Interview with a Bookstore: Lutyens and Rubinstein
A London Literary Agency Opens its Own Bookshop
Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein have been running their eponymous literary agency since 1993. By 2009, they had been talking—not entirely seriously—about opening a bookshop for some time. Changes in the industry, and in particular in the trade meant that the kind of books that are the backbone of their agency were finding less and less space in bookshops. Publishers were voraciously looking for the kind of books that fit into the Waterstones 2-for-3 offering, and the supermarkets had gone into selling paperbacks in a big way. Lutyens and Rubinstein’s magical thinking was that a shop that exclusively sold the kind of books they and their friends love to read might actually fill a gap in the market. From the moment its doors opened seven years ago, Lutyens & Rubinstein has enjoyed an ever-expanding band of loyal customers, in spite of the rise of Amazon and the Kindle.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein (owners): We don’t have very many sections—upstairs we have a highly curated collection of brand new titles, children’s books and illustrated books as well as our bespoke collection of canvas bags, reading glasses and seasonal preserves. Downstairs we have a permanent collection of our favourite all-time books which were originally selected by asking all of our friends in the book business which ten titles they would most want to find in a good bookshop. Fiction and non-fiction are mixed together and arranged alphabetically by author. We also have a poetry section downstairs and a wonderful collection of book-related art and uniform editions.
Tara Spinks (children’s book manager): Obviously the best section is the Children’s section! We’ve worked hard to have a really good mixture of new titles and classics that parents and grandparents will remember. I love the feeling of recommending a book to a child and thinking maybe this is the one that will stay with them forever, as many of the books I loved as a child have.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Sarah and Felicity: We pretty much feel that the shop is perfectly stocked as it is, so we wouldn’t particularly want to add more books but we’d love to have more space where people could sit and read and drink good coffee.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Sarah and Felicity: Independent bookshops are all great at recommending books, but Claire, our shop manager, has an almost supernatural ability to recommend the right books for each individual. It’s the heart of our enormously popular Year in Books subscription program.
Who's your favorite regular?
Sarah and Felicity: There are literally dozens, but we’ve managed to corral most of the really good ones into our Daylight Book Group, which meets once a month on a weekday morning. Discussions are lively and irreverent, and offer an insight into both the book and the members of the group!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Tara: Honestly, things are rarely very crazy in the shop, but there was one Christmas Eve when Claire’s train line from Essex was closed due to snowstorms; Felicity, Nat (her then thirteen-year-old son) and I had to man the fort by ourselves, handling snow flurries and desperate last-minute shoppers while Felicity was simultaneously trying to cook Christmas lunch for a dozen people. Somehow it was one of our best Christmas Eves ever, but I don’t think I’d like to repeat it!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Tara: I have very fond memories of browsing the children’s section of Blackwells in Oxford, which was and is an excellent shop.
Felicity: I grew up in this neighbourhood and there was a tiny, tiny bookshop in Notting Hill. The owners were both grumpy and engaged, and as a teenager working through the classics, they were crucial to my laying down of a literary cellar. Whatever book I wanted they always seemed to be able to fetch up from their dusty basement. The Mandarin bookshop is definitely the parent of this bookshop and we have a few local customers who remember it and recognize the thread.
Sarah: My neighbourhood indie growing up was the marvellous John Sandoe in Chelsea where it was possible to hide for hours in the stacks.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Tara: I trained as a journalist and worked in television before I moved into bookselling, so I’d probably be working in the media, but wherever I was working I’d still be reading and recommending lots of books!
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Tara: How much fun we have, it’s really not like work most of the time! And how many of the customers have become real friends. It’s never dull—every day is different and you can’t get bored of the books.
SLIDESHOW: Lutyens and Rubinstein Staff Recommendations