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Mainstreet Trading independent bookshop and Bira Member featured in the July/August edition of the Bira Member Magazine
By Bira
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Doing it by the book

The quiet village of St Boswells in the Scottish Borders is an unlikely location for the country’s Best Small Shop. Rosamund and Bill de la Hey prove that with the right concept, an independent business can become a brand and a destination.

THE NAME OF The Mainstreet Trading Company gives no clue to what the business does. Its memorable logo, showing a leggy hare with huge ears, is not too enlightening either. For owners Rosamund and Bill de la Hey, the apparent mystery is all part of the allure of their award-winning enterprise, which currently comprises a bookshop, a café, a delicatessen and a home-wares shop. Who knows what they might add.

“Right from the start, we knew we wanted to create a brand, not just a shop,” Rosamund explains. “Although we were going to start with books and a café, we deliberately avoided mentioning them in our name because we knew books would only be one part of what we did.”

Rosamund’s original idea was to open a children’s-only bookshop, but more experienced friends in the book trade soon talked her out of that, pointing out it offered only finite opportunities and probably not even viable ones.

Expanding her vision to take in teenagers and adults, she was clear from the outset that she wanted to avoid mimicking commercial bookshop chains, which she feels rely too much on selling whichever titles are backed by the largest marketing spend.

“I was determined to sell books to people who wanted to read them,” she explains.

That clarity of vision and determination possibly arose from Rosamund’s marked lack of experience of retailing. As she admits with a laugh, by the time she and her husband opened The Mainstreet Trading Company 11 years ago, apart from a few hurried weeks of “work experience” at friends’ shops, she had never stood behind a counter before.

She knew a lot about the book trade, however, having spent 14 years in publishing in London, latterly as children’s marketing director for Bloomsbury during the period that company was publishing its phenomenally-successful Harry Potter series.

Coincidentally, the café that complemented the bookshop from the start was also a new adventure for Bill, who had given up a career as a freelance photographer to retrain as a chef. His initial vision for what Rosamund refers to as his domain in the store was to serve “really good coffee”. In whatever they do, the pair set themselves very high standards.

Between 2000 and 2006 the couple produced three children and decided they wanted to raise them in Rosamund’s homeland. Their relocation from London to the Scottish Borders began in 2003. For a few years, Rosamund commuted to London between Tuesday and Thursday, but the final break with the capital was made in 2007. In that year, having decided that a retail enterprise would provide at least Rosamund with an income, the pair acquired their imposing premises, which was built originally as the general store of Walter Ballantyne & Son. It is on the main road through St Boswells, a small village in the Scottish Borders, which is a com-mutable 40 miles south-east of Edinburgh. Their home is a mile away.

In recent years the building, which dates from 1896, had been used as a rather eccentric auction house. It was not in good repair and significant refurbishment was needed to make it usable. On 21 June 2008, The Mainstreet Trading Company opened its doors.

Mainstreet Trading independent bookshop and Bira Member featured in the July/August edition of the Bira Member Magazine

Built in 1896, the building was for many years the premises of Walter Ballantyne & Son, a small department store and provisions wholesaler. Today the bookshop and cafe are in the main building with the delicatessen and homewares shop in a former storehouse to the rear, where also there is parking for 18 cars.

“There was never a plan for Bill and me to work together in our new careers,” says Rosamund, “but the building was far too big just for a bookshop and we wanted a café as another draw. We could have brought in a food franchisee, of course, but we wanted to do it ourselves, to do it our way, with integrity, to be true to the brand we wanted to create.”

A quiet village in rural Scotland, with many of the local houses being holiday lets, seems an odd choice for such an ambitious project. Rosamund acknowledges the difficulties, but also enthusiastically underlines the opportunities the position presents: “In theory, the location is ridiculous! But the village is something of a crossroads in the area and you cannot miss the building as it’s one of the largest around here. It has five large plate-glass windows that we use to maximum effect with striking displays.”

Bill and Rosamund have achieved what most independent retailers would love to do – they have made their shop a destination. The 18 spaces in their car park at the rear are well used.
While the café occupies only about one third of the floorspace of the bookshop, Rosamund admits it has been vital to the business’ success: “The bookshop alone could never have survived.”
With funding focused on the renovations, the promotional budget for the launch was very tight. “I was a marketing and PR professional for years and I was always taught that marketing costs money, while publicity is free. While I happily pushed the books I worked on in my Bloomsbury days, I felt strangely awkward, even arrogant and vainglorious, about publicising my own new business,” Rosamund explains.

A large plan shows the layout of the site.

Luckily the Scottish national newspaper The Herald promoted the shop in an 8-page magazine feature on the weekend it opened. Only in passing does Rosamund casually mention that the main thrust of the feature was that she was recovering from treatment for breast cancer while working to get the business off the ground.

An early attempt at diversification was to rent space within the cafe to a friend who ran an antiques business. That helped with cashflow and added to the destination concept. During 2012 a former storehouse at the rear of the main building was substantially refurbished to become the location for a delicatessen and a homewares shop. The antiques dealer remained in here until 2016 when the space was taken fully by Mainstreet Home.

