Meet the bookseller: In interview with Charlie Alpera, Wildy & Sons
15 September 2014
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Wildy’s.
I’ve been at Wildy & Sons for 11 years. That may seem a long time, but compared to some members of staff I still feel like the work experience kid. I’m the bookshop manager. In practice, that means I look after the 9,000-plus titles we normally stock.
I spend about half of my time ordering books and looking at publishers’ websites and catalogues – not just books published in the United Kingdom, but any book in English that could be relevant to our customers. We import a lot from the United States, Europe and most Commonwealth countries. The other half of my time is spent shelving them all in the correct place and keeping the shop and window displays vaguely tidy.
How do you see the current market (in the United Kingdom and the territories that you work with) for print publications?
It’s a little bit flat, but that’s what you’d expect. It is as much a reflection of the economy as the changes in publishing themselves. Lawyers have been affected by the financial crisis. Some have seen a slowdown in corporate work, while for others cuts to legal aid will have had an impact. There is a sense that we are getting back to normal. However, the new normal will be quite different from the old, as the crisis coincided with the revolution in online publishing.
The larger publishers are very focused on their online offerings these days. Amazon also seems to be taking over the world, in terms of both physical books and e-books. Despite this, we are still busy. Smaller publishers have appeared and stepped in while the larger ones were distracted elsewhere. The amount being published continues to be relentless. Wildy’s prides itself on its knowledgeable staff and huge stock range, and we definitely have a part to play in the current environment where customers still have a preference for print.
The shop in Lincoln’s Inn is a beautiful historic building. Do you get much drop-in trade, and what is it like working in such a building?
It’s not just the shop and building that are special, but the fact that they are located in Lincoln’s Inn. All the buildings and gardens make this a wonderful place to work. It is one of London’s best-kept secrets and still brings a smile to my face every day. The only downside can be in winter, as it’s a listed building and we can’t put double glazing in – or make any alterations, for that matter. When the snow starts to fall, the layers come out.
As you would expect from such a historic shop, the drop-in trade is continuous, despite the fact we are a little hidden away. We are also in quite a few guidebooks and word of mouth has been kind to us over the years. Once you visit, you end up coming back. Nowhere else will you find such a large selection of law books in such a beautiful location. It’s a bit like Shakespeare and Company in Paris, but for lawyers.
Do particular subjects sell well for you?
It’s hard to pick subjects, but there are quite a lot of chancery barristers in Lincoln’s Inn, so a large proportion of the walk-in trade reflects that sort of work. We also have strong overseas sales, particularly to countries with common law legal systems that follow or borrow heavily from English law. Subjects where fundamental principles are important, rather than where there has been much legislation, sell extremely well to our commonwealth customers. The subjects on which we pride ourselves – and on the amount of shelf space we dedicate to them – are probably international law, legal history and philosophy. You’d need a few hours if you wanted to browse these sections. It doesn’t necessarily mean they sell well – just that so much is published and, unlike other subjects, the books have a longer shelf life.
How do you find working as part of a family-run business with such a rich history?
We probably have a more relaxed approach than large companies and you really feel part of the business. Some people have worked here a very long time, so the experience and knowledge is quite unique. In a way, we’ve seen it all before. It’s quite comforting to see pictures of the original Wildy family on the walls. The tradition and history of tge company means that it must be doing something right to be around after all these years. And the fact that the owner’s youngest daughter recently joined makes it feel like we have a long way to go.
We notice you are active on Facebook. Do you find that your customers are using social media more?
Increasingly our customers are tweeting, posting on Facebook and are found on LinkedIn. For us it's another way to communicate with them. We try not to use social media too much to sell; but instead we try to come up with things that are happening that people may find of interest. Usually it’s photos of one of our many overseas sales trips, or particularly interesting book covers. They often use the shop in period dramas and films, so we also like to show what it would look like as a Victorian sweetshop or apothecary.
What would you be if you weren’t a legal bookseller?
I come from a family of fisherman and farmers. If there were fish in the sea still, and money to be made, I’d follow in their footsteps and be a deep sea trawlerman.
What would your advice be for anyone starting out in legal bookselling?
It really is a job you fall into. I guess you have to enjoy it, but also appreciate the work that your customers do and the time and effort that goes into producing most law books.