Friday, 27 August 2010

Interview: Libra Aries Bookshop

Well, you remember I promised you interviews on Fridays? Well I had to have a metaphorical break for a week after doing Keith, who was quite, shall we say, an intense experience and rather unusual in his opinion of mass production, but I’m back with my interviews today! This is Tim and Jean from the Libra Aries bookshop.
I used to work just off Mill Road in Cambridge, and the Libra Aries bookshop was close by so I used to go and have a mooch round at lunchtime. It was my absolutely favourite bookshop in Cambridge, and I got some fabulous books and zines from there, including some great seventies craft books which I’ve never seen anywhere else, the Reiki Subversive’s handbook, some brilliant pagan Yule cards, my favourite book ever on Wicca, and lots of other stuff. What I loved about it was that it stocked books and zines from what were clearly tiny producers, and had a wonderful, eclectic range of stock which you just don’t get at the large retailers. Then it closed down, after having been quite an iconic part of that bit of Mill Road, and I thought that was a real shame.

I go on about local shopping (and I’m going to be going on at some length next week, brace yourselves. I’ve been reading up!), but I really think shopping locally for books, and making an effort to buy books from independents AND NOT JUST AMAZON, is something we (and definitely I) need to be much more aware about. We’ve lost so many bookshops recently in Cambridge, really nice bookshops, and if a well-off university town can’t sustain independent bookshops then that’s a bit scary. We all end up losing out. Anyway, before I get too far up on my high horse (neigh!), I’ll just add that I saw the Libra Aries bookshop in its new incarnation on Cambridge market one morning, and it was so fabulous to see that it hadn’t disappeared completely that I leapt on it (I leapt on it in cyberspace!) and I asked Tim & Jean to be interviewed. And so here we are, I hope you enjoy.

1/ Tell us a little bit about you and your shop.
We are Tim and Jean we live in Romsey, and we ran Libra Aries Bookshop for six years, tucked away in a cosy corner of  the Romsey end of Mill Rd. The Bookshop closed in June this year, and frankly we'd been doing very badly for about 18 months. It seems to us that small independent bookshops are becoming a thing of the past, which is a terrible shame.

2/ What makes your shop different?
We always tried to seek out unusual titles from small and sometimes underground publishers, and to deal directly with authors where possible. We decided early on to specialise in subjects that we personally were interested in, and which were not so easily available in larger corporate bookshops. (We call them book-supermarkets because they treat books as if they were tins of beans!)

3/ What would you say has been your biggest learning experience with Libra Aries, and what achievement are you most proud of?
For me our greatest achievement at Libra Aries was our Sunday Tea Party series, which ran every week from March till August 2005, and took the format of a talk or lecture, followed by informal discussion over a cuppa. We were privileged to host talks by a number of published authors - Nigel Pennick, Anna Franklin, Andy Worthington, Bob Trubshaw (publisher of The Folklore Society's Book of the Year), Gordon MacLellan, Prudence Jones - as well as local speakers. Organising and promoting an event every week was exhausting, but rewarding.

Our biggest lesson from running Libra Aries is that nobody EVER got rich selling books.

4/ Are there any of the lines you carry that you’re particularly excited about, or would like to tell us about?
We sell the Earth Pathways 2011 diary, which is a beautiful creature and has contributions by the writer Jean Dark and by the artist Tim Neate, both Tim & Jean live in Cambridge, so there's a local element there. And we are already taking orders for the lovely blue & silver Moon Calendar Posters that were so popular in the Mill Rd shop.

5/ Do you think there’s been an increase in interest in alternative ideas over the last few years, or is it still a niche market?
We think there has certainly been an increase of interest in environmental issues, unfortunately more people are buying books via the internet so the growing awareness has not translated into sales from bookshops, so small independent bookshops will continue to close. Did you know that 4 independent bookshops in Cambridge, including ourselves, have closed in the last 2 years? [Note from me, this includes Galloway and Porter, and Brown's which were also wonderful bookshops].

6/ Does owning an independent shop affect the way you see mass production/ big corporations? Do you try to support independent producers when you shop/ source services yourself?
Obviously we were very aware of the crucial role small & independent authors, publishers and distributors played in supplying books on alternative issues, and we purposely set out to support small independents by buying direct from them, which as a small independent bookshop we could easily do this. It is harder for international giant corporations to be that flexible & work with such diversity. It is a sad fact that centralised ordering based on profitability inevitably leads to a reduction in the range available to the reader. Only the bestsellers get a look in. As more small bookshops close you'll find fewer and fewer titles on sale. We ourselves always shop locally for food and provisions on Mill Road.

7/ What are your plans for Libra Aries for the future?
We are going to continue selling mail order via the internet and taking our bookstall out to camps and festivals, hopefully Strawberry Fair will be back again soon [note from me, this was a bit of a scandal, the police stopped Strawberry Fair], that's one of our favorite events! We also stand on Cambridge market square every wednesday.

You can see more of Libra Aries on their website, where you can buy online, and see them in real life on the market on Wednesdays on their cheerful stall. It’s lovely to have you still around, Tim and Jean, and I hope things go from strength to strength for Libra Aries (the one question I didn’t ask, was, why are you called Libra Aries, and my partner is upset because he wanted to know the answer. Never mind. Interviewing, it is hard ;-).


Marushka C. said...

I used to do marketing materials for independent bookstores here in the U.S. and it is a very tough market to be in. It's great to see you giving the spotlight to a small independent store -- they're the ones with character.

Susie said...

Thank you Marushka. You're right, very tough market.

I must say, I was shocked when I was doing this interview to realise quite how many independent book shops have closed in Cambridge recently - and all of them were nice, friendly, had great stock etc (because I know it's always tempting to think, if little shops were as good as chains they'd be able to compete, but I definitely don't think this is the case).