Indie Corner: Cogito Books

As Cogito Books nears its 20th birthday, the bookshop's owner Claire Grint caught up with the Retail Gazette to discuss the importance of staying connected with customers amid the ongoing pandemic.

Retail Gazette speaks to the independent book store Cogito Books in the heart of Hexham.
"The past year has shown us that people do value their community."

In 2001, the town of Hexham in Northumberland welcomed Cogito Books, an independent retailer with an emphasis on a unique and carefully curated collection of books.

After graduating from her studies, the current owner of the store Claire Grint took over the business when her dad retired. Alongside her small but dedicated team of three, they have made it their mission to put customers at the forefront of everything they do.

We love nothing better than sharing recommendations and talking about books,” Claire told Retail Gazette.

This mindset helped Cogito Books take home the Independent Bookshop of the Year award, for the North of England, in the recent British Book Awards 2021.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when non-essential retailers were forced to close their shops, Claire said she and the team tried to “keep things as close as possible to a normal experience for the customers”.

“In addition to keeping those all-important conversations going over the phone and via social media, we also provided a postal and local delivery service,” she added.

“The shop is in quite a rural area, so we had some adventures splashing through fords and trundling along farm tracks to bring books to our customers’ doorsteps – often late into the evening but always worth it.”

As customers stayed home during each of the lockdowns, Claire said it “really brought home” how important it was to keep in contact with customers.

“Not just as a means of getting books to people, but as a way of nurturing relationships and staying in touch in challenging times,” she said.

“It was important that we kept those vital conversations going and maintained a connection with our community.”

Since opening 20 years ago, Cogito Books hasn’t been short of standout memories. From hosting Roald Dahl parties for children to celebrating Bookshop Day with customers each year, holding events has become a pivotal element of its customer experience strategy.

“A standout memory which springs to mind was when we hosted the authors Sarah Moss and Max Porter, which sparked a fascinating discussion,” Claire recalled.

“We prioritised the phone throughout periods of lockdown”

“But the day-to-day is just as important to us – there’s nothing better than a customer telling us how much they enjoyed a book we recommended, or that a gift idea was spot on.”

It’s well documented now that the pandemic has caused independent retailers to suffer, alongside many large chain retailers, as restrictions tightened.

According to the Small Business Institute, a record number of small business owners are planning to close their firms over the coming year, putting the UK on course to lose more than a quarter of a million businesses. Independent bookstores are among those small businesses at risk.

Despite these statistics, Claire remained hopeful that independent retailers would be able to recover once the pandemic subsides.

“I think that if anything, the past year has shown us that people do value their community and have put more thought into how their shopping habits can influence and enhance their local high street,” she explained.

“We believe there will always be a place for a truly tailored and personalised service, and that independent businesses will continue to be at the heart of a thriving high street.”

Despite the challenges, one silver lining of the pandemic has been that UK ecommerce has enjoyed the highest online sales growth in 13 years.

So how exactly does Cogito Books push back against online competition?

“Essentially, by placing value on that key relationship between the customer and an experienced bookseller,” Claire responded.

“Our customers know that we will always be on hand to help them find what they are looking for: whether it’s browsing from our wide-ranging and thoughtfully curated selection of books, or asking for gift advice or reading recommendations.”

She added that by providing an efficient ordering service, the team can source almost anything in print quickly and conveniently for their customers.

“We want to run a business which is centred around real people, in real time – where the doors are open and people come in, allowing for those serendipitous connections between booksellers, customers and books,” she said.

Later this year, the retailer will be celebrating its 20th birthday – a milestone that they are more than happy to reach.

“It’s a great time to take stock, look back over past successes and also to plan exciting things for our future,” Claire said.

“One of the best things about the longevity of our business is that we have seen many of our customers grow, from teens browsing our ‘awkward age’ section, to enquiring young adults (complete with university reading lists) and even, as parents returning with their own children.”

While navigating and overcoming the challenging landscape of 2020, Claire said she’d been bowled over by the extent of the loyalty from customers, as well as the “continuing appetite for an individualised approach.”

Because of this, she was upbeat about what the future held for Cogito Books: “This has consolidated our belief that excellent traditional bookselling is in great demand and can look forward to a positive future.”

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