Expanding and diversifying to keep core book business going
Small Business – Future ProofVibes and Scribes, Joan Lucey
Joan Lucey: took voluntary redundancy from the bank and set up a bookshop in Macroom
Ever thought of ditching your demanding job to set up a nice little shop somewhere instead? Haven’t we all. Few of us actually follow through on the idea, though.
Joan Lucey is someone who was brave enough to do exactly this when she took voluntary redundancy from the bank where she had worked for 16 years and set up a bookshop in Macroom in 1991. Within a year and a half, and with business already booming, she heard about bigger premises on Bridge Street in Cork city and moved the shop there.
Since then, Vibes and Scribes has thrived. With an eclectic selection of new and second-hand books covering everything from mind, body and spirit to philosophy, art and erotica, it is the sort of shop in which visitors often end up browsing for hours.
As one of the “must-visit” retail outlets in the city, it has been able to continue trading despite the “Amazon effect”.
With a second store a few minutes away specialising in art and craft materials, and a burgeoning online business, Lucey is confident that Vibes and Scribes will continue to be a mainstay of Cork’s shopping scene.
Early on, however, she could just as easily have ended up running a dry cleaners as a book store. “When I opened up the shop initially, it was a big risk because I was separated and with a young child, but I never regretted it. I was lucky in that I turned out to have a natural flair for shop-keeping, but also because I found my calling by mistake.
“I was from Macroom originally and my sister offered to buy a premises on the Main Square if I would set up a business there. We looked to see what the town didn’t have and one of those things was a book shop, which suited me as I love reading.
“It could just as easily have been a dry cleaners though, but I’m glad it wasn’t because selling books was something that I loved immediately.”
While Lucey quickly outgrew the Macroom shop, it was there that she learnt the book trade. “The good thing about that shop was that it taught me not to make big mistakes such as buying too many copies of books. I was totally hands on then, doing everything from selling to the accounts, so it meant that I knew my business inside out.”
While the move to bigger premises might have worried some, Lucey was unfazed by the risks involved, even though she had to remortgage her house.
“The building had five floors and I knew that I couldn’t afford to open on every floor immediately but that over time, I’d be able to expand. We opened with 800sq ft of retail space but we eventually ended up with three floors open, giving us about 5,000sq ft.”
A second premises in nearby Lavitts Quay was acquired a few years later with plans to turn it into a specialist book store with a bit of arts and crafts material as well. Demand for the latter meant that the shop ended up expanding heavily into fabric, wool, yarn, haberdashery and upholstery supplies instead.
“I could see how much the book trade was under challenge and thought that moving into arts and crafts would help bolster trade,” Lucey says. “I had no idea it would be so successful that we would end up selling just those materials in it.
“At the start, we didn’t really know what we were doing and were unaware of the extent of customer service that crafters expect. They want a lot of support so it’s not just about selling goods, you have to go that bit further and have workshops and so on.
“We now have regular events in both our stores, including a weekly knitting and crochet workshop and a book reading group, as well as one-offs such as charity knit-ins, which are fun. We also use social media platforms like YouTube and Ravelry to engage with customers,” she adds.
The moves have paid off. In 2011, Vibes and Scribes received the small to medium business of the year award from the Cork Business Association and it was also shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Bookshop of the Year awards.
Lucey is hopeful that, despite the pressures faced by booksellers, Vibes and Scribes will be around for a long time yet. To help ensure it survives, the book shop is also now selling cards and gifts.
“It’s hard to know what the future is for the book business. The only thing we can say to the public is that if you want bookshops to stay in business, then you need to continue to support them or they’ll be gone.”
Lucey is also hedging her bets with a relaunched online store that sells arts and crafts materials.
“We set up the online store ourselves after going on courses and we have about 10,000 products on the site, so it’s been a fairly big job putting it together,” she adds. “Business is really picking up and I’d be very optimistic that it will be a great success.”