Owning and running a small business - a comparatively new small business at that - is something best done by a masochist. Why else would anyone put themselves through the torture that is part and parcel of today’s short termist business environment? It’s one hassle after another - one bad debt after another. Wouldn’t life be peaceful without those wretched things called suppliers and customers?
And now the good news! We do it because we want to be different. We do it because we think we can and above all because we want to. While we may not anticipate all the hurdles which may be put in our way, particularly by government, we believe that they are all insurmountable and at any rate, it’s better than working for someone else.
I started a specialist political bookshop business six years ago with a colleague, John Simmons. Neither of us had any experience of bookselling, let alone retailing. I was a lobbyist, he was a pharmaceutical rep. Were we mad? Some days we probably think so.
So why did I do it? Why, why, why did I forego the delights of political lobbying and a company Audi for the delights of the book industry, a minuscule income and a five year old Rover? Probably for the same reason as the rest of the industry is hooked on the trade.
The concept for Politico’s was conceived about four years ago following a trip to Washington DC, where I found a superb political themestore, which although it stocked very few books, was a place of pure delight for a political anorak like me. If it worked in Washington, I thought, why shouldn’t it work in London? My thinking progressed and the dreaded business plan was commenced. Once I had done the financial calculations, redone them, and redone them again, I decided to take the plunge and in May 1996 the world of political lobbying was left behind. And then the problems started.
Although an expert on the world of politics, my only experience of the book trade was as a customer - and not a very impressed one at that. I decided from the outset that I would run my store the way I wanted to and avoid what I perceived as some of the tired ways of the book industry in general.
I have firmly believed that the future in retailing is to specialise and build up customer loyalty. If candle shops can succeed, then why not a political bookshop? But the history of political bookshops is not a particularly happy one. This is mainly due to the fact they have almost entirely been devoted to one side (i.e., the left) of the political spectrum and thereby at a stroke offended at least 60% of their potential customers. I can remember several trips to Colletts in the late 1970s feeling a sense of mild irritation (and sometimes not so mild) that they refused to stock anything to the left of Tony Benn - at least, that’s how it seemed. So the first decision was made - to stock the whole gamut of the political spectrum, from Marx to Thatcher.
I decided from the outset that such a shop could only work if a site could be found within a few minutes walk of the Houses of Parliament and in late August we eventually found site just off Victoria Street. It even had a mezzanine balcony level where we decided to install a coffee shop with a live cable TV link to Parliament.
Since we opened I am told we have received more media coverage than any other independent bookstore in living memory. Opening just before the election campaign obviously helped. In the first five months of our business we had been featured on 22 TV programmes and I had done 33 radio interviews as well as the features in every national newspaper. If I had known that was going to happen I could have saved a good proportion of a vastly overspent advertising budget. And they call me a media tart...
Starting a new business is probably the most foolish thing anyone ever contemplates in their life. Most people who tread this precarious path believe they have a good idea, or good product to sell and invariably they do. But what they very often fail to comprehend is the amount of barriers that even in this post Thatcherite deregulated economy (some joke) are put in one’s way.
Forget the local authority regulations, health and safety, environmental health - they are a cinch compared with dealing with private sector suppliers. I had always thought that a publisher’s role was to sell books through bookshops. I could not have been more wrong. Almost without exception my calls were never returned and letters remained unanswered. I was seriously in danger of opening a bookshop with no books. Now that we are established, they can’t wait to sell us their books by the lorry load. Lesson number one in starting a new business - never assume that your suppliers have any confidence in your business, let alone any interest in it.
Six years down the line I am naturally dealing direct with the main political publishers and gradually getting the discounts right, although the words ‘blood’, ‘getting’ and ‘stone’ come to mind.
One of my frustrations as a customer was the time customer orders take. If wholesalers can deliver next day, why do publishers have such difficulty with the Just In Time concept? Still no answer, although one or two I think are now beginning to address the problem.
