Wednesday, 21 April 2021
DIANA WAY and her husband Richard run the eponymous bookshop in Friday Street, Henley, established more than 40 years ago. She was raised in Christmas Common, went to school at Friar Park, Cranford House and then Henley Grammar. After a year at art school she decided it was not for her and then met Richard in Henley, where they still live.
Describe your business
A traditional and friendly bookshop which buys and sells vintage, selected secondhand and rare books, with a smattering of decorative ephemera, vintage town guides and maps. We range over many subjects and classics, with prices at all levels. We buy directly from the public and have a range of customers from serious collectors of rarities to general readers and children.
How many people does it employ?
Nobody formally but we have enthusiastic help from friends.
What did you do before you started this business?
Richard was more interested in old books, which we sold on Saturdays in Maidenhead market. We occasionally visited this shop, already established by Maeburn Staniland, but bought little. He wanted to retire and offered us the business as a going concern. We said we didn’t know anything about books at his level but he said “I think you’ve got what it takes” and he was willing to train me... for two weeks! He taught me how to think and analyse the saleability of books. I had to learn about production, design, how to date a book, the difference between publishers, copper, steel or lithographed plates, the way books were bound etc. You learn fast when you handle a variety of books and Mr Staniland was on the end of the phone if I got stuck.
When did you start your business?
In July 1978.
What was your objective?
We liked books, so it was to do something we enjoyed.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Other book dealers were encouraging and helpful in the early days. Professor Michael Twyman, of the department of typography and graphic communication at Reading University, was not only a customer but an inspirational teacher. He’s a star.
What would you do differently if you could start again?
Nothing. We always wanted a modest bookshop and never wanted to move upwards into exceedingly valuable books, attending book fairs all over the world.
What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having on your business?
The first lockdown was an opportunity to sort out forgotten items at the back of the shop. When we opened again, we didn’t do badly because Henley is a destination for UK visitors. It was a regret that the regatta was cancelled as we have a terrific stock of rowing books and look forward to our regulars from Ireland, America and elsewhere. It can be quite a lively party in here!
How do you market your business?
Word of mouth and hopefully a good name but a friend is doing a bit of social media for us. People who are interested know how to find us and we are one of the few remaining bookshops like this. People come from long distances and, luckily, we have a parking space.
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
Handling so many interesting items, from all eras, and seeing the joy people have when discovering something they really want, or the perfect present. We’ve made many firm friends through the bookshop.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
Buying the kind of books, pamphlets or ephemera that will sell. People can search the internet and erroneously conclude they have rarities when they don’t. It can be tricky to diplomatically tell them the truth. The internet is a fantastic tool for reference but it can mislead.
How important are online sales?
They would be more significant if I had time to process books online, though we do sell online through a third party. We can’t increase sales by finding more suitable stock, so the buying/selling ratio through the door works fine. We like to maintain a proper shop.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
Not to pre-judge people. I’ve encountered people who have lots of knowledge and interest in things that you might never have expected.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
No regrets, except not having enough holidays.
What three qualities are most important to success?
Being fair-minded, to deal favouring both sides. Giving good advice. Enjoying and liking people.
What’s the secret of your success?
Perseverance, an eye for what people could want and an ability to read Roman numerals very fast. General knowledge is vital. When confronted with something we can’t handle, we advise accordingly. We have marvellous contacts to consult.
How organised are you?
Fairly and the paperwork isn’t onerous. I am swamped with emails. I prefer to deal with people on the phone.
How do you dress for work each day?
It is important to look nice, so smart-casual (lots of wool in winter).
What can’t you do without every day?
Peanut butter, coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon.
Lunch at your desk or going out?
A sandwich when I can grab it.
Do you continue to study?
Not formally but I’m always learning something from the books that I research.
What do you read?
I have the pick of the stock to borrow, so it could be a children’s book, a 19th century travel book, a beautiful antiquarian book or a recent paperback. Currently I’m hugely enjoying Samuel Pepys’ Diary (shortened version) and I always like spy thrillers. We take the Times and, of course, the Henley Standard without fail.
How are you planning for retirement?
I’m not... yet.
16 November 2020
POLL: Have your say