Monthly Archives: July 2013

We don’t need no…age restrictions

GabbyToday’s blog is by Gabby Smith, an incredible fifteen year-old who has blogged for us before, and spent a week with us as an intern. While Gabby was interning, the discussion came up about age-banding and age-appropriateness of books. Below is Gabby’s opinion about the effect of placing age restrictions on books.

One of the most pointless things someone can ever do is tell you not to do something. This is, quite simply, because less than a second later, you’ve already decided to do just what they told you not to. The temptation is nearly always far too sweet to be ignored. So, when someone puts an age restriction on anything like a movie, some music or a book, you immediately want to watch it, listen to it and read it. It’s human nature. We cannot help it, just like a moth being drawn to a flame.

But temptation is only half of it. At the end of the day you will do what you want, when you want to do it, and nobody can stop you if you have the right amount of motivation. It is terribly annoying to spend time dodging rules to get what we want, but in the end, we get it. And at least half the time, the actual content isn’t even particularly harmful. But people nowadays always seem to have a ‘cover your back’ reflex. It’s a reflex which can often ruin my day.

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Instead of age-banding, Hot Key put key rings on the back to indicate what’s inside.

As an avid reader all my life, age restrictions have somewhat been the bane of my existence in the literary world. Booksellers were constantly telling me that I couldn’t read ‘x’ paranormal book because it was ‘scary’ and it had 16+ plastered all over it. Instead they sold me, a nine year old at the time, ‘Class A’ by Robert Muchamore, a book full of sex, drugs and gritty action. I mean, seriously? I couldn’t read a fantasy book about faeries with crossbows even though it was all blatantly made up, but I could read a shockingly realistic book that changed how I saw the world forever (it was good, by the way)? Surely a book that represents some of the issues that are actually happening in the world today is more ‘scary’ than a book that that has elves fighting dragons on great mountainside battlefields (not that I don’t love that kind of stuff, for I am essentially a fantasy/paranormal girl at heart). This is every young reader’s really, really, annoying problem.

Books are mislabelled all the time, and it seriously impacts young peoples’ reading skills and awareness. Parents won’t buy books for their children which are labelled above their age, which just makes the children resort to secretly getting the books they want behind their parents’ backs (ever wondered where that massive Kindle bill came from? Yeah, sorry about that).

This is why Hot Key Books are so refreshing for a sixteen year old reader like me. No age restrictions means it is far more likely that I will pick up the book, which means far more readers for them. It’s as simple as that. I can read a book far younger/older than I should be and not have to worry about people telling me that I shouldn’t be reading it because no one can tell the difference.

It’s frustrating because buying books above/below your age really just shouldn’t even be a problem to begin with. It’s even been scientifically proven that everyone has their own mental reading age that has nothing to do with your actual age. Anybody remember that game Brain Train on the Nintendo? My reading age was at least twice my age whereas my Grandmothers was half of hers. Anybody remember Matilda? I’m pretty sure she read a whole library before she was even ten years old, and who knows what those books contained? People should have the freedom to read what they want and educate themselves. If kids they read something they find disturbing in a historically accurate book, so what? They’ve learnt something about a country’s past and how bad things really happen to good people. Even if it were a fantasy book, almost any situation can be stripped down to events that happen in real life. It can even potentially save your life, as you’re far more aware of your surroundings.

So parents, you may want to think twice before you restrict the books your children can read. You’re definitely not stopping them from reading them, as we are far more resourceful than you may think. Instead of deterring us from reading books you don’t think are “appropriate,” you are most definitely stoking the fires of our rebellious streaks. And at the end of the day, I’m sure you don’t want to deal with the consequences. Just think, when your kids sneak out late at night, because that’s what ‘x’ did in that book all about parents who age restricted books, you’ll be the one who has to go and pick them up.

What do YOU think about age restrictions on books? Leave your comments below or tweet us your opinions (@hotkeybooks).