Bill takes up the story: “From the start we have used local producers from the Borders and Northumberland for our bread, meat and vegetables. There are lots of food entrepreneurs in the region, as well as artisan breweries and distilleries. But I wanted to avoid the deli being like a local farm shop. For the deli I buy things I’d like to eat myself, whether they are from Somerset or Andalucía. We like telling stories here and food producers usually have a good story to tell. The deli is the larder for the café too.”

So as Rosamund sells books to people who really like to read, Bill sells produce to people who appreciate fine food and drink. It’s an impressively sophisticated selection in the deli, which is matched by the tasteful and eclectic range in the home department alongside.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is not as much cross-over between the four areas of the business as might be expected. “A lot of the deli customers don’t use the bookshop and don’t even notice we have a café,” Bill reveals. “Others use the café but virtually never buy anything else from us.”

The partners do work on cross-fertilising the different strands. A Cookbook of the Month is displayed in the cafe and Bill amends his menu to feature a few of its recipes. This is typical of the thoughtful and engaging way the pair have promoted their business to their three main target groups of local families, older residents and seasonal tourists. Brochures promoting local attractions are a popular medium as they are distributed to hotels and B&Bs in the district. Unsurprisingly, the business has a high profile at the popular annual summer Book Festival in Melrose a few miles away.

The bookshop still drives the marketing effort. Through her contacts in the trade, the persuasive Rosamund has secured an astonishing roster of top writers and up-and-coming novelists to make personal appearances at the shop. A large wall is covered with photographs of the luminaries, ranging from Margaret Atwood and Rick Stein to Clare Balding and former Children’s Laureate Sir Michael Morpurgo.

Most events take place in the shop, but the village hall and Tait Hall in nearby Kelso are used for bigger crowds. The biggest turnout of 450 people was for Scottish Olympian Sir Chris Hoy, but Rosamund is just as keen in promoting new talent to perhaps 30 customers.

The events are cleverly promoted via a mailing list of 3,500 names with the best deal being a ticket that includes entrance and the purchase of a book. “We have very big names perhaps once or twice a year, but we have some sort of event two or three times each month,” Rosamund says. There is no doubt that 11 years on, Rosamund’s passion for encouraging people to read is undimmed. One of the most impressive programmes she has built up involves taking books – and often a famous author – into local schools across a wide area in the Borders. The company van is a handsome Citroen in the shop’s livery.

“We bring teachers to the shop to plan our visits, which take in children from very little ones to pupils in their early secondary years. We like to get to the bits that other bookshops don’t get to,” she explains.

Bill and Rosamund admit is has been a surprise to end up with about 20 staff, including 13 full-timers. Rosamund’s focus remains on buying the books, with Viviane Bannerman, who has been with the company almost from the start, as her right-hand and assistant manager. On homewares buying, Rosamund is supported by Phillippa Henley as assistant manager, who is also responsible for many of the stunning window displays in the main store.

In Bill’s domain, Kirsty Lewis runs the café team while in the deli he is assisted by Michelle McGarry, who joined the team just as the deli was being opened. Remarkably, Michelle was previously a genetic scientist.

“What I am most proud about the business is that we have made it work,” says Rosamund, “and that we employ a lot of people who have a lot of job satisfaction being here. Most of us could earn more doing something else but we like being here.”

The high standards the team adhere to have been recognised with many industry awards, including Independent Bookshop of the Year 2012 and Deli of the Year in 2014. The accolades were topped off last year when The Mainstreet Trading Company was named Britain’s Best Small Shop 2018 by the Independent Retailers Confederation, an industry grouping that includes Bira.

Despite the volume of books sold online, a venture into ecommerce is not a high priority, although intriguingly Rosamund says she has an underdeveloped concept in mind: “Going online for us would be pretty high-risk. How do we recreate the magic we have in our physical space here? We don’t see any logic to allowing ourselves to be distracted when we still want ourselves to be the best we can be right here.”

Meanwhile, there are always other things to develop, change and improve. The playful hare logo that is the signature of the business was created 11 years ago by local designer Vivienne Seeley, who combined illustration with fine Gill Sans lettering.

She has worked with the shop ever since and a small range of Mainstreet products such as mugs, aprons, pencils, notebooks and bags is on sale in the shop. The business has indeed become a brand.


THE MAINSTREET TRADING COMPANY

  • Main Street, St Boswells, Melrose, Scottish Borders TD6 0AT
  • Founded: 2008
  • Size of main shop and cafe: 1,800 sq ft
  • Size of deli and homewares shop: 900 sq ft
  • Staff: 13 full-timers, 7 part-timers
  • Shop opening hours: Mon: Closed. Tues-Sat 9-5.30. Sun: 11-4.30
  • Café closes at 5 Tues-Sat and 4 on Sun

Visit mainstreetbooks.co.uk to find out more


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