I have to say that my experience dealing with government departments and public sector bodies as customers has been very positive. We operate about 80 customer accounts, of which about 15-20 are public sector bodies. These include the House of Commons Library as well as most of the Government departments. To my absolute astonishment, we rarely have problems with payment, although I do find it slightly ironic that the Department of Trade & Industry, supposedly the Department for small businesses, is by far and away the worst payer. But most pay within 21 days - that’s a bet I would have lost!
Some of this business we have had to tender for, which has not always been a very productive experience in terms of time spent filling out meaningless forms which have little relevance to the contract under tender. So far we have won half of those contracts we have tendered for, which is not bad when one considers that we are up against the likes of Blackwells and Waterstones.
Our experience suggests that the key to a happy life with a public sector customer is to make sure your product is totally relevant to their business and not to waste their time with speculative calling. Once they are used to dealing with you, you will get to know each other’s little foibles and learn to accommodate them.
Like most small businesses our main worries concern excessive business rates and attempts by the local council to make our life as difficult as possible. I would love for someone to explain to me what we actually get for our £1500 a month rates apart from the local Jobsworth council representative informing us that he will prosecute us if we continue to display our sandwich board on the pavement. I gently try explaining to him that it attracts customers into the shop who in turn part with their money to enable me to pay his salary - but for some reason it doesn’t seem to do the trick. I take it in. He disappears. I put it out again. We all play the game, however ridiculous it might be. I might not mind so much if the Council even collected our rubbish for free. Oh no, that would be asking too much. £1 a bag, I ask you. I’m tempted to stand for the council myself but it would mean a humiliating climbdown, having once described local councillors as the ‘lowest form of political life’.
But what of the long term? Most independents fear the strength of the chains. Specialist stores are not immune to these fears but no one should fear fair competition.
Sometimes I think the book industry operates the economics of the madhouse. Where else would you discount your best selling titles by 50% and thereby incur a loss. That’s what Waterstones and WH Smith often do. We don’t, but as a specialist we can get away with it. General bookstores in market towns can hardly shift a copy of Harry Potter because Asda down the road are shifting them at half price.
So six years on we’re still there, but I should tell you that my business has been put at risk through Ken Livingstone’s wretched congestion charge. My turnover has decreased by about 15% since that came in. Ah, its defenders say, there’s been a retail downturn anyway, but no one is telling me that the empty parking spaces around the Army & Navy haven’t reduced our footfall. They have. So I am seriously thinking of turning my business into an internet/mail order only business which I could run from outside London without those crippling overheads. Well done Ken!
Ken Livingstone falling off chair
Ken Livingstone buying one book
So we do try to have a laugh
* Ann Widdecombe
We've done about 20 of our theatre shows all around the country. Sometimes I drive, which it has to be said is not something Ann looks forward to. She's a very good backseat driver, if you get my drift. I remember one time, we had been to Porthcawl in South Wales and we'd had nothing to eat all day. After the show we stopped to get some petrol and stocked up on a bit of junk food - right in the middle of her diet. I got onto the M4 and started opening the sandwich and packet of crisps and can of lilt. Ann nearly had a fit - OK I was driving with my knees but it was perfectly safe! "Do you not think you ought to have at least one hand on the steering wheel!" she screamed. So I got my own back. I made her listen to the Pet Shop Boys for the rest of the three hour journey back. She's never forgiven me.
I asked her one day if people reacted differently to her now she's gobe blond. She said "people speak to me now, much m o r e s l o w w w w l l l y y y".
- Soho pub bomber
* Hit in face with books
* ITN Election rehearsals
* Ken Livingstone falling off chair
* Arms deal
* Sunday Service Richard Caborn
* Pat Murphy finger
* Frank Dobson
* Oneword - Mo Mowlam
And on top of all this I’ve just been selected as a Parliamentary Candidate for North Norfolk. Is there no end to my masochism.
Reincarnation – Kylie Minogues bicycle saddle.