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Business Insights with Mark Rubbo, MD, Readings Bookshops
[Title: Business Insights Mark Rubbo - Readings]
[Vision: Space and stars map]
Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Melbourne Independent book chain, Readings, which is very much a part of this city’s cultural fabric.
It has seven stores and an online presence, including this store at the State Library.
[Vision: Readings signage - Male 1 looking at books in bookstore - people browsing in bookstore]
It’s part of the State Library’s $88 million redevelopment.
[Vision: Male 2 looking at book in bookstore - ladies browsing books]
In the age of the decline of bricks and mortar shops and explosion of online shopping, we wanted to find out Mark’s secret to his success.
[Vision: Georgina speaking]
Thanks Georgina, it’s lovely to be here.
You’ve been in the publishing game for close to 50 years, does it feel like that?
It does actually.
It’s changed a lot since I started.
So you bought the first Readings bookstore in Carlton way back in 1976.
How did you develop the business?
Look it was really organic.
It was just a series of sort of serendipitous moments, and I guess us seizing those moments.
I became fascinated by Australian publishing and helping to nurture that.
And that was just - one of our customers was the playwright Jack Hibberd who wrote, Dimboolla.
And he came into the shop one day and he - Jack’s got a very gravelly voice, and he said to me one day, he said, “Why don’t you ever have any Australian books in your window?”
And it was like an epiphany.
It was the time when Helen Garner was being published.
And suddenly I said, “This is what I want Readings to do. I want it to champion Australian writers and publishing.”
[Vision: Male 2 looking at books]
I don’t have to tell you that it’s a challenging time for independent bookstores.
What is the secret to Readings’ ongoing success?
It’s because we’ve been so rooted in our local community and culture, that it’s given us enough of an edge that people still think that we’re important to support, and still get value out of it, even though often it’s cheaper for them to buy online or other places, they still value what we do.
Why do they come to you?
What is that special magic?
It’s the staff, they’re all very passionate about books and writing and music and film and creative endeavours.
It’s the locations obviously are helpful.
We’ve also invested a lot in refurbishing our shops, making them really nice places to come to.
And also just strengthening those ties with communities, with writers too, and publishers, and musicians; having lots and lots of events in our shops; making them a destination, somewhere to hang out.
[Vision: Male 3 looking at book and buying it - people in bookstore]
So tell us about the retail environment at the moment.
Has it ever been this tricky?
Retail is tough in Australia at the moment and we’re certainly not immune to that, we’ve had a tough couple of years.
[Vision: Georgina listening to Mark - Mark speaking]
It’s hard to know why.
Obviously the growth of online is having an impact on bricks and mortar retail.
I think in our industry too it’s the Netflix effect.
I’ve got sucked into Netflix, I’m sure lots of people watching this happen, where you might have spent two or three hours reading a book now you’re watching a TV series.
But I think it’s something that will turn.
I’ve seen it over the years that people get excited about something, they indulge in it, and then they come back.
And I think the pleasure of reading and the discovery and the joy you can get from a book is going to be with us forever.
So part of the evolution of your business is to move into the online space, which can’t be ignored.
It’s not just about bricks and mortar anymore.
How did you negotiate that?
I did know that we needed to have an online presence, so we started quite early developing that.
It’s really only probably in the last six years that we’ve invested significantly in that.
And so we do have a digital team that does digital marketing.
[Vision: Readings’ website showing variety of books available]
And then we’ve got a transactional website that we sell quite a lot.
It’s about the size of reasonably large shop, so it’s very important to us.
But it’s important really in building community and building our profile.
[Vision: Mark Rubbo speaking]
Bricks and mortar still is our heart and soul, and the website’s sort of serves to enhance that.
So we try to create a shop-like feel on our website.
Do you think that bricks and mortar is going to make a comeback?
[Vision: Books on display in bookstore]
Well I think it will.
[Vision: Staff helping customers - Mark speaking]
I mean we’re behind say the United States in the impact of Amazon, but certainly talking to independent booksellers in America, a lot of them went out of business in the nineties and the two thousands.
Firstly because of big chains like Borders and then the Amazon effect.
But the ones that have survived are now doing really well.
[Vision: Men looking at books in bookstore - close-up of book]
So it seems to me that people do want that experience of coming into a lovely environment like this, speaking to people who are also passionate about books, whether they’re the staff or you just bump into someone while you’re looking at book.
[Vision: Mark speaking]
I think that experience you can’t get online.
I think - my feeling is that it will reverse.
Tell us a bit about the Readings Foundation, which actually started in 2009.
As Readings grew and became more profitable I thought we wanted to give something back.
We decided to give 10% of Readings’ profits every year to the Foundation.
Literacy is obviously very important.
If people can’t read they can’t buy books.
[Vision: Georgina listening to Mark]
So literacy was a great big key to that.
[Vision: Mark speaking]
And the other thing was also supporting the artists who create those products that we sell.
So they’re the twin things that we do.
So support the Brotherhood of St Laurence with their literacy projects.
[Vision: The Magic Faraway Tree book - Mark speaking]
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, we’ve done a wonderful project with them translating a wonderful children’s book into different languages for refugees and migrants.
The other thing for supporting artists, we’ve worked with the Wheeler Centre to start up what we call the Hot Desk Fellowships, so new and emerging writers can get a three month stint with a desk at the Wheeler Centre, a little bit of money and hopefully that will help them finish a work, start a work.
[Vision: Georgina listening to Mark - Mark speaking]
We’ve had a number of people from that program had books published, which I’m very proud.
They’re on our shelves.
It’s really exciting.
So it’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing to do.
What advice would you have for someone who wanted to work in a bookstore, or any retail store for that matter?
It’s really watching your bottom line is the important thing.
It’s lovely doing all these things we’re doing, but if they don’t - if you can’t afford them it’s no good, so watching your costs.
I remember when I first took over the business I overbought.
I bought too much stock and we couldn’t sell it, and it was really it was - we were in a sort of real cashflow problem.
And I learnt a lesson there that stock management is absolutely paramount.
It’s a hard one though isn’t it, because you’ve also got to take risk at the same time?
You do, yes.
So it’s balancing that risk, and you will always make mistakes.
I’ve made lots of mistakes.
Hopefully you learn from them and don’t repeat them.
And mistakes are good as long as they’re not catastrophic ones.
Looking back on the last 50 years, is there any specific business lesson that really stands out in your mind?
I believe you can’t just be in it for the money.
You’ve got to be in it for something that excites you and interests you.
So I think that’s really important.
There was a wonderful book that came out, it was about bookselling, and it was called Reluctant Capitalists.
And I think booksellers are - good booksellers, although they need - know they need to make a profit, they also don’t like making too much of a profit, because they want to get those ideas out.
And I think that applies to other retail, you’ve got to do it for passion, you’ve got to manage it well, you’ve got to be creative.
And you’ve got to treat your customers not as just consumers, but as people and friends, and someone you can build a relationship with.
Mark, thank you so much for your times today, I appreciate it.
Thank you Georgina, it’s been fun.
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