Interview: Storytellers, Inc.

Storytellers, Inc. is an independent children’s bookshop based in Lytham St. Anne’s in Lancashire. Run by mother and daughter team, Carolyn and Katie Clapham, it has gone from strength to strength in the eighteen months in which it has been open. Carolyn took time our from preparing for a busy Jubilee weekend to chat to Book Events for Children.

Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you set up Storytellers, Inc?

Katie is the one with literary knowledge and passion for creative writing.  She studied at Royal Holloway University of London and now has a BA in English Literature & Creative Writing and an MA in Poetic Practice.  While doing her MA, Katie also worked as a Production Editor for a medical journal in London, so saw the industry side of publishing rather than the creative one.  The experience, although very practical and financially useful, it left her with a desire for the creative and less interest in a 9 to 5 office life. After taking a complete break for 3 months and living in the tiniest cottage imaginable on the Isle of Skye (in the depths of a Scottish winter) she returned to the family home in St Annes-on Sea in Lancashire to consider her next steps.

Meanwhile, I (Carolyn) had recently taken voluntary redundancy after 22 years in IT management and was also looking for my next challenge.

Probably the biggest positive influence on the decision to start a business together is our amazing relationship.  A  mother and daughter partnership can be a challenge, but we  know that our skills complement each other perfectly to bring the right balance of practicality, business sense, creativity and the desire to create something worthwhile.

Katie’s love of books, particularly for children and young people, and my secret ambition to have a shop started the whole ball rolling, and that ball rolled pretty quickly! From the first concepts in May 2010, the premises were leased in October and Storytellers, Inc. opened its doors on 1st December 2010.

We set very clear objectives about what we wanted the shop to be and most definitely what we did not want it to be.  Quality and range of the book stock and any other merchandise was critical; this was not going to be a discounted enterprise with shelves packed full of endless TV spin-offs.  Finding the right name and branding (down to our logos, font, colour scheme and even our furniture) was a real labour of love.

 

Carolyn and Katie, you run Storytellers, Inc. as a mother and daughter team.  Katie recently won the Sue Butterworth Young Bookseller of the Year Award at the Bookseller Industry Awards and the bookshop was shortlisted in the Children’s Independent Bookshop of the Year category. Was that a very proud moment for you both?

It has been amazing.  We entered the two award categories really as a trial run being so new to the business, but when we read the entry criteria, we knew we had plenty to talk about.  We were thrilled when we found out in April that we had been shortlisted in both categories and I guess we were pretty much satisfied with that as our first effort.  We had major dilemmas about whether to go to the award ceremony, but in the end Katie went along, and it is just as well she did!  We can now aspire to winning the Children’s Bookshop award in another year.  It has been such a reassurance that we are doing something right and that this has that has been recognised by experts in the industry.  It has been fabulous spreading the news locally with our friends, family and customers who have been so generous with the good wishes, cards and flowers.

 

How easy is it to work so closely together? Do you focus on different areas of the business?

We do know that we are very lucky and it is great to be able to work together so well.  Katie is the creative brain behind the whole venture and she is the face of Storytellers, Inc. in schools and through our various workshops and book clubs.  I have brought my business experience to manage the suppliers and the finances and all the day-to-day practicalities of running a shop.  But we both still love the days where we get to read stories, draw, cut out and stick things and we have been known to have the odd party for birthdays, Halloween etc.

We understand that you hold a lot of book activities for children at Storytellers, Inc, ranging from book clubs for teenagers to a baby-led weaning workshop. Could you tell us a little more about some of your upcoming events?

We currently run monthly book clubs for two junior age groups and are now developing teen groups with the possibility of even an adult group after several requests.  Our most recent regular event is our Storybook Saturday which is on the first Saturday of the month and includes story reading throughout the day, crafts and a discount price for the selected picture book.  Last month we read Julia Donaldson’s The Singing Mermaid and made an 8 foot tall mermaid collage – the children decorated the scales for her giant tail. On Saturday 2nd June, Storybook Saturday presents “The Queen’s Knickers” and our craft activity will consist of decorating paper knickers to make our Jubilee bunting! We run regular storytimes four days a week and have a schedule of creative writing workshops in school holidays. Our next author event in schools will be with Debi Gliori and we’re going to do our first author event actually in the shop with an afterschool signing session with Debi on the same day. It should be great fun!

What are your best-selling children’s and YA books?

Without doubt our best- selling books are the lovely Ottoline series by Chris Riddell.

The best-selling YA books we have had have been the Department 19 vampire hunting adventures by Will Hill and books we’ve done author events with like Mary Hooper and Andy Robb.

 

Could you tell us your own favourite books from your childhood?

Well as a 50 something my childhood was mainly Enid Blyton with The Faraway Tree series probably being my favourite.  And of course there were Ladybird Books – lots of them – and my favourite was The Wise Robin, a lovely Christmas story.

Katie was an avid reader and some of her all time favourites were Terry Jones’ Fantastic Stories and Fairy tales and every Roald Dahl that there was.  She was also insistent that we stocked Jerry Spinelli, Joan Aiken, Melvin Burgess and Robert Cormier.

Have you had to deal with any unusual book queries?

Regularly , but one request we get from the same person over and over again are for psychic phenomenon books for children!  Of course there are the usual “it has a red cover with a picture of a dog, I loved it when I was a child but can’t remember what it was called or who it was by” kind of thing that I am sure every bookseller in the land has to deal with.

Have you had any memorable events with children’s authors?

Our most recent and definitely most amusing was with new teens author Andy Robb, promoting his book Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind. We had been at a school in the morning and it was lunchtime so we were having a sandwich at the shop.  A 60+ lady came in to collect a book she had ordered, so Andy took the opportunity to launch himself at this poor unsuspecting lady and announce that he was an author and this was his new book (thrusting said book at lady), would she like to buy it for some, as yet, unknown teenage member of her family!  He very quickly established that the lady did in fact have a teenage grandson called Oliver and no sooner was the name uttered from her lips, than the book was dedicated to Oliver and signed with a flourish.  The lady, somewhat overwhelmed, agreed with a smile to purchase the book.  Andy’s school visits were funny and witty, thoroughly enjoyed by all and backed up by lots of sales so it was happy author, happy publicist, happy bookseller and a funny anecdote to share.

 

What do you find most rewarding about running a bookshop? And the most frustrating?!

Most rewarding, lots of people coming over and over again to our events and having a great time.

Most frustrating having a gorgeous shop with gorgeous books on days when we have customers in single figures!  It makes you wonder what you are doing wrong and what more can you do.

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