As part of their series exploring what contributes to the enduring success of established booksellers, Kate Gunning, Acting Membership Manager for the BA, talks to Geraldine Cox, owner-manager of Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham, London. [This interview previously appeared in the December 2022 issue of the BA’s Bookselling Essentials magazine.]
How did you get into bookselling?
I worked in the local library in the holidays and helped run the school library, so when I was applying for university after my A levels, my father asked if I would rather start a bookshop with him; I decided to give it a go. In September 1966 we started cleaning an old motorcycle shop in Sydenham, southeast London. We opened officially on 13th October 1966. The shop started off quite small and gradually extended over the years. There isn’t an inch of space left!
What are the biggest changes in the trade you have seen since then?
Looking back, it seems amazing that we had no ISBNs, no microfiche, no computers, no faxes, no decimal currency, no emails and very little experience.
It was a steep learning curve for both my father and me. Our main data came from an extremely large volume: British Books in Print. This came out once a year and was often already out of date by the time it appeared. At this time, there were no ISBNs. Everything had to be meticulously checked by author, title and even the number of pages. Our other sources of data were publishers’ catalogues and The Bookseller, which contained a list of every book published that week. Back issues of these became my bible.
ISBNs were introduced in 1967. They made ordering the right book much easier. A few years later we progressed to ‘microfiche’ data, getting monthly updates in the post. It was somewhat later that we invested in a computer. How did we ever manage without one? I have always been enthusiastic about new technology even if I needed help along the way.
I think the main difference between then and now was the delivery time. I would often say to people how lucky they were – it was ‘only going to take a couple of weeks’! Customers happily accepted the two- or three-week wait. We did manage to cut this delivery time down sometimes by collecting from publishers once a week. Most had trade counters in London. I remember phoning a publisher about a title we needed urgently. I was told that Mr X had a secretary who lived over our way and that she would drop it in after work! Oh, the days!
We also made use of the Gardners van (before it belonged to its current owners) that drove up from Bexhill with a stock of current books once a week.
Because the Net Book Agreement was still in place, we were able to build up a healthy relationship with local libraries and schools in the 70s, 80s and 90s. For instance, we supplied Bromley Libraries with all their hardback fiction for sixteen libraries! It was hard work, but we were efficient and quick. Our contract was reluctantly terminated after the Net Book Agreement was abolished in 1997. The three biggest library suppliers in the country amalgamated and were now able to offer much larger discounts. We just couldn’t compete.
We still supply a lot of schools and busy teachers always appreciate any extra help they can get.
I’ve always been involved in some way with the Booksellers Association. At some point in the 1990s, having attended branch meetings for a while, I became Chairman of the London Branch. We organised meetings in other bookshops and very successful branch dinners. It was always good to meet other booksellers. I also spent a year on the BA Committee.
Where is your shop, and who shops there?
Kirkdale Bookshop, in Southeast London, has now been open 56 years and I’ve seen so many changes in that time. Young customers have become old customers, bringing in, first, their children, then their grandchildren. Most of our customers are local but we do get people from a distance to browse our second-hand books. We introduced these in the early 70s when there were a lot of second-hand bookshops around. These later became casualties of the internet. There are very few in the vicinity now. A lot of customers mix new and second-hand happily, along with our beautiful cards and gifts – an important part of the business.
The area has changed in the last 50 years, and I am pleased to say that we have kept pace with this. We pride ourselves on our selection of contemporary fiction and non-fiction and aim to make it as reflective as possible of the world we live in, which so far seems to resonate with our customers.
Tell us some of things you do for the local community
Over the years the shop has become a cultural hub for the community, hosting everything from book events to art exhibitions and children’s events. We run two book groups, an Open Book Group, where we read both new and old fiction; and an LGBTQIA+ book group, with a focus on queer narratives and experiences.
In 2007 we had several events a day for Independent Bookshop Week. This was so successful we decided to broaden the scope and started the Sydenham Arts Festival. This ran for several years until it got so big and time-consuming, we passed it on to a larger committee.
In 2022 we held our inaugural Kirkdale Lit Fest, a series of sold-out events celebrating authors of colour and LGBTQIA+ authors. This was an exciting departure, and my colleagues are looking forward to next year.
Our loyalty scheme has been running for over 25 years. I think I might be lynched if I stopped it! I print the cards, guillotine them, number them and fold them. Crazy but flexible.
What sells well for you?
Since it was published, we’ve sold hundreds of copies of the brilliant Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, and it continues to fly off the shelves. Caleb lives nearby and often pops in for a chat and signs copies.
There are strong contenders too from 20th century fiction: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room are regular sellers. It helps when the books are masterpieces.
YA fiction has really started to take off in the last few years. Publishers are doing well to tap into such a huge readership base there. Books by Simon James Green (who lives round the corner from the shop), the Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman and the Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman are particularly strong sellers here.
What has brought you the most pleasure in bookselling?
I think I have to say my staff. Most have stayed at least ten years and one (now part-time) will celebrate his 50th year, next year. They love the bookshop and books. What more can I say?
What has been your biggest challenge? What are you proudest of?
Lockdowns were of course particularly challenging. Having not shut, apart from Sundays, for over 50 years, it was unreal. Changing the shop around to make it safe meant I could rethink everything. In one way it was quite liberating.
I’m proud of keeping the bookshop running for this length of time. I said ten years ago I’d be a bit old to be a bookseller by the time the lease needed renewing. However, I’m just about to sign up for another ten years.
Finally: what one tip would you like to pass on to any booksellers just starting out in the trade?
As far as customers go, it’s a bit like a restaurant only being as good as your last meal. With a bookshop, however efficient you are, you’re only as good as your last smile.