Monday, March 31, 2014

Amazon vs the Book Barge: no contest...

When Sarah Henshaw’s Book Barge was sinking, she sent an SOS to e-commerce king Jeff Bezos. She’s still afloat, and still waiting...

Sarah Henshaw aboard her now successful – and mostly dry – Book Barge
Reading queen: Sarah Henshaw aboard her now successful – and mostly dry – Book Barge  Photo: Martin Pope
In the summer of 2011 I wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Actually, that’s not quite true. I wrote to a small business in Australia called Clothing for Correspondence which, as the name suggests, communicates on behalf of clients in return for items from their wardrobe. I sent them an old green belt, and they asked Jeff for financial backing to save a very small floating bookshop that was bobbing about somewhere in Yorkshire at the time.

The bookshop, operating from a black and cream narrowboat, was mine. And it wasn’t the first time I’d shamelessly petitioned for pennies like this. The Book Barge took shape in 2009. My boyfriend and I had asked several banks for loans to buy it and we’d given them all the same supporting document which was, I can now clearly appreciate, nonsense.

It was presented as a book (my idea), and included a title page with the pun-heavy, poorly written tag-line: “The locks could not imprison her. The waterways could not drown her spirit. She defied canal convention to become… THE BOOK BARGE.” I am still squirming. There were fictional endorsements: “Gripping! A masterpiece of business prose” – Finance Digest. “You can bank on this having a happy ending” – The Investor Times. Inside, the “chapters” had silly names like “An Interesting Proposal” and “A Great Number of Numbers”, which presented highly optimistic sales forecasts as an excel spreadsheet, sandwiched between pictures of Cleopatra’s barge and Ratty and Mole gesticulating on a blue wooden rowing boat. Somehow, at the time, I’d thought this was a “kooky” approach to business financing that would win over the most hardened, calculator-for-a-heart bank manager. I now realise I was being an idiot. Our loan applications were turned down firmly – and frequently – and we were forced to borrow from family instead.

The boat alone cost £25,000 and I found it on Google. Moored on the Grand Union canal in Warwick, it had cardboard blinkers over the bow windows and patches of rust above the waterline. Threads of frost were laid out over the grill of a three-legged barbecue stand, which stood extraneously against the front door. But it was black and, at 60 feet long, comparatively roomy for a narrow boat. These were the only specifications I really cared about.

No comments: