15,000 books, a thriving internet business, customers around the globe... all from a couple of sheds in County Fermanagh
'Somewhere, someone in the world is awake and buying a book. What other business allows you to make money when you are sleeping?' says Ann Isherwood of the success of her internet book-selling business.
64-year-old Isherwood lives in a country cottage with a breathtaking view of the Knockmore hills at Boho, County Fermanagh. In the back garden sit three neatly constructed and well-insulated wooden sheds containing almost 15,000 books.
Over a cup of tea in the kitchen the book dealer explains how she started her business.
'It really began as a hobby, when, in 2002, I was searching for a book called Trauma Room One: The JFK Medical Cover Up Exposed, and my son bought it for me on the internet. Fascinated by the process, I acquired a computer and began listing some of my books for sale on Amazon. The first book I ever sold was called 4000 Miles from Nowhere about a truck driver in America.'
An avid reader since childhood, Isherwood was a pupil at Colebrook primary school, where she won book tokens in art competitions sponsored by Brooke Bond tea. Her mother took her to Hall’s bookshop in Enniskillen to trade in the five shilling vouchers for Little Women or Tomboy Terry or a new book in the Bobbsey Twins series.
Nowadays, Isherwod prefers success stories like It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples by Bill Cullen. But she is also a fan of conspiracy theories - her current read is Scared to Death, which carries the rather frightening subtitle: 'Why scares are costing us the earth.'
Money was scarce in 50s Fermanagh, and Isherwood left school at 15 having completed a touch-typing course which qualified her for secretarial work in a local garage for £2 a week. She gave up the job 12 years later to have her first child - by which stage she was earning just £10 a week.
When she and her husband decided to set up a garden centre in 1971 they borrowed £3,500 from the bank to buy a house and five acres of land. The couple retired 30 years later and built their retirement cottage for which Isherwood made most of the furniture.
Our conversation is interrupted by the shrill alarm of a sensor at the cottage gates. 'That will be the postman,' says Isherwood.
As her book-selling business took off, she used the local post office in Monea. When it closed down she went to Derrygonnelly. Soon she was spending more than £6,000 a year on postage, which qualified to have her mail collected by Royal Mail. We go outside to greet the postman and Isherwood hands over sixteen books, though she usually has a second bag for air mail posting.
She does not advertise her business nor does she open her doors to casual buyers.
'I don’t want people coming along and taking a book off the shelf and putting it back in the wrong place!' she says.
She is her own boss and can work the hours that suit her. Describing herself as an owl rather than a lark she can be often found listing books until midnight. If there are already too many copies of a book for sale on the internet she will not even list it but give it to a local charity shop. She is always careful to describe the condition of a book including a report on whether it is clean.
'I like to feel my time is my own so on a winter’s day I can head off to the seaside for an exhilarating walk on the beach. If I wish I can simply shut up shop and put my Amazon and Abe accounts on "Holiday Setting" and go away for a spell.'
Isherwood takes me to see the oldest book in her collection, Letters Written by Hugh Boulter the Lord Primate of All Ireland to Several Ministers of State in England. It dates from 1770. Though it is rebound, it is still worth £800 - £900 and is the only one of its kind for sale on the internet.
So where did Isherwood's many books come from? Some were bought from libraries which periodically dispose of books that are not being loaned out. Some were purchased at auction and others from individuals in job lots.
When her sales through Amazon or Abe exceeded 30 books per month, she became a Pro Seller which affords her advantages in commission rates and listing facilities. In general ,the companies take 12.5% on each sale but the success of Isherwood’s business has been such that her annual turnover affords her a good living. She has, it seems, only one regret:
'My husband will touch his pension next year but when we consider that we paid 18.5% interest on our first mortgage and I am receiving so little interest on the money I am making now, I feel we have been hit at both ends of the spectrum,' Isherwood says ruefully.
But business is booming. When she boots up her computer in the morning, Isherwood is continually delighted by the receipt of new orders from as far away as Australia and Japan. Through Abe - which has been more intrepid than Amazon in opening up markets in Eastern Europe and elsewhere - she has recently sold three books written in English about Russian politics to Russian clients.
Academic books sell well. She is amazed that clients are willing to pay the retail price of £3 plus £2.75 postage for the York Notes for a Shakespeare play rather than go to a shop to buy it.
Happily for Isherwood’s business, Irish books are very popular. 'People were our biggest export. They could not wait to leave the country but they want to claim their Irish roots now,' she explains.
She is dreading the Olympics in 2012 - sales usually slump during large sporting events, especially football and rugby matches. Fine weather can have the same effect.
Clearly Ann Isherwood has exceptional qualities of enterprise, courage and tenacity. When she tells me proudly that the three hour Mensa intelligence test she sat recently puts her in the top one per cent, I'm not one bit surprised.