Hare and Hawthorn

By Des Wilson

Hare and Hawthorn is an unusual name for a bookshop, and this one in George Street is full of surprises, not least its owner Neal Neofitou. Tucked away behind the counter, he looks about 26 but is in fact 46, and was born in Hastings. 

Neal’s grandparents were Greek Cypriot but his father, now in his seventies and occasionally still helping in the bookshop, built a busy restaurant business in Hastings, first the Lifeboat, then the Seagull, and Neal, who lives near Alexandra Park, began his career working there. 

After attending local primary and secondary schools, Neal did an arts foundation course, then went on to do a degree in fine art printmaking and bookbinding in London. Subsequently working part-time at a bookshop in Eastbourne, he learned the basics of the trade and eventually decided to open his own shop.

Building on success

This first business, part bookbinding and part bookshop, was in West Street, a hidden quarter of the Old Town. Because it missed out on passing trade, Neil plastered nearby areas with posters to steer customers his way. Eventually he moved to George Street and opened Hare and Hawthorn, a beautifully laid-out space sparkling with classics – Dickens and Jane Austen – newly published books, cards and stationery.

The key, Neil explains, lies with knowing what books are coming onto the market. He does this by building contacts with wholesalers from whom he can order books on a ‘sale or return’ basis. Enter the shop and there’s a better than even chance he is searching his computer to discover which books are being published and whether they’re likely to sell. Neil’s good relationship with publishers means he can get many signed books you can’t obtain on-line. Developing an instinct for best-sellers, he saw the potential of Richard Osman’s debut thriller and sold over 80 copies (in today’s competitive climate that’s a lot of books). However, Neil was amazed to discover that his all-time best-seller (over 250 copies) is a book called ‘Other Minds’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith; described on Wikipedia as “being on the evolution and nature of consciousness, comparing the situation in cephalopods, especially octopuses and cuttlefish, with that in mammals and birds.” 

Walking down George Street after talking with Neil I wondered who, of those enjoying a drink outside pubs and coffee houses, were potential buyers of this book. 

Support your local bookseller

Neal says that nature books are especially popular but laments the fact that books for children and young people are left on the shelves. “It’s sad – young people don’t appear to read these days, they’re more likely to be absorbed in their cell-phones.”

Being the owner of a small bookshop is a hard business when Amazon can sell books at a heavily discounted price, supermarkets have pushed their way into the business, and you can buy books in charity shops for a pound or two, but Neal is a stubborn competitor. In his determination and creativity he is comparable with so many of the small shop owners in the Old Town, always in a fight for survival and always optimistic that the box-full of books that comes each week will eventually sell. 

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