The World of Publishing and Bookselling

 

Robert Topping, Bath bookseller

18 February 2013

 

Robert Topping, one of Bath’s leading independent booksellers (he has another outlet in Ely, Cambridgeshire) told a large and receptive audience that bookselling today faces many challenges. The ‘dusty old bookshops’ have gone, and the trade is now fiercely competitive.  He himself had joined the trade in 1982, and worked initially for Foyles’ main shop in Charing Cross Road. Foyles was at its height in the pre-war years, and for some decades after 1945, headed by the famous Christina Foyle.  Mr Topping said that Christian ‘distrusted men’. After eight months at Foyles, he joined Tim Waterstone, at a time when the large combines, including Dillons and Hatchards, were taking over the trade from smaller operators. Robert was not complimentary about W.H.Smith, which was essentially a large-scale firm of stationers and newsagents, with popular bookselling as an add-on. In due course, Robert went to Norfolk, and now runs two very successful bookshops, with a big customer base, and a large number of personal presentations by authors throughout the year, drawing substantial audiences in various locations nearby, as well as in the shop itself.

Our speaker emphasised that booksellers can only stock a fraction of books published in any one year. They must make the best choice they van in the prevailing conditions, especially when aiming for the quality market in both fiction and non-fiction. He referred to Harry Wainwright, whose bookshop in Oldfield Park he described as a treasure for Bath. My Wainwright he called ‘a brilliant man’ and the Oldfield Park bookstore something special in that suburban community.

At one time the Book Clubs were a threat to book retailers, but they are no longer. Moreover, no one can avoid thinking about Amazon.com, who make 50 pence in every £100 turnover. He realises that the arrival of Kindle has made a big difference to people’s reading habits, but is sceptical about its universality. He asked the question ‘Do you put the best books on the shelves, or do you let readers choose the best books? Robert Topping, who employs a large, young and well-informed staff, said that his firm was a firm of ‘old-fashioned booksellers’, spending much of their time unpacking cases of books, a handling them, and also reading them. In other words, to work successfully and happily in a good bookshop, a man or woman needs to love books as objects, love reading, be well informed, and enjoy talking to customers every day. Visitors to his outlet in the Paragon in Bath know that his premises meet all those criteria.

Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University