Friday, 9 March 2012

Red Lion Books, Colchester

Red Lion Books, Colchester was shortlisted in the south-east region for Independent Bookseller of the Year. Regular customer, Tricia Gilbey sent us this review, and an interview with owner, Sarah Donaldson:

It’s hard to imagine Colchester High Street without the Red Lion Bookshop. It has been in the town for over thirty years, and is as well known as the old coaching inn of the same name nearby. You know that you are likely to find the book you went in for, but it also manages to have a slightly alternative air and you are just as likely to find books you wouldn’t have thought about buying.

As you go in a stand invites you to buy the ‘Mind Expanding Books on Offer’. There are also stands of greetings cards, and a well chosen selection of books grouped by genre. Further back is the children’s area which is bright and colourful, its books well displayed and enticing. The bookshop is proactive in linking up with schools in the local area and this builds their future readership.

Downstairs the Red Lion has a different atmosphere – the shop is strong on Sci-Fi and Fantasy books, with a large cardboard Frodo and Sam warning us to ‘Take care. Reading fantasy books can be hobbit forming.’ Down here are psychology and counselling books, mind, body and spirit books, books about diverse religions, and books on art and film. At the back of the shop you are tempted by squashy sofas with an exhibition of paintings by a local artist, and arched alcoves holding ceramics by an artist who has lived in New Zealand and South Africa.

Sarah from Red Lion Books took some time out from preparing for Essex Book Festival events to answer some questions for WWJ.

In these difficult days for independent bookshops what do you think makes Red Lion Bookshop one of the survivors? You have to compete with Waterstones and WH Smiths. How do you do that?
We don’t think ourselves as survivors. We think the future may be very good for independents. With the new appreciation of High Streets people are really trying to get behind their town centre shops. We are continually pleased about the frequent remarks to us about the importance of independents. We have had competition for so long we don’t really worry about it. It is so important that the ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops thrive on the high street. We all send customers to the other shops in the hope that they will find the books they are looking for. We also have the advantage that we can source many thousands of books overnight, and this is much appreciated. We also try to have fun events for children. At the moment we have a lucky dip for World Book Day, Find Wally pictures, word searches, colouring etc etc.

Which books have excited you the most over the past year?
We are a general stockholding bookshop and so cover most genres in bookselling. We have a very wide selection of new books, which we label to point out the monthly new books and it is surprising how often brand new books are on our sales print outs. The real difficulty is to decide which of these books should go in to our stock. These are the books that really excite us.

Over the past year we have had two wonderful art books from our local internationally known artists. One, The Oak by Stephen Taylor, is paintings of one single tree through the seasons. Oprah Winfrey chose it as one of her books of the year, and our customers have loved it, particularly the tractor driver who looks after the field next to the tree. The other art book is Tidelines by James Dodds.

Of the more national titles I have very much enjoyed a children’s book called A Dog and his Boy by Eva Ibbotson, a wonderful children’s story that celebrates the need for affection and care for children. And it is a great adventure.

It has been a great year for biographies. Now All Roads Lead to France : The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis was a stunning story of the pre-1stworld war poets. There was such a flowering of talent. 2012 has been the Dickens year, and great books have come out for this anniversary, particularly Claire Tomalin’s biography.

I attended a writers’ course hosted by your shop. In which other ways would you say that you support local authors?
We are lucky to have a thriving writing community. We hold various events for them. We always agree to stock any local writer’s book. This can range from to local poets to history. The local history books always outsell all local books and are often are our bestsellers.

How do you decide which books to stock?
This is the big question. The number of new books that come out every month are terrifying. We go on advice from the publishers reps, information that we are sent from publishers, our regular suppliers, books read on the radio, reviews, etc. But as much as we can we try to pick books that interest us and our customers (many of whom we have known for some years).

What is the biggest challenge you face at the moment?
The big challenge this year will be ebooks. Given the sales of Kindle over Christmas we are all holding our breaths to see if fiction sales will hold up. The other huge competition issue is of course Amazon. They sell books at prices we can only dream about. We are in the ridiculous position that it is cheaper for us to access some books from Amazon, (which we don’t). We have had people (so far very rarely), who have consulted their smart phones to check best prices when they find a book with us to check best prices elsewhere. This is a little galling as they would not know about the books if they had not been in to the store. We need their support to continue to stock these books. When will the publishers wake up to realize that they are killing the book trade by the prices that they offer Amazon?

Do you ever stock self published books?
Yes, but they need to have a local connection.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? Our customers.
They are really great.

If you’d like to find out more about Red Lion Books they have a great website:


  1. Thank you for reminding me why everyone who loves books needs to support their local independent bookshop. I must pay the Red Lion a visit very soon..

  2. Must try and visit next time I am in the UK. Great site here for book shop lovers

  3. Thanks for that, Rob, I'm going to have a look at your link! JD

  4. I think it is a great site and I post a comment on every shop I visit. Come on folks support your indie book shop - wherever you live or visit!