An Interview with Mike Goodenough


-Tell us a little about yourself.

My passion for paper started in the school playground, swapping comics, cigarette cards and later, ‘naughty’ postcards. In the mid 1960s, swathes of houses in my neighbourhood were being bulldozed to accommodate the motorcar, and these abandoned homes gave up all kinds of printed treasures. Along with the discarded books there were magazines, old documents, photographs, cigarette cards—in fact ephemera of every kind. As a teenager I found books both fascinating and frustrating (I’m mildly Dyslexic) but ephemera opened a window on the past for me, and made it real.

On leaving school I quickly discovered that I was unfit for conventional employment, and have contrived to avoid a proper job ever since. I’ve been a boatman, footman, building restorer, gardener, antique dealer, window cleaner… Alongside bookdealing—which I’ve done for more than a quarter of a century—I’ve been equally active as a campaigner for historic building preservation, an environmental troublemaker, and latterly, a founder and director of a charitable community development trust.

-What led to your interest in antiquarian bookselling?

I’ve never been interested in antiquarian bookselling—I’m a bookdealer. I buy and sell books for a living. Old books, used books, new books—but always I hope—interesting books. I started selling them because I had lots and needed money. And it was very easy to turn books into money in the 1980’s.

-How did you learn the trade?

By doing it. Very few of the dealers I know have had any kind of training, let alone a formal apprenticeship. But I don’t really think you can learn to be a bookdealer, you just are one. We’re book junkies and we deal to support our habits. Of course, you need to learn a great deal about all sorts of things in order to stand any chance of being a successful bookdealer.

-You seem to be in an especially idyllic corner of England if the official tourism website at Stroud District Tourism is any indication. Tell us all about Inprint, your charming book store.

It is a lovely and fascinating The Skellyplace to live, but Stroud used to be an industrial town and thirty years ago was on its knees. We settled here with a bunch of other hippies because at the time it was an extraordinary backwater, more like Southern Ireland than Ye Olde Cotteswolds.

Opening the shop was an act of commitment to the town and it provided a base from which to run various campaigns against the wanton destruction of its architectural heritage and social fabric. Times have changed but I hope the shop still excites people’s interest and serves some of their needs.

When we opened we stocked what turned up, but the shop stock has over time become strongly arts based, and reflects the subjects we enjoy, and hopefully, know something about. We still try to offer books at every price from 50p to many hundreds, and sometimes, thousands of pounds. I hope you can get some impression of the shop from visiting its web page [see link at the bottom].

-You have been at the same location in Stroud for over twenty-five years. How have things changed in terms of clientele, buying patterns, etc.?

What hasn’t changed? In the early years we reckoned to pay all our overheads from the paperback sales — it wasn’t unusual for some customers to buy up to ten novels a week! Charity shops cut deeply into paperback sales, although we are now undercutting their prices by selling fiction in the covered boxes outside.

We’ve seen huge growth in book collecting over the past twenty-five years, much of it in subject areas that interested me. Initially we stocked a lot of material largely overlooked by an older generation of dealers and collectors—pulp fiction, SF, popular entertainment, old magazines and ephemera were main stays.

I suppose the majority of our stock still reflects popular culture, particularly the visual and performing arts—although we have always said that we try to stock the books our customers tell us they want to buy. For many years we ran a book finding service which gave us valuable insights into our customer’s interests and the often-surprising rarities they were looking for.

Along with most other secondhand bookshops, we have been struggling to cope with the seismic effects the internet has had on bookshop trade. Joy (my wife and more recently business partner) is bringing a fresh eye to the shop after years of running our book search, and we are both spending more time in the shop dealing with customers. On a good day we now sell two or three times the number of books from our window displays than from the internet sites we list on. And weather permitting, there are always people searching for bargains in boxes on the pavement.

The internet has hugely increased the average person’s awareness of out-of-print books, and many of these newly-aware, potential customers, are walking past our door. All we have to do is lure them in…

-What aspects of maintaining a physical bookstore are the most problematic?

Simply achieving a turnover that’s sufficient to pay the ever-increasing bills. Secondhand bookshops by their very nature have a fairly low ceiling on the turnover that they can realistically generate. Increasingly this means that they are being priced off the High Street.

-What are some of the most unusual things that ever happened in your shop?

A gas company van crashing into the front Inprint Greenerywindow was probably the least expected! We boarded up and donned WW2 gas masks and helmets (recently acquired from a clearance) and soldiered on. I’ve always been inclined to see bookselling as theatre and for years my alter ego—a life-size cardboard skeleton—featured in a succession of elaborate themed windows. I think my favorite was a cut-price book window, in which The Skelly cut up books with a bow saw. And “Singing in the Rain” was memorable, but sadly unrecorded. It’s all rather tame and middle-aged these days—but we do have a forest of plants hanging from the ceiling, which is quite unusual.

-In general terms, who are some of your favorite customers, past or present, and why?

My favourite customers? The ones who save a quiet day, or week, with their purchases and all those who say “what a wonderful shop”—and then buy something!

-Celebrity customers?

Bob Geldolf might have become a customer if my wife hadn’t asked him to leave for talking very loudly into a mobile phone. We live in something of a royal ghetto, so some of the more minor ones use the shop. And, as we also live in “Cider with Rosie country”, Laurie Lee is a much-missed customer. Unlike some celebrities he understood that the principle reason for visiting a bookshop was to buy books.

