We spoke with booksellers Bill Liddelow and Lana Corry about trends, tips and juicy tales that have unfolded in Boffins Bookshop.
Tell us the story of your bookshop: how, when and why was it established, and how has it changed since then?
Boffins was established in 1989, with a focus on technical and practical books. Our original positioning statement was “facts at your fingertips” and in a pre-google, pre-wikipedia world your fingertips as well as your eyes had to touch paper if you wanted facts.
Our aim was to fill customers’ needs for books on how to do almost anything: training your racehorse, growing a native garden, learning to use Lotus 123 (the spreadsheet of choice in 1989), programming in Cobol, preparing a business plan, cooking the best food, learning calculus, designing your house, raising llamas. We were appealing to people wanting to learn a skill, to enthusiasts of all kinds, to tertiary and TAFE level students, and to professionals. From the beginning, our focus has been on providing a very high standard of customer service and engagement with our customers. Special orders were a focus and, despite the overseas online sites stealing much of this market, still are.
The main changes have been in extending our range. We changed our positioning statement in the mid 90’s to “Technical and Specialist Books” and added history, current affairs, and Australiana to our range. In the early noughties we refitted and increased our focus on art and design. In our latest change, we added fiction and children’s books too in 2014.
The industry is different now than in 1989 and while retaining our focus on technical, practical and special interest books, we’ve tried to fill a vacuum in other areas. Online sales are a very important part of our business and we’ve extended our offering partly to better fill the needs of our online customer base.
What makes your bookshop unique?
Boffins is an Aladdin’s cave of books. Situated in a large basement in the CBD, we provide a huge range of the best books such as you won’t see anywhere else in W.A. You’ll find the friendliest staff, the best merchandising, the best customer service, and the best shopping experience at Boffins.
What is your take on the current climate for independent bookselling in Australia?
Bookselling is hard at the moment. It was too hard for many of the chains, and they have closed – victims not only of online bookselling but also of an oversupply of outlets given the size of the market. Independents have filled some of the gap, and there are now many of them. Not everyone wants to shop online (at least, not all the time), nor to read e-books. Good independents provide an interesting shopping experience, and for many people this is more important than price (if not all the time). But it is challenging for all booksellers to find a path to running a successful business. High rents and weekend penalty rates squeeze us. Commitment and diligence are required, but also imagination and flexibility.
What are the most popular genres in your store? Have you noticed any changes over the years or have book-buying trends remained consistent for you?
We have passionate readers across all of our subject areas. Some of our best-selling categories are business, food, travel, history, military, architecture, literary fiction, and children’s fiction. There have been big changes over the years. Computer books were huge for us until the early noughties, but have declined ever since. Cookbook sales have skyrocketed in the past decade. English dictionary sales have plummeted in that time. There’s a constancy with most categories, but some change quickly and we need to watch trends carefully to ensure that we stock what people are interested in today.
What’s the most bizarre question a customer has asked you?
All of the Boffins staff have wanted to contribute to this, so here are a few memorable ones: “Have you got a book on serial killing in Perth?” “What do you mean you can’t order through Amazon for me?!” “Where are the GPS’s?” “Can I get a discount because people have looked in this book?” “Do you have any books on knots for bondage and/or book with music to play during BDSM?”
What’s the juiciest thing you’ve overheard in your bookstore?
In the spring of 2002 “The West Australian” published a feature on the best pick-up places in Perth. Boffins was in the top 10 – a place where the customers were intelligent, aspiring, well dressed, well-heeled. After the article was published store traffic at lunch times rose dramatically, but sales stayed the same. The funniest thing overheard was from a very stylish woman, with her friend among the normal throng of customers in the computer section, say “this is not what it said, they’re just geeks and nerds”.
In your opinion, what qualities make a good reader?
This is far too subjective! At one level, a good reader is simply voracious and therefore sustains us. For me, I think that a good reader is eclectic. There is so much to learn, so much to experience, so many worlds to enter, so many highs and lows from reading widely and with an open mind. I can’t imagine that any of us would try and then enjoy reading in every subject of non-fiction, or every genre of fiction. But I certainly admire readers with catholic tastes.
What is your vision for the future of Boffins?
I see Boffins continuing to be one of our customers’ key resources for leading a good life. Books are and will continue to be a primary means of bettering our emotional and physical lives, of helping us learn skills that enrich us and make us independent, of providing deep knowledge of our world, and informing us so that we are able and responsible members of a civil society. With the changes in our stockholding, our focus has changed to include children. It has also morphed to include entertainment where we seek to provide our customers with the best in the various genres of fiction. I see Boffins continuing to reach out to our customers with information through our e-newsletters and with professionally managed author events both in and out of our store, and to provide an in-store and online shopping environment that reflects our ethos.
List your top three tips for someone wanting to open their own independent bookstore.
- Work in a bookstore (preferably one with similar characteristics to the one you plan to open) for at least a year – so that you see all the cycles in what can be a very seasonal business.
- Join a Curtin University Centre for Entrepreneurship Growth Program – 15 full day workshops spread over a year – to develop your business skills.
- Be totally committed and accept that if you want to run a successful small business you’ll probably need to discard any fashionable ideas you have about work-life balance. It will mostly be work.