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4 Dec 2020
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Treasure Chest Books

Proudly located in the centre of Felixstowe, Treasure Chest Books is East Anglia’s largest second-hand bookshop. It has been trading in the town since 1984. Co-owner Helen Bott shares the history of the shop and the ups and downs of 2020.

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“We are a bricks and mortar bookshop, open five days a week. We have 60,000 books in stock, covering all subjects but specialising in transport (railways, shipping, buses, trams, motoring, aviation), military and local East Anglian titles. Customers visit us from all over East Anglia and further afield, last year we had a customer from the Falklands, this month we had a gentleman from Portugal.

“We also sell online worldwide as Martin Bott Bookdealers which we established in Lancashire in 1997. We are the UK’s largest online transport bookseller with 9000 books listed. In 2013 we acquired Treasure Chest when the original owner retired. We moved the online shop and home to set up in Suffolk. In that time, we’ve greatly increased the number of books online and have also moved away from the ‘dusty leather’ image of the physical shop where we stock lots of modern paperbacks, cookery, biographies and children’s books. We believe in encouraging children to love books from an early age.

“Felixstowe has a lot of small independent businesses including another second-hand bookshop, a new bookshop, antique shops, cafes, a bakery, butcher, fish shop, deli and independent clothes stores. We think this is the appeal of the town to many visitors and hope this will continue.”

Using social media

“My daughter encouraged me to use Twitter about seven years ago. She set it up and taught me the basics (such as getting #Felixstowe #Bookshop into the tweet). I tweet most days, sometimes to promote collections of books coming in, sometimes a comment about the weather or a book-related news story. I sometimes share a funny thing a customer has said though never anything rude about customers.

“There’s quite a Twitter community of booksellers. We use it to keep in touch. Many of the Felixstowe shopkeepers are also on Twitter, we use it to retweet and support each other. Sometimes customers mention they follow me, nobody has complained yet! I also use Facebook but that has a much smaller audience. I’m not on Instagram, perhaps I need my daughter’s help again!

“At the moment I’m using Twitter heavily to promote books available to click and collect. We have 60,000 books but only 9000 are listed online. We can’t simply direct people to our website as it only shows a small proportion of what we have available. It’s time consuming and has only resulted in six orders all week sadly.

“Events like #BookshopDay or #BooksAreMyBag don’t really help us. They are geared up to new bookshops and we don’t offer anything on these days. #SmallBizSat is probably more useful as other local businesses promote that too.”

Lockdown and reopening

“Like all small businesses, Covid has been a considerable challenge for us. We were forced to close in the spring for three months so spent the time listing many more books online. Orders increased and we were mailing several sacks of orders a day, many overseas. We were able to reopen at the beginning of July but with shorter hours as we had to reduce our staffing. Summer was quite busy. Felixstowe benefitted from staycations and the weather was fantastic.

“Re-opening the shop was a challenge especially as we have narrow passageways and only one entrance. We ask people to be considerate and to give way, limiting the numbers inside to 12. Everybody has been very sensible. We have hand sanitizer if customers want to use it (we do realise they might just have sanitised in a previous shop) and we allow people to browse and handle the books. How else can you choose the right book?!  We’ve never quarantined books, as far as we know the risk of transmission via paper is very small, we do sometimes jokingly ask people not to lick the books.

“The layout of the shop with all its alcoves means social distancing works as long as all 12 people don’t want to look at poetry or gardening at the same time! I hope people aren’t put off, I know there are customers we’ve not seen since March but several have told me it’s because they are shielding and are not visiting shops. We’ve kept notices to a minimum, have no floor markings etc and hope people feel as relaxed as possible, shopping for books should be a pleasure. Overall, I do feel Covid restrictions put people off shopping in the high street and footfall is certainly down.”

Lockdown (again)

“In October, the weather changed and footfall reduced considerably. Online orders went down too. And then we got the news that we had to close for the second lockdown. We are certainly apprehensive about the future. Many people say to us ‘just sell online’ but many of our books are low value (50p for a children’s book, £2 for a detective novel) and cost up to £2 to post. We discovered during the first lockdown that customers don’t want to pay that, especially as (unnamed) large businesses offer free postage.

“We can’t deny that the last six months have been incredibly stressful, not knowing if a business built up over 20 years will survive. We still don’t know what will happen. It’s also been physically exhausting. We have been starting work at 6am as the Post Office changed their hours meaning all orders have to be dropped off by 9am, then running the shop during the day and cataloguing books in the evening.”

Old books, bad books and customers

“There are some books we just can’t give away like Dan Browns, 50 Shades of Grey, Michael Palin travel books, Jamie Oliver cookery books. And there isn’t much of a market for old encyclopaedias. Frustrations of a bookshop owner include the books which fall over in the window domino-like for no apparent reason, people who tell you how much they love books, how many they’ve got but then never buy anything. Plus people who are disappointed you haven’t got any books on the village their grandmother came from (it’s 3 houses and a phone box, there’s never been a book written but they thought you’d have something) and the cold mornings. Our shop does not have any insulation and the night storage heaters are 30 years old.

“Saying that, it is a great job to have. I love chatting to so many people. I learn so much and who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by books and unlimited coffee? It would be heartbreaking if Covid puts an end to what has been a thriving business. We are doing our very best but the future is so uncertain.”

December 2020


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