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Featured Business: Blessington Bookstore
Name: Janet Hawkins, owner, Blessington Bookstore, an independent book and coffee shop
Employees: 11 part-time
The book industry has seen a number of changes in recent years, which means booksellers have had to examine their businesses closely. Irish regional finalist for Independent Bookseller of the Year 2014 in the UK Bookseller Awards, Blessington Bookstore is a great example of how to embrace change.
“We started out as a bookstore in small premises, put up shelves and within a week a bookshop was ready to open,” recalls owner Janet Hawkins.
An accountant by profession, with a degree in English and Philosophy, Janet had returned from a decade in the Netherlands at the height of the Celtic tiger and wanted something that suited her family life.
“After about three or four years of trading, we realised that we needed another steady stream of income to ensure long-term viability. So in 2009 I moved across the road to premises three times as big, which gave me the opportunity of opening up a coffee and cake shop. Then we found that customers were leaving at lunchtime because we couldn’t do lunch, so we started doing paninis and sandwiches and now we’re doing hot pots, so we are moving and changing with our customers.”
The shop also accommodated a space to sell wool and a patio for people to read in the sun. “Between the wool and the coffee shop, there’s always a great buzz, and it makes it a comfortable place to come and browse around,” adds Janet. There is only so far you can bring a bookshop, she notes, which is why in the future the business will be looking at Sunday brunch, and opening as a meeting space for book clubs in the evenings.
Not everything has worked; Janet tried children’s birthday parties above the shop in 2011 and the timing was wrong. Called the Tree House Party Place, the mural of a tree on the front of the building is now the bookshop’s brand image – and it always gets people’s attention. Janet is passionate about the service that independent bookshops provide for readers – finding books that match her reader’s wide range of requirements. Bookselling is a form of vocation, and bookshop owners are good at supporting and inspiring each other.
For Janet, the future of bookshops is working with the e-book market rather than in opposition to it. In addition, she hopes to create an app that will tell users where their nearest independent bookstore is. She is also working with a local school on a lunchtime book club session to get kids reading, encourage their love of books and broaden their understanding of literature. “You do things like this just because you believe in the power of reading and the power of the imagination. Creativity is at the core of everything we do. I think creativity has been stunted by the internet and the entertainment forms we have at the moment. With a book, you have to bring something of yourself to it.”
Interview with Janet Hawkins
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
It was something I always wanted to do. I’ve always been a keen reader. It was very much a gut instinct. I grew up in a family business. I like the idea of a small business. Fate and chance had led me to the Glen of Imaal and I bought a house there. The nearest big town that could support a bookshop was Blessington. A lot of people pass through Blessington to get to Dublin or Tallaght. It has a population of about 6,000 and passing trade, so it is as good a place as any to start.
How did you initially fund your business?
I had some shares in a pension fund and I decided to close that and use the money. It was the height of the shares so it was great; I was as well to put it into a business. I started with that money and reinvested anything I made in the business to help it grow.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
I think you have to. At my very first book conference in 2006 there were booksellers there who’d done it all their lives – just selling books. They were caught like rabbits in a headlight; the world had shifted at their feet. I had the advantage of coming in at a time when the business was changing, and realising you’re not going to make it on just one thing. You have to grow and expand and constantly be looking for different ways of getting people in. That was why there was a change of focus and the addition of the coffee shop. If you’re going to do the cliché, you may as well do the full cliché.
What have been the highlights to date?
The obvious highlight was being highly commended in the Outstanding Small Business of the Year 2014 category at the recent Small Firms Association national awards, and being chosen as Irish regional finalist of the Independent Bookseller of the Year 2014 by the Bookseller Awards in the UK. There are some wonderful bookshops in Ireland, so to be chosen out of those as Independent Bookseller of the Year 2014 was fantastic. I danced for an hour. Really what I wanted to do was sell books and it was great to get recognition as a bookshop.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
There are two aspects of having my own business. Freedom – I like variety and that this can be whatever you make it. You can have a creative idea, analyse it and see if it makes commercial sense, and then do it. You can make something that’s not there. In particular as a bookseller, nothing beats the thrill of somebody coming back in and saying “I loved that book you recommended.”
