How does Hampshire’s One Tree Books thrive while so many independents are struggling?
By Stephen Moss
I could never own a shop. I’d worry too much that no one would come. I’ve been at One Tree Books in Petersfield, Hampshire, since 9am. It’s now close to 10am, and there have been two customers, who wandered in, sniffed around and then left without buying anything. This does not bode well. It’s a Saturday morning in mid-August. Maybe everyone’s away on holiday? Bookselling is in crisis – everyone knows that – with the recession, the rise of Amazon, those wretched Kindles, the replacement of lovable books with unlovable electronica. This is going to be grim.
Tim O’Kelly, who owns One Tree Books, reassures me. “Don’t worry. The first hour is often like this. It gives us a chance to get organised,” he says. We sit in the coffee bar at the rear of his shop and he tells me how he got into bookselling. He had worked as a sales rep for 10 years, including a spell as head of UK sales for Macmillan, and fancied seeing the business from the other side. His colleagues told him he was mad, but he rented an old hardware store in Petersfield in 1994 and took the plunge. He has gradually expanded, bought the freehold, added the coffee bar, and last year was named independent bookseller of the year.
It’s quiet while we talk, but just you wait, he says, explaining his philosophy. “The coffee shop is now a key part of the business, and a driver of getting people in. It creates an ambience. There’s a bit of noise, a bit of buzz and clatter. Bookshops traditionally have been like libraries. Somebody will go, ‘Shhhh, be quiet.’ It’s not a place you want children to be in, but if you’ve got a bit of a buzz, people feel their children can make a noise, and they come and buy children’s books. It feels less intimidating for general punters, too.”
O’Kelly walks me round the shop. It’s on two floors, is bright and airy, and employs 10 staff (half a dozen of whom are in today), most of them part-time and long-serving. The booksellers stick little notes in the books to which they are especially committed. As well as selling books, One Tree has diversified into board games, educational toys, sheet music, classical music, postcards and posh stationery.