Wednesday, 17 July 2013

At The Pub With Susan Caroline of Pengwern Books [A Cunning Plot & a Conversation About Publishing]

Yet another long, warm summer evening, and I’m in the Dog & Pheasant on Castlefields talking to Susan Caroline of Pengwern Books. It's had a checkered life since opening in Fish Street in 2004, and so has she.  Keeping an independent bookshop in business in the current book-selling climate, with the publishing industry in disarray, has taken a lot of ducking and diving. Susan's doggedness is astonishing.

Pengwern Books has had a variety of homes, not least of which has been to the immediate right of the altar in St Alkmund’s Church, courtesy of the Reverend Richard Hayes and St Alkmund's PCC.  At a time when it looked as though Shrewsbury's only independent contemporary bookshop might go down, this proved a real refuge in a storm.  These days, however, Pengwern Books is thriving in Shrewsbury’s indoor market, a key part of its current renaissance, situated next to Julia Wenlock’s chocolate shop and a stone’s throw from the Bird’s Nest café.  

Susan talks to me about her life-long love of books. It was a family thing for her, growing up with books, learning to read them, discovering what she liked, making family trips to the library.  Her father loved books and would read anything. Her mother was not a reader, but was determined that Susan and her siblings should all read before they started primary school. Susan’s German mother, was great at celebrations, and books were usually a part of them.  Susan grew up to be a fast reader.  The reps are astonished, she says, at the speed with which she rattles through books.  Even when she’s not in the shop, books go on holiday with her.  One time, notably, she headed out to Greece with fourteen books, none of which - including Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling - were light reading, and returned with nothing unread.   

There's always something in Susan's shop-front display that draws one in. I hardly ever pass by Pengwern Books without wanting to buy something - and probably more than one something. This is in marked contrast to some book shops windows that leave me cold. Pengwern Books may be a small shop in terms of floor space, I suggest, but it packs a powerful punch.  How does Susan do it?

Susan laughs when I say that [and pushes her specs up on top of her head]. Strangely, she says she’s always reckoned window-dressing her weakest point.  ‘Having said that, I’d never knowingly buy an ugly book,’ she says.  ‘’Design is important.  The cover really matters. But when it comes to buying in stock - and to dressing my shop-front  - I go on gut instinct. I know my customers. I listen to what they have to tell me. I always have an eye for what they’ll like. But, even so, there’s no particular formula to it.'

Certainly Susan’s choices don’t come from reviews. Much to my surprise, given how quick she is at picking up the best of the new books, she mostly doesn’t read them. The reps will come in [‘I’m blessed with great reps,’ Susan says] and she’ll go through their lists saying no, no, no, don’t want, don’t want, no thanks, then suddenly there will be a hang on there, followed by a yes, I’ll take that one.

Susan works instinctively rather than on a rational basis.  Having said that, price is a big consideration.  It’s important to take in books that people can afford.  Susan tends not to stock hardbacks, though she makes a few exceptions, one being Matthew Sewell’s lovely Our Garden Birds.  ‘People want books as entertainment,’ Susan says.  ‘They don’t all want Booker prize winners.  Good writing doesn’t have to be unattainable. And just because it’s populist that doesn’t make it bad.’

I ask Susan to name a few books she’s read and would recommend.  Sophie McKenzie comes up first, with her novel Falling Fast.  It’s great for teens, Susan says, and great for anyone who’s interested in the subject of growing up.  The first novel by Annabel Pitcher, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, is another quite amazing book, and Susan has a high regard for Dick Frances and what she calls ‘his intelligent, respectful writing’.  Then there’s Susan Cain's  Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking. Then there’s Raymond Feist’s The Magician, which should definitely be in everybody's Top 100 books, and the list goes on and on.

It can’t be easy being an independent in the currently unstable publishing market, struggling with the advent of e-books and the power of online buying, in particular from Amazon.  People are wondering if independent booksellers will soon be a thing of the past. Hard as it is to believe, there’s not a single independent bookshop in Birmingham.  However, this has turned book buying into a bit of a tourist industry, with people driving out from the city to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in, say, Anna Dreda’s Wenlock Books at Much Wenlock [a beautiful drive out, and a great destination] or Susan’s Pengwern Books in Shrewsbury Market.  There's nothing the online industry can offer that compares with finding a new favourite writer in a small curated shop with a well-read bookseller, especially one who has some idea of your taste.  

Pengwern Books has amassed many loyal customers over the years.  Some Susan says have passed on, others continue to come back wherever the shop is based. One customer used to ply Susan with chocolates on a weekly basis, and in the interests of not putting on the pounds had to be stopped.  There are customers who’ll come in for tea and a chat, and other customers whom Susan has met literally on the street outside her shop and persuaded to come in - and they’ve been coming in ever since.  ‘People either have to use their local bookshops, or they lose them,’ Susan says. 'It's as simple as that.'  And she's right.  Without independent bookshops, run by dedicated readers/booksellers, reading will become blander – and writing will too. This isn't just a story of big business taking over.  It's a story of a whole generation of writers being lost and their work disregarded.  Indeed, it’s the independents who’ve nursed the career of many of a writer through their troughs to their successes.  Hilary Mantel’s a good example. It’s far from certain that her publishers would have stuck by her without traditional bookselling keeping her in the public eye, or at least on the shelf.

