Bob Johnston: a day in the life of The Gutter Bookshop
In the second of a series on how publishing works, Sarah Bannan talks returns, staff picks, bookclubs and sage advice with one of Ireland’s leading independent booksellers
Bob Johnston: The industry has gotten much better at turning around quick reprints of popular books so we’re never out of stock of popular books for long now
Bob Johnston is the owner of The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar and Dalkey. He has worked as a bookseller for the past 26 years as is also Chair of the Bookseller’s Association Irish Branch. When he’s not selling books to other people, he’s either reading or talking about books.
You own and run two of Ireland’s most beautiful and successful independent bookshops – the Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane in Dublin’s Temple Bar and in Dalkey. What made you want to be a bookseller?
I’ve always been a big reader : Mum sending me to bed early was always a treat for me as it gave me more reading time! I got my first part-time job in a bookshop when I was 16 and continued it on until I graduated, and then went full-time.
That was over 20 years ago and I’m still proud to be a bookseller. Like most people who start their own companies, I set up the Gutter Bookshop in 2009 after spending my days working for someone else and thinking “I could do better than this!” Of course, when it’s your own money being spent it all comes a bit tougher. But it’s still the best thing I’ve ever done.
What are your typical hours? And do you work any atypical hours?
Both shops are open seven days a week so there’s not really any downtime. Typically I work six days a week with hours that vary from 9am-5pm to 8am-midnight if there’s a festival on. I do try and take one weekend off a month so that my partner doesn’t kill me. And I also work from home a couple of days a week now, which takes the pressure off slightly.
How much do you get to read? And where and when do you do it?
I’d be lost without reading. But it is much more work-related now – I facilitate five bookclubs a month so that’s five books to read each month for starters. But I do try to get the bookclubs to pick books that I’d like to read so that it makes it a bit easier. Most of my reading is done on the train in and out of work, but I always read in bed before going to sleep as well – it takes my mind off anything else that’s rattling around.
Do you stick to what you like to read, personally, or do you travel outside of that? And how important is it to read what you stock?
I read mostly fiction, with a few biographies and other non-fiction thrown in occasionally. I still try to finish a book if I’ve started it, even if I don’t like it, but in recent years I’ve become more prone to just giving up if it doesn’t hook me. All of our booksellers are big readers and whilst we haven’t read everything we sell it’s important that we can recommend books across a wide range of topics. Listening to customers and their opinions is equally as important.
Do publishers or agents ever ask for your advice?
I used to be a buyer for a couple of chain bookstores (Hughes & Hughes in Ireland and Blackwell’s in the UK) and used to get asked my opinion a lot more in those jobs as you could influence a lot more sales.
But as an independent bookseller I still get asked about cover designs and possible sales for lesser-known authors. And I still get asked for advice from small publishers on the best way to get their books into bookshops, even though they often don’t like my answer (use wholesalers – you have to give them more discount but they’ll help get your books into more bookshops. And grab any piece of publicity you can – sadly, having a book in a bookshop doesn’t sell it, publicity does!)
Okay, what’s the first thing you do when you get into the shop?
Lights on, alarm off, kettle on for a mug of coffee. I’m not a morning person so I need to warm into the day. Once we’re rolling there’s a stack of tasks – open till, reorder titles sold the previous day, Hoover and tidy the shop for the coming day, and answer any emails from the previous evening (people send enquiries at some very strange times).
What usually happens on your lunch break?
If I’m working in the shop I’ll take an hour and go out for a walk and some air. It’ll often involve something work-related like picking up a change order or lightbulbs or something else the shop needs, and I don’t bring lunch to work as inevitably I’d sit in front of the computer to eat it.
And what’s the last thing you do before you leave? Close down the till, run the end of day reports, alarm set and lights off. Inevitably I lock up and then remember something I haven’t done so I have to go back in and write a note for the following day and then do it all over again.
What makes being a bookseller a great job? And what’s the thing you hate the most?
I love talking to people about books. I could do that all day, it makes me so happy. But as the owner of a small business I do have to spend a lot of time on the finances and admin side – it’d be lovely to farm that out to someone else but I know I’d still have to check everything to make sure the financial side was running smoothly so I accept it’s something I have to do myself. It’s no fun, though.
Over the years, you must have seen some surprising hits and misses. Can you think of a title that was a surprise success? And can you name a few titles that you felt deserved to sell better?
Every Christmas there are always one or two books that surprise you. This year already we’ve seen Irelandopedia by John & Fatti Burke fly into a reprint and I’m sure there’ll be more to come. The industry has gotten much better at turning around quick reprints of popular books so we’re never out of stock of popular books for long now. One of my great pleasures as a buyer was to find a great book by a small publisher and see the sales rocket by adding it to a promotion that we were running. In terms of the Gutter, we try to offer a slightly different selection of books from what you see in the chains, but we also have to pick books that will actually sell – we have very limited space so every book has to earn its keep!
There are always misses – sadly we do “returns” every month back to our suppliers of books that just couldn’t find a home. It is a bit sad. But such is the life of a bookseller. Our “staff picks” section is a great way of drawing attention to books that we love but perhaps wouldn’t stand out otherwise – “staff picks” is always our bestselling section in the shop as people do love a recommendation.
What are the upcoming books you’re most excited about?
I’m just finishing Beatlebone by Kevin Barry which is just out. It’s fantastic and looks set to be my ‘novel of the year’! There’s also a new Jonathan Coe novel called Number 11, which is a sequel to What a Carve Up! (one of my favourite books of all time). And it’s not new but our classics bookclub has chosen David Copperfield by Charles Dickens over Christmas. I’ve never read it so I’m really looking forward to that – I do love a good Dickens at Christmas!
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)