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When my children arrived I had even more reason to visit the shop for the books that first introduced them to the love of reading and provided the study and revision books needed to further their education.

 

I became acquainted with the various members of staff, finding them both friendly and knowledgeable and I found myself somewhat jealous of them for having such a desirable place of work. One day I told myself I will work at Swan Books.

 

The years passed and on a couple of occasions I saw a card in the window of the shop advertising for staff, but the time was never right for me. Nonetheless I still held on to my dream.

 

I was a conveyancing executive by profession and in 2007 the property market began to slow down. This had happened before and I had always managed to weather the storm but finally in 2008 I was given redundancy notice. At the same time another card appeared in the window of Swan Books. A part-time job was available at their Billericay shop, a short drive away. I knew I had to apply but began to have doubts that I could achieve my long awaited dream.

 

After my interview I was even more certain it was not to be. Jeremy the owner told me all about working in a bookshop, explaining it was not all sitting genteelly behind a counter reading the latest best seller! Along with serving the customers, making and receiving phone calls, there were also boxes to be unpacked, books put on shelves and in window displays, as well as dusting and hoovering. Nothing I'm not capable of I thought, but as Jeremy let me out of the shop after the interview he said

"Thanks for coming but in an ideal world I'm looking for someone with retail experience, preferably in the book trade".

 

My hopes dashed, I walked home believing he was trying to tell me gently that I was not suitable. When a letter arrived shortly after, I couldn't open it. I was so sure I knew what it contained, but my son opened the envelope and said "You should have more faith in yourself - you've got the job!"

 

So my long-standing dream had come true. That was almost four years ago. For the first eight months I worked at Billericay but as I had been warned at the interview, the shop then closed down due to falling trade and increasing overheads, the same scenario that has caused the demise of so many small independent bookshops in recent years. I was offered a job in the Upminster shop so my dream continues and I love it every bit as much as I imagined I would.

 

This year is the shop's 75th anniversary. When it first opened it was a lending library as well as selling books and "office skills" were taught at the back of the shop. The shop changed hands in the early 50s and became just a bookshop and lending library, the latter ceasing when the shop changed hands again in the early 60s.

 

Jeremy's sister Joy worked in the shop from 1946 until the family finally took over the business, which at that time was known as Swan Libraries, in the mid 60s. Customers regularly tell us they remember coming in as children, whilst now bringing in their own children and even grandchildren!

 

However even in my short period of employment I can see changes. Sales of popular fiction have fallen - we find it hard to compete with local supermarkets and the Internet giants and of course the Kindle market is growing.

 

Our strengths are our specialist books, 24-hour delivery on most books, supplying local schools and sourcing second hand books for customers. It is satisfying when a customer asks for a somewhat obscure title to be able to say "we can have it here by tomorrow for you". The customer is frequently impressed with this service but then says, "I've been looking all over the place. I've just come back from Lakeside (or Romford or some other large shopping centre). They couldn't help. I should have tried you first." How true, but why doesn't the customer remember this next time? Why are local independent books shops not the first port of call for customers?

 

We strive to keep our name in the forefront of people's minds, our profile on Facebook is growing, but sometimes the Internet market seems just too big a challenge. No doubt we will continue to evolve in future years and do our best to compete in the book selling world, but who knows what the future holds for us."

 

Val James

newbooks subscriber, reviewer and general all round good friend