A novel approach

02nd Dec

A decade or more ago, it looked like the writing was on the wall for the printed book. Amazon’s Kindle was the next big thing in the inexorable march towards digital that had done for so many other traditional formats across other genres.
But it didn’t happen. It turns out that tech junkies – even millennial ones – need a screen break from time to time. The tactile thrill of holding a book, flicking through its pages, inhaling their scent (don’t tell me you’ve never done this – in fact, you’re probably sniffing the high-quality ink of this very magazine right now), as well as admiring them on shelves (witness the ‘bookcase credibility’ phenomenon that sprang from lockdown video calls) – all of these are why print beats digital for many, and why print sales continue to outstrip ebook sales.
Amazon is, of course, by far the largest player in UK books, with about 70% of the market share, and its service is unrivalled in terms of delivery speed and price. How on earth is it possible to take on such a Goliath and survive, especially in the middle of a pandemic? Julie Ellam of JE Books is doing just this; her little shop in in Hull’s Hepworth Arcade is thriving – but it’s largely down to the fact that she’s not playing Amazon’s game; she’s playing her own.
It all started two years ago when she turned 50. Like a lot of people who reach a certain milestone age, for Julie it was a motivator to try something different, after years doing various jobs, including teaching, as well as studying for a PhD in literature. “It was my equivalent of bungee-jumping or parachuting,” she says. “I was never going to do those things, but changing jobs was something that didn’t bother me – I’d done a lot of temping in the past, which gives you a certain confidence. I felt that if the worst came to the worst, I could go back to doing that, but it was a kind of daydream of mine to open a bookshop. I just thought, let’s give it a go – so I got a stack of books from a friend and it went from there.”
As ever with business, it’s all about timing; as luck would have it, there was an empty unit at Hepworth Arcade, next-door-but-one to Dinsdale’s legendary joke shop, which Julie – who is originally from Grimsby, but has Hessle Road in her blood on her father’s side – would often come to visit as a child. How did she go about securing the shop? “Well, a good thing about the internet is you can do lots and lots of research without having to ask too many questions!” she laughs, before modestly adding, “I feel a bit cheeky saying this, being only two years in business, but if I had any advice it would be – do your research.”
Julie also took advantage of help from the Goodwin Trust in Hull, which at the time was running business start-up sessions aimed at people of all backgrounds and ages. And when she’d had her shop for a year, she joined FEO (For Entrepreneurs Only). Sometimes I think the word “entrepreneur” can often bring to mind the super-wealthy Richard Branson types (I blame The Apprentice), but for me the fact that Julie has been helped by FEO proves that it truly is for anyone in business; it is a group of people focused purely on support and advice, seeking to strengthen the local business community as a whole. “Any problems you have,” says Julie, “there’ll always be someone who’s come across them before. And I have to say that, in Hull, there are a lot of people who just want businesses to do well. It’s fantastic knowing there’s a lot of independent traders coming up.”
And, just like Paragon Arcade, which we reported on in the autumn issue of BW, there’s a strong community of traders in Hepworth Arcade. “They’re like my colleagues, really,” says Julie. “All of them have been there longer than I have, some for many years, and you get a lot of tips and advice – it’s really lovely.” Before Covid, the Grade II listed glass-roofed arcade, completed in 1897, was a visitor attraction, too. “It’s really surprising just how many tourists come to Hull – they find the arcade and they absolutely love it.”
Julie says she feels lucky to have had the benefit of knowing how Amazon operated before she started JE Books. “Shops that opened years ago would have been hit really hard by Amazon, whereas I’ve opened knowing exactly what they’re about. I know I can’t beat them. But you can’t keep banging your head against a wall thinking, how can I beat them at their game? You’ve got to find your own way.”
The personal touch is one of the things that leaves Amazon in the shade. “What they can’t offer in customer service, I can – I’m somebody you can talk to, and if there is a problem with anything, people can get in touch with me directly. There are loads of ways you can contact me: @JEBooksHull on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and through my website. I try to be accessible as possible. It’s also nice looking in independent bookshop windows because you can see the individuality of the bookshop owner, and we’re not corporate – that’s another thing we’re offering. And if people like that, they will keep coming back.”
And they have kept coming back. I’m as guilty as anyone of ordering books from Amazon, but recently I decided to give my local courier the day off, so I placed an order with Julie for a selection of new books, including Hull writer Nick Quantrill’s Geraghty crime novels and the Wainwright prize-winning Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty. For Julie is not only surrounded by a wonderfully diverse selection of second-hand books, she can also order in pretty much any new title on request.
Yes, it’s a bit more expensive than Amazon, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred her customers. During recent months there has been a marked consumer shift towards local businesses, as they have been the heroes of lockdown. As Julie points out, it may cost a few pounds extra, but you get more than just a brown box stuffed through your letterbox – you come into the shop, stay a while to browse, have a chat. In my personal experience, the companies that fell down in terms of customer service during the pandemic were the huge national ones; the ones you might have expected to do far better. But while they floundered, small business rose to the challenge.
Lockdown was a devastating blow for Julie, as it was for everyone in retail, but she managed to access some of the government support on offer. In May, she launched a home delivery service (free for orders over £40 and never more than £3), helped, she says, by the fact that she’d already built up a good customer base on social media, which in effect extended her shop way beyond its limited physical space. She also began a “Lives in Books” series of interviews on her website, with writers including Adelle Stripe, John O’Farrell and, the most recent, The Headscarf Revolutionaries author Brian Lavery. Indeed, the local literary scene is yet another community that Julie is at the heart of. “There are so many fantastic writers in Hull,” she says, “and they’ve supported me as much as I’ve supported them.”
Once Julie was allowed to open again, she began a click and collect service for people still understandably “nervous” about coming back into town. When it’s possible to do so, she hopes to restart the various events that, pre-Covid, also helped to spread the word about JE Books – such as poetry readings and book signings. Just recently, she’s been one of the two independent outlets (along with Wrecking Ball Music and Books) to stock goody bags for the Dean Wilson Film Club, a series of short films under the Back to Ours banner made by Dave Lee and featuring Hull’s self-styled fourth-best poet – another great reason to drop into the bookshop. Julie also now stocks quirky tea-towels and other literary gifts.
There’s a lot of talk in corporate circles about “growth”, as though that were the only measure of success – when you could argue that independent traders like Julie are the have-a-go heroes of business doing extremely well to just keep doing what they do, and collectively keeping the local economy going as a result. It brings to mind Paulo Coelho’s fable, The Fisherman and the Businessman (it’s out there online; do look it up). “I think you can define growth in other ways,” says Julie, “such as growing the numbers of people who know about you, or offering extra services to customers. I think there is often pressure to talk about how much profit you’re making, or how big your premises are – but I’m happy being cautious at the moment and taking my time with things.”
Towards the end of our phone call, my doorbell goes. It’s the Amazon courier – which is awkward. So I dodge this by asking the question: what’s your desert island book? This stumps her for a moment; she’s more used to asking others this. But in the end she plumps for Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I confess I haven’t read. There are too many books in the world and too little time, I say. “Well,” replies Julie, “it wasn’t until I did my PhD that I realised that, no matter how many books you can read, you can never read them all – and that proved to be a real confidence builder.”
As I’m just about to visit her shop to pick up yet more books to swell my never-ending reading pile, that provides me with a bit of comfort.

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire spring 2022 magazine

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