The Crime Writers’ Association

Bookseller of the Month: November 2022 – Bert’s Books

As part of the new CWA Bookshops Champion initiative, we want to celebrate bookshops, because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive. This month, William Shaw introduces us to Bert’s Books in Swindon.

Bert’s Books

54 Godwin Court, Swindon SN1 4BB

Bert’s Books in Swindon is the newest bookshop to be included as a CWA Bookshop of The Month. It opened in May, and no one was as surprised by that as its owner Alex Call.

‘I opened this business by accident!’ he insists. ‘It wasn’t planned at all.’

Firstly, the name. ‘Bert is a family nickname,’ explains Alex Call. ‘I’ve been called it as long as I can remember by my sister and my dad.’ When he needed something to call what he imagined was going to be a small, online bookselling business, Bert’s Books seemed like the obvious choice.

Alex had been a bookseller for WH Smiths, first in store, then in the head office, finally heading up their Books and Promotion department before he quit. The book sales website was a low-key experiment he set up in 2019 to learn a little about online retailing. He hadn’t expected it to take over his life.

‘I was getting pocket money out of it and it wasn’t going to be paying the bills and then pretty much a year to the day after I set it up the first lockdown happened and my sales quadrupled overnight. For pretty much a year I didn’t rest. I didn’t notice that the pubs were shut because I didn’t have the time to go out.’

It took most indie shops a few months to adapt to online selling. By a fluke, Alex was already there. Lockdown grew his business rapidly.

‘In January I had sold about 80 books across a whole month. Then in March lockdown was on and Clare Mackintosh was trying to help out independent book shops so she asked me to partner with her for a book club event and I sold 70 copies of Where the Crawdad Sings in a single day!’

So by the end of 2021 Alex had spent most of two years packaging and sending books.

‘I was enjoying the website but one thing I was missing was human interaction. Given the choice of expanding the website or opening a real-life bookshop, I chose that.’

Most people seem to blunder into setting up a bookshop with very little idea of what they’re getting into. You must have been at a bit of an advantage?

‘Yes and no. There’s so much stuff you need to do and no one tells you. You need to sign up to do pensions, you need to pass environmental health stuff so you can sell coffee. But what I did know was that if it all went wrong, I could still pay the rent out of the profits of the website, even if I couldn’t pay myself. That was the absolute worst case scenario.’

So you found a premises and opened in May this year. How was your first day?

‘I had done a bit of social media. Something on the radio. But I hadn’t done any advertising so I was thinking, ‘Maybe nobody is going to turn up.’ Our first day was the first Bank Holiday in May and we opened up at 10.30am and within ten minutes there was a queue out of the door of people trying to buy books. By 4.30pm we had sold something like 450 books. I think it took a quarter of our stock.’

It’s early days, and though nothing has been quite as mad as that, and there are days when he barely sells a book, it seems to be working. The shop’s airy open feel has been embraced by Swindon. For Alex, the trick has been not about stocking everything, but about picking a good selection.

‘Some is stuff you’d expect, like Richard Osman. But a lot is the books we love ourselves. We can have a crime thriller next to a Booker winner, next to a romance novel. People say, I love that you stock [romance author] Ali Hazlewood. I don’t believe in snobbery. Why wouldn’t I stock them?’

And obviously there is a lot of crime.

‘Yes. We get a lot of people into series, who’ll want the next Elly Griffiths. Somebody comes in for a new Peter James every few months but we also sell a lot of standalones. Will Dean’s do well. The Marple book is going really well for us right now and we sell a lot of Orenda books – a lot of their Scandinavian stuff in translation. CL Taylor dropped in for a little signing and that was excellent. I’d been chatting to Steve Cavanagh on Twitter so he just popped in.’

Right now, Alex is preparing for his first Christmas – the biggest time in the bookseller’s calendar. The shop now employs full-time staff and he’s as surprised as anyone.

‘It was just one unplanned step after another and suddenly I’m paying twenty thousand a year in rent and thinking, Christ!’

You can explore the Bert’s Books website here. Read more about William and his novels here.

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