This was the headline to an article in a national newspaper which described how our family got started in the business of selling out-of-print books. Back in the days when I worked for a very large multi-national company,travelling abroad frequently and driving my posh company car, if anyone had told me that in twenty years time I would be a bookseller with two shops selling second-hand books - I would never have believed them! But here I am and this is how it happened.
An avid reader when I was young, I didn’t really have time for reading as an adult although my husband Cliff, being a real bibliophile, always had at least five books on the go at any one time. Over the years Cliff had built up quite a large collection of books, (mostly about Cornwall, where he was born and grew up, and natural history, especially birds), whereas I had amassed just a few fiction paperbacks! We were holidaying in the Lake District and took the opportunity to visit Hill Top Farm in Sawrey, Ambleside, where Beatrix Potter had lived and written some of her little books for children.
Above: Tabitha Twitchit and Hill Top Farm
It was a delight to see the range that Tom Kitten looked up in the farmhouse kitchen and to look out of the window at the same view as in theTale of Jemima Puddleduck. I was so captivated that when I saw the set ofPeter Rabbit Tales for sale in the farm gift shop I immediately wanted to buy them. But Cliff said “If you’re interested in the books why not collect the first editions?” I didn’t believe at that moment that I would be able to find any first editions but thought it would be fun to try. And so it was. At that time, every little town, and sometimes village, had its own second-hand bookshop so everywhere we went we sought out the local bookshop in the hope that we could find a first edition Beatrix Potter book.
That was the start of my book collecting habit. And like any other habit, one eventually has to do some dealing in order to fund the habit. I remember the first time we placed a small advertisement in the Book & Magazine Collector - we actually sold a book! We were thrilled - someone wanted to buy one of our books! And so it went on. We dabbled in part-time bookselling as a hobby for some time - and then our younger daughter left business college wondering what she should do to earn a living.
Both our daughters, Sonia and Maria, have a hearing impairment; Sonia’s being more profound than Maria’s. This meant that both girls would have problems working in an environment where they had to use the phone - impossible for Sonia and difficult for Maria. Sonia had already decided a couple of years before that she wanted to go out into the big wide world and was then working as a laboratory technician in a local hospital. Maria, however, didn’t have the faintest idea of what she wanted to do so we asked her “How do you fancy taking our embryo of a mail-order book business and turning it into a proper business?” After much discussion she agreed to give it a try and Stella Books was born, leading to an extremely exciting period for all of us. I remember, at the time, I talked to a well-established bookseller and asked if he had any advice to give a beginner. His response - “You will need a lot patience, time and money, particularly the latter”. How true his words proved to be!
The first thing we had to do was to provide Maria with a work environment. So we turned our spare room into an office, shelved it with home-made pine shelves and rushed out to buy a quantity of books which would give Maria a start. We purchased a computer so that Maria could enter details of all the books we bought and sold and then produce catalogues of our stock to send to customers. Maria would correspond with customers by email and Cliff and I would attend to customers’ phone calls in the evening when we returned from work. All this happened in the autumn of 1991.
During the first year Maria built up the customer base, the stock and the business. Then in 1992 we had to make a major decision. There are very few commercial properties in the village of Tintern where we live and they rarely come onto the market. But in the autumn of 1992 a shop did come up for sale. What should we do? Should we risk buying a shop with all the associated overhead costs or should we play safe and continue to run the business from home? Well, Cliff has never been a one for half-measures - he believes if you’re going to do something you should do it properly and whole-heartedly. And, yes, you’ve guessed it - we went ahead and purchased the premises.
The premises actually consisted of one small room which was used as a shop and the remainder was residential. We moved our shelves, the stock and Maria into the building and realised just how small our business was! So then we rushed out again to buy more stock to fill the room so it didn’t look empty when customers came in. Maria continued to catalogue our stock on the computer but now she also had customers visiting the shop so was able to build relationships face-to-face which was excellent experience for her.
Above: A few of the children’s books at Stella Books, Tintern
Talking of the computer - we often had other booksellers visit us and they always commented on our use of the computer as in those days everyone used card indexes for recording customer details and hardly anyone kept actual records of their stock. I remember one curmudgeonly seller who was most scathing about our computer - on one visit he remarked “whatever are you doing playing with computers all day - you should be selling books!” When we replied it helped us to know what we had in stock and what we had sold, he replied that “he kept all that in his head”. All I could think was that he had a bigger head and better memory than I did! We just carried on cataloguing everything on our trusty computer and are we glad we did - when the internet opened up for public use in the late 1990’s we were ready. We were able to upload all of our (then) 30,000 books overnight while some of our bookselling colleagues even today have still not been able to catch up with cataloguing their entire stock for the internet.
