Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, has long been our favourite bookshop. There are many contenders in the South West for this accolade but we think Mr B’s outscores them all on originality, taste and for the simple fact that it’s the ultimate hideaway for the committed bibliophile. Here is a place where you can turn up to browse, undisturbed, although somehow or other the fantastically well read yet unobtrusive staff will point you in the direction of something you would never have considered. And you’ll almost certainly love it. It’s a small and beautiful space with its bath-tub full of books and its impeccably chosen list, regular author readings and the Reading Spa upstairs (one to one guidance on the latest reads over tea and cake, tailored to your taste). Everything is done differently here, even the reader events are styled more like an informal dinner party – an author reading, yes but with chatting afterwards over a glass of wine and a buffet feast cooked by a local chef. Guest authors are always interesting, never mainstream and quite often someone you won’t have heard of. Next month (Oct 5) Tommy Wieringa reads from a A Beautiful Young Wife, which opens at a dinner party where an eminent microbiologist is asked to tell the story of how he met his young wife. The website, almost as much as the shop, is somewhere to lose yourself. Here you’ll find the owners' favourite reads painstakingly compiled under headings such as Dysfunctional Families, Feisty Females in Fiction and Graveside Story. And if you can’t get to Bath, the shop will come to you in the form a Mr B's subscription for 3, 6 or 11 months. Chat over the phone, fill out some forms about your favourite reads and each month you'll receive a gorgeously wrapped, wax sealed package in the post of a book selected especially for you. Could there be a nicer present? Mr B’s was set up back in 2006 when disaffected City lawyers Nic and Juliette Bottomley left their jobs to create a shop that focused entirely on the indulgence of reading. It was a risky venture; at the time independent bookshops were on the wane, but 11 years on, we’re happy to see the multi-award winning Mr B’s (twice winner of Independent Bookshop of the Year) continues to thrive.
Nic and Juliette Bottomley pictured Below Country Calling talks to co-founder Nic Bottomley
Mr B's is our favourite bookshop, a unique experience on every count. What made you come up with the idea, are you both bookoholics? Absolutely. When we quit our previous careers as lawyers to set up Mr B’s it was with the express intent of spending our lives doing something we loved. We loved books and so we set about creating a bookshop that was all about celebrating reading for pleasure. The idea itself began on our honeymoon; specifically on the terrace of an inn on Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands just near Seattle where we thought back to our trip to the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle itself a few days earlier and decided that if we could capture some of their atmosphere and service in a UK bookshop, then we could might just be able to make it work. The staff at Mr B's are so well read and always manage to encourage us to try something new without ever seeming pushy. How do you find them?
We are really proud of our team. Mr B’s does operate as a really close-knit team and we have an incredibly low turnover of people. That’s because when we recruit we just focus on finding people that we and our customers are going to enjoy engaging with and who know and love books. Our approach to bookselling is an opinionated one but it’s certainly not about being pushy. Whether you want one book, two books or just an idea for a book for a later date we’re always very keen to try and help something that suits your reading tastes and preferences. There’s a big time investment in reading a book so the best way, in the long-term, for us to encourage our customers to keep making that investment and choosing books over other leisure activities is to help them make great book choices which are well worth the reading time.
There are so many original features at Mr B's. One of our favourites is the reading spa, what made you think of it? We had this reputation after a couple of years of being particularly good at recommending books to suit given customer’s tastes. We wanted to formalise that knack into something that people could purchase as a gift, and that’s where the Mr B’s Reading Spa came in. A customer who has received a Mr B’s Reading Spa books in to come to Mr B’s and talk books 1 on 1 with one of our booksellers over tea and cake. We spend twenty minutes or so talking books and then, after we’ve gathered relevant books for ten minutes or so, another half hour introducing them to the books that we think they’d enjoy. Within the cost of the Reading Spa the customer receives a voucher to spend on books on the day. It’s a hugely popular gift and it’s also a wonderful way for us to keep pushing forward our book knowledge! We’ve followed up the Reading Spas with two other gifts based around recommendation – our Reading Subscriptions with which recipients receive 3, 6 or 11 monthly books hand-picked to meet their reading tastes (all wrapped up in brown paper, string and wax seal) and our new Reading Bundles, sets of five books on a given theme which will make the recipient an armchair expert on anything from Dystopian Europe to Bayou country. Basically, we just love directing people to wonderful and often overlooked books and all of our gifts are just ways of doing that.
Print books are making a comeback over e-books. Do you see the return of the independent bookshop too? Yes, e-book sales have plateaued now to give us the world many of us always thought would appear – where print books and e-books live side by side. Independent bookshops engaged with the e-book debate but have always been primarily committed to tangible books – aside from the content on the pages, books are a physical thing for many people and a physical bookshop is the ideal place to discover them. High street bookshops, both independent and chain, have declined in overall numbers over the last decade but those that remain are savvy, intriguing and full of innovation. They also have ever-more confidently curated book ranges. The independent bookshop never went away to be honest but I do think we’re in the midst of a renaissance in their quality and in their perceived importance. Could you share with us a favourite new read?
I just read Eowyn Ivey’s new novel To The Bright Edge of the World – it’s set in Alaska, just like her debut “The Snow Child”, and is a fictionalisation of a C19th expedition to the Alaska interior. It’s told primarily through two diaries – those of Colonel Forrester who leads the expedition into a harsh landscape where the indigenous populations tell of the blurred lines between man and nature. Alongside, and those of Forrester’s young intrepid wife left behind at the barracks in Vancouver. It’s gripping and highly evocative of that distant time and place.