How Isabella Smith creates space with books and company
Happyplaces Project (video)
Brent introduced me to Isabella. Brent works as the Global Head of Architecture at IKEA Centres. And as we were working together and roaming the streets, we have been discussing spaces quite a lot. My idea was to capture Brent’s story too, but maybe that will happen soon. When I told him I was coming to Copenhagen and Malmö, he mentioned that I should possibly talk with Isabella and also checked if she would be willing and able. In person, I heard later from Isabella, when he visited the shop. He connected us by email:
Isabella, Very glad you’re keen to participate in this project. Marcel. I sent Isabella the links you sent me and I gave her a small overview of what the initiative is all about. Isabella owns a very successful bookshop in Hellerup, a very affluent part of Copenhagen and is interested in participating, many thanks Isabella.
Isabella, you can share more the details of your shop with Marcel. But what made me first think you’d be an interesting person to engage with on this topic is that of the dynamic of space in the context of literature — books, chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words and the joy and creativeness that reading brings to one’s imagination by the spaces we create in our minds as we imagine. The spaces between our thoughts, the spaces and pauses between words and what they signify, to the space that of a bookshop itself, the headspace of the visitor to the shop, and the headspace of a customer… etc. you can engage a whole lot more.
(…) Isabella’s shop is beautiful, warm, cosy, friendly and informal, and I think it would be great to shoot the clip in the shop.
Let me know how you get on and shout if you need any further inputs from me, but I’ll stay in touch Isabella. Marcel is a very creative guy and one of the best I’ve worked with. He’s Dutch, but ey no-ones perfect!!
Everything Brent said about the place was true. I arrived a bit earlier coming from Malmö, which gave me the opportunity to just zit in a corner and experience the place. I immediately felt at home because of the selection of books I found around me. And also instantly learned that the name of the bookstore was more than a name, but more of a promise: ‘Books & Company, Copenhagen’s independent international bookshop where books and company create community.’ In the laid back atmosphere there were people browsing titles on display, there were people instead of ordering a cup of coffee, pitching their perfect blend which was then craftfully brewed for them, there were people sitting at the back in conversation about life. Mumbling, chatter, laughter, the smell of coffee mixed with printing ink. Two ladies brought pastry from the bakery around the corner and offered me some. When Isabella came in, she was directly in conversation with people in the store and then we finally met. And I learned that maybe if the world would be a bookshop, we might have less issues than we have today. At least we would be in constant well-informed conversation.
What makes a space for me is the people who work here and the people who visit us. What I wanted to do with my space here, was to create community. I have three core beliefs that I think have allowed me to create a space where people feel welcome. The first being care. We care about what we do, and we care about the people who walk in. The second is attention to detail. Nothing in the shop is coincidental. There is room for flexibility, and there is room for things to move around. But we think very deliberately about the books we choose. We curate very carefully. We think about where we put things and think about what people see when they walk through the door. And the last, and probably the main point for a bookshop I find is the possibilities that books have for connecting people. Books have an incredible innate quality, which is that they always tell a story. Even when you talk to a customer you have never seen before, you will start the conversation with a book and the story that a book tells. Or the story that customer is looking for will trigger a conversation because there is something in that story or a book that will relate to that person you are speaking to or to yourself.
Books are an incredible starting point for creating community. It is one of the reasons why bookshops and book clubs are as popular as they are. Because people want to meet and want to have conversations. Books offer a buffer as well as a vehicle to create that conversation. Some studies have shown, in the UK especially, that book clubs can alleviate depression in patients. And that’s just because books create an interconnectedness that human beings have always needed. And I think we need even more today because of the life that we lead outside of our small communities. The lives that we lead online, where we are speaking to maybe a thousand people at a time when we press a like-button or when we show that we have been somewhere. We share and experience with thousands of people. But the response we get from that doesn’t create the same connectedness that the actual presence of an actual human being in your own space will allow for. That is what a great bookshop can do.
People want to meet and want to have conversations. Books offer a buffer as well as a vehicle to create that conversation.
