel are essential for someone working in bookselling?

Demonstrable passion for and knowledge of books, and the ability to tell people about it – that’s the big one, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. But there’s so much more to a bookselling role than this: if you apply for a job in bookselling imagining it will be a carefree experience where you sip peppermint tea and read books all day, then your expectations are unrealistic or there’s something amiss with the shop you’re applying to.

Adaptability is also really important – you can be leading a single customer around the shop High Fidelity-style, joyfully placing books onto their stack of personal recommendations, or you can be advising a teacher who needs to diversify their library stock, or you might be handling a sensitive recommendation for a child who’s fallen out of love with reading. Equally, you could be chasing up our recycling collections, running a pop-up at a market or an external event (we have sold books everywhere from graveyards to entomology conferences), wrapping up subscription packages or getting a load of Posca pens in so the artist you’ve booked can do a window display to their satisfaction. And if you can make a flat white that helps too.


Storysmith on Twitter.

Storysmith website.

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