A thriving independent bookshop in the heart of Sussex

Across Britain independent bookshops are closing in their droves. Around 900 have managed to weather the storm as a combination of rent hikes, Tesco, Amazon and the rise of e-books plunder their business. Competition in the book market has never been fiercer and yet some bookshops have managed to hang in there by a thread despite every possible missile fired at them. I found one such shop in the friendly, pleasant town of East Grinstead in West Sussex.

‘The Bookshop,’ a timber slashed building is nestled along a charming row of medieval buildings in this market town, just a few miles from Forest Row; Winnie The Pooh country and the vast expanse of Ashdown Forest.

Owner John Pye has run the business for some 27 years. I sat outside his shop on a warm Summer’s day in June promoting my latest book ‘Holiday’ and signing copies. Here’s the link to ‘Holiday (A Bill Bryson travel book with a family drama woven through: https://www.amazon.co.uk/HOLIDAY-Laugh-out-loud-romantic-Joanna-Warrington-ebook/dp/B01MXYJJ3V/ ).

While I parked my car John set the table up; an artistic arrangement of my books on the pavement just outside the shop. John welcomes this partnership with indie and new authors and his diary of author book signings is pretty chockablock. Throughout the day he was very helpful to me, imparting nuggets of knowledge.

There’s something quite unique about ‘The Bookshop’ experience. John owes his success to several factors. You get a real sense that John and his shop are at the heart of the community and I really couldn’t say this about Waterstones where the staff stand rigidly behind their tills. They are invariably students on gap years and only open their mouths to take the money or point to a shelf. John knows the local traders and throughout the day other traders dropped by.

Despite the heat it was a busy Saturday at ‘The Bookshop.’ A writers’ workshop beavered away upstairs, held by Mel Parks of Honeyleaf Writing http://www.honeyleafwriting.com. John set up tables outside for passers by to play chess and occasionally he’d join in. What a fantastic idea I thought!

‘The Bookshop’ has a huge range of books on every genre and for every age group and interest but it also serves coffee and cake and this makes it a special place to visit. While I engaged with potential readers on the pavement outside, lapping up the sun, John was laughing and chatting with a group of older ladies as they sipped their coffee.

John also serves ice cream from a display freezer at the entrance to the shop. A group of walkers heading for Forest Row stopped for a treat and children were easy customers too. John comes across as an easy going, relaxed sort of guy. Handing a small boy an ice cream he joked “now don’t you let your dad have any,” and two brothers chose books on dinosaurs displayed in the shop window. John laughed, “You watch those dinosaurs don’t escape. Be very careful boys.” “But they’re not real, it’s only a book,” the boys pleaded.

Several years ago John employed Sarah as a Saturday assistant while she was a student. Sarah graduated in English Literature, managed the shop while he was away and on his return – proving her weight in gold – he employed her full time and hasn’t looked back. They are a great team and Sarah’s work in setting up a slick and professional website has been invaluable as well as the setting up of various talks, discussions, workshops and a book club. All of these events, which can be found on the bookshop’s website at http://www.eastgrinsteadbookshop.co.uk run off the back of the main business but crucially they add value to the community, by engaging people in an interesting and entertaining way. Now you don’t get that sort of repertoire in Tesco do you? The books might be cheap but that’s about all you can say. They aren’t book specialists! Buy your baked beans from Tesco by all means but not your books!

Talking of price John believes very firmly that the book market shouldn’t be a race to the bottom. He didn’t like it when I mentioned that many ebooks on Amazon are now free. ‘You’ve worked very hard to write your book, don’t undersell yourself.’ And so with John’s conviction I priced my book at £8.99 and got lots of sales. If it was up to me I would have sold it cheap! But what’s the point? What was I hoping to achieve? In John’s words, ‘if somebody wants to buy it they will. The price is irrelevant.’ And ‘people buy from people they like,’ is another of his mottos.

By giving readers the little extras, the sense of community, pride and welcome customers return to him again and again. There’s no doubt that running any shop is damned hard work but looking at John and the way he mingles with his customers you get an idea that his job is fun too!


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