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Love Your Local: Loop yarn shop

Mariana PodmoreToday’s blog is from Mariana Podmore, Sales Assistant to the Foreign Rights team at our sister company Red Lemon Press. As well as loving books of all shapes and forms, Mariana loves knitting and today she blogs for us about her favourite knitting supplies shop: Loop. You can find her tweeting at @marisantanapod.

I started knitting and crocheting when I was about 19, but when I moved to London about 3 and a half years ago my knitting ended up being put to one side – I had no needles or yarn, and knew nowhere to get them! When I finally just had to get back to it, it was Google who pointed me in the direction of what quickly became my favourite local shop: Loop.

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Loop is located in Camden Passage, a lovely pedestrian street filled with quirky cafés, furniture shops and well known for its antique shops and market. Location is definitely part of the shop’s success: Loop is surrounded by other similar shops – one of a kind, independent, cosy and designy-looking. Loop mainly sell very special yarns: imported, hand dyed or with something extra, as well as beautiful needles, buttons and even scissors. For many of their suppliers they are exclusive UK retailers.

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As well as great product and location (ok, those are VERY important) the other thing I think that Loop does so well is creating a communal environment: knitting is a communal activity, it’s the kind of knowledge that is usually passed on from person to person, and done along with friends, who help and encourage each other. And of course you can only knit so much for yourself – inevitably everyone you know will be getting a knitted gift!

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That community spirit is well reflected at Loop, with a cosy sitting area, as well as a big table for people to work together. They run workshops and courses with famous designers and knitters. They provide a free swift and ball winder for anyone who needs it (trust me – this is important!). And they have the knowledgeable staff that is indispensable in a good crafts shop – you need to be able to ask them for advice, and at Loop they are always willing to sit down with you for a few minutes and help you figure out where you went wrong with your project and just answer any kind of question (including going online to help you check something you forgot about the project you’re working on!)

So, in the spirit of asking questions, I did a little Q&A with owner Susan Cropper about what makes Loop so special:

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how the shop started?

A: I opened Loop in 2005 as I was passionate about knitting and textiles and I could not find any shop in London that reflected what was going on in the knitting community. There has been a huge explosion of gorgeous hand-dyed yarns, natural fibres and beautiful patterns and I just wanted a place that people could go to to see these things as well as offer a great variety of knitting classes and things made by independent designers working in fibre.

Q: I know I love the shop, but what do you think makes Loop special?

A: I think the passion that I have for colour and texture and all things to do with knitting comes across when you walk in the shop. I never stop trying to find more beautiful and useful things for the shop. We also have terrific dedicated staff who are excellent knitters and crocheters as well as being lovely.

RIBBON YARNS

Q: What are some of your strategies to make the shop visible to the world and to keep customers coming back?

A: Well, we have a beautiful website and blog. We send out a newsletter every week and that lets people know about what is new in the shop, events coming up and other interesting bits. We also often have a free pattern on the blog that people can download.

We have a huge following on Facebook and Twitter too and a group on Ravelry. All of these things keep our customers aware of what’s going on in the shop whether they are in London or Tokyo.

Q: Do you and other local shops organise together to keep the area relevant and encourage more customers to come by?

A: A little bit. Camden Passage organises some events a couple of times a year, but it is a very active area anyway with loads of interesting shops, the antique markets and cafes.

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Q: You sell your products online as well, how has online shopping affected your business – did you feel a big increase in business, or is it more about making the shop visible to people in the online world, who will then come and visit you?

A: Both really. Our online shop is very important to us so we can offer yarn and books to people that are often hard to find in other places.

