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LoveReading Bookshop of the Month: Barnett's of Wadhurst

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 18th February 2019

This month highlights a bookshop that has evolved over the years and becomes an integral and important part of the community. I constantly find wonder in the book world, it can be extremely supportive and inclusive, and how very special that Barnett’s of Wadhurst was able to run a book launch for one of their own, ex-staff member Natalie Hart, whose debut novel ‘Pieces of Me’ was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel. I now find myself planning a trip to Wadhurst, Barnett’s sounds like a must visit shop to me!

When was your bookshop born?

I took over Barnett’s in 1993 from Paula Barnett who had set it up from scratch in 1983. Ten years on, it was already a successful going concern. 

I had worked for the British Council as a primary/secondary teacher/school inspector for EFL in Africa and India for 30 years after coming down from Cambridge where I had studied Modern Languages (French and German). Taking over a successful bookshop was a daunting task since I had no knowledge of retail trading at all. So I was not actually present at the birth of this wonderful shop, but suddenly responsible for keeping it going by feeding in new ideas and watching it grow into the very special independent shop it now is, with a new and exciting area for children’s reading.

Talk to me about the journey and the changes you have seen over the years.

At the outset, with no computer support available, everything was recorded by hand. Hardback books were even ordered by post with at least a week’s delay on delivery. However, we still maintain our original handwritten ’Order Book’ system which provides an instant visual record of a customer’s order from initial request to final delivery.  Useful, even essential, when the computer goes down. The advent of Gardners and Bertrams wholesale facility, with their huge stock range, significant support to ‘Indies’ and super-efficient courier systems, now enables us to offer a reliable and predictable next-day delivery service for the great majority of customer orders.  In earlier days, customers would wait for their books; now they tend to expect them to be there by the next day -  a desire for instant gratification engendered by Amazon.

In 2011, I asked Beth Martin to join us and she has supported with more focussed marketing and set up a Literary Lounge initiative.  This exposure of the local reading community to new and important novels has gone from strength to strength and we have welcomed local and national authors including Sarah Moss, Francis Spufford, Amanda Craig, Kate Mosse, Alan Judd and many more. We also run regular book launches and were thrilled to be able to introduce to a local audience a book by ex-staff member Natalie Hart, who started with us at the age of thirteen, stayed with us for nine years, working after school and last year produced her first novel “Pieces of Me” (shortlisted for Costa first novel).

We also make thoughtful use of social media which enables us to share information about promotions and shop innovations with the local community. We have developed a very positive following boosted by helpful comments from pro-independent sources such as the Bookshop Blogger!

As I approach my 83rd birthday, after 26 years happily guiding the growth and development of the shop, I am encouraged by the significant amount of change in the shop. I am still keen to do long hours in the shop rewarded by the comments and regular return of satisfied customers who have come to realise that this little shop on the High Street has much to offer in the best aspects of ‘small shop shopping’ by making the bookshop a warm and friendly place with easy, relaxed access to the beauty and joy of books and talking about them.

Describe Your Shop in Three Words.

Friendly, knowledgeable and efficient

How have you upped your game to compete with the rise of digital retailers?

There is no doubt that we offer the sort of relaxed, personal, easy-going relationship with our customers -  many known on first name terms  -  that the soul-less Amazon cannot even attempt.  Even bigger bookshops cannot match the pleasure of browsing through an extensive, but select range of stock such as we offer, in our quirky little shop, strongly based on the known needs, predilections and favourite themes of our own village community.  Additionally, our website presents would-be book buyers a hint of what we offer and affords them an easy link with the shop to facilitate an immediate book order. People come from a long way to enjoy our bookshop and its ambiance - conscious of its warm and friendly customer service and the attention of approachable helpful adults and younger enthusiastic school students working part-time and, while loving their work, learning a lot about retail trade as well. A good number of East Sussex independents have closed down in the last decade - sometimes because the demand withered away, sometimes through lack of that crucial element of truly focussing on what the customer wants, sometimes because of extortionate rental costs. Additionally, we make shopping with us an all-round experience by selecting and selling a range of beautiful designer cards and a number of carefully chosen reading accessories. We truly believe that ‘engaging’ with the customer - whatever age he or she may be -  is an absolute essential in persuading people to come back.

What sets you apart, what makes you so special?

We are a community bookshop and many of our customers have been with us for a long time. Nonetheless, we welcome new arrivals for whom the existence of a bookshop may have been a tipping point in their choice of Wadhurst for their new home. We offer advice and guidance on Wadhurst itself and we seem to double as a tourist office!  What makes us special is actually the rather amazingly eclectic range of stock we offer.  Customers are often amazed at the enormous range of topics we cram into such a small area. Also our customer service is second to none. While stocking all worthwhile new titles and books in the spotlight, we also pride ourselves on our ability to hunt down out-of-print and tricky titles and get them in.

We have also always had a team of local school students working for us after school - each coming on a different day - which gives them enjoyable but meaningful experience of work in retail and teaches them useful technical skills and hones their interpersonal abilities as they deal with customers in person and on the telephone. This combination of ages in the shop helps us to keep up with the movements of the world of books and be relevant to the needs of customers of varying ages. The best advisor to a mum wanting a book for a teenager is surely another teenager.

What are you reading right now?

I am reading ‘The Last Wolf’ by Robert Winder - the very accessible history of what Robert thinks make us ‘English’. A fascinating introduction to the rural aspects of our history.

What is your favourite book of the last year?

I enjoyed ‘Tidal Zone’ by Sarah Moss and ‘Brittle Star’ by Davina Langdale.

Do you have a favourite author?

That’s difficult. Having worked in India, I love Kipling - especially ‘Kim’.  I loved ‘Cutting for Stone’ by Abraham Verghese.  Antoine de Saint Exupery is also one of my favourites as I am fascinated by aviation.

Beth really enjoys contemporary women’s literature and has discovered Sally Rooney this year.

What is your favourite genre?

General aviation and fiction from India.

Apart from yourselves, which other bookstore(s) do you love to spend time in?

Beth loves going to most bookshops, though she doesn’t enjoy the pile it high/sell it cheap scenario. She loves discovering new independent shops in small villages as the stock will be very individual and reflect the owner’s taste as well as what’s new.

What else do our members need to know about you?

We have an extensive mailing list for our monthly Literary Lounge events -which usually sell out. We also have book launches for local authors – in December we had Valerie Baines (artist) and Rosemary Schrager (chef!)  

Our children’s department is full of fun activities and we also have children’s events such as the launch of Nigel Hinton’s latest book.

Keep up to date with Barnett's of Wadhurst

Facebook: Barnett's of Wadhurst

Twitter: @WadhurstBooks

Instagram: @barnettsbooks


If you enjoyed this article why not check out our other Bookshop Features?

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tlmvjety d - 22nd March 2019

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