It is very important that the minute a person walks through our door into our space, they feel welcome. We gauge very quickly who wants to have a conversation with us or who doesn’t. We leave people alone if they want to be left alone. But most people do want to have a conversation. They not only want to talk to us, they want to talk to the person standing right next to them. They want to share the experience of a book and because books are so evocative it’s something that people often want to share. That’s what we do here. What is important to us is, when you live in a culture in the Nordics where the weather is cold, where we tend to close ourselves in on ourselves for six months of the year, and where it is difficult to meet new people sometimes not because we don’t want to meet new people but because we feel like we’re not used to doing it — that a bookshop like this also offers that opportunity. You walk in, and you can sense that there is a warmth you can use as an excuse to have a conversation. I think that’s the excuse that people are looking for.
My background is mixed. I come from a mixed culture. One culture is very open, very communicative, very social. The other half of me is more Nordic, more closed. So I can feel the pull in both directions, and I think that all people have that. All people need to be on their own sometimes, and sometimes you communicate with other people. It is not either or. When a space caters appropriately to its customers, it will allow for both. One day you come in, and you want to be on your own, to pick up a newspaper and sit at the back of the shop to relax with a cup of coffee on your own. The other experience is that you are going to want to have a conversation, want to laugh with either the person standing behind the counter or someone else in the shop. Both possibilities are here.
Not growing bigger, but better
In the world we live in today, there is this idea that if you have a successful business that it has to grow. You start small, and after while you have come this far, so why aren’t you growing? Why don’t you have a second shop or a chain of shops? Why don’t you franchise? It speaks to anyone’s vanity to think: ‘Oh, then I can have a shop there. And then more people can get to know me.’ For a lot of business models growth is the most important thing in a physical form. I believe that there is nothing wrong with that, but our focus is growing and evolving within the space that we have. I think that it is a misunderstanding if you think that you can not grow, change and evolve in a small space. I think that we have grown incredibly in the past none years. We have honed our skills, we constantly change. We’re very conscious of always being able to afford people a new experience. We have a mindset of, having many regular customers, that every Saturday when people come in have to see new books. We change. We grow. We change with the seasons. We change with political climates because if you follow literature, you will see that literature often follows the cultural climates of our times.
Last year, in 2017, we had lots of books that took place here and now in the political distress that the world finds itself in. This year already, 2018, we have lots of political books as well. We have a lot of fiction that is a lot more reflective, that is much more looking into the future to see how we can take what we have experienced already and turn it into a lesson for the future. Thongs change all the time. And that’s just the content of the books that we sell. The book covers allow us to make our store never look the same. It seems like the store changed every week. And that’s just the types of books that we bring in, the covers that we show. So you can change, and you can grow. We have also grown so much with our customers. As I have mentioned before, when customers come in they ask for a book, and we will get that book in for them. And then we will take a look at the book and might then also bring an extra copy in for ourselves, or a few additional copies Because that book can be something new to us as well. We grow with the information we get from our customers. But it can also be that. Customers come in and say, as they often do: ‘This is what I like to read. Can you find me something in that vain that is not the same thing?’ Then we can help them grow and change as well. A bookshop is an organic place if you allow it to be.
When we make ourselves dependent on what someone else thinks we should be looking at for ten hours a day would not be the fulfilment of a dream. That would just be a job.
You can decide yourself how much organic change you allow in your shop. There are also shops that go with what is on bestseller lists, or you choose of the distributor’s catalogue or of the New York Times bestseller list or things like that. There is not a good or bad way of running a store. It is just different. For us, that would never work because then we would let an outside system decide who we are. And that would inhibit our own growth. We try to be as open and as flexible as possible, not just to make it more interesting for our customers, but also to make it more interesting for ourselves. This is where we spend most of our working hours. And to make ourselves dependent on what someone else thinks we should be looking at for ten hours a day would not be the fulfilment of a dream. That would just be a job. That’s important to whoever works here. Not only to me. But also to all my colleagues who have worked here in the past nine years. The idea that they can also see a book and bring them in and try our who likes it and who does not makes it interesting for them to work here as well. Openness, flexibility, the sense that you can walk in as a customer and start a conversation about a book, changes the environment of a shop completely.
