On Wednesday I met the wonderful Margaret O’Donohoe, owner of the Madhatter Bookshop on Mill Street, who helps to sell Jude’s Antiques. We had an insightful conversation about many topics, from the future of bookselling to the cost of living crisis.

I think what people don’t realise until they actually do it is that it doesn’t ever stop.

Firstly, as you work here, I was wondering, what is your favourite book?

My favourite book at the moment is Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. He’s a very interesting author. He’s right in his own niche because he writes in a very straightforward manner and his books take place in the real world, but in about half of his books, very strange things happen to his characters. And he writes perfectly ordinary books about people’s relationships and things, but IQ84 is one of those that has some weird stuff in it.

Do you think independent bookshops are important?

Well, people seem to think so! I think, obviously, the book selling world has changed enormously over the last 20 years, with the advent of Amazon, and also with the advent of books being commoditised by the supermarkets, where they’re just on the shelves like a pack of butter. It changes the way people look at books, and the thing with the independent bookshop that people still love is that they can come in and actually talk to a real person about books and that’s what no online chat bot can ever replicate. And people seem to value it enormously. A lot of my customers come in and say that it’s nice to have an independent bookshop where they can come and talk books!

When in your life did you realise that this was what you wanted to do, own a bookshop?

I’ve always been a bookworm, ever since I was taken to a library at the age of 5 and allowed to choose my own book. I’m always reading, always have a book on the go, sometimes several. I never actually thought of running a bookshop as a profession, I just liked reading. I’ve done a lot of other things in my life. I’ve run a café, been an IT manager for 10 years, which was a great job, but it was very stressful. I got made redundant and it was just time for a change of pace and a change of scene.

How did you manage with the shop during the pandemic?

Interestingly, before the pandemic, the bookshop did not have a website. We had a Facebook page and that was about it. During the pandemic, I finally set up a website, got the bookshop stock onto the website and started taking orders from people while we were closed and delivering locally. We got quite a lot of orders on the website and via answerphone, via email and so forth. I would basically accumulate orders in the morning. My main suppliers were kind enough to switch their delivery to my home address so I got the books delivered at home. I’d amass all the orders during the morning, come in about lunchtime,  pick all the books off the shelves that I needed, sort them all out and then go and do a delivery round in the afternoon. People loved it as a service because quite often I was acing Amazon hands down. I think the all-time record was somebody ordered the book online on my website and got it 30 minutes later through their letterbox. That was really good for the business because it was something people talked about. It was good fun to do. I mean, we didn’t take as much money as we would have done if we were open, but it kept the business going and we had grants from the government which helped as well. When we were allowed to open during that time, we were very, very busy because nobody wanted to go into the big shopping centres. Obviously, things have gone quieter now, but we’ve still retained a reputation locally for doing those deliveries and keeping going and making it safe for people that has lasted.

What impact is the cost of living crisis having on the shop?
It’s having an impact on my customers. More people are looking for discounts and are worried about the price of the books. The prices of hardback books have always been a tricky one to sell as people often like to wait until the paperback comes out as they’re too expensive. And now, they’re putting the price up. They used to be £20 for a good author, maybe £16.99 if it was a debut author,  and now they’re going up and up and up, and they are just too much. I mean, Prince Harry’s book is £28 full price and I haven’t sold any because they’re on half price in Waterstones or Sainsbury’s. I can’t buy them for that price so…

I’ve noticed that the shop stocks a lot of up-and-coming books, how do you keep your finger on the pulse and know what to buy?

One way is my customers. I’m guided a lot by what my customers are asking for. They will often come in and ask for things that haven’t been on my radar. Also, there’s an organisation called the Booksellers’ Association, which all independent bookshops are part of. They are very helpful with providing information about what’s coming out. Through them, I use a system that tells me what books other independent bookshops are stocking. And all the publishers’ representatives are always calling you about new books. It’s nice, there’s a lot of support out there. There’s a great Facebook group for independent bookshops.

What do you love most about this job?
The customers. I have some lovely conversations with customers and you talk to people that you never otherwise would. And some of them are really fascinating. I’ve made some good and lasting friends through the customers of the shop.

What do you think people don’t understand or realise about running an independent business?

I think what people don’t realise until they actually do it is that it doesn’t ever stop. You can’t say “Right, I’m on holiday next week, bye!” Organising a holiday takes a huge amount of work because you have to find staff to cover, you have to make sure nothing’s going to come up during the week that you can’t deal with. Even then, you have to be available on the phone even while you’re on holiday, for the awkward question and thing you haven’t sorted. That’s the most shocking thing to people who start to run their own business. It’s very difficult to be not at work. Even on my days off, I get calls from whoever’s running the shop. There’s just things that only I can make a decision on.

Do you want to add anything?

You should probably mention something about the Wantage Literary Festival. I’m a great supporter of the literary festival and they’re great supporters of me because I get to go and sell books at the festival, which is great for the bookshop. I’m very much looking forward to that again, this year.

If you want to check out Margaret's Madhatter Bookshop, it's on Mill Street, selling an amazing selection of modern and classic novels, as well as children's books.