The rhythm of the days

Coming up

  • John O’Farrell — Family Politics

    Wednesday 3rd April, 7.30pm

    John O’Farrell, author of ‘May Contain Nuts’ and ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, joins us to discuss his latest novel ‘Family Politics’, an antidote to our divided times, with his signature warmth and wit.

  • Zeinab Badawi — An African History of Africa EIGHT TICKETS LEFT

    Wednesday 10th April, 7.30pm

    Zeinab Badawi, president of SOAS and television journalist, joins us to provide an authentic account of Africa's history, told through African voices.

  • Alex Niven — The North Will Rise Again

    Wednesday 17th April, 7.30pm

    Writer, poet and lecturer at Newcastle University Alex Niven confronts the North/South divide and the future of regional politics.

  • Tom Burgis — Cuckooland FOUR TICKETS LEFT

    Wednesday 24th April, 7.30pm

    The Guardian investigative journalist and bestselling author of ‘Kleptopia’ joins us to lift the lid on Cuckooland — a world where the rich can buy everything… including the truth.

  • SOLD OUT: Gary Stevenson — The Trading Game

    Wednesday 27th March, 7.30pm

  • Coming up at the Non-Fiction Book ClubMaria Ressa (How To Stand Up To A Dictator), Tania Branigan (Red Memory)

  • Coming up at the Fiction Book ClubSophie Mackintosh (Cursed Bread)

RETAIL IS EXTREMELY PREDICTABLE. I’ve written before about the spike in trading that Christmas shopping brings to the final quarter of the year (and the super-spike in December itself). But quiet periods are just as likely to follow a pattern. Now that we are well into our second year, I can compare year-on-year sales each week. Takings are usually up, as you’d expect for a young and growing business, but overall performance is remarkably consistent: weeks that were quiet last year are quiet this year, ones that were busy are busy.

Of course, things like really bad or really good weather (both are bad news for us), the timing of Easter and, perhaps, a glut or shortage of really good new releases will have an effect. We were down roughly 50% on average Saturday takings for the Coronation last year, so the year-on-year figures will look great that week: I doubt most Balhamites will stay in to mark the one-year anniversary with another Coronation quiche.

But by and large, people are habitual. They go away with the kids at half-term and in August. They have more money to spend after, rather than immediately before, payday. They allow themselves to forget the existence of household budgets in December and remember them in horror in January and February.

And it’s the same day by day. We experience the annual cycle of fallow to bumper months in micro each week, starting from sedate Tuesdays and building all the way to hectic Saturdays, then still busy but somehow mellow Sundays.

That picture changes a little sometimes, if we host a particularly buzzy launch party early in the week, say, or a Thursday brings torrential rain all day. But it is remarkably consistent, as shown on the chart below, which plots average takings by day over the last year.

Tuesday starts off slow — we might only serve a handful of customers in the morning and the coffee machine is certainly not tested to its limits. Those who do come through the door are often picking up books they ordered at the weekend and are more likely to be regulars, who stop by several times a week for a coffee and a catch-up, than on busier days.

Wednesdays and Thursdays are similar, but takings are higher, in part because we usually have author events on Wednesday evenings and we open til 9pm on Thursdays.

To scale (y axis hidden: I’m open but I’m not that open)

As anyone who has visited Backstory on a Tuesday and on a Saturday will know, the weekend is king. I like to think the place is equally warm and inviting, but whereas it is tranquil on a Tuesday, it is buzzy and bustling at the weekend. It is not unusual for us to sell more books on a Saturday than on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday combined.

Two things are particularly interesting about the weekends.

First is the importance of Sunday. There are still some bookshops that close on Sundays. I remember my mum was sceptical of opening on Sundays when she had a gift shop in Northumberland when I was growing up. She did, but just 12pm-4pm, and trade was often slow. Not so at Backstory. It’s the second busiest day of the week, by a whisker.

Tradition persists though: Saturday is always busier than Sunday, even though many of our customers have both days off and we are open the same number of hours. And the vibe is different. Saturday has pace: families come in on a mission, picking up a book before a children’s party, or stopping by to browse before going on to brunch. Sunday leans back: there are more individual shoppers or young couples lingering at the bar, whiling away the hours. The wine comes out earlier.

Second is that, whatever your boss says, Friday is now a weekend day too. Backstory only opened in 2022 so I have no pre-covid comparison, but I’m pretty sure a hypothetical 2019 Backstory would have been a lot less vibey on a Friday. The day starts slow, sometimes almost sluggish, but by early afternoon bar stools are occupied by friends catching up, the corkscrew is out and the weekend is starting to flow. Friday is typically the third busiest day, but it usually runs Sunday close.

All of which explains both why we haven’t yet opened on a Monday (apart from a few weeks last Christmas) and why I’m pretty confident that our decision to start doing so, from tomorrow, isn’t going to suddenly transform our takings.

When we first opened, I thought it was a good idea to have one day a week when I knew I wouldn’t be phoned up to investigate a broken coffee machine or cover team sickness. Since it was immediately apparent that closing on Sundays would be a bad idea, like lots of shops and restaurants I chose the next best thing: Mondays.

The thing is though, I don’t get calls any days. I did at the beginning, a little, but 17 months in, I find myself redundant at times, usually happily. In Rory and now Denise I have been blessed with creative, sparky and extremely competent managers. But I’m not sure they get that many calls either: we are all a lot more experienced and bedded in. Our bookshop, like any organisation after a while, is beginning to get quite used to replicating itself each day in its own image. So that objection no longer stands.

Still, I’m not expecting queues up the length of the High Road. If anyone would like to take it, I’m willing to bet that Mondays will become the new Tuesdays ie the quietest day of the week. So we’re opening every Monday from now on — 10am-6pm — not for a gold rush, but to better serve our customers. You no longer have to google our hours before popping out: we’re open every day 10am-6pm, and on Thursdays and Fridays we’re open til 9pm.

But who knows? We can’t say for sure until we try it. Maybe Mondays are a secret boom day waiting to be discovered. Over to you, Darby and Savannah! Pop in tomorrow to say hi,