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So unleash that inner-knitter and go pay them a visit! You can find Loop at 5 Camden Passage, Islington, London, N1 8EA and online on: www.loopknitting.com and www.loopknitlounge.com

Love Your Local: Pistachio and Pickle…and the best cheese toastie on earth

Just a bit north of the Angel tube stop on Liverpool road lives an amazing little delicatessen/cafe/food shop that makes my heart sing (and my stomach rejoice) every time I visit. It’s one of those places that makes you proud to live in the neighborhood. Everything they make or stock is hand-picked and absolutely delicious. And it’s not crazy foams or some air-spun wasabi that makes it so — it’s all about good, local ingredients.

PistachioAndPickle Exterior

If you haven’t been to Pistachio and Pickle for their weekend brunch special or their newly-added afternoon tea, it’s time to change your plans this weekend and head over there. No matter what you order, you’ll be delighted, from the most beautiful simple plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon to the adventurous brunch specials.

On top of that, the owners, Steve and Matt, are two of the nicest, friendliest people around. Plus, if you get in at the right time, you will get a personalised puppy greeting from their sweet dog Cooper.

Cooper, the official Pistachio and Pickle morning welcoming committee.

Cooper, the official Pistachio and Pickle morning welcoming committee.

It’s also just a brilliant example of a local business done completely right. So I asked Matt and Steve to answer a few questions about P&P, and what they think can be done to reinvigorate local business on the high street.

Q: What made you decide to open Pistachio and Pickle?
A: We’re huge foodies, and have spent years cooking for our friends and families.  So we decided to set up the the supper club and then from there we took the plunge and gave Pistachio & Pickle a permanent home.

Q: How did you decide on the location?
The location found us! We were looking for premises and as soon as the property details came through we knew Barnsbury was the place to be. It has a great sense of community and we wanted to be be part of it.

Q: Where did the name come from?
A: We thought long and hard about the name, we originally set up as a supper club and our favourite course was the cheese course – and we always made our own chutneys and pickles. This got us thinking about calling ourselves something & Pickle….we eventually came up with the exotic and rather expensive Pistachio & Pickle.

Coffee and a smile...

Coffee and a smile…

Q: You guys seem to know everyone who comes in the shop, and everyone seems so at home in there. How did you make that happen?
A: Over the past two years, we have spent nearly every working minute serving our customers, listening to what foods they like and getting to know them all. Most of our customers are regulars and we know their coffee and their name.

A bit of cheese perhaps?

A bit of cheese perhaps?

Q: You seem to source your ingredients from a lot of local, family-run businesses around town. What motivates you guys to choose local products?
A: We make sure our products have a sustainable origin and we are able to tell our customers about it – they set us apart from our competitors.

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I’ll take one of everything, thank you.

Q: There’s a big concern right now around the loss of local shops on the high street. As a successful local business, what do you think can be done to solve this issue?
A: High streets are the centre of a community, and they can brings jobs and vibrancy to the area which benefit everyone. High street rents can be extremely high however, and there should be more support for small businesses to set up. Customers also need to be motivated to shop in independents, so we see it as our job to provide the hand-sell experience which differentiates us from other retailers.

Q: What is your favourite item on the breakfast menu?
Steve’s favourite brunch is our current special – pork and apple eggs benedict with salbitxada. Matt enjoys the brioche French toast and yoghurt with fresh fruit pot.

Yummy and carefully selected stock of Monmouth Coffee, Tea Pigs tea, The Relish Company jams, and lots of other goodies!

Yummy and carefully selected stock of Monmouth Coffee, Tea Pigs tea, The Relish Company jams, and lots of other goodies!

Q: What products are you most excited about right now that people have to try?
A: We’re most excited by our new British farmed charcuterie. We’re now selling air-dried ham in the style of parma ham but from Worcestshire, bresaola style beef from Dorset and salami from Kent.

Q: How on earth do you make such a delicious cheese toastie? Seriously, I would eat it three meals a day. 🙂
A: Our cheese toastie is our signature sarnie and is our biggest seller – the real secret is using good mature cheese, spring onions and a secret ingredient, which I can’t tell you about or I’d have to kill you!

