I love books and when I get time to myself I love reading. One of the joys of living in London was the number of independent bookshops and we were lucky enough to live near a couple of the best: Daunt and England’s Lane Books. They were more than bookshops, they were shrines to the written word with beautiful books temptingly displayed. Even my toddler son appreciated the pleasure of stopping by to browse on our way home from nursery or shopping.
When we moved to Copenhagen, I wondered where I would wander to find reading inspiration. Scouring the English section of the big Danish bookstores didn’t compare to losing oneself in a nook or cranny of a small independent bookshop. I was therefore curious to hear about the English bookstore in Hellerup, Books & Company.
It was while we were still deliberating over school options for my son that I first called by at Books & Company for the Tuesday morning story telling session. My son loved it and I bought a coffee and browsed the bookshelves with my baby daughter. It was everything I looked for in a bookshop and immediately felt like a home away from home: the familiarity of English book covers, the company of the other expat mums, the taste of a warm cappuccino on a winter’s morning and the welcoming smile of the storeowner, Isabella.
In those initial weeks in Denmark when I was still in shock from the ‘foreignness’ of it all and weary from the daily onslaught of the unfathomable language, the bookshop was like a refuge giving respite from the battles of settling into life in an alien land. I was intrigued by the store and arranged to meet with Isabella to find out more.
No strangers to expat life themselves, Isabella and her husband lived in Holland, New York, Hong Kong and San Francisco before returning to Denmark to settle with their young family. It was her experience of overseas bookshops that made her consider starting up a bookstore business. She was a lawyer specialising in human rights and refugee law with no retail, commerce or accounting experience but a vision and a desire to recreate something that she had enjoyed abroad; an environment where people could meet, linger and browse and relish the experience of buying books.
Back in Denmark, Isabella missed the sense of community that a bookshop (usually incorporating a cafe) can inspire. Her time abroad had shown her that book shopping was different in Denmark. As books here are expensive, the Danes don’t tend to go into a bookshop and browse or buy on impulse. Instead they are more specific in their shopping - have a book in mind, locate it and buy it. Isabella set about to offer expats something more familiar.
Nearly two years ago, at the height of the financial crisis, Books & Company opened its doors in Hellerup. Picking the right location was crucial and the leafy suburb north of Copenhagen is the city’s largest English-speaking expat neighbourhood and home to most of the international schools. It is also a wealthy suburb and the rent of retail space doesn’t come cheap.
Notwithstanding this daunting beginning, the bookstore has gone from strength to strength. It now has a full calendar of events (weekly story telling for pre-schoolers, book launches, workshops, book club meetings, talks by authors), a Facebook page, a mailing list of 700+ and as Isabella and I sat in the window chatting and sipping coffee, the bell above the door rang with a busy stream of customers and passers by calling in to ‘say hello’ and wish Isabella and her staff a Happy Easter.
There is no doubt that Isabella’s dream is now a reality and there is no better testament to that than the ladies of Hellerup who call the store ‘the living room’. While the focus of the shop is the sale of books, and to this end there is a careful selection of titles and their presentation on dark wooden tables and shelves is immaculate, the piece de la resistance is the comfortable seating area by large windows at the back of the store and the fact that customers are encouraged to linger by the lure of competitively priced coffee.
To get here Isabella has worked incredibly hard. With no prior relevant work experience but combining a new business and motherhood, she has risen to every challenge - from the first draft of the business plan when a McKinsey consultant friend asked pointedly, ‘Is this going to be a hobby or a business?’, to the tricky task of how to price an English paperback novel so as to trigger the all important impulse buy and the thorny question of whether she could or should be competing with Amazon (Isabella decided from the outset that she couldn’t and that dedicated Amazon customers may not help her pay the rent through book sales but might still stop to browse and buy her coffee!).
She has been both creative and resourceful, for example the mural painting of Eloise in the children’s section is by an American expat friend and when she needed a long list of titles on which to build up her stock, she emailed 60 of her friends asking for their lists of favourite authors and must-reads. Involving the people around her from the start was all part of building the community and the environment that would be the essence of the bookshop.
The irony of this story is that it is not the expats but the Danes who now make up the majority of Isabella’s customers. The reason for this is simple: more English books are printed and therefore they are cheaper than the limited number of titles that are translated into Danish. But the Danes are well travelled and they like to read in English and so, it turns out, they are prepared to buy the original rather than wait for the translation. This is something that Isabella admits she underestimated. However, it can only be a good thing for her that the natives too are making Books & Company their own.
And I’m lucky that Copenhagen’s one English bookstore is on my bike ride to school so that I can call by for a coffee, a book browse and inspiration, whenever the mood catches me.