Interview with a Bookstore: Topping & Company Booksellers

Co-director Cornelia Topping said : “It’s a challenge opening a bookshop in this time or era when the penetration of digital delivery…

Co-director Cornelia Topping said : “It’s a challenge opening a bookshop in this time or era when the penetration of digital delivery services has increased tremendously, but you just have to be at the top of your game in order to stand out. The family-run bookshop, which has branches in St Andrews, Bath and Ely, prides itself on running autonomously rather than from one “central hub.”

All of them have the same charm and appeal as the new Edinburgh branch to suit the taste of its readers. All the branches have a striking blue shopfront that stands out on their respective high streets. “When we order the books, we don’t order the same batch for all four bookshops — they are independently run so the stock is different” says Cornelia.

“At Toppings we want people to have a physical experience browsing, rather than looking at the algorithms of Amazon when looking for books.”

Due to pandemic the family-run bookshop had to shut down its stores temporarily in Ely, Bath, St Andrews and Edinburgh in March. With face-to-face transactions previously making up around more than 90% of sales, co-founder Robert Topping and his son Hugh adapted how they worked by selling books over the phone from their homes and improving the company’s website.

The business continued to work with authors from across the UK to curate reading lists and collections for visitors to its website, and delivered signed copies of the latest fiction and non-fiction books to its loyal base of subscribers every month.

I had a wonderful & insightful conversation and Q&A session with Duncan about Bookselling Business Ecosystem .

Excerpts from the Interview :

Hi Rishabh, thank you for asking me!

Topping & Company Booksellers. It is more than just a bookshop — but I’m slightly biased! — it’s a place that understands the magic feeling of holding a book and the other worlds it opens up for you; the delight of discovering a timeless classic or an underrated book. It is in equal parts a bookshop, library and a book sanctuary.

Q1) Can you tell us a bit about the fascinating history of the bookshop? Tell our readers here when and how the bookshop came into existence? How did it become such an institution?

Duncan : Topping & Company Booksellers opened its first bookshop in Ely, near Cambridge in 2002. Robert Topping had been manager of Waterstone’s iconic bookshop on Deansgate in Manchester, but became disillusioned as they became focused on bestsellers and much less on trying to find new and interesting books and authors. From the start Robert wanted to run a bookshop with real authority, one that was staffed by true booklovers who had the agency to seek out a wide range of books and who could recommend titles from the huge number that they had personally read. Author events were important, as was the determination to seek out signed books to add that extra something for the booklover. Ely soon established itself as a bookshop that just had to be visited, and it’s success led to the opening of new bookshops in Bath (2008) and the first venture north of the border in St Andrews (2014). Edinburgh was always on the agenda, and we finally found the perfect spot in 2019…!

Q2) Tell us about your background Duncan. Did you grew up in book — centric environment. When did you decide that you want to be in the bookselling business? Was there an eureka moment in your life when you knew you loved books and wanted to point your career in this direction?

Duncan : I was a stereotypical bookish kid, I just couldn’t keep my nose out of early obsessions like The Secret Seven and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books. Fast forward to my leaving university as an arts graduate who had no idea what to do with my life. I had moved to Edinburgh, and one Sunday (!! NOTHING opened on a Sunday at that time!! ) I walked into a bookshop that I had never heard of called Waterstones, on George Street. At that time it was the only branch outside London, and it blew me away with it’s huge selection of beautiful books, enough to tempt you and keep you interested for days and days. I knew this was where I had to be, and so my bookselling career was born (in 1986, just 35 very short years ago!).

Q3) The book business is divided between two divergent yet synergistic entities: art and commerce. If you think from the perspective of a writer their stories or writings are imaginatively composed, subjectively appreciated, and diversely interpreted. These qualities don’t particularly abide by financial district rule, but to make writing a living, the work cannot exist in a void. Whether we like it or not, there is a parallel corporate track to literature that has existed long before any of us. It’s not to be feared but to be embraced as part of this business and flow of literary dissemination. Can you shed some light on this? How does booksellers balance this reality of a business? What factors does the buyer or team of booksellers at the bookshop keep in mind while curating the bookshelves? Do they prefer to have best sellers on their shelves or do they provide a platform to an under rated authors as well. What is the curation strategy of the Topping and Company?

Duncan : That is a very difficult question to answer, as ultimately there is not a strict science to bookselling. Yes, we need bestsellers as they generate significant revenue, but being over focussed on titles that are almost guaranteed to be in demand leads to a pretty dull bookshop. We pride ourselves in having as wide a range of books as possible (over 70,000 titles in Edinburgh), selected by a team of booksellers with wide ranging interests and the desire to keep as stimulating a selection of titles as possible. This attracts browsers who know that they will find titles that they never knew about, alongside current chart books and old favourites. Hopefully we have something for everyone!