Curiosity and curation
From the very beginning, how we curate is done by asking the question: ‘What looks interesting to us?’ That’s how we curate the shop. What looks interesting to me or whoever works here. That does not necessarily mean that it would be books that I would want to read right now or take on a holiday with me, but it has to look interesting. What would be interesting to someone? That is the core of what we do here. That allows a very diverse book selection because we’re open to ‘interesting’ as a very general rule. What that also allows for is diversity and individuality. It is the recognition of that what is interesting to me is not interesting to someone else. But I will respect that it is interesting to someone else, and that is enough to bring it in. That influences what we do here. The respect for other people’s interests and their individuality. Of course, you can’t have a small bookshop like this without it being a reflection of who you are as a person. There is no doubt that I, for example, weren’t as interested in politics as I am, there wouldn’t be such a selection of political non-fiction books. If I were more interested in nature, there would be many more books on nature. The most important thing for a bookshop is curiosity. You have to be curious to run a bookshop. If you’re not curious about the world, if you’re not curious about human interaction, not curious about what brings us together and what breaks us apart then you can’t have a very interesting selection of books. You can have a great crime bookshop. But then you have a crime bookshop. And that is great too. But you need to be curious, and you need to be open. Otherwise, you would be limiting yourself, and it will never work.
People love recommendations. It goes with having a curated bookshop instead of having everything or having a very brad selection which is not possible in a small bookshop. I think people want to hear what you have to say. Just as much as when they walk in and can see that each book has been chosen. You can tell if a bookshop has been curated. You can tell if someone has chosen a book on purpose or whether it is just one of many books that have come in. The fact that the books are chosen makes that people want to ask you what you think about the book. If you go into a huge bookshop which has everything, you don’t feel as comfortable walking up to the bookseller and asking them. Because innately you don’t trust that they know the book that is in front of them. Whereas when you’re in a small bookshop where the books are chosen, you feel that you can walk up to that woman and have a conversation because clearly, she has thought about which books she has on her shelf.
We are all complex and we all contain a lot of different subjects. We just don’t always in our daily lives allow ourselves to be all these different people. But when we walk into a bookshop where the three books on the counter are about three different things, that allows us to be all three people in one hour.
We are all multiple people at the same time
I feel for sure that we have the whole world in our little bookshop. That is maybe facilitated by the fact that we seel English books in a country that speaks Danish. We have a lot of international interactions, and we have a lot of international customers, so that brings in the flavour of the world as well. A lot of the conversations we have here, also fueled by my interests and the people working here, our willingness to discuss the world, our willingness to see the world. We solve a lot of the world’s problems in the bookshop every day. We can have itty bitty conversations as well, we talk about the weather like everybody else, but we also talk about political change. We have groups of people in different corners of the shop discussing an election. We discuss huge changes. We can discuss populism, nationalism; all of the subjects of the day are discussed right alongside weather, alongside the best book to take with you on holiday, a good cup of coffee, where to go for lunch, how your child is feeling, where you’re travelling to next time… We can have all of those conversations in the span of eight hours. That is not a problem at all. And we flip amongst all those conversations, and we enjoy it. That is what makes us feel alive. It’s the people and the books. When we set out three books on mindfulness on the counter, people will pick that up and think: ‘Maybe I need to spend a little bit more time on how I feel.’ Or, we can have a little book on nationalism by George Orwell on the counter, and we’ll have a little conversation on how nationalism is affecting Europe today, for example. Those conversations can go easily hand in hand, and the same people can have them. Because we are all complex and we all contain these different subjects. We just don’t always in our daily lives allow ourselves to be all these different people. But when we walk into a bookshop where the three books on the counter are about three different things, that allows us to be all three people in one hour. That’s an experience that, I think, people really enjoy.
We need to focus. We all talk about how we need to be present in the now. In the here and now. People go on retreats and spend lots of money figuring out how to be present in the now. But being in a space where you feel comfortable and where you can relax and can be whoever you are, allows you to live in the now.
What I love about being in this space is when I walk through the door, and I can leave everything else behind. I can have ten different conversations about ten different things that are going on in the world, but I can also leave whatever else in my life behind and focus on that for the day. And that is a gift. That in itself can be a ‘zen’ experience because what it really does is that it narrows your focus and that is what we all need. We need to focus. We all talk about how we need to be present in the now. In the here and now. People go on retreats and spend lots of money figuring out how to be present in the now. But being in a space where you feel comfortable and where you can relax and can be whoever you are, allows you to live in the now. I think that one of the reasons why we have such a hard time to live in the present is because we feel like we have to be so many things at the same time. We have to be so many different people, and we have to be so much to so many others. If you choose one place, or if you can choose one place where you can be and be yourself, then you have created that world for yourself where you can take a break from being ten different things to ten different people. I can just be me in the next ten hours in this place. That is what a space can do for you as well.