Monday 11 December 2017

Independence at Imagined Things

Ever wondered what it would be like to own your own bookshop? I imagine it would be like my childhood dream of owning a sweetshop where you just sit and taste all day, but that the reality is a little more like hard work. I spoke with Georgia Duffy, owner of Harrogate's new and very gorgeous independent book shop, Imagined Things, and author of Futurespan, who gives a fascinating insight into her move to 'independence'. 

Georgia's also kindly offering a 10% discount off books in her store, exclusive to readers of this blog - see the end of this post for more information.

You've taken quite an unusual route to owning a book shop in Harrogate, could you tell us about it?
Well, instead of doing an English Degree which I very nearly did, I ended up doing a degree in Diagnostic Radiography. I had always loved English and science, but after wondering what I would do with an English degree and discovering that medical careers weren't limited to doctors and nurses, I became a radiographer instead. I really enjoyed the training, and the job, for a short while, but ultimately it wasn't suited to me long-term. I considered all sorts of careers (physicist, chiropractor, NHS Manager) until I finally realised I would only be happy working for myself. I considered lots of other businesses until the idea of the bookshop just kind of metaphorically hit me on the head one day, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it sooner! 
What was the push which made you leave your hospital job? 
After nearly 6 years of being a radiographer, and 5 of them knowing I didn't want to keep being one forever, I was very ready to leave. I think I just reached that point where I thought if you don't do something now there's a chance you won't. Life was only going to get more complicated, and there is never really a good time for such a huge change. It was my partner, Karl who gave me the push really, saying to do it now. I didn't agree with him at first but then I realised he was right, and we found the shop, and just went for it. 
Are you enjoying it so far? What's the best thing about owning your own book shop…? 
Yes, it's lovely working amongst all the books, and it's like Christmas every day when the new books arrive. It's great to interact with the customers and talk about books, as well as getting to know regular customers. I think the best thing is that I'm reading more than I ever have, and that reading is now part of my job! 
 …and what's the worst? 
It is scary starting your own business from scratch. It takes a long time to get established so I think the start is always going to be a bit scary, and by the nature of retail it is very up and down. On the days you barely see a customer it is especially worrying, but then on other days you see more than you were expecting, so it usually evens out. Dealing with damaged books is also a big issue. It seems to be a common problem in the book industry, but it is very frustrating when you have ordered a specific amount of books and a lot of them come damaged. I really wasn't expecting that. 
I'm sure it's difficult competing against giants in the books business such as Waterstones and Amazon - what can you offer customers that the others can't?
The shop isn't run on an algorithm or filled with the latest celebrity/mainstream titles. It is a real mixture, with lots of different books that aren't seen everywhere. As well as that, it's also evolving. If my customers ask for more of certain types of books, I'll get them. If they ask for a hard-to-find book, I'll find it. I can order anything too, usually for the next day, so if a customer is after something in particular and I don't have it, I can get it quickly. I'll be able to take Christmas orders until the 22nd of December (though preferably, order earlier as popular titles may well be out of stock by then!) and a certain well-known chain bookshop usually stops taking orders from the 12th. I can also give personalised service and recommendations and suggest new things to regular customers too. 

Does your experience as a radiographer help you to run your business?
I think it has helped me run the business. I laugh when other people in the industry say that me working six days a week is a lot, because it doesn't feel like a lot. I tell them that it's child's play compared to working in the NHS. I mean of course it does come with its own challenges and pressures (like the impending Christmas season!) but there are no nightshifts, or 10 hour shifts, or 15 hour night shifts. There's no getting called in at 2am, and nobody, thankfully, is dying. So as much as I care deeply about the bookshop and giving the customers the best service possible, the stakes are really not as high. I make a mistake in the bookshop it doesn't have the same kind of consequences. Also my IT skills from operating the CT scanner and hospital systems have served me well in learning my stock control system. And I have experience with many different kinds of people from radiography - but it is a different interaction in the shop so it has taken a bit of adjustment!

And does your experience as a radiographer influence your own fiction writing?
It definitely influences my fiction writing. In Futurespan there is a scene in A&E and one of the main characters is training to be a doctor. In one of my works in progress, it's a story that has, in part, been in my head for over ten years. It's about a kind of dream world that has been infected and is now more of a nightmare, and parts of it are seeping through into our world. Trouble is most people can't see that, or do anything about it - except the main character who is slowly being driven mad by her visions. I had a gap in the story which was what the main character did in her everyday life, and last year I realised it would be perfect if she was a radiographer!

Futurespan is your first novel, can you tell us about it?
Futurespan was published last year. It is a fantasy novel, but really it is very character driven and has been enjoyed by those who usually stay clear of fantasy. Several characters are trapped in the strange world of Futurespan where they find doors to their pasts and futures, which give them the opportunity to realise things about their life. It is very much about where life leads us and how seemingly small decisions can change our life irreparably. I'm working on a kind of sequel to it at the moment, but it is much more complicated than Futurespan (which took me two years), so it may be a while!

Do you get more or less time to write these days?
Less. Definitely less. I naively thought that when the shop was quiet, perhaps I could write - but there's always something to do: accounts; ordering; pricing; looking at new books to order; reading books; customer orders; planning; advertising; social media... the list goes on! Maybe in January...!

What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening up their own book shopHmm, well most advice you read nowadays basically says: don't! And some of that advice makes some very compelling points - it is not easy. There is lots of competition from big companies selling books for much less than they should be. There are supermarkets who don't even care if they make a profit on the book as long as it provides another reason for people to go there. There's more competition for people's free time generally - Netflix, games, social media etc. Even the publishers, many of them, don't do as much as they could to help independent bookshops. So it is rather an uphill struggle. But if you have the passion (I mean real, deep, the thing you love the most, the world might as well just end if we didn't have stories, kind of passion - not just the 'I like books' kind), and determination (tonnes of it) and are willing to work very, very hard (evenings, weekends, when you should be sleeping) and think that books and stories are one of the most important things about us being human, oh, and if you are willing to take a huge leap of faith, then look into it, properly. Visit other bookshops, check this is something you want to do, even something you feel you're meant to do. And if so... then go for it. The more independent bookshops we have, the better, since we've haemorrhaged over 600 in the last 11 years. The country needs more indies, as long as you go into it with your eyes open and know what you're getting yourself into, it is the most amazing job! 
Imagined Things, 4 Westminster Arcade,
Tel: 01423 391301
Do you have any events lined up over the next few months?
Yes! After Christmas we're planning to have more signings in the shop with local authors, including a book launch for the 6th book in the DCI Bennett series which is set in Harrogate. We're looking at writers' workshops and other writerly events, so watch this space! We'll have details of all our events on our Facebook page and on posters in the shop.

Thanks so much to Georgia for her brilliant answers, not forgetting for setting up Harrogate's only independent book shop in the first place!

So, would you like a 10% discount off any
book in the shop on or before the Christmas closure? Just tell Georgia I sent you 😉

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