22nd June 2013
I've moved the blog online! It always bothered me that I couldn't get responses or questions about my blog posts by simply posting here on the website (I build and maintain the website myself using Dreamweaver and sadly my web skills don't stretch to embedding a fully interactive blog here!) So, I've built a new blog using WordPress that you can follow by CLICKING HERE!
Hopefully, it'll also allow me to update the blog a bit more often as I'm on the move - this current site means I have to be sat at home in front of my PC which isn't all that often these days. Anyway, thanks for reading and hopefully you'll like the new interactive blog!
8th February 2013
It's been a tough start to the year. After the madness of December and Christmas I always find it difficult to get into the swing of a quiet January and this year seemed tougher than most. It wasn't helped by being hit by two stinking colds, one straight after Christmas (it's the stopping working that does it!) and another late in the month. I'd also had a busy few months in late 2012 having moved into a new house, adopted a puppy from the animal shelter, and changed my work habits (we took on an additional member of staff late in the year which meant I wasn't spending as much time in the shop.) I always thought I was good at adapting to change but all of these factors together seem to have thrown me out completely and I was finding it very difficult to focus on the tasks on hand. I also struggle in January/February every year due to the lack of natural light which leaves with almost no energy or enthusiasm. So, all in all, January 2013 was tough!
On the positive side, we had a great December with so many supportive customers choosing to come and shop with us. I love the buzz of the shop at Christmas and it's wonderful to see people enjoying what we have to offer. It also means I don't have to panic too much when I collapse in January!
February 2013 seemed to bring me new energy and the past week or so I've started to get back into the swing of things. I'm also taking a much needed holiday in late February to get some sun and recharge my batteries. And I'll need it - 2013 is already shaping up to be a very busy year for the Gutter and I've got stacks of exciting plans that I want to put into action so it's time I started revving my energy engines again!
To eBook or not to eBook? That is the question! As an independent bookshop, and a lover of 'print books', the rise of the eReader and eBooks is obviously a worrying one, but it also opens up all kinds of possibilities for the future for physical bookshops. This year has seen a significant rise in traditional bricks-and-mortar bookshops engaging with eReaders including Easons installing dedicated spaces in their bookshops for them, Waterstone's (including Hodges Figgis in Dublin) beginning to sell the Amazon Kindle, Hughes & Hughes announcing their tie-in with Kobo this week, and a variety of other bookshops across Ireland and the UK dipping their toes in the water with various devices (interestingly Blackwell's and Foyle's in the UK, who are considered 'large indies' are selling the Nook, a real competitor to the Kindle in the US, which was created by US bookstore chain Barnes & Noble).
Independent bookshops in Ireland and the UK have been offered partnership deals with a variety of companies and devices, with Kobo looking to be the preferred option at present. But is it really worth trying to compete with the behemoth that is Amazon and its market-leading Kindle?
One issue with the Kindle is that you are tied to buying all your book content via Amazon (pretty much - there are work-arounds but they're difficult and realistically 99% of content will have to come from Amazon). This throws up a number of issues for readers including a reluctance to be tied to one supplier (who also then have the freedom to adjust their pricing as they see fit) as well as an inability to support local businesses who they value in their communities. There are also concerns over Amazon's reluctance to pay taxes and contribute to the countries they sell into. However, other devices are still playing catch-up and cannot currently offer the same range of reading as the Kindle - Amazon's author platform that allows anyone to load up their own writing has been key to its success and is hard to replicate.
So, what should we do? As a small bookshop, we can't afford to invest in a large web project that would allow us to sell ebooks effectively online independently (there are still huge issues around Digital Rights Management in this area), so our best option is a partnership with someone like Kobo. But with a tiny share of the small market share Kobo currently holds this is unlikely to make us money in the short term, and it does grate against our "independent and proud" ethos, but at least we would 'show willing' to engage with ebooks. The other option is, of course, to concentrate on what we currently do best - recommending and enthusing about physical print books to those that want them. As a 'niche' independent bookshop we can't possibly hope to appeal to everyone in the same way as a large chain, so why not play to our strengths and sell beautiful and wonderful physical books to the people who love the same thing as us? After all you wouldn't expect a stylish clothing boutique to start selling Penney's 'onesies' just because they were currently popular! (I know, there's the 'but everyone will be wearing onesies in the future' argument - see below...)
