July 4, 2013
Independent Booksellers Week: Q&A with Jonathan Main from The Bookseller Crow
by Zeljka Marosevic
Today, we interview Jonathan Main from The Bookseller Crow, an independent bookshop in South London’s Crystal Palace. As well as running a bookshop which is part of the local community, Main also runs a great and entertaining blog, the Bedside Crow. I love all the fun themed extras the bookshop offers, including their bird shaped bookmarks and their book subscription service, Flight Club.
Situated close to a park that enjoys the quiet fame of a set of gigantic stone dinosaurs, the bookshop makes the most of its neighbours. Dinosaurs and books. One extinct, the other fighting a tremendous fight for survival.
Tell us about your shop
We are 1000 square foot of books in the historic, but until recently, a little neglected, London neighbourhood of Crystal Palace.
Our shop is an extension of our home life – music on (a customer told us this week that we were always grooving when he came in), dolls house for kids to play with, iconic comfy red bench and cushions, an unstuffy attitude that extends to our stock profile. So, we do well with children’s books, art and cookery, crime, graphic novels and oddball stuff and we are famous for our American literary fiction. In addition we sell everything in print on the history of the Crystal Palace and its time.
Why did you decide to open your bookshop?
We have been open for 16 years, although we have been selling books in South London, one way or another, for more than 30 years. Owning our own shop seemed like the natural outcome for all of the hours we had put in.
How has your business changed in the past ten years?
Business has change greatly in that time, for all of the obvious reasons – how many times have I met a former regular customer in the street carrying an Amazon box? How many times have I had the Kindle conversation? But business has changed and continues to change in significant ways for all forms of retail, be they pub, restaurant, cheese or sweet shop. The challenges are not that different for any of us. Social media hardly existed 10 years ago, now it is at the heart of what we do.
Do you have a favourite book that you like to recommend?
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter holds a special place in our hearts: it’s set in Crystal Palace and the toy shop is now home to our accountant, although sadly the magic seems to have stopped working.
Which is the weirdest book you’ve had to sell?
I’m tempted to answer: If a book isn’t weird it isn’t doing its job. Also, what’s weird for one person is another man’s vanilla. That said, I did once sell 2000 copies of a cartoon book about a talking penis.
How do you interact with your local community?
Crystal Palace has a wonderful and very passionate community as evidenced by locally organised festivals, food markets and a brilliant magazine The Transmitter . We are very proud to contribute and be a part of that passion.
Why are independent bookshops so important?
The successful ones put themselves at the cultural heart of their community. How they do that and where that heart currently resides is the thing to ponder.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked in your bookshop?
“Do you sell,” holds up the tub, “this cream?” And I was once asked if I could hold someone’s goldfish for them.
How will you be celebrating Independent Booksellers Week?
We like to think that every week is Independent Booksellers Week, that said, I suspect book group on Wednesday night may turn into a bit of a party. It normally does.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.