“Oh I thought this was Waterstones!” is a comment Andy Clarke, manager of Storehouse Watford, has heard from many fi rst time visitors as they enter the bookshop. I had exactly the same reaction when I visited the shop, on the town’s High Street, recently. “We don’t have a Waterstones in Watford any more and people often come in asking for non-Christian books thinking we’re a general bookshop” says Andy. Quality and professionalism best describe what I experienced on my visit and it’s clear to see that Storehouse has benefitted from its recent heritage.
“Watford has had a Christian bookshop for a long time”, notes Andy. “The Wesley Owen shop was acquired as part of the Living Oasis chain in 2010 and was something of a flagship store for the group. But when the company went into administration a year later the shop was acquired by the Presence Charitable Trust and here we are today.”
The bookshop is physically connected to Presence, a gift shop and the coffee shop which are both next door and part of the Trust’s ministry. The quality ‘feel’ pervades all three businesses and encourages shoppers to stay and relax.
“We have a connecting door to the coffee shop so people can get a cup of coffee and then come into the shop and sit and browse books at their leisure,” he says. “I think our customers do enjoy coming in here, they enjoy the ambience and environment and I believe people will come because we do have that ‘feel’ about us.”
Despite Presence being next door, Storehouse has its own range of cards and gifts. “We are a totally separate business in that respect, we don’t overlap” says Andy. “Like many Christian bookshops it’s an increasingly important sector for us. Typically we’re looking at about 40% book sales, 20% Bibles, 20% media and 20% card and gift – but card and gift is increasing.
“People are looking for quality Christian gifts and we are hugely indebted to companies like Teal Press and Cedar Trading who are offering some really good products. We’re also pleased with how well Hannah Dunnett’s prints sell too.”
Relationships with local churches are good but Andy acknowledges they can always be improved. “I’m not keen on the idea that we are here to be supported [by the church], rather that we are here to support. Our raison d’etre is to resource the churches in Watford so they can better carry out the mission that God has given them. We’re keen to have the best products and the best offers we can to do that.”
Andy has been with Storehouse for just over two years taking over as manager in 2014. The business has become profi table in the last threeyears which he believes is down to two things. “Firstly we’re doing what we do better. We’re trying to be excellent in all aspects of what we do. We’re marketing better, we’re buying better, we’re merchandising better and therefore sales have introduced our apprenticeship scheme. I guess we’ve gone against the conventional wisdom which says you need experienced retail staff and employed two young people who are learning the business ‘on the job’, bringing loads of energy and creativity with them and having a really positive impact on customers as well. I also think people are quite surprised by the level of stock knowledge these young people have.”
We’ll be running a feature on the apprenticeship scheme in a future issue but basically it comprises a structured programme which features employment experience alongside a teaching programme (much as any other ‘gapyear’ type programme). “This is quite attractive to lots of young people”, says Andy, “giving them as it does real ‘hands-on’ experience that will enhance their CV. For the retailer the real benefit is that you get motivated, energetic, passionate young people working in your business alongside your volunteers.”
Andy is only 24 and the apprentices, Jenny (24) and Eli (19) give the place a vibrant and youthful feel. As Andy explains, this impacts positively on customers too; “The passion and energy that Eli and Jenny display is clear to see and there’s a great interaction with customers. There’s a
lot of positivity because we’re giving people a different experience of a Christian bookshop. “We do have some older, very experienced and energetic, volunteers on our team as well. At the end of the day, irrespective of age, the thing that brings customers back is the level of customer service and professionalism we provide.”
He is optimistic about the future and would like to improve connections with other Christian retailers through better networking. “I think there are things that we are doing well that we could share more widely with others – equally there are things we can learn from others. There’s great experience and wisdom out there that we’d love to benefit from.”
August 14th, 2015 - Posted & Written by Together Magazine