London is famous for its department stores like Harrods and Selfridges, but it’s the city’s small, independent shops which really give it character.
This week, we talk to Shivaun Woolfson — one half of Woolfson & Tay, an independent bookshop in London’s Bankside area.
There are undoubtedly threats to independent bookshops, but Woolfson & Tay seems to have found a formula that works. They’re more than just a really well-curated bookshop manned by passionate readers: they’re a community centre, a supporter of the arts and a great place to grab a coffee or some authentic Malaysian food.
Here’s what Shivaun told us about her recipe for success…
What inspired you to open Woolfson & Tay?
I used to run a non-profit called Living Imprint. We developed projects based around the transformational power of story which involved photography exhibitions, films and oral history work with various groups.
We wanted to find a home for our projects and to run workshops about the power of story to “enliven, enlighten and educate”.
That, coupled with the fact that I’d always dreamed of owning a bookshop, inspired my partner Fran and me to create a space where people could find stories they might not otherwise encounter.
And the theme of the power of story runs through every aspect of the space we’ve created, from the books we sell to the events we host.
Why should people support independent bookshops?
While Amazon and Kindles have their place, the independent bookshop offers a unique, curated buying experience. The selection is highly personalised and offers titles people might not otherwise stumble upon.
More than that, independent bookshops can act as a cultural and community space. In the US, there’s an appreciation, even a reverence, for the indie bookshop that actually translates into sales which help them stay open. In the UK, I’ve found the situation more challenging.
What can independent bookshops do to survive?
We (and many others like us) have come to the conclusion that we can’t just sell books if we’re going to survive.
We offer a wonderful selection of baked goods, teas and coffees and an Asian lunch option during the week. All this involves an enormous amount of work, but we wouldn’t survive if we limited our options to selling books.
We also host a range of author events, workshops and classes. We host regular writing workshops and have Tai Chi sessions every Saturday morning. In October we’ll be hosting a children’s storytelling session and we do pop-up events at local markets and community activities like the recent TEDx event in Southwark.
Can you tell us more about your campaign, #BookShopStrikesBack?
We wrote up a little vignette, based on our experiences, and inserted it into her book. We sell these in our shop or give a copy away to customers who spend £20 or more with us. It’s a way of thanking our customers while raising awareness about the very real threats to local bookshops.
Can you tell us about your café and how you came to serve Southeast Asian flavours?
Fran, my partner and co-owner, likes to cook and she’s Chinese-Malaysian. So we decided on a ‘lunch in a bowl’ option, offering hearty, home-cooked Asian food at an affordable price.
Since then, her menu has become more varied. Her Nasi Lemak (a Malaysian street food dish) has become a firm favourite with our customers. We sell out most days and have people phoning up in the morning to reserve a portion.
What does good service mean to you?
In our shop, we greet every customer who enters. We say goodbye to each one as they leave. We give service with a smile.
Beyond that, we try and be as knowledgeable as possible about all the titles we stock. We take time to help our customers find that special gift or the perfect holiday read.
Everyone who works in the shop loves books and helping people discover new authors. It’s that passion which brings people back.
How do you curate your collection?
We (mainly) stock what we like, because these are the titles we can be passionate about. We’re always on the lookout for new and unusual titles.
Our sections (like Life Writing, Places and Spaces, and Social Action) are slightly different from what you might find in most bookshops, and we like to find unusual and aesthetically pleasing editions.
We have special sections for Pushkin Press and Peirene Press, both of which focus on international titles which may have been previously overlooked. We also stock several small, independent presses which may get overlooked in larger stores.
What do you like to do in the Bankside area?
I love that it’s close to the river, and the fact that we can walk our dog along the Thames when it’s quiet in the early mornings or late evenings.
As well as weekly trips to Borough Market and sitting outside the new Albion Cafe for a late night coffee, I love exploring the little enclave behind Southwark Station. On a sunny day, it doesn’t feel like you’re smack in the middle of London at all.
What are your favourite independent or specialist shops in London? Why not tell us by leaving a comment below or tweeting us @GuomanHotels if you want to see them featured here on our blog?