Don’t forget to follow Pistachio and Pickle on Twitter, and tweet us your pics when you visit P&P!

Love Your Local: Look Mum No Hands!

Look Mum No Hands

If there is one shop that covers our local needs (beyond those already taken care of at Sublime), it’s the brilliant Look Mum No Hands. It’s a workshop! It’s a cafe! It’s a bar! It’s a gift shop! It’s a place to borrow an adjustable wrench/ bike pump  from in times of need! AND they sell really tasty cakes, which is great because there’s a real shortage of cake here in the office.

Ahem.

Located just around the corner from HKB HQ on Old St, we’ve almost equalled numbers of bikes fixed to lunches eaten in this buzzing shop. There’s space to sit outside (a rare treat in EC1), delicious pies, great beer and friendly staff. And in an office of keen and occasionally accident prone cyclists, what could be better!

Bike Gang

Naomi, Georgia and I – staple bike gang members on the way to Nigel McDowell’s launch

(If you’d like to join the HKB/RLP bike gang, please apply to @HotKeyBooks. Suggestions for a snappier name welcome, bottles of prosecco not necessary).

They also run some brilliant events, exhibitions and classes – including a bike maintenance workshop for the totally clueless (hello!). Find out more here.

So grab a book and head here for breakfast, lunch or dinner – you don’t have to cycle there, but you know, it helps.

Love Your Local: Sublime…Clerkenwell’s one-stop shop

Moving to Clerkenwell after nearly fourteen years of working in the heart of Soho was a bit of a cultural leap for me.  I was nervous.  What would I do at lunchtime?  How would I manage without Liberty and indeed Fenwicks to wander around for a bit of retail entertainment? Where was the nearest Boots?

Clerkenwell is probably the epicentre of epicurean London, but it is not the retail heart of the city. I soon discovered that actually I didn’t need the distraction of shops as much as I thought I did, and instead I have enjoyed exploring the neighbourhood’s ancient churches, museums and parks which are surprisingly abundant.

But we all know that on occasion you just have to go to a shop. You always need to buy that last-minute birthday present, a new baby gift, a card or an author present, and here in our little corner of Clerkenwell we have the suitably named Sublime.

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Sublime is a wonderful shop with just enough of a little bit of everything to offer and a range of choices on most things from scented candles to Frye boots, greetings cards to earrings.

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Sublime is perfect — they even have a wonderfully named dog, Bliss, who can be found pottering around keeping an eye on you as you peruse the stock.

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Bliss, sleeping on the job.

Arranged over two floors, everything on sale is lovingly and carefully hand picked and reflects the tastes of the managers in its delightful boho chic sensibility.  There is a wonderful range of clothes for women and a delightfully varied selection of gifts.

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All our publication day cards that we send to authors come from Sublime, as do most of the office birthday presents we buy.  I can also now confidently assert that anything new that I wear, from a shirt to the aforementioned boots, is picked straight from the Sublime stock. No more department stores for me. I am a dedicated fan of the small and local, and Sublime answers all my retail needs.

Almost.  It is still a long walk to nearest chemist.

Sublime is hard at work right now on their web site and social media streams. Soon, you’ll be able to shop online on their brand-new web site! For now, bookmark their site, and  follow them on Twitter.

Have you been to Sublime? Or do you have a local Sublime-type shop you just can’t live without? Let us know below or give that amazing store a shout-out on twitter using #loveyourlocal!

How can I help?

One of the really interesting things that constantly came up in last week’s celebration of Independent Bookseller’s Week was the wonderful depth of knowledge and care that so many booksellers show.

