FOR anyone who loves books, the disappearance of bookshops from our high streets reads like a badly written story with no happy ending. But could one or two passionate individuals have discovered the secret to survival?
A secret recipe that includes the right location, the commitment of the team working there and something else? Something extra?
Roz de la Hey was working in marketing for Bloomsbury in London, helping launch, among other bestsellers, the Harry Potter series with JK Rowling, when she started hankering after a different pace of life. The birth of her second child provided the impetus she and her photographer husband Bill needed to head for the hills. “I absolutely loved Bloomsbury to pieces,” says 42-year-old de la Hey, “but we just wanted to leave London.
“My husband is originally from Ayrshire and we had always planned to come back to Scotland at some point, jobs allowing. When our second child was born, Bloomsbury very kindly let me tweak my job, allowing me to still work for them full time.”
For four years, she commuted between the Borders village of St Boswells and London every other week, but in the process took a step back and, ultimately, the move was a bridge to finding something else she could do locally. This something evolved into Mainstreet Trading, a bookshop (described as “so perfect you might have dreamt it”, by author Maggie O’Farrell), homewares store, café (Bill retrained as a chef so he could run it) and now deli, opened recently by Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin. “In our original business plan we wanted four reasons why you would want to visit. So we had books, a café, gifts and antiques. The deli is kind of an expansion of that original concept.
“The main building used to be an auction house. Then across the courtyard there’s a big barn with the deli and homewares shop. It has a lot of heart. It feels like it has always been here – and in a way it has.”
With their children – there are now three of them – aged 12, nine and seven, the couple combine work with parenting, taking it in turns to do the school run. And while no longer commuting means she sees more of them, de la Hey admits, “Running your own business is quite all-consuming. Mostly in a very good way, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.”
They must be doing something right. Mainstreet was named independent bookseller of the year for 2012 in the Bookseller Industry Awards, and best bookshop in The Telegraph Best Small Shops Awards. “I can’t help but be aware of e-books, the internet, combined with the recession – it is the perfect storm for books,” says de la Hey. “Diversifying gives us a bit of an edge, I hope, against the duplicity of the market.
“We are spreading our retail risk across a wider range in order to insulate against those dangers. If we can survive in a recession, hopefully that’s a good sign.”
But while Bill has brought his West Country roots to bear in the deli, selling cheeses from that part of the world as well as lots of local produce and some Spanish specialities, for this pair of book-lovers, “the books are the heart of it and that will always be the case”, says de la Hey. “Everything we sell, we try and find a book story within it so it all links up. But we want to build in as many strands as possible: writing courses, art courses, author events”.
This month Mainstreet Trading has Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell and a children’s illustrator visiting, as well as schools outreach projects on the go. And it’s not the only place working hard on extras. “There’s a lovely bookshop in Biggar, Atkinson-Pryce,” says de la Hey. “It’s a very small, traditional, high street bookshop, but they’ve worked with the nearby pub to do literary lunches, they do bigger spaces for all sorts of events. I think you need to be doing the extras to be able to survive in the book trade.”
But this all sounds like pretty hard work. Does de la Hey never miss the bright lights and the cut and thrust of big-name publishing? “I miss it enormously,” she admits. “But I’m on the Booksellers Association Council so I do get to go down quite often for regular meetings and things like London Book Fair. I’m probably down about five or six times a year, which tops me up.
“Bloomsbury was a fantastic place to work, with inspiring colleagues who were all good friends. But we have an amazing team with us now, so in a way it feels as though we have carved out a little bit of Bloomsbury here.”
• Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley