Four - minute read
Each month, we profile the owner one of our favourite independent bars, cafés, restaurants or retailers for our Meet the Independents blog series. This month, we caught up with Alex Smith of Ideas on Paper, an independent magazine and bookshop in Nottingham…
The inside of Ideas on Paper, with its white walls and exposed original floorboards, reminds me of a high-end, independent fashion boutique. And that’s no accident.
Alex Smith, owner of this independent magazine, journal and bookshop in Nottingham, has more than 24 years of experience working in luxury fashion, completing the Harrods management training programme when he was 18, and later going on to work for the likes of Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Laura Ashley and Duchamp. When he opened in March 2014, he wanted to create retail space that approached books in the same way we approach fashion. “People do judge a book by its cover,” he says. “They make choices about what books to buy for all kinds of reasons that mainstream bookshops don’t always take into account.”
The shop resides in an upstairs unit in Nottingham’s Cobden Chambers, a group of recently converted late-Georgian buildings overlooking a pretty courtyard. The site had been derelict for more than 30 years before it was renovated in 2013, and now houses several independent retailers, craftspeople and creative agencies.
Taking back retail
Alex is like a walking encyclopaedia of independent publishing. No matter how obscure your area of interest might be, he’ll be able to recommend some background reading. He takes a “not especially deep, but very broad” approach to stocking his shop, carefully curating a wide range of titles on a diverse selection of subject matters. “Whether you’re interested in food, wine, travel, photography, graphic design, philosophy, economics, artificial intelligence – there is something in here that you are going to want to read,” he says.
With Alex’s background and training, it’s perhaps not surprising to find his style of customer service harks back to the golden age of retail; one that still entailed having an actual face-to-face conversation with your customer. I can’t help wondering how his approach is received in a world where consumers seem to want to avoid human contact at all costs. “That’s not the whole story is it?” he quickly responds. “Shopping isn’t always faceless; it depends what you want to buy.” Take food: the majority of what you eat might come from your online grocery order, “but if you really want something great, you go to a deli; to somebody who cares about where that produce came from. I think you can apply that thinking to all different sections of retail. If you just want a commodity item and you know the ISBN number, you can go to a website and order it. But if you don’t know what you want, and you need a suggestion, then you come somewhere like this.”
A magazine and bookshop seems an unlikely choice for a start-up in a world that’s becoming increasingly digitalised. So, what made Alex want to open a business focussed solely on the printed word? It all began at Duchamp, when Alex would have a meeting every Monday morning with his CEO. “At the end of the meeting I would choose something from his office to take away and read. One week I took a copy of Monocle magazine, discovered they had a radio station which on a Saturday morning ran a feature called ‘The Stack,’ where people in the magazine business talked about the projects they were working on.” The common theme of conversation was that independent magazines are growing in prevalence as a response to the digital revolution, but it was hard to find shops that sold them. “So, I thought Nottingham seemed like the perfect place to open a magazine shop,” says Alex. “It’s got a strong independent culture with 70,000 students.” He liked the idea of a physical shop rather than an online platform because “human beings have five senses and they like it when they’re all stimulated. If you go to an environment where you can smell the ink, touch the paper and see all the covers arranged on the shelf, then you’re going to be more stimulated than simply scrolling through stuff on a device.”
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