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Glider pilot Ron is flying high

By This is Devon  |  Posted: November 15, 2008

Glider pilot Ron is flying high in the  book world
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WHEN he was a little boy growing up in Plymouth's Devonport district, Ron Johns would save his pocket money to buy books to read of an evening, while records like She Loves You by the Beatles blared out from the jukebox of his mother's nightclub downstairs, writes Jackie Butler.

Showing evidence of an early business instinct, after devouring his chosen title the young Ron would rent his books out to other children in his street for a small financial consideration.

"I can remember buying my first book," he says. "It was The Ragamuffin Mystery by Enid Blyton and I bought it with my pocket money."

Now in his 50s, Ron owns three of the Westcountry's most popular independent bookshops – the University Bookseller in Plymouth and the St Ives and Falmouth Booksellers in Cornwall – and employs around 20 staff. And he still has as much passion for books and reading as he did as a child. "I can't resist a parcel of books!" he admits.

He still gets a thrill from the boxes of new titles brought round by around four or five publishers' reps every month.

"We look at around 600 books and decide which ones we're going to stock. It's draining but exciting – that's the beauty of bookselling," says Ron, who loves fiction, biographies, art books and titles on the First and Second World Wars.

He names Japanese writer Haruki Murakami as his current favourite author, although he always has a queue of titles waiting for his attention.

In spite of his love of reading, it was Ron's obsession with flying that he originally thought would provide him with a living.

"There were 43 boys in our class in those days. I remember when we were asked how many of us were going to work in the dockyard and 41 put their hands up. The other two were me and my best friend; I wanted to be a fighter pilot and he wanted to be an actor.

"I thought I was going to join the RAF and I walked out of school at 16 with no decent qualifications."

For various reasons his dream was not to be and the scruffy young Ron found himself jobless. At the time his mother, was running Ronnie's Jazz Club on the Barbican, a hugely popular city nightspot in the 1960s and 70s.

Ron recalls: "My mum's business partner had a friend in WH Smith wholesale. At that time they handled all the newspaper distribution for the whole South West, but they also had a small department for books.

"He managed to persuade them to give me a job – even standing out like a sore thumb with my shoulder-length hair. I started off in the goods inwards yard, which was full of lorries."

When he was 20 and newly married to Marion, a nurse at Freedom Fields Hospital, who now concentrate's on the shops' accounts, a job came up as a book rep. Ron would spend his days driving through Devon and Cornwall in his Morris 100 Traveller selling books to shops, which proved great experience for his later ventures.

One day told his mum he thought there was an opening for another bookshop in Plymouth. She agreed and they paid £800 for the lease of retail premises opposite what is now the university, but was then the city's Polytechnic.

"We opened the shop when I was 21. It was called The Bookseller to start with and then we renamed it adding University in the 1980s when the polys were all changing to universities."

He invested in the Falmouth shop about 12 years ago.

"It was a bookshop called Barnecutts that had gone into receivership. I asked Rebecca, who was on the staff at Plymouth, if she'd like to run a bookshop in Cornwall and she jumped at the chance."

Falmouth won the Best Independent Bookshop in Britain title in 2003, testament to Ron's commitment and imagination. He loves linking writers with their readers and holding author book signings and events.

"A book signing by the journalist and Beirut hostage John McCarthy was the biggest event we ever had. The whole street was completely blocked with people and I remember the police being quite annoyed.

"And then John arrived, the crowd just parted to let him through and he just walked in. It was quite emotional, actually," says Ron, with a tear in his eye. "Then he wanted a pasty."

Others who have turned up to delight the reading public are Tim Smit, in the early years of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and Eden, Ellen MacArthur, Rosamunde Pilcher, Alan Titchmarsh and Kate Adie.

"Publishers know I am a safe pair of hands and that our shops are in provincial towns where we get huge support," Ron says.

He decided to diversify into publishing in 1994 when he was looking for a pictorial coffee table book about Cornwall and couldn't find one to sell. "So we set up Mabecron Books and did our own; Tim Smit wrote the foreword," he recalls.

"I think you can be a good publisher if you are a bookseller as well because you know what is going to sell. It is a big investment and takes a lot of time but I was willing to take a chance because I have a lot of good people around me I can rely on."

Then St Ives came up for sale around seven years ago. "It was advertised in the WMN but somehow I'd missed it and my accountant rang up to tell me about it," says Ron. "We bought it and the turnover trebled in a year.

"St Ives is an amazing place to trade from. We realised that being in a tourist town it was capable of shifting a huge amount of books."

Its purchase also spawned his second, and most successful, publishing venture – the Soggy the Bear children's books.

Soggy and his friends are the creation of salty St Ives seadog Phil Moran and are brought to life on the page by illustrator Michael Foreman. To date there are three books, with a fourth in the pipeline for next year.

They have been a runaway success – up until last month the running total for Soggy sales from the St Ives shop alone totalled 7,937 copies and the titles are on the recommended reading list of schools throughout the country.

More than 150 UK booksellers have gone out of business in the last two years, but Ron says a lot of independents are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, especially if they know their market well.

In the Plymouth shop, now run by Ron's 29-year-old son Daniel, the emphasis is more on academic books, and more students are now using their services rather than relying on online stores.

"It is great to see Daniel having some success," Ron says. "I am old school and he is new school. He can build up a relationship with the students and offer them packs of books for specific courses. I am really pleased – when he was three he had leukaemia and here he is running the shop."

Flying has turned out to be an important part of Ron's life, but as a hobby rather than a job. Ron has been a passionate glider since he was 16 and a respected member of the Devon and Somerset Gliding Club. He also teaches people to fly cross-country.

"Sometimes you go where you want to go and sometimes you end up in a farmer's field. Every flight is different," he says. "I used to be obsessed – a bit like people are with golf or sailing, but I'm a bit better now.

"I still want to fly 1,000km in one day; I've managed 660km so far."

He also collects old Citroen cars and he and Marion have reserved the walls of their dining room at home, near Callington, for original abstracts and landscapes by Cornish artists, including Sir Terry Frost, Bryan Pearce, Mary Stork, Patrick Heron and Jessica Cooper. The little boy who loved reading has done well.

The latest title from Mabecron Books is Pasties, by Lindsey Bareham. See Weekend, Pages 8 and 9

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