Rosamund de la Hey was formerly children’s marketing director at Bloomsbury Publishing where she worked from 1994-2007 and was fortunate to work on the Harry Potter series from the very beginning.
Bill de la Hey worked as a freelance photographer in London from 1992-2004, working for publications ranging from The Telegraph to Car Magazine.
Rosamund was brought up in Scotland and returned with her family in 2003 to live in the Borders. On moving north, Bill retrained as a chef, and together they opened The Mainstreet Trading Company in June 2008. Originally a bookshop & café, the shop was extended in 2012 to create a deli and homeware department. Mainstreet has won various awards over the years, most recently Britain’s Best Small Shop 2018.
Rosamund was a member of the Booksellers Association Council 2011-2018 and served as President 2016-2018.
You opened a bookshop at a time when many were closing, a brave thing to do, and now you have created a bookshop which the author Maggie O’ Farrell describes as “ A bookshop so perfect you might have dreamt it”.
Tell us why you believed in the project in the first place, how did you set it up and what has contributed to its success today?
Well, given it was 2008 with the perfect storm of recession, ebooks and the rise of amazon, many people thought we were completely mad to open a bookshop/café in a rural village hidden away in the Scottish Borders. And they had a point. But, we worked on the basis of ‘if you build it, they will come’. The upside of our location was that we were about 10 minutes from four lovely market towns, we had space for parking, and our rent/rates overheads were lower than a town centre. My background in publishing (I was children’s marketing director at Bloomsbury) meant I understood the need to create a market and focus on publicity. It may be hard to believe now, post-Harry Potter, but children’s books were really considered the poor relation in terms of promotion and visibility in our industry, but I found that if you ignored this assumption, and applied the same ambition as for ‘grown up’ publishing, it was possible to cut through. Safe to say, my experience working on the Potter books for the duration of the series taught me that.
We decided very early in the planning, that people needed at least four reasons to visit Mainstreet – our original offering was books, café, gifts and an antiques concession. Over the years we have also developed a fairly lively author events programme. In order to introduce the shop to a wide variety of people, we try to mix up the authors and genres, so, for example, last year we hosted a range from Clare Balding and Ruby Wax to Chris Ryan and Michael Morpurgo.
A café was always going to be key to the set up, luckily, my husband, Bill recently retrained as a chef in 2007, so he took on the food side of the business, and in 2012 we expanded into our barn space to launch a deli and home shop. The idea being to add to the concept of Mainstreet as a destination, somewhere you could do almost all your Christmas shopping.
Our mission has always been to sell what we love, whether that be books, coffee, cheese or beautiful textiles. We seek out unusual suppliers across the board and aim to introduce our customers to brands they might not expect to find in the Borders.
The current situation is particularly challenging for independent retail, how have you helped your customers and tell us about the online store you have launched a few days ago?
The situation has been moving incredibly quickly for everyone, we moved from redesigning the café to allow more social distancing, to moving to takeaway only in the space of 48hrs. Since cafes were asked to close entirely, we have been working hard on the website to launch our bookshop offering in a matter of 2-3 days. It’s far from perfect, but we’re adding books and other products daily. We’re currently able to send out books from the shop, and we’re super keen to help customers ‘read’ their way through this crisis. Our Care Packs have proved especially popular, where we’ve been pairing books with other goodies, like chocolate and home products.
You have also launched a book subscription service, can you tell us more about that?
We’ve been running various book subscriptions for a few years now, but early in the lockdown we launched a new concept – the Self-isolation book subscription. The idea is that, with many people having more time at home, they are likely to need more than a book a month. With the Self-isolation package, they receive a book per week, tailored to their reading preferences. It’s proving very popular!
Do you find that in times of crisis like this, your customers look for a different type of book , maybe giving more of a feel good factor?
Yes! We’ve had a lot of customers saying they can’t concentrate on anything too demanding, so comfort reading is the best tonic. Having said that, the new Hilary Mantel (over 900 pages long) is flying out the door, as is the new Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet, but our bestseller which combines both literary and comfort is The Offing by Benjamin Myers.
Could you recommend some books for us?
With great pleasure. Our current top tips are:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – I listened to this and just loved the sense of place, character and atmosphere, it also has a great narrative drive.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – it is as good as the reviews, and better.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam – this was published back in 2004, having had it recommended many times, I can only wonder why it’s taken me so long to get to – a joy from the first page.
Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins – a cracking literary thriller set in Oxford with a powerful and complex lead character – perfect read for me in these times when concentration can prove tricky.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers – a long-standing in-house favourite, this gentle, beautiful, funny and touching book can be recommended to anyone and also, somehow feels like the perfect escape for lockdown.
I could go on….!
What about your children, how are you keeping them occupied? Childrens’ books is one of your areas of specialisation and your shop is very child friendly, could you recommend some children’s books too?
The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein – I loved her earlier book, Code Name Verity, so excited to read her latest…
The Gifted, The Talented and Me by William Sutcliffe - coming of age when you don’t fit in to the super creative, alternative school, where football is considered odd – v. v. funny
Burn by Patrick Ness – another of my favourite writers for teens, and we have signed copies (if you’re quick!)
Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray – our Children’s Book of the Month pre-lockdown
The Highland Falcon Thief by MG Leonard & Sam Sedgmen – cracking Agatha Christie’ish thriller, the first of a series, all set on trains
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L D Lapinski – great new magical adventure
Pests by Emer Stamp – very funny, perfect for 6/7yrs plus, complete with glow in the dark text!
Robert the Bruce by James Robertson, illustrated by Jill Calder – beautiful retelling of the Bruce’s story
2-5yrs The Rescue of Bunny Wunny by Emma Chichester Clark – gloriously funny dark tale of a rather spoilt little girl…
Madame Badoubedah by Sophie Dahl – another big in-house favourite, lovely story of an unexpected friendship
Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sharon King-Chai – Beautifully illustrated and the usual glorious use of language we all expect from Julia Donaldson.
We loved your recent Book brunch interview with Alexandra Shulman, was she as you imagined?
Funnily enough, yes! Although, before we first spoke, I did worry that this might be my devil wears Prada moment, but she was very relaxed and easy to chat with, it also helped that I really enjoyed her new book, Clothes and other things that matter.
Her book sounds to have an interesting structure ( I am still waiting for my copy as you sold out!), can you tell us a bit about that and does it work for you?
We have it back in stock now, but it’s selling very fast! I would describe the book almost as desert island discs with clothes. Alexandra begins by listing her wardrobe (not as big as I thought it might have been…). Each chapter uses a type of clothing (from red shoes to the dressing gown) as a jumping-off point which leads to a fascinating mix of memoir, clothes history and chat about her career. It’s very easy to dip into and it feels surprisingly personal which I think helped when interviewing her.