I arranged a socially distanced interview with Daniel McCabe, who runs Magalleria - an independent luxury magazine shop in Bath.
What inspired you to start Magalleria?
Well, we had no real competitors in Bath and only a handful in the UK. We thought magazines were an interesting area to move into because there wasn’t really anything going on, and print is quite an innovative thing. People think that print is an old thing - my background is publishing and every time I go to the London book fair, I come out depressed because I don’t see anything really going on, whereas in magazine print publishing, it seems very exciting.
That’s interesting isn’t it, because I think in books and fiction, especially, there’s a lack of visual expression, where there really could be. So I think it’s lovely to work in an area where you’re bridging the gap. You say you have a background in publishing, so what did you study?
I studied art history, and I left university during the last great depression, and there were no jobs for students. I started a clothing business, we started our own fashion label, and then we sold to shops, and then other shops - so anyway I’ve gone back to that. I’ve worked in publishing for twenty-five years, and I worked in medical communications.
That sounds fascinating!
Yeah, it’s been good!
So why did you start in Bath? Did you already live in the area or did you see a market?
Yes we already lived locally, and we thought: two universities; Bath College; quite a lot of training institutions; heritage site - lots of visitors; good bookshops… it just seemed the right sort of environment.
Who would you say your business is aimed at? Your typical audience?
That’s a very hard question - people ask us, ‘what’s your typical customer?’. We don’t have a typical customer, it is everybody. I’ve always thought it breaks down into two types of people; the people who know exactly what they’ve come in for, and the other type of customer comes in with their eyes wide for something to stimulate them. And beyond that, there isn’t really any characteristic, people who are young, old, people who read, people who don’t. All sorts.
That’s lovely! How long would you say it took to launch the business? What was the timeframe between the idea and launch?
Probably twelve months. It did take quite a long time. It was finding the right place, as much as anything. We were ready to go, but it was very hard to find somewhere in Bath, still is.
How did you advertise your business in the early stages?
We did literally no advertising, really. First year, we did everything on Instagram and Twitter, and then gradually we did some occasional advertising in Bath Life and Bath Magazine. We did a few sponsored events - we provided magazines as prizes, or we contributed some goods. We thought sponsorship was bigger than advertising. We still don’t advertise very much, to be honest.
Well it is very much just on the road, so anyone walking past would just walk in.
Yes, it is a word of mouth business. A lot of people come in because they’ve seen the shop, but I think to be honest, the idea of a magazine shop circulates.
How long did the business take to start making money?
How long had we been going? A couple of years because last year we finally made a small profit, and this year I think if we hadn’t had the pandemic, this would have been a very good year. We’re never going to get rich from this typeof business. The margin is very small compared to books. There are a lot of magazines to make, so that’s why we’ve been selling them online. We’ve started to get more volumes.
That’s brilliant! It must be a real passion.
It is, but like I say, we do it for love really. You would never take on a business like this to get rich. Throughout the industry we’ve watched chain after chain hit an end, because it doesn’t scan out very well. I think you need knowledge to make it work and it’s very hard to replicate that through a number of stores. We’re really pleased with how it’s going.
What would you say is your favourite part of your job?
That’s really hard to say! It’s quite selfish, but I think having your choice vindicated. Thinking ‘that’s going to sell,’ and buying quite a few copies, and then it catches on and people like it, and then you buy more, and you feel that you are doing something good. Obviously the flip side is when it goes downhill, you think ‘I’m no good at this!’ You know? And I’ve done that a lot in my piblsing work, as a buyer working out what people would buy and so I think we run the shop like a book shop. Everything we take is a punt, but nothing is ever a chance. We look at everything that informs that choice.
You talk a bit on your website about the often-heard claim that print is dead, and you say that print and digital go hand in hand, and that we crave the feel and smell of paper. Why do you think this has enduring appeal? Why does this matter to us when we are reading or looking? Do you think this will always be the case?
Yeah, I think it will. We were having a conversation yesterday - we heard that a lot of people think radio would die because of streaming and why really would you have radio stations when you can choose what you want and program your own music? And quite often I don’t like hearing a DJ, I’d rather just listen to ten music. But I think people do like to hear a human voice, and they do want someone to say ‘that was that musician and they’ve got a new record coming out’ etc. And I think we’re the same. I think people prefer to come and talk about the magazines, to smell them, and it’s quite comforting.
I think now with the pandemic, people are buying online quite heavily, but I think already there’s a fatigue. If you imagine that that’s all there was, it’s quite a depressing thought. So we are confident that people will keep wanting to have the experience.
How many different titles do you stock?
We have between 750-800 on the website at any time, and in here we have around 1400.
Wow, that’s impressive!
It is a lot. We’eve moved a lot out of the shop because we can’t store them. And I think we now need to find storage because we tend to buy magazines from the person and we don’t return them. Whereas the corner newsagent, they buy magazines and if they don’t sell, they just return them with the new ones. But 75% I’d say do sell.
What do you think are the environmental challenges to continuing to champion print and how can these be overcome?
