One of my favourite bookshops is Rye Books in East Dulwich. I often pop in to browse around, and I am always impressed by the expertly curated selection of books on display. This made me curious as to how the owner, Alastair Kenward, has created such an interesting shop. Armed with the excuse of writing this blog post, I went to interview him one afternoon. It turns out that Alastair has been in the bookselling game for ten years, while Rye Books celebrated its second birthday last November.
It must be very difficult, as an independent bookseller, to compete with online retailers such as Amazon. I'm interested in how you run your bookshop, without, of course, making you reveal any trade secrets …
What independents do is strive to create an experience that you don't find online. We aim to stock unusual books with wide appeal – things that are beautiful; things that you will want to keep on your shelf and not take straight down to the charity shop. The thing is you can buy everything online, and everything is cheaper online… apart from a pint, and a full English breakfast! But people meeting people should be encouraged.
We keep a core of useful books, particularly to do with parenting and literacy, given the [demographic] make-up of the area. The shop has been shaped by the people who come in here, and by listening to what those people want.
How did you choose this location? It is quite tucked away, and it's a lovely destination to come to.
It took a while to find a shop locally where the size was right. I also searched for the right combination of environment and footfall: with rising rents - the more niche shops, those that aren't restaurants or cafes - are forced to the periphery.
The previous landlord was using this place as a junk shop. When I first came in here, the first thing that struck me was that it had a dry, warm, welcoming feel … I decided to overlook the fact that the mice had been having a party! We thought we'd try and make it somewhere you'd want to come to, a comfy place where you could sit down and hide, spend an hour or two.
Have you always had an interest in this field, or did you start with something else, and then move into bookselling?
I've got an art background, really, I suppose that's how I started out …
I did wonder about that, because you've got so many wonderful art books, and the design and layout of the shop is so beautifully done …
At art college you develop your artistic eye for things, and your sense of place I suppose, which has been really useful in doing what we do. But I have to say, I have a friend who is an amazing designer – he has his own company, Grafikburo – and I am very grateful to him, because he helps with the design and branding of the shop, which has been really important.
I think this is the reason this is one of my favourite bookshops actually, because even though it's a small space, you've laid it all out really clearly. You also have an excellent selection, and you change [the stock] regularly, which not many independent bookshops seem to be able to manage …
The fun is in the finding. And it's amazing, even in a two-week period, how many new things appear. It's quite a challenge to keep up with it all, whilst hanging on to the important things we need.
How much stock do you have out the back?
We have very good independent wholesalers, which is key; they are amazingly efficient. We don't need a vast stockroom, because of that … well, only at Christmastime!
You seem to be very good at selecting books, and recommending them to people – including some quite obscure things.
When people have an idea about what they want to read, we try and tune in to what they want and, using what we've come across before, perhaps we can suggest something. Sometimes we end up going somewhere else completely, but we find what they want, and that's all that matters. And it's quite satisfying too when you find the title they were looking for. It's quite an adventure some days …
I've also been meaning to ask you about your second-hand section.
The second-hand section gives another level of choice – if people want to buy a book at £2.50 or £3.50, it gives them that option. New books cost a bit more, and sometimes books that are second-hand aren't available any more. You can find real treasure sometimes, and I know how exciting it is myself when I find something special; hopefully people will feel the same thing if they find something from here. It's a small section, but when we do the bookstall on Saturdays, there is more available there. Second-hand books can be more of a gamble, maybe, but people always like them.
The market stall is fun, as there's always good banter and a great atmosphere. It's like having another little room, an outdoor room, extra to the shop. Our little three-wheeler van converts into our mobile stall, and we use it to take books into schools – the kids go nuts for it!
You also host a number of events, too, which seem rather fun.
We love to create events and have authors in to read and meet their audience. Each event attracts a different crowd, depending on the book. We screen films, too, and have had live bands play on our forecourt! Events at the shop are good because they shake things up, and we are always amazed at how our calendar of events comes together each year.
And finally: what do you yourself like to read?
I've got myself into the habit of letting instinct choose for me. I read a lot of reviews and so forth, but I think books speak to you somehow – it's a mood thing. Sometimes books will be more in tune with you, or you in tune with it at that time, and you think, that's speaking to me now ...
There are other times when I look at a bookcase full of books and make myself pick up something that – for a variety of reasons – is saying 'don't pick me up'. So I pick it up just so I can see what it is that is making me not want to pick it up; and that's interesting.
We try and keep abreast of what is coming out, without religiously trying to read everything. We then pick and choose from the key titles: the fun is to see what the attraction is [with books that are currently popular]; to find out for myself.
Thanks for your time!
Rye Books is at 45 Upland Road, London, SE22 9EF; you can find out more about this brilliant bookshop at www.ryebooks.co.uk
Rye Books also has a bookstall every Saturday at the North Cross Road market, located between Lordship Lane and Crystal Palace Road in East Dulwich, SE22.