Of course, the danger with this lies in the fact that we may be presented with a rapidly diminishing market to sell things to, but I strongly believe that a business should always play to its strengths and there's currently still a large audience for printed books. There's an awful lot of pressure on consumers to invest in an eReader gadget at the moment by large technology companies with large marketing budgets, but the eReader market is still very young and likely to change rapidly over the next few years and as it does so independent bookshops can hopefully hold steady and, when it becomes feasible for them to become involved in a profitable way, they can do so. As for the Gutter Bookshop, I'll continue to monitor developments, explore possible partnerships that I believe fit in with who we are and what we want to achieve, and hopefully make the right decision at the right time that ensures a profitable future for the Gutter Bookshop. But who knows what the next few years will hold, and what the future of eReading really is?
© Bob Johnston, 2012
To say it's been a busy few months would be an understatement! I feel like I've been rushing around non-stop for the past three months and it truly feels that I haven't been able to keep up with the business in the way that I would like. This is, of course, in part a very good thing - we passed the three year mark in November and to have a busy independent bookshop in this day and age feels like a real achievement, but it also worries me that I'm not giving our customers and supporters all the attention they deserve. Trying to maintain a hands-on approach to a small business as it grows seems to be one of the most difficult changes to manage as you feel torn between spending time behind the shop counter helping the people you enjoy talking to the most - our customers - and taking the next steps to grown and expand the business which is key to its success. We've taken on an extra member of staff (only part-time mind!) to help out which should hopefully free up some time for me to work on projects for 2013. I'm struggling slightly to adapt to the change but know that it's the best thing for the business in the long-term - and luckily, we have great staff who love reading and recommending books!
We were also delighted recently to be shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Bookshop of the Year! It's always great to be mentioned as part of these things as it's a great reminder of everything we've achieved so far, and gives you that extra burst of energy to try and make the bookshop bigger and better in the future. Right now, we've got our fingers-crossed that our regulars and new customers alike will choose to shop with us in the run-up to Christmas and ensure that we continue to trade into the future.
Just back from a much-needed week's holiday in Co Kerry where I quietly slipped into the age of 40 by jumping off a cliff into the sea... The plan was to sneak away for the week and rest-up as well as quietly assessing where I had got to in life and what I wanted to achieve in the next decade. Well, I managed the resting bit anyhow... The jumping off a cliff bit was supposed to be a gentle 'birthday swim' but when I was offerred the opportunity to do something a bit more exciting I (literally) jumped at the chance - I think there might be a metaphor for opening an independent bookshop in there somewhere!
It's been a busy few months in the shop and as we creep closer to our 3rd shop birthday it's been great to see the business grow and develop. As mentioned below, for the first time this year we ventured in the book festival market with the Dublin Writer's Festival in June. We are now delighted to be official booksellers for the children's events at the Mountains To Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire in September and to be involved with the Dublin Book Festival (that specifically supports Irish publishers and authors) in November. The Dublin Book Festival is moving right onto our doorstep this year with a new home in the Smock Alley Theatre and we are delighted to be hosting a number of events in the shop.
We were also delighted to hear that we had been selected as one of Ireland's Top 50 shops in a recent Irish Times feature. Shops were nominated by their customers and then shortlisted. We're hoping to make the final 12 in this weekend's magazine but the response to being shortlisted has been great. Running an independent business in Ireland in 2012 is tough, but it's also hugely rewarding and recognition of the work we put in to offerring an alternative to the generic shopping experience that seems to be a constant threat at the minute is wonderful. To feel valued by our customers is a great motivator to keep us working towards being a bigger and better bookshop so thank you!
A very quick update as I'm wracked with guilt for not updating my diary enough! Well, the past month has been fantastically busy - the big event for us was Dublin Writer's Festival which took a lot of planning and a week of non-stop bookstalls around Dublin city centre. Thankfully, it all went off really well and it was a really enjoyable week. Sometimes it's good to go out and do something completely different from the day-to-day business of the shop - it really gave me a great boost of energy! Saying that, I was exhausted after it all finished and still feel like I'm in recovery... I've taken a few days off to recuperate and get myself organised again before making more plans for making the Gutter busier and better than it's ever been before!