There are real challenges. It’s very hard for us to be green. That sounds like a crazy thing to say, but it’s very important for us with the online business, when we started we were using jiffy railers, and they were plastic-lined with the bubblewrap inside. These are now 100% recycled paper, and they’re really great but they do cost so much more. It costs a lot more to be green. In a lot of cases as well, paper doesn’t protect quite as well as the plastic lined, so we have to be recyclable or compostable cellular plastic to protect the magazine, which is very expensive. The people who get it often don’t care that much, they just want the magazine. But for us, we can’t be seen to pollute, so we work very hard to make everything environmental. And we have no problem with that, but financially it makes everything harder for us. It’s not just for us, I think a lot of the magazines… people are using a lot of sustainable wood, pulp and inks that are organic. And there’s a cost there - that generally we bear and then the consumer will bear so a day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t pick up a magazine and say ‘god, £18 for that? Next week it will be £20’. It’s really just, environmental awareness has an impact on price.
That’s a shame. Hopefully as time goes on, these sorts of recyclable materials will become cheaper, making it easier for business like yours.
Yeah, and it’s all relative anyway. People will go and spend money on other things which are then gone and disposable. We sell things that have a life.
What do you think makes a successful magazine?
I think a good magazine is one that has a sense of community around it and when you pick it up you feel that it’s talking to you. I think the magazines that are successful, successfully foster the sense of community. Os you go to the website and you see what people are saying about the magazine. I think magazines that go off and don’t necessarily talk to their audience, don't do as well. Quite often, we do go to magazine websites for information, and there won’t be information there, there’ll just be a moving around and looking really cool. Which is good, but it’s not enough. So I think magazines that are informed and up to date, are the ones that work. Obviously there are examples of magazines that don’t but…
We have lots of magazines in here and we do seem to be an information service. People often ask us about them, and when the next one is coming out, and quite often we don’t know. I think the magazines that keep their communities informed do well, otherwise they drift a bit.
That’s very interesting! Do you have a favourite magazine that you stock?
I don’t have a single favourite. There are magazines like, I sold the last copy of the French Corner Review, which is really great. We love Four and Sons, which is an Australian dog magazine’s which looks at dog owning and talks to homeless people and their dogs, and not celebrities and their dogs. We like political magazines like the Fernandulist, which is quite a radical magazine from France. I really like that because it knows how much you really want to know. It doesn’t burden you with too much information, but it’s always telling you something about something going on in the world. There are lots. We like luncheon magazines, a lot!
Have you ever thought go making your own magazine?
I have, but I’m not motivate dot do that. I don’t strongly feel that I have anything to really say or that I particular feel that I would need to inform a community. I can see ideas that would make a good magazine, but they’re not for me, I’m not that person. When we see that person, we tell them they should be that person to make it.
So you act as an agent of magazine makers in a way?
We like to facilitate the idea of creatives. I think it’s a good way to get good ideas across and get seen.
Do you have, or would you open any other branches?
Yes, we would like to open another branch. We haven’t really decided where yet, there are a couple of places that seem very obvious to us. But at the moment, we just have to see what the rest of 2020 brings, and next year. But yeah, that’s pretty much something we would like to do.
That’s brilliant then! That’s an exciting prospect in the future. How did lockdown affect Magalleria? Are the challenges of a potential second lockdown similar?
It hasn’t been as much of a problem as we thought it would be. We closed down completely for a month, as we thought everyone else would. But they didn’t, so as much as we could feel it was really safe in Bath - the post office was closed for a while - it was a bit all over the place. But it settled quite quickly, so in the meantime we developed our website and then we got the pay off from people buying on the website. And that got us through, and then we started trading, and there was the summit. We did very well, we don't usually do that well in the summer, but this year was good. I don’t feel that we’ve been affected, it’s just been different, because people are continuing to buy, and read.
What do you see as the future of Magalleria? How do you see the business developing?
There won’t be any change in the way that we do things. I feel that we won’t really grow as a retail - there’s no point in us offering more magazines than we have, because we can’t already control what we’ve got, it’s disorganised. And I feel we’ve got to rationalise what we do on the high street. We’re very keen to stay on the high street business, but we obviously have to keep growing the online store, and that’s where I think most people will be. But we’ll always keep Magalleria as a shop window, and a place that people can come and actually see the magazine. We’re very positive. We are committed to staying on the high street, because I think it’s going to be good soon.
What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from starting and running Magalleria?
It’s a hard thing to say, a lot of what we do is working out what’s going to sell, so almost six years on, I can’t really see a hit. Obviously there are things that make a good magazine and give it a chance, as we’ve already discussed. And I’m always surprised as well! If I think ‘no one will buy that’, it can end up flying out the door! I’m always surprised at what will sell. But just one thing that I have learnt is that before I started this I underestimated the magazine, and thought - like a lot of people who work in bookshops - they tend to look at magazines as an add-on or a side-attraction. Sometimes if you work in a bookshop and they put you with the journals, you think, ‘but I want to work with the big stuff, with the books,’ and that’s the view of magazine publishing. But I feel that magazines are really important right now in terms of publishing effect because they publish in a time frame that makes it impossible to lie. On your phone you can lie, and books take a long time to publish, but magazines can be shape shifters. Again, in terms of saying that I underestimated magazines, magazines can be anything. They can be formed in so many different ways. And if they don’t work, just change it. There are lots of magazines that are self-limiting, so they see the idea of a magazine as maybe six issues, so they publish six issues and then that’s it, it’s all over. And I think that’s cool, if that’s what they want to do. There are always new things to find in publishing, especially in books.
To find out more about Magalleria, or browse their online collection, head to: https://store.magalleria.co.uk/.
Thank you very much to Daniel for participating in this interview. It was absolutely fascinating!
This interview was conducted in early November 2020, before a second lockdown was put into place. Masks were worn and all social distancing guidelines that were in place at the time were followed.