Willingham Book Warren a site for sore eyes
Willingham Book Warren and Café celebrated winning the ‘Best Bookshop’ for the county award recently by taking the next step and becoming a retailer of new books.
Owner Lindsay Warren opened the premises, which has 5,000 books in stock, just 15 months ago.
“You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when they said I’d won,” she says of the Muddy Stiletto award for Cambridgeshire book sellers. “I was up against Heffers, Topping in Ely, Burrows in Ely and another one in St Neots. I’ve no idea who nominated us: it was in the lap of the gods.”
Booksellers are enjoying something of a return to form – and profitability – thanks to offering an improved customer experience.
“My biggest thing here is community,” says Lindsay. “We deliberately do not have music playing. I want people to not have their senses bombarded constantly. We want to promote all these amazingly talented people and showcase their creativity – and I absolutely love books.”
Events hosted include book launches and art exhibitions.
“We recently did a book launch for Patricia Dittner, a retired World Health Organisation doctor and joint local author of No Time for Tea, a children’s book which introduces Doctor Lottie, a busy working mum, to a family audience. It was our second book launch.
“We also held a commemorative event over one month for the centenary of the end of the First World War, with artworks by two local artists, Marion Savill and Richard Savage. We had a memory wall and the entire months’ proceeds went to the Poppy Appeal.
“Online sales is a fraction of our book sales. We’ve seen new people every single day in the 15 months since we’ve opened. We sell books every day, it’s 40 per cent of our turnover.”
The new book idea began when Lindsay joined the Book Association in January.
“We celebrated our new book sales during Independent Bookshop Weekwith an iconic book – it’s the 30th anniversary of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt– and a teddy bears picnic.
“The whole point of Muddy Stiletto’s awards is to try and get people to love local, not just visit villages and towns but support rural and independent retailers,” Lindsay adds.
Willingham Book Warren and Cafe is based at the Highgate Farm site on Over Road. The site is on the farm land owned by Barry Papworth, who diversified, and converted some farm buildings into rentable shop spaces.
“The first shop here was a pet store, then a butchers,” explains Lindsay, “and there are now 100 people employed on the site with myriad businesses including two gyms, a hairdressers, a joiners, the RSPB rents units here – there’s so much on offer.”
And there’s room to expand: the Book Warren and Cafe is due to incorporate the premises next door when the current occupant moves to a High Street site. When it opens in early autumn it will be “a studio for evening workshops including meditation nights, the local Knit & Natter group, and various clubs”.
Lindsay says none of this would have been possible without her family, friends and team, which includes Shani Morley and Ruth Edmans, who “have been with me since the beginning”.
Buckinghamshire-raised Lindsay has lived in the village for 22 years. Her parents ran a petrol station, which impressed on her the ingenuity required to survive in the retail trade.
“I’m constantly trying to evolve this,” she concludes. “You can’t just provide a cup of coffee and expect to grow a business – you constantly have to up the offering, always keep it fresh. At the same time, people are rebelling. They’re looking for that personal experience. You can come to this site and do all your shopping – buy your clothes, sort out everything for your dog, have lunch, get your car serviced... a full shopping experience.”