And this got me thinking about customer service in general, especially in the context of a recent event put on by Flamingo called “The Future of Shopping.” The researchers at Flamingo studied how the decline of the high street affected real shoppers, and also how real people shop — both online and offline. What they discovered was no surprise to me. Bricks and mortar shops cannot just be suppliers of goods anymore — they need to give people a reason to come in. As the Flamingo study said, ” The future strategy for the high street is clear: become a retail destination or turn those empty retail spaces into something more useful…”

A critical part of becoming a “retail destination” is customer service — a somewhat rarely-assumed part of the customer experience here in the UK. The general lack of good customer service in the UK came as a shock to me when I first moved here. And what’s even more shocking, is that people are actually really bothered when they get bad customer service, but then they don’t seem to do anything about it. Why. WHY? I just don’t get it. So, I sat down with Sarah B, who is also frequently appalled by bad customer service, to ask her about this curious aspect of British culture.

AO: Sarah, as a UK citizen, can you please explain to me why there isn’t an over-arching expectation of good customer service?

SB: I don’t think there isn’t, but I think that our expectations are lower than they are in the US. I certainly recognise that every time I go to the States, I remember how pleasant the shopping experience can be.

I do think it’s a sensibility thing too, I know lots of people that find people offering them help offensive.

AO: Really? Why?

SB: Because of the natural British way of keeping things to yourself, a lot of people don’t like interacting with people while shopping.

I suppose that once you’ve experienced great service in that kind of environment, you start to appreciate what’s possible in a shopping experience.

AO: What do you mean by pleasant? Is there something about American shop service that sticks out for you?

SB: Politeness! A proactiveness. I find that in many UK shops, only if you’re confident enough to ask do you get service. In America, they are absolutely there to help you the moment you walk in the door, and this country, they’re hoping that you don’t ask.

AO: OMG, that’s how I feel too! I do feel like sometimes when I walk into giant chain stores, they are extremely put-out if I ask where something is. Which is weird, because I want to spend money in their shop. And that somehow doesn’t enter the equation. Why is that?

SB: I think it’s all down to what that staff thinks they’re there to do — at a lot of big stores, they don’t treat staff very well, they are just there to stack shelves and take money. The staff don’t have a share in their store’s success. They are not invested in going over and above their job description.

AO: But OK, so my question is, that in the standard job description for a cashier, let’s say, don’t you think provide excellent customer service generally included?

SB: Certainly was where I worked. I worked in a small, family-run department store as an assistant on the perfume counter. We had really strict standards of customer care. One of the main things I remember is not being allowed to talk to my colleagues if there was a customer in sight. We also were trained to engage with the customer and know our regular customers by name.

AO: About how often would you say you receive good customer service? And along those lines, when you receive good customer service, do you revisit those places?

SB: I would say about 20 percent of the time, to the extent that when I receive good customer service, I am over the moon about it. I’m generally quite loyal to the places which give me good customer service, so every time I go to those places I would be very surprised if I didn’t have a good experience.

AO: Share please! Where are you finding this wonderful experience in London?

SB: I have been quite lucky in that I used to live in Stoke Newington, which is a hive of small, independent retailers and restaurants. It’s such a competitive environment and there’s so much choice in terms of restaurants that service is something that sets people apart. There was an absolutely fantastic butchers and green grocers that I really miss now that I am no longer in the area. A Saturday walking down the high street was a generally lovely experience because there was such an interesting and diverse mix of retailers. And that’s something that’s quite hard to find these days. Shopping is no longer about browsing, but getting what you need and getting home as quickly as possible.

Even though I no longer live close to Church Street, I have already found a new favourite place in my new neighborhood. It’s a place called Coffee7, where they are a real community focused coffee shop. They have this program called Suspended Coffee where you can buy a cup for yourself and one for someone else who can’t afford a coffee. The staff are lovely. The first time I went in there, the woman behind the counter just struck up a conversation with me about the area.

On a bigger retailer scale, I’m a huge John Lewis convert. I just feel like they generally do everything they can to help you in-store and online to help you get what you need. And that leads to continued, repeat purchasing.

AO: What does good customer service look like to you?