Over the next few years we slowly built the business up, expanding into other rooms in the premises as we needed to and employing part-time staff to help at weekends. (Maria felt she needed to take weekends off as she worked all week - it didn’t occur to her that Cliff and I worked seven days a week too, both at our ‘proper’ jobs and at the book business!).
During this time Cliff and I continued to add to our personal collections and with my interest in children’s books we became very familiar with Rose’s Books, a shop owned by Mr. & Mrs. Rose, specialising in children’s books in Hay-On-Wye. Hay, being the first international book town, was a big draw for us and we would visit often, always making a beeline for Rose’s Books who were guaranteed to have quality stock of the rarer collectable books. One day, while on holiday, we happened to have taken along the current Book & Magazine Collector (you see - we were never off duty!) and there, in the For Sale section of the magazine was an advert offering a bookshop for sale in Hay - you can guess - yes, it was Rose’s Books!
We were astonished. We had never seen a bookshop for sale in Hay, never mind one as popular as Rose’s Books.
Right: Rose’s Books shopfront
Just for a bit of fun Cliff and I thought we would go along and have a look to see what was on offer. Well, off we went. We met Mr & Mrs Rose who told us that they were planning to retire. We were invited to have a look around the flat above the shop which was delightful and we found out that the stock was being offered for sale with the shop and the flat above. What an opportunity! Time for another major decision. We returned to resume our holiday and asked Maria “How do you fancy going to live in Hay-On-Wye in your own little flat above Rose’s Books?”
Of course there were many factors to consider, not least who would manage Stella Books if Maria moved to Hay since Cliff and I were still both in full-time work in other industries. By this time, Sonia, having seen the way we were all involved in a growing family business, thought she would like to join us. Unfortunately she was unable to, as whoever managed Stella Books would have to be able to use the phone and she couldn’t do that. But, we did have some very reliable part-time employees and between them they were able to keep the business ticking over. And so in 1995 we purchased Rose’s Books and Maria moved to Hay-On-Wye to manage the shop. A few years later she met her husband-to-be, got married and has lived happily ever after in the little flat above Rose’s Books.
But what of Stella Books? Well, the business was well-cared for by our staff but it wasn’t growing. It needed someone to manage it, giving it direction and purpose. I was growing tired of my high-flying job which was taking me away from home more and more.
Left: Maria at Rose’s Books
I kept thinking of that lovely bookshop in Tintern main road which had my name above it (Stella comes from my first name Christella) and the more I thought about it the more I thought I wanted to be a part of that. I discussed it with Cliff who thought if I gave up my job to sell books I would soon grow tired of that and yearn for the international travel once more. I felt differently but I knew I couldn’t just suddenly leave my job to work for nothing in a bookshop so I developed a cunning plan! I would save what I could and plan to change my career in two years time. And that’s exactly what happened. I saved every penny I could and two years later I resigned from my job and started a new career as a bookseller - earning nothing except a better quality of life. And what could be better than that?
Contrary to what Cliff thought in the beginning I’ve never regretted that decision. Yes, it’s been hard, working seven days a week for years, and yes, it’s even harder in this economic climate; but I look out of the window of Stella Books and see the picturesque valley of the river Wye and the imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey; I look around the bookshop and see all the beautiful books that we are custodians of for a short while before they go on to new homes with people who appreciate their beauty; and I think - it’s all worthwhile.
The Wye Valley and Abbey at Tintern
Postscript: Cliff retired from his ‘proper job’ a few years ago and has since put all his energies into the business which has helped tremendously. Thanks to the worldwide increase in the use of email for communication our elder daughter Sonia was able to join us and has become my right-hand person! We have a team of people working with us who are loyal, energetic, enthusiastic and hard-working - that too helps tremendously. We have thousands of customers who we like to consider as friends and we endeavour to do the very best we can for them.
We look forward to the future with some trepidation but mostly with anticipation. We hope sincerely that in these days of electronic books there will always be someone out there who still appreciates the printed word and will continue to support small independent bookshops such as ours. You will always receive a warm welcome at Stella & Rose’s Books.
Our feelings about books are reflected in A.A. Milne’s Pooh Bear’s thoughts about Poetry and Hums: “But it isn’t Easy,” said Pooh to himself, as he looked at what had been Owl’s House. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you”. (‘House At Pooh Corner' - In Which Eeeyore Finds the Wolery).