Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Brave new world: Sydney’s Beachside Bookshop

Sydney’s Beachside Bookshop, which specialises in teen fiction, celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this year. Owner and second-generation bookseller Libby Armstrong shares her bookseller’s diary.

‘Oh, you’re very brave.’ If we had a dollar for every person who told us this when we opened, we’d be rolling in coin. The comment was always presented as a precursor to a lecture on the finer points of competition from ebooks, online retailers and local bookshops and the slightly threatening personal observation that ‘books are dying’.

We did our homework in setting up Beachside Bookshop, Australia’s first built-from-scratch indie catering to readers of teen fiction, and addressing this reaction helped and continues to help us hone our strategy.

I grew up 100 metres from a specialist children’s bookshop where my mum worked for several years. Early on I was witness to that magical process of a bookseller placing the right books in the right hands and knew this was the career for me.

In my mid-20s I would have dearly liked to have bought Moscraft, the bookshop where I worked, but financially we weren’t ready. So fast forward a couple of decades and here we are, living the dream, close to the sands of Avalon Beach in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Opening a brand new bookshop is scary. The logistics are a killer and make for complicated spreadsheets and bottomless pockets. On the upside, it gives you plenty of scope to be whatever you want.

Fortunately we had the encouraging support and advice of bookseller friends, who helped us work on our:

  • teen-fiction specialty, a fast-growing segment dominated by adult readers
  • quality service
  • attractive fit-out
  • promotion of Australian authors.

Having a strong point of difference has influenced our shop’s personality and marketing, and the people who have been drawn to work alongside us. We would not have the loyal customer following, or those magic daily interactions, if it was not for Danica Beaudoin, Ian Hallett and recent recruit Sarah Blundell. Their experience, interests and ideas are what keep us flexible, growing and fun.

Reflecting on our first year, it was easy to identify what works and doesn’t work for us (and I’m grateful that any eye-rolls that occur when I continue my over-zealous over-ordering in some months is conducted out of sight).

Handselling: it’s approximately 95% of our sales. Even though we planned to offer a boutique service, I’m still amazed that we have very few browsers and customers who want to help themselves. We are a tiny shop, just 44 square metres, which isn’t really conducive to browsing, but it’s a treat for shopper conversion.

Teen fiction focus: people (and schools) visit for this specialty and then discover our great selection of books for the rest of the family.

Social media: we love (and I am slightly addicted to) Instagram. We compete in monthly challenges hosted by teen fiction devotees, we follow authors and other bookshops and glean ideas and advice and have a bit of fun. We do get sales from our posts but mostly we do it to help promote great reads, particularly from our Aussie authors.

What doesn’t work for us is trying to be everything to everyone. We are really good at teen and babies through to primary fiction, with a healthy offering of adult books that promote reading for pleasure. Due to their own styles and strengths, other bookshops on the Northern Beaches cater for different needs, and our hope is that by having more indies in the area offering choice, more readers will #shoplocal.

Over-ordering is still a challenge. Currently we are independently independent, so any improved discount comes from the support of our reps and buying in bulk. That’s actually been the toughest part, and because we choose not to compete on price, it’s hard when your customers will gleefully tell you how they’ve picked up a swag of quality new releases at the mall for less than cost, and then expect an hour of handselling for a paperback for their grandkids … sigh. Manners please, customers!

But I still don’t consider what we’ve done is brave. We reserve that title for our Australian authors who are committed to ensuring we have our own stories, who put their work up first for the judgement of publishers, then readers. Who then commit to hours and weeks and months of unpaid marketing effort, and now, as the implications of the Productivity Commission loom, are asking themselves why.

Don’t give up, authors. Our proudest moment reflecting on our first year’s top-sellers was that all (with the exception of ‘Harry Potter’) were Australian, with a strong showing from Northern Beaches talent:

  • Penguin Bloom (Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive, ABC Books)
  • Artie and the Grime Wave (Richard Roxburgh, A&U)
  • Summer Skin (Kirsty Eagar, A&U)
  • Promising Azra (Helen Thurloe, A&U)
  • Somewhere Else (Gus Gordon, Viking).

PS If I did have one regret, it was not asking Scott Whitmont from Lindfield Bookshop earlier about which sticky pricing labels he used, before our first killer returns.


Category: Bookseller’s diary Features