As temperatures keep dropping and snow is making its appearance on the American East Coast, we’re glad to zero in on a bookseller who’s welcoming in summer! Tanya Caunce, owner of TLC Books Manly in beautiful Queensland, Australia let us in on what it’s like to be an indie bookseller on the other side of the globe, including everything from how to keep a bookclub from being a lovefest to what it’s like waiting for Google Books to hit the Australian Market to what she’s hoping for this Christmas.
Atticus Books: We truly believe that being an indie bookseller is a unique and admirable calling. Also, one that usually has an interesting story behind it. When and/or how did owning a bookstore become something you wanted to pursue?
TLC Books: Isn’t every bibliophile’s dream to have a bookstore? It was for me. I’ve been a book rat in bookstores all my life. Doing a marketing degree part time in my previous career–a bookstore was my “fantasy business.” Until one day I realised I could do it for real and set about establishing a bookstore. Now my catch phrase is “it’s only money…”
AB: Visitors to your website will learn that TLC offers not only “mouth-watering food & wine books, gardening, marine, travel & history” and “a comprehensive children’s section,” but also “a great general fiction section including the offbeat and quirky.” Are there any works in particular that you were surprised to see fly off the shelves?
TLC: Truthfully, not really, the books that really fly off the shelves are the books that our staff are passionate about. Not a day goes by in this store without someone picking up a book that we adore, and you convey the story getting excited about the possibility of someone else discovering your little gem, that excitement is infectious and the book finds a new home. That’s how books like Salmon Fishing In The Yemen or Zeitoun are sold.
AB: TLC strives to accomplish that oh-so important indie mission of being much more than a store that sells books. Your impressive collection of bookclubs includes a Fiction, Non-fiction, Young Adult, Armchair Travel Club, and Foodie Bookclub. What has your experience been getting these off the ground? Any advice for other indies looking to do the same?
TLC: Book clubs are great forums and a fantastic way to keep in touch with your customers. At times it is like a circus, with you as ringmaster but always great fun enabling (and moderating) people to discuss ideas, feelings and opinions on the book and the subject matter raised. My advice: Don’t pick a book because you think everyone will love it; pick a book that will provoke, raise questions and inspire emotion. There is nothing worse than a love-fest, the best books promote passionate discussion and enthusiastic debate.
AB: Down at TLC Books, you clearly pride yourselves (as you should!) on being a member of the community—what kind of community projects and events really take off in Manly?
TLC: TLC held a “Bra drive” for Fiji, where people could drop in their used bras to be donated to women on outlying islands in Fiji who did not have the financial ability to buy one. We expected to gather about 500 and ended up with over 4000. That really took off!
We also try to get authors in as frequently as possible and some of our latest success has been with Australian Celebrity Chef Bill Granger and a sold-out dinner which really had the neighbourhood excited and talking. We also always try and have a dedicated children’s event every month; last month we had children’s author Michael Gerard Bauer in as well as young adult author William Kostakis, both very fun events.
AB: And what is it about Manly that makes it such a hospitable home for an indie bookstore? Do you think there’s a special “recipe” or “ingredient” that makes one town or city a better home for an indie bookstore than another?
TLC: I guess a town or suburb that has a community feel about it to begin with, because an indie bookstore is so very much more than an average retail store. Manly is a seaside suburb of Brisbane but was long cut off from the city by an expanse of bushland, so it has that small town feel with all the benefits of being part of a city.
AB: Bookselling also involves a variety of roles. Is there one hat you particularly like to wear? One aspect of the business you find most appealing?
TLC: Hard question! I love it all really–The marketing, the reviewing, talking to customers about books… being a small business owner means I do it all anyway. If I had to choose one? It would probably be the book buying because then I can pretend I am a kid in a candy store.
AB: As rewarding as it is, being an indie bookseller presents unique challenges. What have you found to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome since you opened in 2006?
TLC: Well we’ve had a few… The GFC was certainly a learning curve in frugal business decisions, stock control and careful buying as well a course in optimistic outlooks. At the moment it is eBooks. We are waiting for the introduction of Google Books into the Australian market so that indies can have an eBook platform and I am avidly watching what happens in the US with Google and the indies there.
AB: Not only do you recommend books to curious customers in the shop, but you offer a handful of reviews on the website as well. How in the world does an owner of a bookshop as active as yours find time to consistently write up reviews of new books? And, when doing so, do you find the books you review tend to reflect your own personal tastes and interests, or is there an effort to review books from across all interests/tastes?
TLC: Well, we are always reading so it is just the little bit of extra effort to write down our thoughts and feelings about the book at hand.
Each of the staff has their own ‘pet’ genres and the books we love personally, and with all of the staff it evens out the genre coverage. We have a staff review database, so any book read by a staff member goes in the database and we share the knowledge. The reviews are VERY honest, hilariously so sometimes. For the reviews we post on Facebook and the website, we simply then lift from our database!
AB: As the Christmas season approaches, or rather, forges ahead, what is TLC doing to celebrate with its customers?
Each year at the start of December we have a Christmas Book release party with lots of fun, wine and nibbles on the night – the whole shop discounted by 10% and complimentary gift wrapping – it is always a great night. For the bookclubs we have a combined Christmas party, this year we went “barefoot bowling” and all brought along a copy of our favourite book to share. The Young Adult Bookclub is going to the movies (they don’t mix with anyone over 20…) and also sharing their favourite books.
AB: We’re guessing that the owner of an indie bookstore has more than a few books on her wishlist, but if you could only ask for three this year, what would they be and why?
TLC: Ack! Errrr… hardest question ever. I would love Heston Blumenthal’s Fantastic Feasts Special Limited Edition, Keith Richard’s ‘Life’ and the special cover edition of “The Secret Garden” designed by Lauren Child (sooo pretty).