-Cinema and entertainment seem to be your main specialty? How did you get into that?

It was personal interest. Twenty-five years ago it was close to impossible to find books on these subjects out here in the sticks, so I set about trying to make it easier.

-Here’s one from left field, as we say in the states. What is your all-time favorite movie?

Bomber and Paganini. Made in Germany in the mid-70s, it’s a very black comedy about a couple of inept petty criminals who hate each other, but are forced by circumstance into mutual dependence. If anyone can supply the English subtitled version, on any format, I will pay handsomely.

-How do you acquire most of your stock?

Walk ins, other bookshops, flea markets, book fairs, auctions, ebay, car boot sales, internet databases, skips—anywhere and everywhere. You can still find lots of interesting books if you’re prepared to look. And of course it helps that I’m a compulsive book buyer.

-How do you keep ahead of the perennial space problem?

By selling as many books as we buy, and only buying those we know will sell. If books are hanging around it’s usually because they’re too expensive, and ours is a tiny shop so we have to be ruthless.

-Are all of your internet listings available right there in the shop, or are they stored offsite to keep them in the described condition or to simplify inventory management?

A lot of our shop stock is listed on the internet. I’ve never understood dealers who kept their internet or book fair stock separate—don’t they want prospective customers to see their better books? Of course it raises stock control issues, but our fulfillment rate rarely falls below 90%, and as we cover most dust wrappers, and are assiduous about shelving, we rarely have problems.

-What is your most memorable purchase?

A recent memorable purchase was an enormous folio volume entitled:Mike and His Great Orpheus Pavement BookAn Account of Roman Antiquities Discovered at Woodchester in the County of Gloucester. It records the discovery of the Great Orpheus Pavement—the largest surviving mosaic in Northern Europe—and was published in 1797. Woodchester is just a few miles up the road and the book’s owner had helped uncover the pavement, for what was to be the last time in 1973, when 141,000 visitors flocked to it. It was his hope that this beautiful work of art and scholarship would stay in the Stroud Valleys, where I’m pleased to say I was able to find it a new home. It’s difficult to put into words the thrill of opening such a book for the first time, but maybe the accompanying photo will help?

-Tell us about the proverbial one that got away?

The original artwork for the frontispiece of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, a pristine first of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe … I could go on … and on.

-It would take a separate interview to cover TheBookGuide, which is your online guide to sources of secondhand and antiquarian books in the U.K. In addition to listing and describing hundreds of book stores, you also provide current information about fairs and auctions, you dispense informative news stories relating to our profession, and you provide all types of interesting content. While this is obviously a labor of love, it seems very labor intensive, and on behalf of the profession I would like to thank you for the effort and the contribution.

What can I say? It is a labour of love, but then I always seem to have worked for love rather than money. 🙂

-I especially enjoyed your Drif page. For those who have not heard about this caustic U.K. book store reviewer, check it out from TheBookGuide home page. You are carrying on his work, in a more polite fashion, with great concern for the quality and survival of physical bookstores. Your first couple of Drif reviews were not so hot. “I still remember our review in the first guide: … ‘UNR (unreliable opening times) … hippyish bookshop with bizarre prices’. It was a relief to have at least become REL (reliable) in the next edition but I aspired to the accolade ‘WAD’ (worth a detour).” This Drif review from the Inprint “Shop” page must be more recent. “Immensely attractive style … a lovely atmosphere … it looks like something out of a film: The Bookman of Alcatraz!”

So, some Drif questions. Do you remember him coming to your shop any of these times? Did he collect anything himself, or was it all buy low and sell high? Any favorite Drif anecdotes, and what ever happened to him?

I didn’t know Drif, but met him a couple of times in our shop and occasionally bumped into him in others. I think he warmed to us when his request for anything on necrophilia, or children’s books featuring frogs, resulted in me selling him both. I don’t imagine he collected anything, but I suspect that he often bought high and sold very high. He disappeared after his novel—said to be a work of some brilliance, but ruined by obsessive rewriting—failed to find a publisher. A rare Drif sighting comes from an old friend of his, John Martin, who bumped into him at a Chiswick (London) car boot sale last year. Apparently Drif had spent the previous three or four years in Calcutta, and confirmed that he was no longer involved with the book trade. They exchanged phone numbers … and then John lost his mobile!

-In closing, we spend a lot of time discussing our evolving relationship with ABE, Alibris, and Amazon. Even if they treated us as partners rather than dependent suppliers, you can’t blame some book buyers (and booksellers for that matter) for using the internet for the sake of convenience and savings. Have physical book store closings leveled off, and what must they do to survive?

I certainly don’t blame anyone for buying or selling books on the internet—we do it. But it seems to me that as a buyer it’s becoming less convenient, and as a seller, more expensive. Buying relatively common titles is a nightmare of wading through dross, and some of the sins of omission in the descriptions of more expensive books are jaw slackening. As a seller, the only online venues that move any books exact an ever-increasing price, not only in cash, but in the loss of independence and the ability to build relationships with customers.

As to the big question: how will bookshops survive? I think that the answers will rely as much on developing retailing and marketing skills, as they will on the books we buy. Hopefully some of my answers indicate how we hope to survive, and indeed prosper—but it’s a complex subject, which I would like to return to on another occasion!

Mike Goodenough operates Inprint in Stroud, England and can be contacted at http://www.inprint.co.uk.


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