Thursday, 6 October 2016

SHELF LIFE: Bookophilia’s literary gold and the next chapter for the iconic brand

THE PLACE TO BE: The store's book launches always draw a polished crowd. Above, author Roland Watson-Grant chats up a guest. Below, store manager David Thomas (inset).

The rows and aisles boast an embarrassment of literary riches. Your eyes come to rest on of-the-moment titles like Diana McCaulay’s Gone to Drift and such modern classics as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, before darting over to the latest instalment in the Game of Thrones series. Your hands lovingly caress Garfield Ellis’ The Angel’s Share before leafing through a handful of thrillers, self-help titles and international bestsellers that book clubs are probably discussing as we speak.

But this is a Jamaican bookstore, so there is also an abundance of Caribbean novels in stock, alongside poetry anthologies and amusing children’s lit selections. Welcome to Hope Road’s Bookophilia in September, a time of year when the summer stock has graciously made way for the ‘fall season’ bounty that publishers have sent out. And what a variety!

Since its inception, Bookophilia has been the Kingston-based book lover’s haven offering something for everyone. Eight years on, the mission remains intact and the brand is stronger than ever. For manager David Thomas, the core of Bookophilia’s appeal rests in their commitment to providing customers with the best that the literary world has to offer and consistently so, while expanding the offerings.

“When you’re in our line of business, what you offer is never static. As an entity, you have to keep changing,” Thomas informs TALLAWAH, speaking with us over by the Caribbean shelves while doing some inventory on his sleek laptop. “In the book-selling business, you are always working to improve on what you offer and meet the daily challenges.”

As one can imagine, the challenges for Bookophilia – a hot spot for book launches, readings and story hours – have largely to do with maintaining the appeal and constantly refreshing the winning formula. “We are focused on carrying a wide assortment of material, so the variety of writers that we carry is important: Caribbean, North American, South American, African,” explains Thomas, who took over the reins from founder Andrea Dempster. “We are very heavily influenced by the United States and we still maintain our ties with the UK. So our suppliers basically come from all over the world.”

As for the sales and visitorship figures since they first opened their doors almost a decade ago, Thomas has seen growth but it’s the fluctuating kind. “It can always be better, but it has been a good response overall,” admits the businessman, who supervises a four-member staff. “We are nowhere near the size of a Sangster’s or Kingston Bookshop; we don’t sell school books, but our readership support is very strong, even though it comes and goes.”
What is constant, however, is their intention to play an active and continuing role in the promotion of literary advancement among Jamaicans. “I think reading and knowledge are important to the growth of any country. With our books we highlight different cultures of the world. What is the world saying now? And I think that purpose should go on. And we expect to constantly see and meet those needs of our readers.”

His staff stands behind this vision 100 percent. “I hope Bookophilia continues to be a free open space serving the literary community by promoting literacy and the survival of literacy, without having to change the idea or the concept,” one female staffer tells TALLAWAH over the phone. “And I hope it continues to provide a social space where people can gather for book launches and other events.”

92 Hope Road is the popular bookstore’s sole branch. Understandably, it’s a business move people have speculating about for some time: when will Bookophilia physically expand to widen its reach? When TALLAWAH broaches the subject, Thomas doesn’t hesitate to launch into details of a five-year-plan. 

“We do want to expand, but where we are stuck is deciding whether we open another store, a much bigger one, or have different branches,” he points out. “I don’t think we can stay at this size forever. But the main issues now have to do with finding funding for it and having the right team to do it. It has to be in less than five years though. That’s what we are aiming for.”

For the time being, the focus is on planning a 12 Days of Christmas sale, among other promotions apt for the fast-approaching holiday season. Whatever the future might hold, Bookophilia continues to hold a special place in the local literary landscape. 

Naturally, David Thomas is intrigued by the possibilities of the chapters to come – surprise plot twists and all. “The way I look at it is, ‘Is the brand still strong?’ And it is still strong. It’s well-known around town, with a large following,” he notes. “Now, we want to ensure that more people know about it and come to enjoy what we have to offer.”

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