Ex-A&O lawyer sets up an independent bookshop
Nic Bottomley left his finance job at A&O in 2005 after working there for over seven years, in order to set up an independent bookshop in Bath with his wife (who is also an ex-A&O lawyer). The shop has since won a string of awards including “Independent Book Shop of the Year 2008” (awarded by the British Book Industry). We spoke to Nic about his decision to do something completely different, how he went about it and how he has found the change.
mtl: Hi Nic, please can you tell us about your legal career first.
Nic: I trained at A&O from 1998-2000, after studying law at Nottingham and doing the LPC at Nottingham Law School. I qualified into the London derivatives practice, where I stayed for two years. I then moved to a general finance role in Prague. I’d done a seat there as a trainee and had really enjoyed it. They needed an English qualified lawyer and London was driving me mad, so I was happy to go. I stayed there until October 2005, at which point I left the firm and law...
mtl: At what point during your time at A&O did you question your career choice?
Nic: I actually probably knew in 1996 that I wouldn’t do law in the long term, but I had enjoyed studying it so I applied for jobs and went along that route to see how it went. I liked the office camaraderie, the people I worked with and the money, but I didn’t have enough interest in the underlying subject matter to do it forever and never wanted to be a partner.
I considered moving in-house to a bank after doing a secondment but the main opportunities were in London, which didn’t appeal. I looked at a couple of other finance- based business ideas which didn’t come off. I also liked A&O enough not to have gone to another law firm.
My decision to finally leave came down to the fact that I really wanted to run my own business. Before I went to university, I had travelled around the USA and at 18 came home wanting to set up something involving bagels and coffee! I was right not to do it at that point, but from a young age I wanted to do something where I could apply the American standard of service in the UK.
In August 2004 I got married and on our honeymoon my wife and I decided that if we were going to do something other than law then we had to get on with it properly and ditch our legal careers. We thought about what would be the ideal way to make a living and one idea was running a book shop. We started looking into the industry and I resigned a year later, at the point when I would have had to start pushing for partnership. I respected my bosses and couldn’t have sat there in good conscience pretending to be interested and I couldn’t have stayed if I wasn’t interested in being made up.
mtl: How did you go about researching your idea and turning it into reality?
Nic: From Prague we looked at basics like how a book shop gets its books, the margins involved and what space you would need. We read a lot on the internet, and a book by the Booksellers’ Association on how to set up and run an independent book shop, which was very helpful as it explained the structure of the business, the costs, concerns and the players. We rang shelf makers to get some rough figures and a feel for the cost of fitting out a shop.
Ultimately we decided that the idea could be successful if we did it well and in the right location. The vague numbers that we’d put together looked good. I decided to resign and research the concept properly – we were ready to leave Prague by that point anyway. If the idea failed or we couldn’t get it up and running in the first place then I would have gone back to law.
In October 2005 we came back to England and in November I drove around some independent book shops in the north getting ideas and inspiration from the owners and reading as much as possible. In December we put together a huge business plan which we then took to a bank to arrange a working capital facility.
We began by looking at market towns in the south-west as we had a family connection with the area. We settled on Bath as there was only one independent book shop there at the time and we felt that the population there could give us a good customer base. Locating the right premises was difficult but we found a lovely Georgian building (though it needed a lot of work).
By March 2006 we had opened accounts with the major wholesalers and by early April 2006 we had arranged our lease (with an initial three month rent-free period) and an overdraft. From April – June 2006 we did up the property (including sorting out the electrics and damp-proofing one of the floors), had the shelves fitted, ordered books and went to antiques fairs to buy furniture for the shop.
We opened the doors in June 2006 and stood back to see what would happen. We didn’t even know how to work the pin machine on the first day and didn’t know whether anyone would come in. Ten days later, on 1 July 2006, and after having practiced using our stock control and ordering systems, we had a formal launch supported by Kathy Lette. We then gradually just got into the swing of things and worked hard to build up PR and customer loyalty.
mtl: How is business going, what do your days now involve doing and do you ever miss your legal career?
