Monday, 30 September 2019

BSBI's book-sellers, Summerfield Books: interview with owner Paul O'Hara

A small selection of Summerfield Books' stock
Image: P. O'Hara
If you buy books on botany, or any other branch of natural history, you’ll know about Summerfield Books, the independent family-run book-sellers for new, rare and out-of-print books from around the world on botany, forestry, arboriculture and natural history. But did you know about the special relationship between Summerfield Books and BSBI? 

I caught up with owner Paul O’Hara to find out more: 

The Old Coach House
Image: P. O'Hara
LM: So Paul, can you start by telling us a bit about Summerfield Books – where are you based and how long have you been going?

POH: Hi Louise. Thanks for inviting me to have a talk with you. We are based just outside Penrith, in Cumbria. The business is currently located in the Old Coach House, one of a number of sandstone buildings in the Leeming Estate. It’s right next to junction 40 on the M6, so handy for people to call by and the setting is very pleasant, it’s surrounded by trees and next to an arboretum. We’ve been running the business since 2007 but it was originally set up in 1985.

LM: And roughly how many natural history titles do you have in stock at the moment? 

Paul (in beige top) enjoys a training workshop at
the 2016 BSBI Recorders' Conference
Image: L Marsh 
POH: Well… on the website we have something like 7000 titles, mostly new books, and as many if not more second hand books, most of which are not on the website. At any one time we would have perhaps 75% of the books that are on the website in stock, with the remaining titles either awaiting delivery or re-order.

LM: That’s a lot of books! There’s so much to browse on your website – and I hear you are in the process of setting up a new website – how will that differ from the current one?

POH: The focus of the new website is very much customer led. So, the site will be more responsive, and easier to navigate – the search function is a lot more sophisticated than the old site. The payment process will be simpler and there will be a lot more choice of books, including second-hand ones. Our old site is pretty much at the limit of what it can handle, whereas the new one can easily take ten times as many titles as we have at the moment. At the back-end it will reduce wo(man) hours spent adding books and producing invoices etc. This will free us up to spend more time amongst other things, communicating with customers and focusing on product development.

Chris O'Hara chats to BSBI President Chris
Metherell in Summerfield's pop-up bookshop
at the BSBI Exhibition Meeting 2018
Image: L. Marsh
LM: BSBI members love being able to log in to the password-protected ‘members-only’ area of the Summerfield Books website to claim exclusive discounts on selected titles. A reminder here that if you can’t remember the password, just email me and tell me your membership number and I’ll send you your password by return.

But I wonder if non-members realise that as well as BSBI Handbooks and other titles published by BSBI such as Threatened Plants in Britain and Ireland and The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain & Ireland, Summerfield Books also offers discounts on titles such as Rose & O’Reilly’s The Wild Flower Key (2006). There are even books about garden plants and non-vascular plants, such as the European Garden Flora and Mosses and Liverworts of Britain & Ireland. Can you give us any clues about other books on which you might soon be offering discounts?

BSBI publications and
other botany books
Image: P. O'Hara
POH: We add books that we feel are useful for BSBI members, especially new members, and which we can afford to offer a bit more discount on. On the new site there will be more entries as it will be a more facile process than it is at the moment, currently every title in the member’s area has to be duplicated from the main area. 

As to what will be in the member’s section of the new site – well, members will have to login to see! 

LM: Hmm, I see you are going to keep us in suspense! Every botanist I know really enjoys receiving the catalogues you send out – what’s the best way for people to get on to your mailing list so they can keep us with the latest news from Summerfield Books?

POH: It’s very simple to sign up on the website or you can just send us an e-mail or telephone.

LM: And of course people can follow you on Twitter…


John Poland browses Summerfield
Books' shelves at the 2016
Recorders Conference
Image: L. Marsh
LM: But of course it’s not just about the books. You have a wonderful selection of hand-lenses at different magnifications, with and without lights, with graticules… ranging from a basic £4 x10 lens to a swanky scale loupe with a graticule – pricey but once you’ve tried it, you’ll understand why it’s recommended by John Poland of Vegetative Key fame! Anything new in this section that you’d like to tell us about?

POH:  We’ve been selling lenses that can be added to your smart phone – called BLIPS. They are produced by SmartMicroOptics Srl which sprang up as a product based on research undertaken by the Italian Institute of Technology. They are very simple to use, modestly priced and fun to play with. We also have a loupe and graticule (KIMAG 10) with a LED  built in  – John Poland is also very impressed with it! 

Now is a good time to buy as prices on lenses (most are produced outside the UK) and global supply problems are pushing up prices. We are currently holding prices, but we will have to increase them soon.

A small selection of the hand-lenses
stocked by Summerfield Books -
seen at the 2018 BSBI Exhibition Meeting
Image: L. Marsh
LM: Ooh we’d better get our skates on! I’ve just noticed that there’s even a plant press for drying herbarium specimens!

POH: We’ve been introducing a few new products that botanists especially might need and if there are other products that people would like, then we would encourage them to let us know what would be useful to them. We’ve also been promoting a few locally made products such as bird/squirrel boxes and feeders. Again we are open to suggestions for products that customers would like to see on the site.

LM: The Summerfield Books pop-up shop has become a real feature of BSBI national events. The Scottish Botanists’ Conference, the Recorders’ Conference and the Annual Exhibition Meeting just wouldn’t be the same without you!  So we can look forward to seeing you at RBG Edinburgh on 2nd November for the Scottish Botanists’ Conference and again at the Natural History Museum on 23rd November for the Exhibition Meeting?

Summerfield's pop-up bookshop at the
2018 Recorders' Conference
Image: C. Dwyer
POH: Yes we’ll be there!

LM: Great, I’ll bring my ‘Wants’ list along and get ready to browse your new titles and try out your new hand-lenses! Thanks for talking to us Paul.

If you haven't yet joined BSBI, you won’t be able to benefit from access to Summerfield’s BSBI members-only area, so why not check out this page? It lists all the benefits of BSBI membership and there's a secure payment option, making it very quick and easy for you to become a BSBI member and start getting involved

October really is the ideal month in which to join BSBI if you haven't already! There are exclusive special offers on BSBI books, available only to BSBI members, and of course if you join BSBI after 1st October, you get three "free" months and then your subscription starts in January and runs until the end of 2020. More tomorrow (1st October) about all the benefits of BSBI membership!

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