4th May 2012
Onwards and upwards! The past month has brought a whole raft of exciting news to the Gutter Bookshop and after my struggles to find energy at the start of the year I'm now up and flying again. Big news is that we've been chosen as festival booksellers for the Dublin Writers Festival, a big event for Dublin that involves 3 events every day for 10 days across multiple venues in Dublin. It's a great honour for us to be working with the festival team and as well as bringing much needed extra cash into an independent bookshop it also allows us to get out and meet hundreds of potential new customers! (Oh, and some lovely authors too of course...) This comes on top of a packed events programme going into the Summer and (hopefully) a busier shop as the tourists arrive and the weather improves (and the weather had better improve given the amount of rain we've had in the past week...)
2nd April 2012
I've been working from home today and it feels odd! I've always done bits and pieces at home (most of the website updates for instance) on my days off but this is the first time I've set myself the challenge of doing a full day's work from home rather than the bookshop. It's now 4.20pm and I was due to finish at 5pm (I started at 9am) but one rule that I made at the start of the day was that if I went over on my break times then I'd have to make it up at the end of the day - so I'm now due to finish at 5.20pm - I can be ever so hard on myself sometimes! I've actually managed to get quite a lot done. As the shop has become busier it's been more difficult to organise my time effectively and I wanted to experiment with taking an allocated work day at home instead of the shop. Ann and Sinead are both more than capable of running the shop effectively and over the past couple of months I've struggled to keep on top of things so this seems like a good solution. Whether it'll work in the long-term remains to be seen - I've never been much of an early riser and the temptation to have a lie-in and 'make it up' later was huge! As was the 'I need to read this book to review and that counts as work really so I could just do that today instead'. Anyway, today has gone well (I've even managed to write this blog post see!) so fingers-crossed that I can make this an effective and worthwhile monthly event.
Another month has flown by! My plans to update this blog weekly seem to be falling by the wayside again... I'm going to try and write pieces up regularly via Word wherever I happen to be and then upload them when I can - that might work better than trying to sit down in front of my home PC to write things! I've always struggled with the dark months of January and February (well, since I was about 18 anyway which feels like 'always' sometimes!) - some years I find these months tougher than others and this year has been a tough year... I have a lightbox, I don't drink alcohol for 3 months after Christmas and this year I also took up running (which was wonderful until my knee seized up!) but I'm always glad when we turn the corner into March and things start to look a little brighter. Slowly my energy levels seem to be returning and my mind is once again buzzing with fresh ideas. I've just had a couple of days off but I'm now looking forward to getting back into the shop and getting things organised.
In the meantime I've been trying to get a few updates up on the website. There's new book reviews and we've joined new social media site, Pinterest, which is a picture-led website - it's actually great fun and a good way of exploring your more creative side which I like. Do give it a go (it used to invite only but I invited myself to the party and was cleared the same day!)
10th February 2012
It's been a tough start to 2012. Usually I'm back into full-on work mode by the first week of January and usy plotting away for the future but this year it's taken me a lot longer to get back into the groove. I was knocked out by a big cold early in Jan and found it difficult to focus on getting the shop back into shape. That's one of the problems of running a small business, it's so dependent on finding the energy every day to keep pushing it forward and building, so it gets very frustrating when that energy vanishes for a bit. (The one thing I miss about working for someone else is that we all need someone to give us a kick up the bum now and again to get things done and I don't have anyone to do the kicking!)
Anyway, February seems to be coming together a bit better. I managed to give this website a long needed makeover and (whilst I'm still have teething issues with a few things I want to do) it's certainly looking a lot tidier. This week has also been very positive as I've watched them putting the long-awaited doors into the Smock Alley Theatre directly opposite the shop. We're hoping that this will increase footfall to the street and give it some focus, but it also allows us to talk to them about organising some joint events with seating for up to 120 people followed by a reception in the bookshop afterwards - one of my future plans may finally be coming to fruition.
So, onwards and upwards! The bookshop continues to improve and grow year on year, and as long as I can continue to find lots of energy, there's great potential for more growth in 2012.
It's been a long time since I've updated this diary and that's both a good and a bad thing! The past few months at the Gutter have been hectic to say the least and it's only now, post-Christmas and post-obligatory-Christmas-cold, that I can have a look back and see what we've achieved (and failed to achieve).
