Printed in the House Magazine
Austin Mitchell is a man of many talents, but a businessman he ain’t. His attack on my decision to close Politico’s and change the business to an online and mail order business was littered with emotion and the kind of illogical arguments I normally associate with Tony Blair’s defence of the war in Iraq.
If Austin really does believe that I would close the shop just to satisfy my desire to run for Parliament then he is not the man I thought he was. As his wife Linda McDougall wrote in her New Statesman column last week, I have let my head rule my heart. At least one member of the Mitchell household has retained a degree of sanity.
Let me outline the reasons for my decision and I’ll leave it to others to judge whether Austin’s allegations stand up or not. Since we opened the shop in 1997 we have developed a highly successful website and mail order business. Non over the counter trade now accounts for nearly 50% of our turnover, yet we have continued to maintain the hugely expensive overheads any central London shop inevitably incurs. Over the last two or three years we have seen salary costs spiralling, which the Chancellors hike in national Insurance rates last year made even worse.
The salary of our bookstore manager is now 60% higher than it was in 1997. That’s the way the London job market is at the moment. Last June, when we nearly took the decision to move, we were facing a rent rise of some 40%. Terrorism Insurance had rocketed. Business rates were higher. And then came the congestion charge.
I have to admit that it never occurred to me that it would hit us, but it has. We estimate that it has cost us 12% of turnover. In June it had only been operational for a few months so we felt the effects might be short term. They weren’t. And if you need proof just do a survey of the parking meters around Artillery Row and they are half empty nowadays, whereas 15 months ago they were full all day long.
So we put off a decision that in my heart of hearts I knew was inevitable. Our landlords allowed us to stay on a short term agreement but I knew there was no way I would be able to sign a new five year lease and be 100% confident of being there at the end of it.
So when 50% of your turnover is not dependent on the physical shop, I ask, what would you do? I looked at selling the shop and held discussions with a couple of book related organisations but nothing came of them. Believe me I have tried to keep the physical shop where it is. Remember, I opened it partly because I was a frustrated political book buyer myself! But in the end I have to be grateful that at least we still have an ongoing business. If we had been a candle shop or a cake shop with no online presence we would have had to close completely.
Austin says there “should be better ways of getting on in today’s Tory Party but the price of political advancement shouldn’t be a big let down for all of us who’ve supported Politico’s over the years”. I cannot really believe that he thinks I have been selected for a winnable Tory target seat (North Norfolk) because I have closed Politico’s – or even that it was a condition of selection. Life must be interesting on Planet Mitchell if he really thinks that’s the way things operate. Maybe things are like that in Grimsby Labour Party but in Norfolk we do different.
So yes, I have taken a cold, calculated decision which I think is in the best long term interests of my shareholders and indeed the customers. I too will miss the ambiance, browsing through books I didn’t realise existed, the gossip, the funny moments.
From an emotional standpoint, I am gutted. As someone who has even been known to shed a tear during Emmerdale (!) it is not hard to guess how I felt when I walked out of the door for the last time last week. Yes, there was a feeling of vague failure, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I had done all I could to keep the shop going on that site. I also knew I had to look to the future.
And so far the reaction from our customers (Austin apart) has been both very understanding and hugely encouraging. Even those who have never bought on the internet before say they will do so now. I haven’t bared my soul lightly on the reasons for closing the shop. I have told people in great detail the reasons why in the hope that they would understand. I regret that Austin Mitchell’s hearing aid has been malfunctioning of late. Sometimes people won’t understand what they don’t want to hear. Everyone else has taken the view “well, it’s sad but we understand your reasons”. And I thank them for that, and indeed their custom over the last seven years.
As for Austin’s postscript about the Artillery Row site reopening as a bookshop, I would wish anyone who takes it on the very best of luck. They’ll need it. I only hope their pockets are deeper than mine.
Iain Dale is Managing Director of Politicos.co.uk