FEATURE ON CHAPTER HOUSE BOOKS
July 2012 – This is the third feature in 2012 in our occasional series on independent shops and businesses in Sherborne. This month we look at the second-hand bookshop tucked away near the Almshouses on Trendle Street.
There is a very special feel to second-hand bookshops, whether it is the slightly musty smell of old books or the excitement of not knowing what you might find. They tend to be housed in ramshackle old buildings where haphazard rooms take you from History and Archeology through Foreign Languages to Fiction and Poetry. No matter what you want, you are bound to be distracted and intrigued by titles that jump out at you and which you would never contemplate on a dry search of the internet. Chapter House Books is no disappointment. The moment you walk through the door you are faced with piles of books in varying heights which a smiling, bespectacled lady is cataloguing behind her book-laden desk with an apparent ease that is reassuring and demands respect.
Claire Porter took over the bookshop nearly ten years ago, in 2013. In her previous life, she had worked as a Company Secretary for a firm of stockbrokers inLondonfor twenty years when she realised, with a significant birthday rapidly approaching, that she didn’t want to be there any more. Her parents had already moved down toDorset, first to Motcombe and then to Longburton, and she was spending nearly every weekend in the area which she loved. When both her sisters moved toDorset, Claire decided to make the break as well.
The idea of running a second hand bookshop had always captivated Claire so she started looking around to see what was available. Being more familiar with the Motcombe area, she first looked at a shop in Gillingham. It was mainly a newsagent with some books for sale and Claire felt she would be able to develop the book side of things. Unfortunately, the shop turned out to be on a floodplain and she was advised by her retired Insurance broker father to avoid it like the plague – a great disappointment for Claire but fortunate for Sherborne.
Fate lent a hand as, during her next visit to Longburton, Claire had her hair done at Jon of Mayfair and told him that the shop purchase had fallen through. By coincidence, Jon knew that the owner of Chapter House Books was thinking of retiring, he introduced them and the rest, as they say, is history.
Getting to grips with the book industry was harder than Claire had imagined and she admits that perhaps she had rather romanticised the idea of running the shop, not realising how difficult it is to make a living. Nevertheless, with shop keeping in her blood (her grandparents owned a shop) she was determined to make a go of it even if she could logically understand the attraction of just trading online. According to Claire, the face of bookselling has changed rapidly over the last 5 or 6 years. Not only because of the Internet and electronic books but also the recession. Sadly, customers are now more likely to browse and leave without buying than be, as they say, tempted.
As a way to bring more people in to the shop, Claire expanded by opening a coffee shop called The Sanctuary (most appropriately) when the lease to the adjoining premises became available. Her initiative has paid off and she has gained the support of a band of regular customers. As an additional attraction, and in aid of the RendezVous charity, she has also organised a couple of musical evenings in the adjacent courtyard featuring some very talented local young people. The next one is scheduled for 20th July – the last day of the school term.
Another area that is ear-marked for expansion is listing books on the Internet. This time consuming task requires fairly detailed descriptions but Claire is determined to explore this sales channel as well. Part of her business plan also involves participating in book fairs. Now a member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, Claire manages to attend a good number of events.
The Trendle Street area of Sherborne is often overlooked but in fact there a number of interesting businesses in the vicinity, definitely worth the detour from the usual Cheap Street excursion. For Claire, one of the pleasures of having the shop is meeting so many pleasant people from Sherborne and the surrounding area; equally, the shop offers something special to those who want to pause in their busy day.
When Claire first moved to Sherborne nine years ago, she was surprised at the speed with which independent shops were disappearing but she now feels that trend seems to have lessened and there are even recent openings of interesting art and gallery type shops. Claire has no regrets about her decision and enjoys Sherborne as a friendly place in which to live and work. As summer moves along, she is just hoping that a bit of good weather might encourage people out to enjoy some relaxed days, perhaps reading a book or two under the shade of a tree!
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