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With one of the biggest book clubs in the country, Red Lion Books in Colchester is a bookshop firmly settled and obviously much loved in its community. The original owners are still running the shop nearly forty years after they founded it, and they have many loyal customers. The shop has a gallery area for exhibitions, hosts events, supports authors, local schools and of course sells books! I love the local books section on their website and have to say if I lived closer, I would be signing myself up for their book clubs, they sound absolutely wonderful.
When was your bookshop born and how did that come about?
Sarah and Peter Donaldson started the shop in 1978, in the dark ages when rrp meant rrp and there was no Amazon. They started as a young, very naive couple in their 20s but in 2020 the business is still going strong. They believe they have been lucky and also resilient. Others would say they have worked hard and reacted to trends. Red Lion Books has loyal customers across several generations, parents coming in now remember playing in the shop as children, on a 'boat'/bookshelf built by Sarah's father. Bricks and mortar bookselling has been really about surviving the threat of Amazon, the cause of too many community bookshops going under. Over the years memorable highlights have been Harry Potter - taking over Colchester castle as Hogwarts, illuminated green. Completely crazy but good fun for all. With Professor Snape in the dungeon of course!
Tell us about the journey and the changes you have seen over the years.
Changes, from microfiche to computer, hand tills to epos. Paper book tokens to 'credit card' style. But what doesn't change is customer service. It's the help and welcome we can give to our customers that keeps them coming back. And a love for books.
Describe your shop in three words.
Friendly, knowledgeable and authentic
Has the rise of digital retailers affected your bookshop, what were your first thoughts about ebooks and do you feel the same now?
Obviously a threat at the beginning but it was a sharp call to action - meaning 'better everything'. Better stock, better customer services, better understanding, better integration with the local community. The initial threat has eased off. It's there but it's not life-threatening.
What is important in a great bookshop, tell us what sets you apart and makes you special?
The curation of the books is key - a bookshop has to have the feeling that the books are 'alive'. They are chosen by us, dusted by us, loved by us and eventually handed over to the right customer. Books sold in supermarkets don't have the same 'feel' to them. Our stock is vibrant, carefully chosen, well displayed. Picked and sold with genuine love.
Tell us about the books you love to recommend?
We are proud of our local authors - easy to recommend. We all have our favourite books for each section of the shop but a 'go-to' gift present for us at the moment is the POETRY PHARMACY series - they make beautiful and meaningful gifts.
What is your favourite part of your bookshop?
We all have our favourite sections and we are forever reinventing the shop - tweaking things here and there. Our Feminist section was strong a few years ago, a shelf soon became a whole bay but over the months it has evolved and is now known as 'identity' including books about race, gender, sexuality and class.
Tell us a secret about books.
There is a book for everybody out there - even for those people who say they 'don't read' the secret is to find and match the right book to the right person. Books can be life-changing.
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