We had a great Christmas in the Gutter. What was wonderful to see was a lot of customers that we had served through the year and met at our various events chose to come and spend their Christmas gift money with us - it was a real sign that the effort we put into our events programme and social media work via Twitter, Facebook and our Mailing List really does pay off. The many chats I had with customers over the Christmas period also confirmed that people are beginning to realise the importance of supporting local businesses if they want to keep these kind of shops in their local area. Admittedly, not everyone thinks this way but as long as enough people continue to value small local retailers for the variety and interest that they off we'll be fine.
Overall, 2011 was a good year for the Gutter and we achieved a lot. Our financial year ends in February so I'll have to wait until early March to know if the company actually made a profit this year but the signs are good. In the meantime, I'm working on a couple of plans which will hopefully expand the business in 2012. I've decided that I certainly don't want another shop for the foreseeable future but there are ways of expanding the offers that we give through the Cow's Lane store. First up is a Loyalty Card which is currently being printed but there's certainly more to come...
Thank you, as ever, to all the people that continue to support and encourage us in the Gutter Bookshop. I can honestly say that it's the best thing I've ever done and something that I hope we can continue to turn into a profitable business in the years to come.
23rd October 2011
We'll be 2 years old in a couple of weeks and that's made me think back on what we've managed to do so far, and think about all the things that aren't quite right yet!
I'm thrilled that we managed to open the shop at all and that we've managed to survive 2 years in a very tough retail environment. I'm proud of all the events that we've organised and been involved in (nearly 250 of them in 2 years!). I'm delighted that people like our bookshop and that they say such nice things about it and I'm happy that I can spend my days doing something that I really love.
But there's so much more that I have going on in my head that we haven't managed to do yet! Our range of books is good but I still don't think it's as good as it could be. I'd love to launch a loyalty card to reward all of our supportive customers (but I need to improve our sales margins a bit first). I've got a great idea for expanding the business (no, we're not opening another shop - I think it's important that the Gutter remains as a standalone for now at least!) but there's other ways of growing our business. We still need to tweak our stationery and gift offers for adults - but I'm so picky about what we sell that it can be difficult... Oh, and of course I'm interested in looking at the ebook market as well but until I can work out a way of doing it profitably it'll have to stay on hold for a bit! Oh, and I'm also working on expanding our events schedule too and this website needs a proper overhaul...
So, we've made a good start but so much left to do. It's time I got stuck in! Thank you all for your support so far - it's what keeps me going.
Well, after a great week in Scotland I came back revitalized and ready to get back to work. What surprises me most was that I managed to switch off completely and not really think about the shop at all. Guess that's one of the benefits of having a great team - with Ann and Sinead running the shop whilst I was away I knew there was no need to worry (in fact, from past experience, the shop always tends to do slightly better when I'm not actually there!)
We've had a busy few weeks since I got back, which is a good thing, but I'm feeling the pressure at the moment. As we approach our second birthday I know that we have to continue to find ways to build and expand the business in order to make it successful. We can't just rely on doing the same thing in order to bring in more money. A fully transactional website is obviously one thing that's always on my mind but set-up costs are a lot and I'm a real believer that if you're going to do something then you have to do it really well. It's also very different than setting up a standard online business (a fact that I have to explain to all those lovely companies who phone me up and offer to set-up a website for me!) A good book website needs to be able to access data on over 10 million books and this includes special Irish editions of books that are only out in hardback in the UK. Anyway, it's something I'll continue to look at but until we can do it really well (and differently from anyone else) it'll stay as a possible. In the meantime, I've had a couple of good ideas on how we can expand our business. I'm working on them at the moment and as soon as I've worked out how to make them happen (in a profitable way!) I'll let you know.
I'm exhausted! Next week I'm taking a week away from the shop to head over to Scotland, exploring the Highlands and visiting friends in Edinburgh that I haven't seen since we opened the shop. Most of all I'm looking forward to sleeping and eating and, hopefully, relaxing for a full 7 days.
When I was getting ready to open the shop back in October 2009 I popped over to see my good friend Hereward at The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury. One thing he was adamant about was that you need to take proper holidays otherwise you become exhausted and no longer of much use to your business. I think I'm at that stage now and need to recharge before an Autumn filled with great events in the shop. I guess I'm lucky enough that I enjoy my business so much that I feel the need to expel so much energy doing it!
