Tom Hodgkinson: 'Help! I'm turning into Philip Green!'


Brave was the adjective they used. It's the same epithet that friends apply when they see me playing the ukulele and singing songs in public: "That was brave." I don't take it as a compliment. "Brave" in these cases is pretty clearly a euphemism for stupid, foolhardy or reckless. So it was that when Victoria and I told friends and acquaintances that we were planning to open an independent bookshop and café, we were often told, worryingly, that we were being "brave".

Brave for starting a new business in the middle of a financial meltdown. Brave to open a bookshop when Amazon is trying to monopolise shopping by selling everything at half price and offering free delivery. Brave to try to sell real books at all when everyone knows that the ebook is taking over. Brave to open a café when everyone knows that most small ones fail. Brave also to embark on a retail business, when neither of us has any experience of selling things. Brave when the high street is collapsing.

From day one, though, our idea of combining a bookshop and café with a school had its fans. Our opening night, a lecture on the Greek philosophers, was a sell-out. Both Emma Thompson and Louis Theroux have supported us. And there are plenty of people out there who are willing to buy real books in a real bookshop. After all, do you meet strange and wonderful people on Amazon? Do you have chance discoveries? As an American comedian quipped recently, now that they have closed all the independent bookstores, is Amazon going to open up its airless distribution centres for small groups to discuss Yeats?

Now, I've always been accused of working too hard for someone who calls himself an idler. But in actual fact, before we opened the shop, I had my work routine down to three or four hours a day. And there were many days off. But attempting to put myself at the cutting edge of retail, that really was hard work. Victoria and I were thrust into a world of 12- to 14-hour days. We also discovered how complex and nerve-racking the life of a shopkeeper is. The rent, rates, staff, suppliers and all the rest of it have to be paid whether or not anyone walks through your door. As a freelance writer, my costs had been virtually zero.

The other shock was that I very quickly turned from a supposedly laid-back proprietor into a Basil Fawlty character. I remember going up to one customer who was seated at a table. "I'm so sorry that your cup of tea is taking such a long time." "Actually," replied the man, "I ordered a slice of Bakewell tart." Wired up on the delicious coffee we sell, I had difficulty not exploding at our Manuel.

A problem at one point was that our wonderful volunteers saw the shop as somewhere to lounge around and talk about Jean-Paul Sartre. I had to sit them down and explain that it is the customers who are encouraged to loaf, not the staff. Young people laughing and chatting, I said, may look intimidating to potential customers. I asked them all to look busy and stay standing up when in the shop. I also indulged in the feeble passive-aggressive act of putting up a sign in the kitchen that reads: "No Idling". Then I thought: OH MY GOD. I am turning into Philip Green. What is happening?

Another downside is that friends, family and customers suddenly become retail experts. You start to dread the phrases that start "You really should..." or "Have you thought about..." which will always preface an idea that you've had 1,000 times, but rejected due to constraints of time or money. "You really should have more first editions." "You really should do more for toddlers." "Have you thought about opening earlier in the day to get the coffee trade?" "You really need to do more local PR." "Have you thought about selling more products online?"

The best advice has come from genuine retail experts: my friends Pete and Nigel from Rough Trade. I worked there behind the counter for a year in 1990, and had a wonderful time. Since then they have opened an enormous and very successful Rough Trade shop in London's Brick Lane, and an outlet in Paris, with more planned elsewhere. They are my independent-retail heroes, and they have encouraged us by telling us to stick to our original plan and also to realise that you learn as you go.

And the granddaddy of them all, the retail king that is Selfridges, has invited us to set up a stall and run a series of talks there early this year. That feels like a vindication. So onward we go, together in retail dreams!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'