Small business stories: Helen Tamblyn-Saville, Wonderland Bookshop

Starting up

13 June 2022

Starting your own business often starts with a leap of faith.

That’s exactly how Helen Tamblyn-Saville got started with her shop, Wonderland Bookshop. After taking over the shop after the previous owners decided to sell up, she’s never looked back.  

Here, Helen talks to AXA about how her shop stands out from the crowd, the best business advice she’s ever received and why owning a bookshop doesn’t necessarily mean she has lots of time for reading.

Hi Helen. Tell us about how you got started. How did the shop come about?

I had a part-time job in the town bookshop. When they announced that they were going to be closing and relocating the business, I jumped at the chance to take on the children’s bookshop as I felt that the town would really support us. Plus I LOVE books!

Was it a big decision to take over an existing business like that? What gave you the confidence that it was the right move?

Taking on any business is a big decision, but I felt so confident that it was the right thing to do. There had been a previous bookshop in town that closed in 2018 after 25 years of trading when the owners decided to retire. Knowing that they were so loved and still missed gave me the confidence that we would have the support from the town.

When first starting, were there things along the way that surprised you or that you didn't consider initially?

The cost of mail order! It may sound naïve but while we had factored in postage costs for the online part of the business, I didn’t consider the cost of suitable envelopes and packaging. It also took a few tries and a lot of research to find the best packaging. No one wants to receive a damaged book.

Did you always have the ability to sell on your website or was that a later addition? How did it change your business model? 

Our monthly subscriptions were always available to buy online; adding signed books and special pre-orders were added later. My intention is to further develop it, when time allows. We can’t compete with the ecommerce giants, but thanks to our relationships with authors and illustrators we can offer something special instead. In terms of changing our business model, it just allowed us to reach a new audience, particularly during lockdown – some of those customers who found us that way have even become friends and made special trips.

What’s the best thing and worst thing about being your own boss?

I love having the freedom to explore and research my own ideas. The worst thing is definitely never switching off. Everything I do seems to come back to the bookshop.

What’s been the biggest challenge in running your own business?

Taking some downtime. I feel like I’m on duty 24/7 and I’ll often wake up in the night with an idea or remember that it’s a publication day. There’s never enough time.

What do you do to make sure your shop stands out from the competition?

A visit to Wonderland is an experience. From the moment you walk in, you are immersed in an upside-down Wonderland lined with a huge selection of children’s books. We may only be small, but our selection of children’s books is unequalled by anywhere else in town. We are passionate about what we do and we want everyone to leave smiling, having had a great time. 

Our décor definitely makes us unique and although we have made some minor changes, I was lucky enough to take it on with an upside down tea-party on the ceiling. The experience is unforgettable and it keeps people coming back. We are also known for our in-depth knowledge of children’s books and people keep coming back due to that. Our book subscriptions are also popular, and we do a lot of community initiatives as well such as pay it forward and donating books to schools.

What's one skill you had to hone or learn in order to be a successful shop owner? 

The ability to stay calm. In retail, sometimes things go wrong and it often seems like it all happens at once. I’ve had to learn to stay calm instead of panicking. Problems always have solutions if you take a step back and breathe.

What’s one thing you wish you knew about running your own business that you wish you knew when you first started?

That sometimes it’s lonely. You can have amazing support behind you, but when it’s your business, you sometimes feel lonely, particularly on quiet days. It’s the best fun but it’s also stressful. People hold the romantic view that you can do what you want and, in my case, that I just read books all day. That’s not true. It’s definitely worth trying to find a business networking group, or a mentor to share your concerns and anxieties with.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to open their own shop?

Identify what makes you different, who your customers are, never single source and don’t be afraid to adapt.

Lastly, what’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

It’s okay not to know the answers and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

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