Ann and Sinead will be doing a grand job of running the shop whilst I'm away, do pop in and say hello.
On Saturday we held our first big external event as part of the Made In Temple Bar Festival. Our Picturebook Picnic was a great success and it was great to do something completely different for families to enjoy. We had loads of support in putting the event together - Dublin UNESCO City of Literature were particularly helpful, as were Walker Books and Children's Books Ireland who helped us out on the day.
Niamh Sharkey, author and illustrator, kicked us off with some stories and drawing based on her picturebooks - a particular highlight was her Hugglewug dance that had all the kids (and grown-ups) on their feet and dancing. Niamh was followed by poet and musician Paul Tubb who had a number of funny poems about lesser-spotted Dublin creatures. Rounding things up was Patricia Campbell, a storyteller from Dublin City Libraries, who had everyone joining in with her 'heads, shoulders, knees and toes' as well as being completely enthralled by her favourite picturebooks. Finishing off the afternoon was a special guest, Maisy the Mouse!
Everyone seemed to have a good time and I'd like to do more family events in the future, it was lovely to see such enthusiasm and willingness to be involved. A big thank you to everyone who came along and to Temple Bar Cultural Trust who have been so encouraging about what we are trying to do.
You can see photos over on our Facebook page.
In a couple of weeks time we'll be holding our first big external event - 'The Picturebook Picnic' in the Wood Quay Venue - as part of the 'Made in Temple Bar Festival' that celebrates 20 years of Temple Bar being turned into a central cultural and tourist destination rather than being demolished to make way for a central transport hub. Last week an official report was published that looked at the work Temple Bar Cultural Trust have carried out in developing Temple Bar as a cultural centre and whether the TBCT should continue to exist as an independent organisation. This weekend there was a fairly negative newspaper piece about what Temple Bar has become in The Irish Times magazine.
Any changes will have an immediate impact on The Gutter Bookshop and how we run our business and our potential future income. Temple Bar Cultural Trust currently act as our landlord and any change is obviously worrying for a new small business. We've been extremely excited in the past few months by the long promised redevelopment of the Smock Alley Theatre on our doorstep starting to take shape. The ongoing work by the Temple Bar Cultural Trust to turn the Old City part of Temple Bar into a viable commercial and cultural area was one of the key reasons why we decided to locate the business in this district. All that we can hope for is that if TBCT is disbanded and control of the area reverted to Dublin City Council that they work as hard to transform this area, and improve the cultural offerings of Temple Bar, as the TBCT have done over the past 2 years that we have been in business here.
Busy! So much going on at the moment that I'm not sure what to do with myself! Not complaining though - it's a great position to be in but apologies that I've not managed to keep this blog up to date. Bizarrely I've been writing guest blogs for other sites (see Diary entry below on how this doesn't always work out for the best!) but it's a good way of spreading the word about the Gutter and what we do.
The big news is that a few weeks ago we were named Independent Bookseller of the Year 2011 for Ireland in the annual Bookseller Trade Awards. There's 6 finalists from around the UK and Ireland and I'll be attending a swanky do in Park Lane, London next week to see if we've won the overall prize. To be honest, we're just thrilled to have won the Irish award and the response from our customers and contacts has been wonderfully supportive so it's given us a real boost in terms of energy and confidence. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged and supported us, we really appreciate it!
I'll also be talking about Social Media at the Bookseller's Association Conference on Sunday. It's amazing the opportunities that come up when you start to talk to people about the way you run your business and because I always enjoy discussing ways in which we can grow and develop the bookshop this should be a good occasion to meet some new, and old, friends from the business and get some new ideas too.
It's been an odd few days. A few weeks ago I was asked to submit a blog to a trade magazine about being a bookseller in Ireland's current economic climate. I umm-ed and ahh-ed about it for a few days before agreeing as it isn't something I've done before and it was quite a way out of my 'comfort zone'. In the end I said yes as I thought it would help build awareness of the Gutter in the trade (useful for attracting author events and other support from publishers) and because I like to push myself out of my comfort zone now and again.
