Founders of UK and Ireland’s Independent Bookshop of the Year on tackling Amazon

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Booka bookshop

When the married couple quit their jobs to set up Booka bookshop mid-recession, people thought they were ‘a little mad’. In 2015 their business was named UK & Ireland Independent Bookshop of the Year. Here’s their story so far…

Carrie Morris I was a primary school teacher for eight years and, by 2008, I’d come to the end of what I wanted to do in teaching, I was looking for a change of direction. I remember Tim saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bookshop and café.’ We enjoy good retail ourselves and wanted to create something that would stop people in their tracks.

Tim Morris I was a town planner for 20 years before we started Booka in 2009 and I carried on working for a couple of years after we launched – I was just the Saturday boy until I took voluntary redundancy in 2011 to work in the business full time. It probably wasn’t the best time to start a retail business on the high street, but there hadn’t been a bookshop in Oswestry for 10 years and we felt there was a real opportunity.

Carrie Morris We spent nine months researching and planning. One of the first things I did was go on a one-day bookselling course run by the Booksellers Association. We also created a questionnaire for local book groups and people we knew – trying to find out whether people thought having a bookshop in Oswestry was a good idea.

Tim Morris In terms of locations where independent bookshops can thrive, I think good-sized market towns are ideal – somewhere you can build a community around your shop. Oswestry has almost 20,000 people, with a large rural hinterland, and we knew it well. As a town planner I dealt with a lot of retail development proposals – you get a feel for the importance of footfall. If we couldn’t have secured this unit – double-fronted, light and airy, with space to create a café and bookshop – we would have held off.

Carrie Morris We went to the bank to try to get funding. But obviously, in 2009 no one was lending any money at all. So we had to put the money on our mortgage, we’ve financed it ourselves and built it organically. Over the years, having a good accountant has proved to be important – we have someone who is more than just an end-of-year administrator, she’s able to listen to our ideas, help us do cashflow and assist us in pushing forward certain areas of our business, while also at times being able to say ‘that’s not a great idea’.

Tim Morris Looking back I think people thought we were a little mad – opening a retail business in the recession, with Amazon as our key competitor. But I think they quickly realised, ‘Oh, so this is Booka bookshop, and actually it feels good.’ We were always conscious of creating a shopping experience you can’t buy online – that service and rapport with customers. We’re selling books at pretty much full RRP, so we’re not competing on price, we’re competing on that shopping experience, and that’s something Amazon can’t provide.

Carrie Morris It’s very much about offering a space where people can come and spend time, getting into conversation about books and us being able to make recommendations. Also, we do author events throughout the year – which has taken time to build through our relationship with publishers. Now people are asking us who will be visiting next, building that expectation.

Tim Morris We’ve had the astronaut Chris Hadfield, Brian Blessed, Julia Donaldson, Michael Morpurgo, Mark Webber, Kate Mosse, the list goes on. We’re now running around 30 author events every year. We’re attracting bestselling authors, but also the best new writers – when people see an up-and-coming writer talk about their first book and then see their profile grow, they feel part of the author’s journey.

Carrie Morris We’re now having to be more strategic with our time – working hard on maintaining standards, but also looking to the future to plan the next step. At the moment I’m focused on the day-to-day running of the shop, the operational side and the management of staff and systems…

Tim Morris …and I’m focused more on the creative side, the look and feel of the shop, the website and so on. They’re very complementary roles, but we’re also fortunate that we have a strong team of dedicated staff who are passionate about the bookshop. That gives us the flexibility to think about the bigger decisions of where we take the business next.

Carrie Morris We’re not in our twenties, so my vision is we’ve got 18 years to build what we want before passing it on. In order to do that so we can enjoy our retirement, we’d like to have a mini independent chain – perhaps three shops. Sometimes it’s easy to talk yourself out of things because of everything else going on, but it’s time for us to become more strategic and start making definite steps towards that.

To find out more about the award-winning bookshop, visit bookabookshop.co.uk

@BookaBookshop

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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