Founder and bibliophile Chrissie Ryan tells Frank how she built a book-loving community.
BookBar is an independent bookshop and wine bar in North London, created to bring people together through reading.
Tell us all about your glorious BookBar. What sets it apart from other bookshops?
It’s all about the social side of reading. It’s based on the idea that sharing a good book with other people is just as much part of the fun of reading as reading itself. We all read to feel a sense of connection, so I wanted to create a physical space that reflected that. People come for a browse and then enjoy their purchases with a glass of wine or meet friends to discuss their purchases. We’re also an event space, so we host brilliant conversations with authors and we have our own BookClub.
When did the idea come to you?
I have spent my whole career working in and with bookshops – first as a bookseller and then travelling the world selling books to bookshops. I realised there were so many people I knew who read a lot, but who never visited an independent bookshop. They found choosing a book to be a barrier to reading and didn’t know where to start. I wanted to remove those barriers.
By creating a space that allows people to come either for the bar or the books – or both – BookBar attracts both avid and aspiring readers. I wanted to create a vibrant, welcoming, inclusive space that dismantled the pretentiousness that can surround reading and show people how fun being a book-lover can be.
How did you start?
I wanted to launch online so I could hone the idea and build a community before opening the physical space, so we started on Instagram and our website where we recommended books and launched our Shelf Medicate Service. Our Shelf Medicate Prescriptions are bundles of books based on a mood or theme. Do you want a breezy read that’s going to make you feel good? Or maybe you’re after a page-turner to jump-start your reading habit? Perhaps you fancy something that’s going to challenge you or push you out of your comfort zone? Whatever you’re in the mood for, we’ve got a Shelf Medicate Prescription to match.
When did your passion for books emerge and what is your go-to genre if any?
It’s such a cliche to say this, but I have always read. My Christmas present was always a pile of books, and I found any opportunity to hide away in a corner to read. That said, I think the sustained love of reading that I have, came from consistently having amazing English teachers, who encouraged and inspired me and made reading fun. I’m still in touch with both my primary and secondary school English teachers and they have all been huge supporters of BookBar – two of them are even subscribers to our monthly Shelf Medicate subscription service, where subscribers have a consultation with me and I choose a book for them every month, based on their personal tastes.
Talk us through the process of having the idea for the business and then executing it?
BookBar is in some ways a fulfillment of a long-term dream, but fundamentally it came from a position of seeing a gap in the market and turning that vision into a sustainable business. The idea of BookBar makes me feel inspired and excited, and there really is nothing better than spending my day talking to people about books and building relationships with our customers, but I also love running a business, doing the practical and creative strategy.
There is no typical day but it can include being on the shop floor selling books and wine to customers, and wrapping books for online orders, to working through my accounts, planning a marketing campaign, buying stock, working on our social media, or planning events. There are endless things to think about and my brain is always in about four different places at once.
Who is your team?
Our team is currently made of four book-loving women, who love sharing the books we’ve read and building relationships with every person who walks through our door. The whole team has a real sense of fun, which is really important to the whole BookBar ethos.
The imagery and marketing around the brand are gorgeous. How important do you think that is?
From the beginning, I wanted BookBar to feel like a brand. I knew it was so important, but the design element really isn’t my strength, so I worked with an incredibly talented designer called Esther Shelley (www.esthershelley.co.uk), who completely got the vision behind BookBar and our plan to make books fun and social. It’s had a huge impact on our success; it really helps us to stand out from other bookshops and encourages people to be part of what we are doing.
How is the atmosphere around the bookshop?
BookBar always feels really buzzy and fun. We’re open from 10 am until 9 pm so the morning is usually really relaxed with people enjoying a coffee at our tables whilst others browse. In the evening it turns into a proper wine bar.
People have a few glasses of wine with friends and swap recommendations and others come and enjoy some time to themselves, reading their purchases over a glass of wine and some nibbles.
What’s the location like and why did you choose there?
BookBar is on Blackstock Road in Islington, North London. It’s an area with so many different and diverse communities. It’s well connected to central London but also has a brilliant community feeling. I wanted to create a bookshop/wine bar that attracted a younger audience and as there are lots of young professionals in the area, I hoped to harness that.
What events have you had and what is coming up in the future?
We hosted our very first in-person events in August, starting with Natasha Lunn, author of the Sunday Times’ bestselling Conversations on Love. Natasha has been an amazing champion of BookBar from the beginning and her book is a beautiful collection of interviews with thinkers, writers, and psychologists, about their experiences of love in different forms, interspersed with Natasha’s own experiences and reflections. The event was so intimate because the space is small so it feels like a salon-style event and the audience was completely captivated. Everyone stayed around for drinks, conversation, and signing afterwards, which is exactly what BookBar was created for. We’ve got an event coming up later this month with Megan Nolan, the author of Acts of Desperation, one of our favourite novels from this year.
How is the business going?
The response has surpassed all my expectations. We’ve already got so many regular customers and people seem to have really got what we’re trying to do and embraced it. People have travelled from across the country to visit us. We launched the BookClub in March and it already has 200 monthly subscribers. We’ve hosted some huge international authors like Brit Bennett and Curtis Sittenfeld, enjoyed a series of sell-out events, and built a brilliant community both through the shop and via our social media. I can’t quite believe it!