SB: Being helpful, I’m quite an impatient shopper now, and I quite like to be able to ask someone if they have something rather than having to wander around. And I would expect that person to know or to be able to find it. Otherwise, I might as well order it online. What I’m looking for is, “We don’t have that, but we have this instead…”

When you are looking in a larger chain store, and if they don’t have something, they used to call another branch to find it. That seems to happen less and less these days. Office shoes is actually good at this — they can look up sizes and styles in any store (or you can do it yourself online).

AO: Thanks Sarah!

LoveYourLocal

Following on from our celebration of wonderful Independent Booksellers and motivated by our love for good customer service, we are launching a week of blogs devoted to shops in our area that are doing it right. We’re calling this week LOVE YOUR LOCAL WEEK. All week long, we’re going to be talking about the shops in our area that we love, and that love us back. At the end of the week, we’ll post a map of all the shops we mention so you can go visit too.

And we want to hear from you! Does customer service matter to you? Are you more inclined to buy things in bricks-and-mortar stores which provide you good customer service? Where have you received excellent customer service (please tell us, we want to visit!)?

A journey into the VORTEX

Today’s blog is from fifteen-year old Agnes, who has been doing work experience with us this week. She’s a massive reader (honestly it’s like she eats books), loves music, art, history and bookshops. Plus she’s been wowing us all week with her awesome outfits – we’re in love with her shoes! A big fan of INSIGNIA, here she discusses whether its sequel VORTEX has been worth the wait…

On reading Insignia; as soon as Tom stepped into the Spire and hooked in his neural processor for the first time, I was hooked right along with him…

Insignia

The year is 2015, and the world is divided and fighting a war in space with robots to avoid loss of human lives. Teenagers are being selected and provided with supercomputer implants in their brains, then trained to control the ships and eventually win the fight. Massive corporate companies control everything, and Tom and his friends are stuck in the middle of it. With a fantastically futuristic, yet realistic world, incredible technology and immediately loveable characters (even the bad guys), Insignia definitely became a new favourite. And Vortex didn’t let it down.

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In Vortex, Tom has returned to the Spire for his second year, as a Middle. He has access to new rooms, new skills and new weapons, and an opportunity to win over the Coalition companies and become a Combatant.

The year starts with aspects of both light and dark. Wyatt and Vik are still at (well-intentioned) war, constantly thinking up new programmes to use against each other; and life at the next rung of the food chain looks to be action-packed, exciting and hilarious. But, after Tom publicly uses his special gift — being able to interface with any machine –  Medusa is already on his case. Tom must try and succeed at the Spire whilst also keeping his talent under the radar, keeping it a secret from men like Vengerov lest he find out not only about Tom, but Medusa too, and try to fashion them into weapons.

The plot is bursting with mystery, action, and excitement with more twists and turns than the magnetised vactrains in the interstice. The Spire faces difficulties; someone is hacking the sims and Blackburn is becoming more and more angry and distrustful, continuing his vendetta against Vengerov. Tom is having difficulty working out whether Blackburn is an evil maniac, or someone who he can trust to protect his secret. Things are changing in the Spire’s social hierarchy: Elliot Ramirez is starting to doubt his place in the Spire and looking for a way out, whilst the gorgeous but untrustworthy Heather will do anything she can to get to the top, no matter how ruthless her methods or who she betrays. Tom encounters problems of all kind: struggling friendships, career failures, blackmail, personal loss, severe mental and physical traumas, and doubts of Yuri’s loyalty; whilst also developing his relationship with Medusa. Tom has to balance his association with the enemy, and his desire to get to the top of the Spire, without ruining both.

With more machines, technology and action, Vortex is fast-paced and exciting from start to finish. Incredibly witty and very well written, narrated with a wonderful, mischievous voice, it is a story of friendship, politics and war, and creates a world buzzing with life and technology, corruption and power (as well as proposing a logical war strategy, that, if it ever came to it, the world should definitely consider in the future!). A book that anyone can, and will, enjoy.