Our August Bookshop of the Month is Salisbury’s Sarum College Bookshop, just a stone’s throw away from the city’s much-admired cathedral. This award-winning bookshop houses an impressive array of spiritual titles and is often applauded for its friendly approach to bookselling. We spoke to manager Jenny about their bestsellers, customer base and bookselling ethos…
1. As part of Salisbury’s centre for Christian study and research, Sarum College Bookshop is known for its collection of theological and Christian texts, but also boasts a selection of books for a more general readership. What are your bestsellers? Do you find that your specialist books are more popular than your general interest titles?
One of our bestselling books is The Art of Worship by Nicholas Holtam. The book is a selection of paintings from the National Gallery, each with a prayer and a reflection from the author . As the author is our Diocesan Bishop it’s especially appropriate as a gift for a confirmation or for someone joining the diocese, but it’s popular with visitors from further afield, too.
On the whole our specialist books are more popular than our general interest titles, because they are the types of books our customers expect to find here. We do very well with books on spirituality, especially with authors such as Richard Rohr and Henri Nouwen, and with Bible commentators such as Tom Wright and Paula Gooder. Our bestselling authors of the last three months have been the prolific Rowan Williams, especially his Being Human, and Archbishop Justin Welby with his Reimagining Britain. We also, as you might expect, sell a lot of Bibles.
In terms of general interest books, we do very well with poetry. Our bestselling title is the lovely collection The Splash of Words by Mark Oakley. We also find Sod Sixty!: The Guide to Living Well is a steady seller, as are some prize-winning novels, such as the wonderful, quirky Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Barney Norris’ brilliant first novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain.
2. In 2017 Sarum College Bookshop was named South-West England Independent Bookshop of the Year – congratulations! How has this recognition benefitted your shop?
Thank you! Yes, it was wonderful to be a regional winner. Emily Button, Assistant Manager, and I had a fabulous evening at the British Book Awards at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. The winners were listed in The Bookseller and on social media, and we were given a badge to put on our emails and on our website.
I don’t know if it brought in more customers, but it’s surprising how many of our existing customers saw something about it and referred to it, and were pleased for us. Any positive news about the shop has to be good.
3. You are well known for your friendly and personal approach to bookselling. Tell us more about your bookselling ethos.
Many of the customers who come through our doors are known to us, so a day at work can be like a day meeting friends. I dislike saying “no” to anything, so we always try to source whatever it is the customer wants – a book in French, an out-of-print book, 30 Bibles delivered next day – they are all challenges which make the day more interesting, and, we hope, help show the value of shopping in independent bookshops.
My bookselling ethos is that bookselling is all about relationships – with the staff and volunteers in the shop, with the customers and with the publishers, who can all work together to make sure we have the right books on our shelves, and that coming into our bookshop or contacting us by phone is a pleasant experience. Some of the best book discoveries are often the books found by chance, so we try to encourage browsing and lingering, with books on tables and cosy armchairs.
We also like to have lots of author events, again to add to the whole experience of buying books. There is something special about bringing authors and readers together. We have refreshments, and customers can leave with a signed copy. Poet Malcolm Guite (pictured) has been several times to do a poetry reading, and draws a larger crowd each time.
4. Alongside your main bookshop, you also have a basement full of second-hand books. How does this fit in with your business model?
The second-hand book basement is a vital part of our business. The books are donated, and a wonderful volunteer sorts and prices them and keeps the basement looking fresh. It’s a great place for customers to browse, and the income helps keep the rest of the shop going.
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
There are always things we would like to do! We would like to change the till area to have more computers and room for two members of staff, plus space for deliveries underneath. That may not be very exciting for the customers, but would make quite a difference for the staff! And a café would be nice…