Niche on low overhead still reads success

In Attractions, Business Resources, Community, Momentum, Western Australia

Couple’s passion project turns shed full of second-hand books into thriving readers hub

Published: ABC Mid West & Wheatbelt 19th April 2020 By Laura Meachim

Sifting through the local second-hand bookshop to kill 20 minutes left Paul and Karen Morgan with a lot more than some light reading to take home.

They walked out having bought the whole shed and its contents of 60,000 books on a whim, marking a new chapter in their lives.

The decision paved the way for The Book Shed, a small shop on the main street of Northam, 100 kilometres east of Perth.

When you walk through the doors, the earthy, wooden, familiar scent of old books is almost overwhelming.

The shelves are filled with westerns, classics, Australiana fiction and romances — thousands of stories, salvaged from a shed, waiting to be rehomed.

Mr Morgan, who had worked at the State Museum, said some people questioned their decision in the age of ebooks and audiobooks.

“I don’t think I was crazy at the time; perhaps I was and perhaps I still am,” he said.

“The postman came in once, who I knew quite well, and he said: ‘What have you gone and done this for, bought a book store?’

“The video store down the main street had shut six months before that, there were probably 30 empty shopfronts down the main street of Northam.

“He was saying: ‘Isn’t it a bit silly? Who actually buys books?'”

Staying relevant in a digital world

But clever marketing on social media, combined with old-fashioned customer service, has the business going well.

“We can never really convince someone to not read a Kindle — we get the idea that it is like fast food … it is the convenience,” Mr Morgan said.

“You can push a button, you can push a screen and suddenly you’ve got a book delivered, and that is brilliant, we can’t compete with that.

“But we can compete with the books you can’t find on Amazon, the scarce books, the local history books.

“We think we are agents of culture; we like to promote culture, promote reading and encourage people to read.”

Since buying the shed full of books, opening their Northam store and then a second in neighbouring Toodyay, the Morgans have developed a strong relationship with the community.

They donate books to local medical centres and children’s reading groups as well as people they know who are down on their luck.

Sam Moss has always been a passionate reader and said the Book Shed was a real asset for Northam.

“They’ve got the same passion for books that I do,” he said.

“They have got a feel in the shop; it is a bit hard to put into words … it is one of those places you can just spend hours roaming around, looking at books, talking to them, and then going back and looking at more books.”

While Maren Lavery often shopped at the Book Shed to encourage her children to read, she said its social media presence and willingness to engage with the community set it apart.

“They have embraced the new with the old and service a wide range of customers, and that is what really got me into them,” she said.

“A lot of retail business in rural areas stick to what they know, [but] they’ve stepped out into the online world and they’ve been very playful.”

Book shops vital to creative industry

State librarian Margaret Allan said bookshops played an important role in supporting Australian authors.

“I think they are vitally important because bookshops are just part of a big chain of creative people,” she said.

“From authors and publishers to book illustrators, it is important for them to obviously continue their work, but important because of the stories they create and enable us to share.”

She said the state library was seeing a resurgence when it came to its free digital resources.

“What better time if you cannot travel in the state to get some stories from West Australian authors, set in Western Australia, and just be part of the broader state and our broader story through a book?”

‘Books can’t replace people’

With COVID-19 closing down many businesses, Mr Morgan said they had been forced to diversify until the world returned to some normality.

An online shop, pick-up options and deliveries are becoming the new normal for the Book Shed.

“We are covered in books, we have got books in the house, books in sheds, we have got books everywhere,” he said.

“We love them — but books can’t replace people.

“The best part of owning a bookshop is finding books for people, books they have been looking for all their life.”

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