July 2, 2013

Independent Booksellers Week: Q&A with Keith Smith from Warwick and Kenilworth Bookshops


This week in the UK is Independent Booksellers Week, a national celebration of independent bookshops. In order to mark the occasion, Melville House UK has interviewed a few booksellers, and these interviews will run all week. If your local bookshop is featured, pop in and say hello. If your local bookshop isn’t featured, pop in and say hello anyway. They will be so pleased.

Today, it’s the turn of Keith Smith, owner of Warwick and Kenilworth Books in Warwickshire. We’ve written about the Smiths before, in praise of their anti-Amazon petition, their pleas to the government to do more to protect our high streets, and last week we covered Keith’s calling out of authors that link to Amazon on their websites. Through their campaigning for good common sense and against the injustice that is synonymous with Amazon, the Smiths have become the unofficial spokespeople for independent booksellers and the fight to protect them. We think they’re pretty amazing.

Keith and Frances Smith, owners of Warwick and Kenilworth books

Tell us about your shops.

We are indeed community bookshops, full of good books and good advice! And we put on a large program of events throughout the year, working with the library and other partners. We’ve had everyone from local authors to Melvyn Bragg and Jodi Picoult. And we do like to be our customers’ destination of first choice. At Warwick for instance you can wander round our shop, go upstairs, relax on the settee, and help yourself to a free cup of tea and a biscuit. How does Amazon compare with that?! If you’re a visitor we’ll tell you all about the best places to visit – and there are many.  We’re in business because we love books, not to make our fortune, but then you knew that.

Why did you open your bookshops?

We had both done a large number of things in our lives including being managers, owning shops of all kinds, lecturing at universities and much else besides. Our love of books led us eventually to do what we realised was always in our blood. The later acquisition of the shop in Kenilworth is a remarkable case of serendipity. We were standing on top of the Coliseum in Rome on a very rare holiday, and who should be standing next to us but the owners of the bookshop in Kenilworth! The ensuing conversation led in a remarkably short time to shop number two. And from there we have gone from strength to strength.

How has your business changed in the last ten years?

I am not going to say there have been terrific changes. Yes we have embraced technology, yes I have a tablet myself and we sell the damn things. But at the end of the day I can’t tell you how many customers I have who possess e-readers but come to me for books. Books are terrific technology in themselves and probably the most attractive things most of us own.

There are only two things I object to:

1) councils who treat car parking as a cash cow and so actively discriminate against people coming into our towns and high streets

2) companies like Amazon who don’t pay their taxes, and therefore don’t operate on a level playing field.

What’s the weirdest book you’ve had to sell?

Betel Chewing Equipment of East New Guinea

How does the bookshop interact with the local community?

We put on dozens of events throughout the year, and underpin our two annual festivals in Warwick and Kenilworth. We are the first to get to the battlements to fight for the survival of our independents and high streets.

Why are independent bookshops so important?

Independent bookshops are the life blood of the whole industry, giving the industry its local presence, acting as a conduit for authors to meet their readers, and hand-selling the books they really like. When you visit a new town, if you’re like me, you want a coffee and a bookshop first. If you have a good bookshop that’s a bonus. If you have a great one like Foyles in London or Casa del Llibre in Barcelona well your luck is really in…

How will you be celebrating Independent Booksellers Week? 

Here’s the thing, I feel really guilty about this, but we put on so many events throughout the year, and so many promotions, IBW doesn’t really fit into our program. It’s the wrong time of year, it’s too amorphous… I would much rather have an International Book Day as in Spain. And whilst I’m moaning I absolutely hate World Book Night and refuse to participate. Giving away hundreds of thousands of cheap books that look cheap, but which the middle-classes snap up ‘cos they always want something free…where’s the sense in that?

What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked in your bookshop?

Do you sell books?



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.