Kieron Smith is a professional bookseller with over 20 years book trade experience, including WHSmith Retail, establishing the Ottakars.co.uk website in 1999, heading up the web offering at Bertelsmann’s Book Clubs in the UK and operations at Methven’s Booksellers, followed by three years outside the industry at Europe’s leading video games website GAME.co.uk. Head of online for Waterstone’s in 2006-7 and then MD of international bookseller The Book Depository (now an Amazon company) for five years. He joined the UK’s leading Academic and Professional Bookseller, Blackwell’s, as Digital Director in 2015. Kieron is also a published author, his book The Politics of Down Syndrome (Zero Books) published in 2011.
How did the way you conduct business change due to the impact of the virus?
The Pandemic posed a number of challenges for Blackwell’s, we offer many services; for example we have High Street and campus shops, we have business to business (& institutional sales) a significant online presence – in addition to selling new, second-hand and rare books. Some of our ‘routes to market’ were significantly impeded – campus sales for example, but others came to the fore with Blackwells.co.uk and business to institutional sales (we are a supplier to the NHS for example) becoming central during lockdown.
Bill Samuel and Trevor Goul-Wheeker have, between them, run some of Britain’s biggest bookshops, and so we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to find out more about their careers in the industry. Bill was Vice Chairman of his family’s business Foyles bookshop for twenty years until the company was sold in 2018. In that time, he was involved in other projects such as the creation of the Emirates Literature Festival held in Dubai. He now has a place on the board of the BA and is chair of Batch. His wife Vivienne has always worked in the book trade, too, which is how they met.
Trevor, after working in the chemicals and biochemicals industries as a B2B marketeer, became managing director of Hammick’s bookshops in 1994, becoming non-executive director of books at W.H. Smith in 2003, and was chairman of Blackwell’s for ten years until 2019. He served on the council of the BA for nine years and received two British Book Awards for Marketing and Services to Bookselling. In 2012, Trevor was appointed Chair of the Business School Advisory Board at the University of Greenwich, who generously awarded him with an Honorary MBA in 2015.
We asked Bill and Trevor the same questions about their longstanding careers and their responses give a fascinating glimpse into their views on bookselling, what they love about the trade and the advice they would give to booksellers out on the shopfloor of today.
It is now 90 days since lockdown began in Wales, and I am still wishing I had stopped at my local bookstore on my way home the day before it happened.
This exile from the space of the bookstore has developed my appreciation for the experience offered by that counter-space where commerce and culture agree a tenuous pact of co-existence. This balancing act happens within an identifiable physical location, within borders defined by the walls of the room, the limits of the market stall, or the edges of the book table. Within that defined space, that cultural / commercial balance creates a meaningful location, a normalcy specific to that space–a type of commercial and a cultural identity that may not exist beyond its bounds. Such meaningful locations exist in more than just bookstores, of course. Churches, hospitals, ancient monuments, the local garden centre, the town recycling centre–all of these spaces define a normalcy that dissipates as one moves away from them.