But how to compete with the online market and the convenience of click-and-deliver shopping for those of us who don’t have the time to rifle and browse – or indeed to get in our car and drive out to the nearest indie bookshop? Susan has a cunning plan. 'Go to,’ she says.  It’s a massive online shop set up by Gardner's, one of the UK’s biggest book wholesalers, and the last of the independents.  They’ve provided an online platform for purchasing books, including e-books, music and DVDs.  ‘All you have to do,’ says Susan, ‘is set up an account, just as you would with Amazon, then you can choose your local bookshop as your nominated favourite store and a percentage of your purchases will go to them in exactly the way it would if you bought your book in their shop. It’s as easy as that.  You can buy online to your heart’s content, and have it delivered to your home, but you’re not doing down your local independent.  You’re actually helping it.  Of course, it's better for the shop if you visit them, but for those dedicated to online buying, or too far away to visit a favourite bookshop, there are deals to be had. And for those who arrange for delivery to their favourite indie bookshop, the postage comes for free.'*

Plainly you have to be ingenious to keep selling books these days. Susan has kept Pengwern Books alive for nine years now. Before that she worked for Powney’s Bookshop until it closed, and before that for Social Services, though her initial training was as a nurse. ‘I couldn’t have kept going without help,’ Susan says.’ My son, Ben Draper, has been pretty damned good, and so has Lorna Godwin, another ex-Powney's stalwart, who's forgotten more than I'll ever know. And Andrew Johnson and Hilary Hannaford worked with me for years, and I miss them more than I can say.’ 

Andrew added a knowledgeable breadth of history, politics and current affairs to the mix of books in Pengwern Books, and Hilary was brilliant at customer relations and the actual business of selling. ‘It’s all about customer relations,’ Susan says. ‘People think you can just set up and sell books and press the till, but there’s so much more than that to learn. Books are about people, and bookshops need to be too.  Even in my tiny shop I have room for an armchair and a kettle.  You have to get to know your customers in this business.  And Andrew and Hilary understood that.  They were a joy to work with and I’d have them back in a flash if I could.’

So what about the future, I ask. What next for Pengwern Books?  Susan recalls a ticketed author event that she put on when Pengwern Books was in Princess Street.  The author was Alan Titchmarsh and she had people with tickets queuing for half an hour beforehand in order to get a good seat, and others without tickets waiting on the street just to catch a glimpse of the great man.

‘I wouldn’t mind doing a few more events like that,’ Susan says.  ‘Also I do dream of having a café and gallery too.  There’s a great buzz here in the market and I’ve worked hard to raise its profile, but I need to focus now on my customers, and on myself.’  Susan’s thinking of diversifying.  She’d like to organize a little crime festival.  ‘Working the way I do is bloody hard sometimes,’ Susan says.  ‘But it’s worth it. I’m proud to see Pengwern Books still here, despite everything, doing what it always did.  If it’s out there, I’ll help people find the books they want. The written word is important.  I love what I do.’

Susan is a real presence in her shop. She’s extrovert and friendly, and she’ll find you a good read, whatever your interests. She speaks her mind, and is plainly not a woman to suffer fools gladly.  Her dedication to Pengwern Books is second to none.  Recently she had a short trip to hospital, but within hours was planning what tomorrow’s tasks would be and how quickly she could get out.  ‘But that’s what it’s like,’ she says, ‘when you’re running a business on your own.  There are some things no one can do for you.'   

It’s time to leave.  Susan and I have talked ourselves from sunshine to darkness in the space of a couple of hours.  In the front bar there’s been a birthday drink-up, but the drinkers have gone now, and anyway here in the back we’ve been nice and quiet.  We leave the pub to go our separate ways.  Susan is convinced I’m taking the wrong turn, but I insist I know where I’m going and I’ll be all right.  We’re two strong women who both love books. It’s been good to talk.  Goodnight, we say, goodnight.

 *PS: What Susan told me about Hive sounded  brilliant, so this morning I tried it out. I clicked the Hive link and up came its home page. I selected a book in my basket and was directed to open an account, giving me the option to choose my favourite bookshop. I selected Pengwern Books and up came everything I’d need to know, including opening times and a map. I proceeded to the checkout and was given the option of my book being delivered to Pengwern Books, or at home.  If I’d been at work during the day I’d have probably chosen Pengwern Books, but because I work from home, I chose home. After I’d bought my book, a message came up thanking me for supporting my local bookshop and assuring me that every time I made a purchase, regardless of whether it was delivered to the shop or at home, Pengwern Books would receive a percentage of the sale. 

I think this is absolutely brilliant, and recommend everybody reading this, who has a particular independent bookshop they'd like to support, to give it a go.  I now intend to go on my website and change the links on all my eleven novels, nominating Pengwern Books and directing them to 

PPS. In the short time it's taken to get this written and post it up, my first Hive order has arrived:

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