Books & Company

We are exploring and sharing user stories from the world of indie book publishing to discover and showcase creativity, inspiration, knowledge and the details behind the stories that make them remarkable.

Meet Isabella Smith, the owner of Books & Company, a beautiful and very welcoming small independent bookshop located in Hellerup, Denmark. We sat down for a talk with Isabella about doing what you love, running a bookshop, how to sell books and suggestions for the perfect Christmas gift across age
and interest.

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Hello, Isabella! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Walk us through the story of Books & Company from the beginning till today.

Isabella: The story of Books & Company actually originates from the time that I lived abroad. I lived abroad for 8 years, and most of that time I spent in the United States. I’ve also lived abroad as a child, but as an adult that’s where I lived most of the time. When I moved back to Denmark, it was a difficult transition back and the bookshop and a book café atmosphere was what I missed the most. My background is very different from owning a bookshop. I have a law degree, and my specialty is human rights, and I’ve worked with that for several years. When I moved back, I thought that maybe I needed to try something new and different. It took 2 years to develop the idea. From when it sort of started growing in my mind till I actually opened the doors. Another reason I wanted to open an English language bookshop was because my children were at an international school, and I could see that a lot of the parents there missed a place where they could go for English books for their children and themselves. At the time, the only English bookshop in Copenhagen had closed, and I thought, OK, maybe I could try to do that.

Everything about running a bookshop was new to me. I had never had my own business. I’d never worked with books in that way, and I’d never had employees. So that was the most exciting thing and the scariest part of it. My interest for the book business started when I worked for a British publisher in Hong Kong
for 2 years.

So I found this location in Hellerup. Originally, I was planning to be in Copenhagen. But I realized that most of the international community lives out here, with the embassies and the schools and the families. So I thought maybe it would be better for me to be out here. As it turns out now, 5-1/2 years later, most of my customers are Danes. I think I have 60% Danish customers, 40% non-Danes. So that’s been a fantastic experience, and a nice journey as well, to
realize that.

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So with no experience running a bookshop – where does one begin?

Isabella: It’s funny, because when you don’t have a background for it, and you’re not educated in the book business, it all becomes very personal.  The process of trying to decide which books to populate the shop with was really difficult, because there are millions of books. So to provide myself with a starting point, I decided to send an email to, I think it was between 60 and 70 people that I knew read and were interested in books, saying: I’m opening a bookshop. Could you please send me your favourite authors and favourite books?”

This turned out to be a great approach. Everybody emailed me back, very quickly, with their favourite authors that they’d grown up with, books that had changed their lives, and authors they had met. It was just a wonderful experience and also very interesting to see what a huge role books play in people’s lives.
So that gave me the starting point for the bookshop. Next step was to decide on which sections to have in the shop, because it’s a small shop. But I wanted to be able to offer as much as possible. This means that I have a lot of different genres, but I’m trying to be very selective, especially quality-wise, in what I choose. I started out with approximately 2,500 books, which is half of what I have now. So when I look at pictures from when I opened, the shop looks and feels a bit empty, but still beautiful.

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Tell us a bit about finding and hiring the right employees?

Isabella: Since the beginning of opening Books & Company, I’ve had employees, because when I started my son was only 4, so it was important that I had the flexibility to be able to leave the shop if necessary. My husband is also self-employed, so it gives flexibility, but it’s also quite restrictive, because you have a lot  to juggle. I started out with 2 others and myself. I’ve always had wonderful people working with me. Finding and hiring the right people for the bookshop was also, of course, a whole new experience. I spoke to a guy who ran a café very close to where I used to live because he always had the nicest people working for him. So I said, How do you do that? How do you make sure that all these people are so nice?”

He said, People come in and they show me CVs and all this stuff that they’ve done and their background, and of course, I look at it. But I only hire people based on my gut feeling and what I think would work for me.

So I’ve done the same thing. Only once have I hired someone who I hadn’t heard about who came by the bookshop and was looking for a job. Everyone else I’ve known, or know someone who knows the person. I think that personal relationship is good. It’s a mutual commitment. But I’ve always hired people who I’ve felt would reflect the atmosphere and the kind of shop that I wanted to have. So that’s always been very important to me because service is really our number one priority. Of course, we make a huge effort to have the right books and the right selection. But it’s also extremely important that when people walk through the door, they feel they are welcome, and get excellent service.

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Can you please describe a typical day for you in the bookshop?

