Big news for magazine fans in the East Midlands – today sees the launch of Ideas on Paper, a new shop in Nottingham’s creative quarter that specialises in selling independent magazines. Its owner Alex Smith cut his retail teeth working for some of the world’s biggest luxury brands, and says he always dreamed of returning home to Nottingham to open his own shop.
But why commit to selling independent magazines, that notoriously tricky commodity? And what makes him think he can do it any better than the local WHSmith? I gave him a call to find out.
What’s the big idea with the shop?
My background is in luxury retail – when I was 18 I went off to London and did a management training course at Harrods, and then worked around a number of different roles in London. But it was always my plan to come home to Nottingham and start a business, and things worked out for me to come home just a few days before the Olympics started. So I’ve been planning this since then.
There’s a location in Nottingham called Cobden Chambers, which is a former derelict site in the city centre that has been renovated by a local landlord. It’s partially comprised of The Terraces, which is nine units for micro retail space, so there’s a womenswear boutique, there’s a jewellery shop, there are some people with a knitting machine making gloves and scarves, there’s a furniture brand, and there’s me with my magazine shop.
Except not everyone gets it straight away, so I’m describing it to people as a bookshop that specialises in independent magazines.
It’s also my intention to serve coffee, which I’m brewing with a Chemex kit. You use a glass jug in the shape of an egg timer, so the paper filter goes in the top part and you have to weigh the coffee, weigh the water, and pour it over a certain period of time. It’s all quite time consuming, but it’s a bit of theatre and then you’ve also got a captive audience, because if someone’s there waiting for their coffee you can also have a chat with them about the magazines and maybe recommend one they’d like to read while they drink their coffee. So you’re selling to them before they realise you’re selling to them.
What made you want to sell magazines? It’s notoriously difficult to turn a profit on them…
Magazines enable people to lose themselves in a subject, whatever their interests are. In previous roles I’ve sold expensive furniture or expensive clothes, but magazines are affordable – anybody can buy a copy of Kinfolk if they want to.
You can either enter a world that is yours and read about people who are your peers, or you can look on it in an aspirational way… so in terms of customer psychology and branding, a customer can have an experience by buying a certain magazine. It’s a compelling product and I think there’s a niche for providing that product at a time when people are exploring ways of doing things differently. Lots of people also feel they need to get more of an experience out of the money they spend, because they’re still very conscious of the recession we’ve been through.
So rather than just ducking your head down, holding your breath and grabbing a couple of things from WHSmith before running out again, it’s about turning the transaction into an experience.
How many titles are you looking to have in there?
I’m striking a balance. I also need to consider cash flow, because I’m still getting started, so in some cases I’ll be dealing directly with the magazines themselves, and in others I’ll be going through MMS wholesalers. I’m dealing with them because their version of sale or return is particularly attractive; they deliver stuff to you and you don’t pay anything for a while, until you’ve worked out what you’ve sold and what you’re keeping.
Whereas someone like Comag asks you to pay upfront and then get credited back. I’m probably going to deal with them too, but I’ll get as much as I can through MMS because of the favourable payment terms.
Are you going for a wide range so there’s a bit of everything, or a smaller, more curated range?
I’ll try to go for a fairly wide range, but also you don’t want to scare people. I don’t know if I’m being a bit cheeky by doing this, but I’ve got the subscribers’ editions of Elle, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar up on the shelf, because I get those myself and I’m happy to sell them. They look familiar to people, while at the same time looking that bit cleaner, so they hopefully give people that bit of reassurance and the confidence to move across to something totally new.
You’re describing yourself as a bookshop that sells magazines – will you also sell books?
Yeah. I’ve brought some books in which were mine but are now in the shop…
Hang on – you’re selling your own magazines and books? You’ll have nothing left at home!
I know, but I’ll be spending 12 hours a day, seven days a week in the shop anyway!
Just put a mattress under the desk and you’ll be fine…
That’s not such a bad idea.
But yes, we’re selling books as well, and I’ve been quite encouraged so far by how well book sales have done. I’ve got some Gestalten stock, which again is on consignment, so I won’t be getting an invoice for those until May. The whole idea behind the shop is magazines, books and stationery, so I’ve also got some books from The School of Life, because they do some really nice stuff.
I’d rather earn a living doing something I love than make a fortune running a pound shop, and I love being surrounded by these things. The notion behind Ideas on Paper is to give people new ideas and excite them through what they read, and then for them to go off and develop projects of their own, whether they’re students at Nottingham Trent or anybody really.
Today’s your launch, what will you be doing?
Erm, I’ll open some Prosecco and tell all my friends! The Nottingham Post is coming down to cover it, and we’ll see where we go from there.
Photography by Laura Wells