The blog went live a few days ago and it soon attracted a number of comments that were negative about my blog, and about the shop in general. In all honesty, this surprised me and I wasn't sure how to respond. It also made me consider my approach to the Gutter and what we were trying to achieve. I would always have thought of myself as having quite a thick skin (you have to be to set-up your own business) but it's amazing how much some negative criticism can knock you when you are still unsure of the right way forward.
Having thought hard about it over the past few days I have now decided to move on. There were some interesting ideas in a few of the comments concerning the role of non-book products as income generators for bookshops, and whether customers are best served in stores with a large stockholding or a more tailored range, but I decided that engaging further on this particular blog would most likely be detrimental.
So, do I regret doing it? Not really. Regret is a funny thing because it depends on hindsight. I knew that in order to try and promote the Gutter in as many ways as possible that we would have to try lots of different things. Some would work, and some wouldn't. I also still believe in pushing myself out of my comfort zone to try new things. My skin has just got a bit thicker and some negativity now and again just reminds you of how hard you have to push to make a small business succesful.
I have been asked to write further blogs but have yet to decide whether to do it. There's part of me that doesn't want to back down but ultimately I have to ask myself what is best for building the business and whether the effort required will ultimately pay off in a higher turnover for the shop.
You can read the blog and comments here. If you'd like to comment please do so, or you can contact me direct via the shop.
Phew, well that's been a busy few days! Last week we hosted a booklaunch for Shirley Benton, a school event for Dublin Book Festival with author Jean Flitcroft, a Dublin Book Festival True Crime Night, World Book Day, World Book Night, Dublin Book Festival Kids' Storytime and a Russian Fairytales reading for the Festival of Russian Culture!
(Lots of photos on our Facebook page if you want to see!)
I'm so glad we insisted all our shop units came on wheels so we can just move them out of the way everytime we need to create some space, it makes life a lot easier.
It always intrigues me that each event has it's own unique vibe that comes from the different audiences they attract and the way they use the shop space. Luckily, every event we've done so far has gone well and been well received. It's always good to get new groups of people into the shop (if only to give my energy levels a boost when they tell me how much they like the shop and utter my favourite words - "I'll be back".
Quick update (due to overdue blogging guilt!) We've had a great start to the year with stacks of events lined-up. March is looking to be a very busy month with launches, tie-in events with the Dublin Book Festival and all of other bookgroups etc. Lovely that so many people have come to us with things that we'd love to be involved with - all we have to do now is make sure that we do them justice!
It's wonderful to be in the position of having so much going on in the business. I hate saying 'no' to things that help grow our bookshop so next stage is to make sure that we can handle everything and make the most of every opportunity that comes our way. And at the same time, ensure that we all get a little bit of a break and some relaxation to keep our energy levels up.
We learned this week that we're one of only two Irish independent bookshops shortlisted for The Bookseller's Independent Bookshop of the Year Award. You have to self-nominate so this isn't such an achievement yet but it's reassuring to see that we were considered strong enough to be shortlisted. Regional winners will be announced in April, with the overall winner announced in May so keep those fingers-crossed!
Sorry, but where did the time go? I can't believe I haven't updated this diary since November. I guess I win the 'Worst Blogger of the Year' award! Apologies but I have been very busy, honest, and thank you for coming to have a look at the site anyway.
So, here we are in 2011 and The Gutter Bookshop has now managed to survive through 2 Christmases. Last December was tough going for everyone in retail. The snow in early December was a big issue for High St shops as people had just started to think about shopping for Christmas when it hit and therefore spent time at home ordering presents online. The snow in the week before Christmas was also difficult as it stopped some people being able to get out and about in their usual fashion. Last week I attended a meeting of the Irish BA (Booksellers Association) and everyone reported having a very difficult Christmas. This comes as some relief to me as, whilst The Gutter Bookshop certainly did not have an easy time of it, we don't seem to have been as badly hit as others. This is partly due to being in the City Centre and therefore more accessible by public transport than other bookshops but also because we are continuing to build the business year on year.
Looking into 2011 we aim to continue building The Gutter Bookshop further. I'm looking at lots of different ideas as to how we can grow the business in different ways. Sadly a lot of these plans would involve investing substantial amounts of extra cash which is not feasible at the moment but there are other ways to grow a business and I'll certainly be putting some of these into action. Here's hoping that 2011 is a good one for The Gutter Bookshop.