Q4) What’s Topping & Co’s bookselling philosophy?

Duncan : To have friendly bookshops full of books, staffed by people who love books, and open hours when browsers want to visit.

Q5) Tell us about your weekly newsletters and events which happen at the bookstore in collaboration with authors. Any memorable incident from any author’s event you can recall.

Our events are lively occasions with the emphasis on direct communication between author and audience. The talks…

Duncan : Events are a huge part of what we do, they help to add excitement, attract browsers and ultimately sell books, and our newsletters are the main vehicle for letting people know what is coming up. One particularly funny event occured a couple of years ago when Doddie Weir (ex-Scotland rugby player) came to talk about his career. I ended up flat on my back on the stage being kicked by a gang of children as Dodie demonstrated the wilder aspects of the game. All good fun!

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Q6) What do you think is the role of an independent bookstore, or the role of booksellers at an independent bookstore?

Duncan : To help browsers find the books they are looking for, offering reads that will light up a topic, a period or feeling in a way that an algorithm can’t.

Q7) As a bookseller, how have you witnessed books changing people’s lives? How important do you think bookstores are today? Do they matter to the community?

Duncan : Bookshops are vital, they act as a treasure chest of ideas to engage and stimulate thought. It’s wonderful to reopen our doors and see familiar faces, catch up on what they’ve been reading and share book news. Part of the community dies if a bookshop closes.

The relationship between a community and its independent bookshop is something unique, especially in times of uncertainty. We’ve seen so many political and societal changes in the first half of 2020, so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen an uplift in sales of non-fiction and current affairs books, especially on the topic of race due to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Q8) How do you feel about the way technology is affecting book readership and book purchasing? As a self-proclaimed bibliophile I feel being able to help readers find themselves in books, learn about a new culture, or escape to a new adventure is a privilege and something I hope we never take for granted. Surveys continue to show that although technology is convenient, print books remain much more popular than e-books. Although technology provides convenience, print books give us a break from the technology and distractions in our daily lives. What do you think?

Duncan : From the printing press to social media books continue to adapt and thrive! E-readers have a place (if you are heading for a desert island and need to take hundreds of books with you, or if you need to enlarge the font to help with poor eyesight) but you simply can not beat a physical book. Portable, no need for a power source, the gateway to anywhere and everywhere — and they smell great too!

Q9) According to the Research Study — The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores by Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School — Despite the increasing sophistication of online algorithms, online platforms have been unable to replicate the knowledge and passion of indie bookstore owners and employees. Many booksellers are voracious readers and serve as trusted guides who can point their customers to new genres or up-and-coming authors they might not have encountered. Customers leave the store excited and then want to come back.”

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Do you happen to agree with his study and observation? How does the bookshop maintain a special blend of community flavor?

Duncan : I absolutely agree with this. A good bookshop is only as good as it’s booksellers. In learning from each other and in curating our particular sections, we hopefully provide that human element, sharing every new discovery — whether a new author or a forgotten classic — to as many browsers as possible!

Q10) Amazon decimated giant bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and the now-shuttered Borders. But independent bookstores, against all odds, are actually growing, not dying. And the internet — particularly social media and Instagram — has played a huge role in revitalizing independent bookstores. #Bookstagram is creating a thriving space — and community — for bibliophiles on Instagram. there’s a thriving — and growing — community of book lovers on Instagram who use the platform to share their love of reading, connect with other bookworms, and support their local independent stores. All this bookstagramming has led to a thriving space for book lovers on social media, and that’s been a good thing for independent bookstores too — because it plays to their key strength: creating community.

Do you agree with this? The Instagramification of everything has been good for the bookshop according to you?

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Duncan : Especially with the last year, social media has helped us connect the bookshop with readers. Nothing can replace browsing the shelves and considering books over a cup of tea or coffee - yet it’s been really nice for us to share what we’ve been reading over the past year and hearing back from our browsers of books that have captivated them.

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Q11) Do you have favourite books and authors, or a genre that you’d like to share?

Duncan : The list continues to grow! I tend to read History, especially 20th Century European History (Anna Funder’s Stasiland is a particular favourite, and I have recently enjoyed Culloden by Paul O’Keefe); Biography (Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That and Deborah Orr’s Motherwell spring to mind): Sporting books (I found Duncan Hamilton’s One Long and Beautiful Summer a particularly moving look at the health and history of the longer forms cricket). And the odd novel (if you haven’t read James Ribertson’s And The Land Lay Still then a real treat awaits…). And so many more!

Q12) Lastly, what do you think the future looks like for independent booksellers? What do you think you and your fellow independent booksellers need to do to survive keeping COVID- 19 and disruption of Amazon as a part of market forces or dynamics?

Duncan : Keep reading. The future is bright.

Thank you so much for collaborating in today’s post Duncan!

It’s a pleasure!

If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.

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