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Because it’s a family business and because of the part-time model of the business, I could be home when the kids got home from school, and ditto for the other people working for me. They can balance their lives in that way.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Feargal Quinn – I’d love to get him down to the shop. I have this little game, “What would Feargal Quinn say if he came into the shop?” And about three things jump out at me that he would tell me, and that I know I’m not doing. I’ve watched several of his TV programmes [Retail Therapy] and have noted several obvious things that need to be done. He has a very practical, focused way of doing business. He’s a successful businessman himself.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We would not have been able to survive without the internet. We have online access to the databases of our major suppliers so we can see immediately if a book is in stock. We use the internet all day every day to source books, especially when customers have forgotten the name! With half an idea we can find books, we can check to see if our wholesaler has them, if they are still in print. We buy out-of-print books second hand for customers. The internet is probably the most important tool we have.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We buy the books we like and that’s worked up to now, so we’ll continue doing that. Our rep comes down every few months and tells us what new books are coming out and we’ll make a selection from those. But we’ll watch what’s being sold and interact with customers because we’re genuinely interested. Sometimes in that way you stumble across a new author. You do a bit of research and realise this is the latest trend, so you stock up, read it yourself and are ready to go on it.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Although I have an accounting background, you never know everything. I think when you go from starting a business on your own to having staff and a limited company you’re expected to know everything and you can’t. It can be quite easy to make mistakes or do something wrong. That can be quite stressful because you set out to do whatever business it is – in my case bookselling – but end up having to be a semi legal expert on contract and employment law.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
Without a doubt, perception. What I mean is the larger [retail] companies have the marketing budgets to create a perception in national media that they are cheaper and better than the smaller businesses. The smaller businesses are too busy stocking good products at good prices. We don’t have that marketing budget to get out and tell you what a good job we’re doing. The vast majority of the books we sell are cheaper than in some of the larger stores. But the books that are in the public eye – especially coming up to Christmas, you’ll be familiar with the full-page ad in The Irish Times saying we have this at half price – yes, they are definitely cheaper than what we’re offering. But everything else we have is better value, and we’re giving a service. The biggest challenge we have is to get the time and energy resources to get out there and let people know we exist. I’m saying this for every small business, e.g. your local hardware store.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
The money side; I understand the concept of margin and profits and stock control. That comes from my training. Secondly, the interaction with customers; if somebody comes in the door, you engage with them, find out what they like and help them choose a book you know they will enjoy.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
It is nice on a busy day when there’s a lot of people in enjoying themselves and there’s an air of contentment and pleasure. I allow myself to take a moment to take a breath and say “I created this. This wasn’t here and now it is.” To feel I’m doing some good here, I’ve done it in a financially responsible way, I’ve created some employment; that’s about as good as it gets when you go into business.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The big catalyst was the recession. I could see, as a small bookshop, that it was getting precarious and would take a lot of energy to keep going. The way forward was to take the chance of moving to larger premises and to learn how to make good coffee. I had come into a small bit of money at that stage so I was able to invest in it. It was much more a gut feeling than an accounting analysis. I felt in my gut I had a core business I could bring over with me that would pay the basic bills. Of course, in the first year of a coffee shop it loses money, you have to build up your reputation. It has taken four years for that to spread and now we’ve quadrupled our coffee sales.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Energy and time. If I could get an extra 12 hours a day, I would be doing well.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I’m a serial conference attendee. The Bookseller would have two or three conferences or trade shows a year. I talk to independent bookseller colleagues and we share experiences (and book recommendations) with each other. There are synergies between the bookshops, so there’s no shortage of ideas.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
If the reward is seeing what I’ve created, the motivation is to keep it going and find different ways of getting people interested in reading and getting them in the door – not just my door but the doors of other bookshops.
What’s your vision for the future?
I see more interaction with an e-book market and I’ve just been awarded an Enterprise Ireland innovation voucher and am in discussion with IT Tallaght to look at ways I can access and leverage the e-book market. I would see the bookshop as a hybrid bookshop. Say you’re going away on holidays and only want to bring e-books with you, you come into the bookshop and have the bookshop experience and get the advice and your e-books, and we make a few quid out of it.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
I have a couple of friends I talk to about different issues, to get advice and talk things through. We have regular staff meetings and put a few ideas on the table and get reactions.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Before we opened, one of the legendary booksellers, Don Roberts, came down to help and talk to us. He said you are the village bookstore. Own it. Be the Blessington Bookstore. We were going to be Bookworms or something. It was very good advice because you go to a conference and there are a few shops with the same name, but the Blessington Bookstore does what it says on the tin. It has been tremendous over the years to be clear about who we are, what we are.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
To be passionate about what you’re doing. For me, it was really about selling books and enjoying books, with enough of an eye on the money that it had a reasonable chance.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
The challenges of needing to know stuff you can’t possibly know; that’s all part of the process. That’s life and that’s business life. There’s always stuff that happens for the first time and you’ve got to find your way through it. I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently. I’m content that, all in all, we’ve done well, are doing well and will continue to do so, and that as a team we’ve built something people want and enjoy.
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