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Overcoming the competition at White Rose Books Café
Competition from Amazon, electronic books, financial crises, rising overheads – Sue Lake has overcome all these challenges and more in building up White Rose Books Café in Thirsk to be the epitome of a thriving independent bookshop.
It is with wry amusement that Sue Lake remembers that when she was planning to open an independent bookshop in the mid-1990s, she aspired to emulate a national chain like Waterstones or Borders.
The idea of having a dusty old “traditional” bookshop that was more like a reading library than a forward-looking business was anathema to the 30-year-old English & American Literature graduate who had worked in corporate sales and marketing for large concerns like Kellogg’s.
Some 24 years after she opened her business, Sue tells her story to Bira magazine sitting in her busy White Rose Bookshop Café in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, which, with its individual air, sense of local community and a high percentage of books of local interest, could not be mistaken for a national multiple.
There are books, cards and gifts at the front of the ground floor and upstairs on a mezzanine. Also upstairs is an attractive “story room” with seating, baskets of books and tables to keep children occupied with activities.
Occupying the rear of the ground floor is the café, serving hot and cold locally-sourced food and drinks. It is busy with people who may or may not be interested in the books around them on a cold and windy November lunchtime – certainly, it is too wintry for anyone to be in the back garden.
As customers come and go, Sue reflects that the development of the business has been in several stages, some part of a forward-looking plan, others as reactions to outside forces.
“I was brought up in Thirsk and I returned when I was about 30 after attending Manchester University and then working as a sales rep for Kellogg’s in the north-west, which I loved,” Sue recalls. “My dad, Stephen Clements, was a local Barnardo’s Boy who had set up his own animal feeds company in Thirsk, so there was an entrepreneurial streak in the family.
“I wanted to work for myself and I loved reading – I still do – so the idea of a bookshop really appealed. Right about the time we opened, the Net Book Agreement, a national system that controlled the retail prices of books across the industry, collapsed and was soon after ruled illegal, so the market was turned upside down just as we joined it. Essentially a price-fixing strategy disappeared virtually overnight, which meant that discounting prices could be used as a tool for marketing books for the first time.
“Coming from a classic marketing background, such a cheap way of promoting your goods was anathema to me, but it didn’t frighten us at all – we saw it as an opportunity to create something that wouldn’t be driven by price.”
The venture was very much a family affair, with Sue, her father Steve and mother Tina all involved (her sister Caroline Nicholls joined later). The rented premises they found on the town’s square was a slightly ramshackle three-storey period property, but only the small area at the front of the ground floor was used to begin with.
The first day of trading for White Rose Books (there was no café at the start) was 2 October 1995 and the first title sold, Sue can recall to this day, was Collins’ British Wildflower Guide at £6.95.
“The book trade is very supportive of new arrivals and through the Eastbourne-based wholesaler Gardners Books I did some work experience at The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley as I had no significant retail experience,” Sue recalls.
In those pre-internet days, the main competitor in a market town like Thirsk was the local supermarket discounting the latest John Grisham novel and given the family’s entrepreneurial zeal and local knowledge, the business prospered.
In 2001 the family bought the premises it occupied, which included two near-derelict cottages and a garden area at the back. With this asset, a simple café serving drinks and cold snacks was added, thanks to her father.
“Dad was the visionary, while I looked after the operations. Back then, about 20 years ago, the idea of having a café in a bookshop was very American. There certainly was no barista-style café in Thirsk at the time and personally I was a Nescafe Instant girl! But to learn about this new area, I went to see the passionate coffee experts Cooper’s Coffee in Huddersfield and came away with an idea of what we could offer. We opened our café in 2002 and updated the shop name.”
A local architect designed the mezzanine area at the rear of the building in 2001, replacing the old cottages. To complete a hectic period, shortly afterwards Sue acquired a local children’s book shop and relocated that business to her building.
“The coffee shop made us a community hub, as we hosted author events, book signings, spoken word evenings and poetry readings. We were enhancing Thirsk’s cultural offer. The addition of the children’s business, which is itself a specialist area within the book trade, added another important dimension to our offer.
“For one thing, it intensified our contacts with the local council and educational authority, which invited us to showcase books to teachers and childminders, resulting in increased sales. Selling children’s books also encouraged me to start stocking lines likes toys and puzzles.”
The expansion of the business almost two decades ago coincided with the arrival of Amazon and its online assault on traditional bookselling. At the time of the opening of the larger shop – the space had been tripled – Sue, who had married photographer David Lake in 1997, was pregnant with their second child and was dealing with the death of her mother a few months before. It was at this point that her sister Caroline joined and a team of booksellers and baristas was assembled.
After steadying the ship for about five years, more challenges arrived in 2007 with the death of Sue’s father, followed very swiftly by the impact of the global financial collapse of 2008.
“Until Dad died, he was doing a lot of running the business and I was doing what I liked, such as the buying, liaising with publishers and agents for author visits and working with customers,” Sue says. “Afterwards, I had to learn a new set of skills to actually run the shop and the café.”
Sue is very open that book sales suffered after the banking crisis and the introduction of the Amazon Kindle in 2008. Her response was to diversify by expanding the café’s options to hot food. She was not the first Bira member to discover that running an eatery is very different to running a regular retail business and it is significant that the only full-time member of White Rose’s staff is the café manager.
“I discovered that as soon as you plug in a toaster, you get hit with another set of regulations,” she observes, “so I brought in an experienced chef to run the operation. Catering is very labour-intensive too. At the start we would have staff working partly in the shop and partly in the café, but we’ve found it is better to keep the two teams separate. The enlarged café really kept us going when things were tough.”
In the past five years, turnover and gross profit have grown, but like many independents, Sue has found it increasingly difficult to build net profits, given the increased demands on wages, pension costs, utility bills and business rates. She readily acknowledges the benefits of belonging to the Booksellers Association and to Bira: “It can be a lonely path running a retail business and I like the sense of belonging. We also need these associations working on our behalf.”
As well as being in the online age, we are also in the age of celebrity. On this front, Thirsk was the home of celebrated vet James Herriot, who died in 1995, eight months before Sue opened her shop. Fortunately for White Rose Book Café, he has not one but two local successors in Peter Wright and Julian Norton, who are the stars of The Yorkshire Vet documentary series, filmed in the area, which has aired on Channel 5 since 2015.
Between them, the two vets have held four book launches at the shop and signed copies have been ordered from across the UK via the shop’s website.
“The Yorkshire Vet is bigger than Harry Potter in Thirsk,” Sue declares. “We had 200 fans for the last launch and in a year we sold more than 1,500 copies of Peter’s first memoir, which is phenomenal for an independent bookshop, outstripping our sales of JK Rowling.”
One of the launches at the shop may appear in the next series.
With 2020 ahead, Sue has a long to-do list, including revamping the upper floor to allow her to bring in more gifting, homewares and book-related items. She is planning to acquire an alcohol licence to add to the cafe’s attractions and she is still considering installing her first Epos system.
Instead of emulating a national chain in style and stock, Sue has created a distinctive local bookshop and cafe that is a family-focused community hub. With daughter Sophie, 21, and son Edward, 18, both studying Business Management and Marketing at university, the family tradition in the business may continue. Since 1995, challenges have been met and beaten, but there is always something to do and something to be inspired by.
Sue observes: “Trade figures show more independent shops have opened and printed book sales have increased, so there is reason to be confident. Most of my business nous is from my father, who always said that we needed to move forward all the time. Staying still is never an option.”
You can find White Rose Books Café at 79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 1ET. Open Mon – Sat 9 – 5.30. Sun 10 – 5. Bira member since 1995.
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