Martin Skelton has spent most of his career working in education, first as a teacher and then as a founding partner in what grew to become an international education consultancy business. While traveling he was impressed by the magazines and magazine shops he discovered, and late last year he left the consultancy to open a magazine shop in Brighton. We join him as his shop ends its second month in business.
Where are you today?
Right now I am sitting in our ‘office’ at the top of my home in Hove.
What can you see from the window?
There’s a grey sky with a river of blue that’s just broken through it. Steam is rising from the central heating outlet and it’s covering my view of roof tops and bare trees in the streets behind the house. If I stand up I can see some young children playing in the garden of a nursery school. I can hear their voices in the distance.
Are you a morning or evening person?
I’m both. What I’m not is an afternoon person. Spain of thirty years ago would be perfect for me. An early start, a break from 1–4pm, and then through to 8pm or later would fit my rhythms perfectly. My love of coffee means that a caffeine injection late morning is both delightful and part of my fitness for work routine.
Which magazine do you first remember?
I’ve always loved magazines. The first magazine I really remember was called the Medway Gazette. When I was nine two friends and I used to publish it and sell copies to kind ladies who bought it from us. I guess my Mum’s magazines must have had an impact on me as did the newspapers my Dad bought (mainly The News Chronicle and then The Guardian – well, The Manchester Guardian originally.) I read Football Monthly and Melody Maker before I was ten.
The first grown-up magazine that had a real impact on me was Nova. I was blown away by the power of its design, it’s illustrations and its editorial policy. I was a 16 year-old boy who was known at school for always looking out for the new edition of Nova to be out. I also travelled quite a way to find copies of The International Times, a counter-culture paper. I was lucky enough to be born at a time during which my teenage desire for change and excitement was being matched by what was happening in publishing, music, fashion and more. I have a loft full of first editions of magazines I bought over a twenty year period.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
This is the impossible question. I have so many magazines I love for different reasons. If you look around me now you would see Brown Book from the Middle East which I love partly because they do a great job but it’s good to see a liberal version of Arabia out there; I want to give a big shout out to Dumbo Feather, an Australian magazine I’ve followed from the first edition; Delayed Gratification is such a well-realised idea and a good read; I’ve recently been come addicted to The White Review which is serious and lively, Riposte is just great. One of the really good things about opening the shop is to be surrounded by all of these good magazines and really good ideas and to have people coming in who constantly push us to stock titles that are so interesting.
And your best-seller last week?
According to our Izettle data, perhaps unsurprisingly the best-sellers last week were Kinfolk, Cereal, Flow, Uppercase and Oak Journal. What has surprised me, though, is that of the almost 200 magazines we had in the shop on our opening day on 6 December, only seven of them have not sold a single copy. So although the best-sellers are thankfully what they are, we are also selling copies of many other magazines. There seems to be a real demand for what we have (and for magazines we don’t yet have).
What prompted you to open a shop specialising in independent magazines?
Firstly, I’ve always loved magazines and print in every way, shape and form. Second, I have loved the growth of the independent magazine movement and the way it is still exciting but becoming more stable. I think it’s time is now. Third, there’s a growing awareness of balance.
Al, my son-in-law, described our shop as ‘Like vinyl, but print’ and it’s a great phrase. Without trying to sound like one of those old intelligence tests, indy magazines are to conventional magazines as vinyl is to digital, artisan bread is to Wonderloaf, microbreweries are to the big brewers, farm-made cheese is to factory made cheese and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things in their place but I think there’s enough people out there who want a balance as well.
Fourth, in my last job I was lucky enough to travel a lot and at the end of a long day I would relax by searching out shops that sold independent magazines wherever I was in the US, Europe and the Far East. And then I would come back to Brighton – a town with two universities, an art college, and a wide cultural mix – and we didn’t have anywhere to go. I was lucky that my previous life had ended with enough spare cash to support something small and starting a place to which people could come and browse, buy, talk and feel relaxed was what I wanted to do.
What’s been your biggest surprise since opening the shop?
There’s a few, actually. The help from other independent shop owners in Brighton has been nothing short of humbling. Without exception, everyone involved in the magazines themselves has been beyond pleasant and friendly; it really does feel like a community.
The response from people in Brighton has been great – the buzz on the Instagram feed, in particular, (which I feed through to twitter and Facebook) has been continuous. The unpredictable rhythm of the shop has been surprising, even given that it’s been the slow period of January and February. Last week, we had no-one in for nearly two hours. I went out onto the streets to see what was happening and the whole of Brighton was so quiet. But an hour later, the shop was full. It’s just so unpredictable right now from day-to-day. Everyone told me this would happen but the extent of it has surprised me. I
t’s also given me a good feeling, though, because if we can have a perfectly reasonable day in terms of turnover when it has been so quiet, it bodes well for the future. Perhaps I should say that at this moment that a ‘perfectly reasonable day’ is one on which we are losing what we thought we would lose. It would be good to get to a kind of break-even by mid-summer.
Who are your customers?
This may be unfair but there have been five groups of customers so far. The first group is full of people who get us, who come into the shop and shout ‘Yay, now I don’t have to go to London anymore for my mags’ or ‘Brighton has needed this for so long.’
The second group feels an affinity for the shop but they don’t always know the magazines that well yet. So they come and browse, come back and browse again and buy something from us on visit four. I don’t mind the browsing; it’s part of who we are and part of what I have done in lots of places.
The third group is the group of people who are just neutral about us. They come in and they go out – although the second and third groups do have something in common. People from these group will often say ‘I have a son/sister/partner/etc who would love these magazines but I don’t know what to buy. Do you sell vouchers?’ We didn’t when we opened but we do now.
The fourth group is people who live some distance from Brighton but want to buy from us. This group is encouraging us to get our online offering up and running. We don’t want to rip-off or replicate the Stack and we don’t want to offer all-year subscriptions when the magazines can do it cheaper and get the money direct. But there seem to be lots of people some distance from us who want particular issues of magazines and would like us to supply them. They seem like our online marketplace.
And then the fifth group only lasted a few weeks. Each day in our first few weeks of opening someone different each day came in and clearly thought we were a porn shop. They looked at our top shelf and frowned, walked round the shop in less than 45 seconds and left, looking disappointed. Obviously, word has spread because they aren’t coming in any more.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
I’m looking forward to new magazines arriving. It feels a bit like Christmas to me as we open them and it feels good when people are excited to see them on the shelves. I’m looking forward to conversations that take place, to having vouchers on sale and to moving the online shop on a little.I’m also looking forward to looking at the Izettle stats on Sunday.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
Magazines that we offered to get for people not arriving. I don’t like it when the distributors van doesn’t call.
What will you be doing after this chat?
I’ll be wishing i’d answered the questions differently, picking up the vouchers from the printers, cycling into the shop to take over from Yvette for the last two hours of the day so she can go to Germany for the weekend, reading a magazine I don’t know very well and Instagramming.