Friday, February 24, 2023

Abbey Books

This is a guest post today as I was doing my bit on Wednesday instead of Friday. And it's Friday again, so this is going out before  we head of to the airport.

This blog is all about bookshop life.

If I wasn't doing what I was doing and I still hadn't won the lottery to open my rest home for disabled donkeys, I thought that I'd like to open a bookshop. Or a coffee shop. Or a bookshop that sells coffee and muffins, because that must be a great job.

Then I meet people who say 'Oh it must be so relaxing to run a therapy centre, so Zen and calming,' while I'm on the betablockers and the Pinot because the council are taking three years to do something that should take 10 minutes.

So meanwhile, here's Brian at the bookshop!


                                                                           A happy camper

Brian, you are a sucessful editor and non fiction writer, why have you decided to start running a book shop?

I’ve not had what you’d call  traditional career. There’s probably a link between being a journalist, editor, magazine editor and PR but it’s a fairly big leap to events management, running a hotel, setting up an association for chefs and owning a cookery school. After I retired I had started working a day a week in the bookshop. I was a regular customer and the owner was short-staffed. Last August, he decided to retire and asked if I wanted to take on the job full-time. It’s not quite full-time as I have someone else working one of the five days we open. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision but it probably helped that I’d been bedded in by the part-time work, knew my way around the shop, and, more importantly, enjoyed it.


                                                                           Books and more books

 How does the day to day running work? Or do you find yourself not pulling the shutters up because you're reading something interesting?

It’s hard to resist the siren call of the books. Usually, I’m too busy shelving or re-shelving books, or answering the phone, unpacking boxes of new stock, dealing with customers, organising a window display, or posting on Instagram to have much time left for reading. We have 40,000 books and no computerised stock system so sometimes I’m annoyed to discover a customer has found a book that I would have loved to read. But I get first dibs on anything that comes in, so I’ve been recently reading a booking on the 'Indian' Wars in America and I’ve plundered the art section for anything on William Turner, a recent passion.
It's a treasure of pre-loved books. How does that differ from running a shop selling new books?

Well, we don’t usually know what we’ve got whereas the other kind of bookstore has a massive computer system to keep them posted. But it does mean we can’t dictate to our customers what books we’ll stock. We stock what we’re given, not what head office dictates. Which does mean – never mind the number of books in stock – that we have a far wider range than most bookshops. At last count we had over 120 categories. And we’ve got signs up – “shelf talkers” in bookshop parlance – to point people in the right direction. We do, however have a small stock, of new books - classic novels and modern classics and some philosophy – that we sell at half-price.  We've got some new books at full price written by local historians. And we’re just launching a range of dual language books for primary school children in Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian because customers asked us to get them in.
Who are the best characters that come in to your shop?

There’s no shortage of fascinating customers. Harry used to be a coal merchant and retails us with stories of working with horse and cart and selling eggs alongside coal. Philippa is an artist with a particular interest in sheep. Jim used to work in the museum and can generally be counted on to tell me anything I need to know about local history. Some people are known by their interest, always buying books on aircraft or buses or World War Two or religion or art. We have one guy who collects Folio Books, of which we have a small collection. If someone buys a lot of books or an interesting item they end up on our Instagram page. I wouldn’t be running an Instagram page if it wasn’t for Felicity and Hameedat, two young customers, who encouraged me to try it and taught me how to work it.

                                                              A very happy customer from Sri Lanka, who facetimed his family in Oz
                                                            about the great bookshop he'd found.

What future plans do you have for the book shop?

We started a Readers Club. Not a Book Group. In a book group you get told what to read like you’re still at school, in a readers club you tell us what book you’re reading, so it’s an evening full of people bursting with enthusiasm and still enthralled by books rather than people moaning about a book they didn’t like but had to read. I’d like to get better at doing the window displays. But mostly I’d like more customers, thank you very much, and with such a tiny enterprise we don’t have the budget for the marketing we would need to get the word out that Paisley has a second-hand bookshop that’s the match of any in Scotland and well worth a visit.

Do you have a best find you can tell us about?

Too many. Commercially, the best we had so far was signed copies of the four Douglas Adams books. They went to auction on ebay and did very well. But now I’m so excited about a notebook of the playwright and artist John Byrne (The Slab Boys) that I’m trying to work out how to best use – not for sale, I’m afraid. We’ve got a Bayeux Tapestry in a slipcase and a giant book from 1860 with engravings by famed Scottish artist Joseph Paton, a Debretts from 1837, a Walter Scott first edition from 1827 and an Uncorrected Proof of A Plague of Sailors by Brian Callison. Also, I’m fascinated by what drops out of books, postcards, letters, evidence of lives – and sometimes loves – lived. We are often donated books in a will, by a former customer or someone who knows their collection will be well looked after. We had to find two extra bookcases to take care of the collection of books by a professor from Strathclyde University and a noted classics lecturer at Edinburgh University.
Does it serve any social purpose? - refugees, information point etc?

Yes, we get a lot of customers from Eastern Europe who are trying to make a new life. They are trying to improve their English and meet people who have a fellow enjoyment of reading. The Dual Language books are an attempt to help improve language skills. If we don’t have a book in stock we will generally be able to help source it or offer an alternative. Local libraries are running down their stock and charity shops have nothing like our range so we fill a vital role in providing access, and cheap at that, to books. Recently, there was a dyslexic customer who bought plays that we were able to direct to screenplays as an alternative. It’s quite different to a new bookshop. There’s a big sense of adventure. You never know what you’re going to find, some fabulous treasure, a long-lost book that a Waterstones would not stock and so long out of print you can’t find it on ebay. There’s a fabulous bustle on a busy day and on a quiet day you get the chance to chat to customers. Win-win.

It is harder or easier than writing a book?

Nothing is harder than writing a book and writing a book affords you little simple pleasures like the look on someone’s face when they espy a book they know they are going to enjoy or can walk out of the shop with a dozen books that cost them less than £30 - around 98% of our stock is in the £2-£2.50 range.  
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

I’m looking no further ahead than next year when we celebrate our 40th anniversary. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover we were the oldest retailer in Paisley and certainly one of the oldest bookshops in the country. Hopefully, by then we’ll have run down our stocks because we’ll have a lot more customers.

Cheers Brian, every success with the venture!
Ps, Abbey Book Shop has a very large crime section!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks very much. It's a joy.

  2. You have found the fountain of youth, Brian--utter joy at what you do!

  3. This looks and sounds like such a lovely bookshop!