Nic: It is going really well so far and we have some very loyal local customers as well as customers who seek us out as a result of seeing us mentioned in the media. In 2007 we won the “Independent Book Shop of the Year” award for the south-west and in 2008 we won the national award, based on customer feedback and industry input. We also won the “Best Retail Business in Bath” award in 2008. Financially our second year’s turnover was 60% higher than the first year and we have recently expanded to include another floor. We have received lots of media attention and bearing in mind the credit crunch we couldn’t be happier with the way business is going.
An average day for me involves arriving at 9am, setting up the shop to open at 9:30am and then serving customers, making sure the team is busy, arranging events for the next quarter, calling publishers, checking in stock, returning stock, paying bills and wages, writing a column for a magazine, taking orders from customers and so on. On the one hand as a business owner there is a huge variety in what I do (especially compared to law), but of course on the other hand I’m not necessarily well qualified for some of the tasks and e.g. if the computer breaks it is me that has to sort it out. My hours are very long but I don’t mind as I enjoy the work, particularly the marketing and managing our great team of three full-time staff.
I don’t really get to take any holiday though and occasionally I miss having a nice comfortable office chair to sit in while flicking through paperwork – I could do with a relaxed day like that as I am always on the front line. Apart from those aspects, I never really think about my legal career – the office banter was fun but I don’t miss the subject matter of the work. I love reading, so it is great to own a book shop but the main drive was that I wanted to run my own business. I am ambitious but I had no channel for that ambition in a law firm.
mtl: Tell us about the shop…
Nic: It is a general book shop that sells everything, though we have a number of niches such as translated fiction, photography and art and psychology and philosophy. Even when sections are small we get the best titles in and have really good books so that we can always recommend something to our customers. The overall theme is the “pleasure of reading”. Our Christmas best-sellers bore no relation to other shops as we did our own catalogue and reviewed our favourite books ourselves. We have a bibliotherapy room, a personal-shopping gift experience called a reading spa for book lovers and we serve cake!
mtl: What is your advice for setting up a business and what are the main advantages?
Nic: We planned the shop in as much detail as we could (as two detail- obsessed lawyers), which I would recommend. Talk to people who are already in the business (in a different geographic area). Once you’ve really thought about it at a broad level and you know it’s what you want to do, then just get on with it. Realise that if you are giving up a career you can generally go back to it if you have to and that it is not as much of a risk as risk-averse lawyers think. Life is so much more exciting when you take a risk!
If you do set up a business, then I would recommend getting involved in the industry. We found that there was a lack of young, enthusiastic members in ours and as a result I have spoken at several industry events where I have made good contacts. Throw yourself into your new career…
Running your own business means setting your own deadlines and not being imposed upon by other people (or if you are you can query this). I also really enjoy getting positive feedback from customers. For example on 28 December 2008, three people told me in an hour that our store was the best book shop in the world, which is very motivating! I found in law that getting feedback was like getting blood from a stone.
You can be flexible about when you work and the biggest perk for me, and which is what I always wanted, is that it now feels great going to work in the morning. The only reason that I look forward to my day off on a Sunday is the fact that it will be a less tiring day, not because it means not working – I love what I do.
mtl: What are your plans for the future?
Nic: We have built a good brand but we don’t get a great salary – though I am hopeful of that increasing in the future! I am expecting the economy to be bad for at least another six months so we are consolidating by paying back some family investment and we have no thoughts of further expansion just yet. We are running the Bath Literature Festival this year, which is a massive project, plus we have a baby due in May 2009 - so we are happy with things as they are at the moment...
mtl: Thank you for your time Nic.
Nic’s shop is called Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. You can see his website here.
1994 - 1997
1997 - 1998
LPC, Nottingham Law School
1998 - 2000
Training contract, A&O
2000 - 2002
Derivatives assistant, A&O, London
2002 - 2005
Finance assistant, A&O, Prague
Left A&O to research bookshop
Opened Mr B’s Emporium
Won Independent Bookshop of the Year award
Opened a third floor of the shop