Isabella: Well, a typical day is what you just saw. I rarely open myself; so like today, a collegue will came into the shop around 8:00 – 8:15, and then has the shop ready to be open at 8:30. We open early, because we want to give people the opportunity to also come by and have a cup of coffee or pick up books on their way to work, which is really nice, because after a long day at work the shops are closed and you don’t get to do it. We have a lot of regular customers who stop by in the mornings for coffee and a chat. They love the coffee, but I think it’s mostly to have a chat with us, and we discuss anything and everything under the sun.  I often think of this place almost like being one of those bars in Italy where people come in for an espresso in the morning on their way to work, because that’s what we have a lot in the mornings. We also have many parents from the international schools. When they drop off their kids, they like to come here to discuss things, or just to hang out and talk. So that’s also a typical start to the day.
Then we receive books, I would say, 2 to 3 times a week. Especially on Mondays we get a lot of books. So putting those into the system, recording them, shelving them is what we do, and then throughout the day, of course, we help customers find books, either for themselves or for friends, or gifts. We get lots of orders, so we are contacting them and making sure that people get what they need as quickly as possible.

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Can you please describe the qualities a book needs to have in order to get shelf space in your store, if it’s possible?

Isabella: A good book, what is a good book? It’s such a subjective question, because what’s a good book to me is not necessarily a good book to you or to anybody else.
At Books & Company we are very open to people’s book suggestions, because it is important to us to provide our customers with what they love to read. Further, reading a book, I believe is an experience, and we want to provide great experiences, at many different levels, across age and interest.
When choosing books ourselves, the selection is based upon what I feel is interesting for me personally and my customers, which means that when I look at a book, it’s not necessarily a book that I would buy myself if I walked into a shop. But it’s a book that I would pick up and take a look at because it either has an interesting storyline, interesting narrative or it covers a specific subject. Like many other things in life, the things that are easiest to sell are the things that you like yourself.
I often tell my customers to base their purchase on what they themselves enjoy, especially when buying a gift. It’s always nice to be able to say Oh, I loved this book, and now I want to share this experience with you.
  Some other aspects I consider when choosing books for the shops is that they are well written in general, which is, of course, also a subjective matter. But I like the quality of the books to be high, and to also be diverse, and to reflect multiple interests. You could have anything from cooking for children to complicated scientific books. You could have anything.

I think that because my customer group has grown and developed in the last 5-1/2 years, I really encompass all of those groups, which is so much fun for me. Because that also opens my eyes to what’s out there. For example, in the children’s book section, it’s important that it’s an English language bookstore that reflects a multicultural and diverse world. So we bring in opinions and perspectives from all over the world.

My magazine selection is also becoming more very diverse,to include more African, Asian and Australian publications to name a few.  We are an international bookshop and our audience is from all around the world, so it is important to us to give them a large and diverse selection to choose from.

How do you market Books & Company?

Isabella: I have once tried to have an ad in a newspaper, but it turned out to be a bad investment. We have a pretty active online presence, via our Facebook page, Instagram and our website. Especially Facebook and Instagram are very popular among our audience, to see what we’re doing and what we’re up to. The shop has really mainly grown by word of mouth and here the international schools in the area have been very important, because when people come to a new country, and they are involved in the school, it’s an immediate network. So if someone talks about a shop other people will hear about it. So that kind of network has been really helpful. I also send out a newsletter once a month, which has a
large readership.

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And finally, Christmas is near, and everybody is searching for the perfect holiday gift for family and friends. Which books will you recommend for Christmas 2014?

Isabella: For a young woman, Lena Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind Of Girl, will definitely be huge. I’ve already sold lots of that.

For someone who’s technology interested – a large part of my customer base including many men  – I would say The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, or How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.
For anyone interested in cookbooks, I would probably say the newly published Green Kitchen Travels.
Then for the politically interested, which is also a huge part of my customer base, there is Francis Fukayama’s new book, Political Order and Political Decay.
For the young adults – the trickiest group actually to buy for, I think, because young adults read what everybody else reads – I would say because of the new movie, the third book of the “Hunger Games” series. Another popular author within the young adult category is John Green who has a huge following due to the success of his book “The Fault in Our Stars”.

Choosing one children’s book to recommend is very difficult, as I have so many nice and beautiful illustrated books in the shop. It all depends on your child and what he or she likes to read, but The Jacket by Kirsten Hall could be a good gift as it is a fresh and lovely picture book.
I also have a lot of fashion-interested people in my shop, which reflects my community and the people who live here, a lot them work in fashion. So a fun book for them would be How to be Parisian, which is a super popular and recently published book.
Finally for fiction, for a novel, I would say for those who haven’t read it yet, I would strongly recommend Adichie’s Americana, which is one of my very favourite books of the year. She’s a Nigerian writer, and I think that it’s an amazing book, about race, culture and immigration. It covers so many topics and is based on sensitivity, humour and beautiful writing.

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Before saying our goodbyes, do you have anything else you want to add?

Isabella: I would like to add that I feel extremely privileged to be able to do exactly what I love every day. I feel very lucky. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very much a privilege. I know that people say, “Oh, you should just go for what you love to do”,  it’s actually quite difficult to find what you love to do. I feel lucky that I was able to do that in my 40s, and to have the opportunity to run a place like this is just a huge privilege.

To learn more about Books & Company and experience
their universe and books
go visit: www.booksandcompany.dk

 

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