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

 

Share
Related Topics

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'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?