How to drive a business by creating a people-centred workplace

“Back when I started the business, it was pretty tough. I was really just getting by and at the time I had a young boy to support. Actually, quite honestly I could have made more money more easily by working for someone else, but this didn’t matter because I was doing what I love. I love books, and I love the sort of interaction that I have with people here. I used to work really long hours. When you own a business, you really are at risk of it becoming your whole life. So I began to pull back and develop more systems for training staff. That was when I came to understand that well trained staff are a powerful asset.”

Sappho Books, Café & Wine Bar is a place right out of the wildest fantasies of every bibliophile and collector. Beyond its façade of halls fitted with shelves of pre-loved books, you’ll find a courtyard café that serves the most exquisite dishes and refreshments, a hidden sanctuary where patrons could kick back and enjoy their newly purchased book. In the evening, this café reveals its more daring personality as it morphs into a wine bar. In the end, day-in-day-out Sappho Books is a story in itself; a very suiting mimicry.

Meredith Baillie founded Sappho Books almost twenty years ago. Today the shop houses over 30,000 books, and every single title was carefully hand-picked.

“The key in my mind of a good bookshop,” Maredith says, “is to be very selective on what you put on the shelves, which means rejecting a very large proportion of what is offered to you.”

Meredith’s concern here is more on the overall experience of her customers than the quality of her stock. She mentions that, “People don’t like to look through lots of stuff they are not interested in to find something that they are. This is no different to how the best retailers meticulously select what they display.” However, what Meredith gets right that struggling businesses don’t is nurturing employees as ‘drivers’ of the business.

To do that, you must place high standards on who you want working for you. From the outset Meredith pits the literary knowledge of her prospective employees against a so called ‘book test’ – an exam notorious for its 80% fail rate that evaluates applicants on their book knowledge. So, if you want to work at one of Sydney’s most popular second-hand book shops, you must first conquer this seemingly insurmountable step before even having your shot at an interview. This is because to effectively engage with customers at a bookshop, it is not enough that you are familiar with the product catalogue or how genres are classified. You must be well-read.

A high-caliber staff is not the only necessary ingredient to a people-centered business. Those standards must also be reflected at the workplace. When asked on values at work, Meredith answered without a moment’s pause, “Respect – the mutual respect for differences in reading tastes, reading standards and not being judgmental.”

A big part of that philosophy is having the humility to learn from one’s staff. Meredith, for instance, accepts clarinet lessons from one of her employees. It all harks back to that central theme of mutual respect. Meredith’s employees enjoy the environment so much that they end up working with her for up to six or seven years at a time. It is such a great place to work that Sappho maintains a waiting list of applicants.

She mentions, “One of the girls had to wait two years to get in. It’s so lovely to have someone who is that keen to work with us.”

Liked this story? Follow Sappho Books, Cafe & Wine Bar on Facebook, or drop by and visit at:
51 Glebe Pt Road
Glebe, NSW 2037

3 thoughts on “How to drive a business by creating a people-centred workplace

  1. Looks like a great place to work and shop – I would so love to be an employee if I wasn’t on the other side of the world – after working for some awful bosses who exploit and insult me, I have the same values as Meredith…….full of admiration for you- and the team you have!! One day I am going to read a book in your cafe….. !!


  2. Sappho is hands down the best secondhand bookstore I’ve ever been to and one of my favourite places to hang out in Sydney. This article explains why . Thanks for all your hard work Meredith 😊


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s