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How to Run a Bookshop

We spoke with Tan Dillon the owner of The Village Bookshop, Essex about his experience buying and running a bookshop.

Buying a bookshop is a dream that some have had since childhood. Bookshops can be special places where customers spend hours choosing their next book title, and everyone loves a good book.

However, what does it really take to run a book sellingbusiness? Tan gave us his insider view.

Buying a bookshop  

Tan told us that when he first told friends he was buying a bookshop they wanted to know why; “a lot of my friends said to me ‘you're mad, what are you buying a bookshop for? You've got the internet, Kindles, Amazon’”. But he had been looking for a business opportunity for a while and this one caught his eye.

Tan, who previously worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing, as well as working as an extra in TV and film, was originally looking for a gift shop or a coffee shop, before he saw the bookshop. He explained that “it was just the feel of the place” that won him over and the business had already been running for 30 years so he considered it a fairly viable business with an established customer base.

Tan bought his business with a mixture of existing savings and small loans. He also re-mortgaged his house; “I stretched the mortgage as far as it can go, so if things do go pear-shaped, I can still meet my payments by doing an ordinary job somewhere".

Tan used multiple sources of money to raise his finance, and he took risks, but he sensibly made sure his risks were calculated, and that he had a back-up plan for if the project failed.

It took Tan four months to complete the purchase, from the initial offer through all the necessary paperwork. "First, we had to agree the price but the main part of the delay was the paperwork between three sets of solicitors: you've got the landlord's solicitors, you've got the purchaser's and the buyer's solicitors.”

Tan advises "it's better to get things right, and get what you want, rather than rush into something you might regret later".

The Book Shop

Running the shop

Tan gets to the shop for about 10am to welcome the deliveries. He then rings the customers awaiting book delivery and then he’ll do any school orders. Tan says “it’s a question of dealing with customers as we go along, then planning the orders for the next day". When you’re an independent business you have to work with a certain amount of flexibility.

Tan also told us "you have to be a people person to work in the retail trade. You’ve got to be prepared to be nice to people and you've got to be prepared to deal with people who are a bit rude to you. You have to be able to handle complaints and queries. You need a lot of patience".

You also have to be prepared for the initial challenges of opening a bookshop and be ready for a period of learning and adjustment.

Tan says "the first few months were really intense, learning everything” even though the previous owner provided guidance and advice. "It was hard getting to know all the different suppliers - we have over 5,000 titles here - different books, different customers - some customers expect you to remember what they want - so there's a lot to learn."

The future

The shop has a healthy regular turnover but Tan is looking to further develop the business through expanding their offer with more niche products. "We do cards, of course, but I'm looking at collectors of vintage books, we're doing some vintage comics, some collectors comics. We might do some second-hand books.”

 What’s holding him back is lack of space so he wants to develop the new aspects of his business online. Running a bookshop in the digital age presents advantages as well as challenges.

Tan argues that you should always be looking to increase turnover. “A lot of people will come in, and if they can buy the book a pound or two cheaper online they'll go and buy them elsewhere. They do their research here.”

It’s also a challenging financial market as people are being more careful with their money. Tan noted that even in his relatively affluent area people are still being cautious about making purchases. “Where in the past they might have spent money on six books in a month, now they're only spending money on two or three. A lot of people are cutting back.”

Tan’s key tips

  •  Take a risk! 

  •  Expand your product line

It seems, at least from Tan’s experience, you just have to take the plunge, have a plan B, and then think creatively about expanding your business. "Sometimes you've just got to take a chance”. There’s a reason to believe anything is possible and “you never know what's around the corner”.

Matt Skinner

About the author

Matt Skinner writes for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other industry publications.

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