Small Business

How To Build Community Around Your Business

Few places bring hope to the soul like a bookstore. Whether you’re looking for a book for a holiday escape, to help you figure out your spouse or boss, or advice for a new business endeavour, bookstores open up a world of possibilities.

No Aussie bookstore is more well-known (or loved) than Readings, a Melbourne icon that’s won global acclaim for its impact on the industry, and its ability to nurture an ever-growing community.

This month we spoke with Readings’ co-owner and managing director, Mark Rubbo, on how investing in community has helped his business beat massive online and international competition.

Fiona Killackey

Mark Rubbo (managing director and co-owner) in the newly renovated Readings store. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Fiona Killackey
17th of August 2018

Way back in 1969 when Ross Reading, his partner Dorothy and Peter Reid opened a small bookstore in Carlton, they could hardly have envisioned that almost fifty years later it would have become an iconic and internationally acclaimed destination for book lovers worldwide.

Mark Rubbo bought the business in 1976. ‘ I had always hung around Carlton; my father was a Professor at Melbourne University and I studied there; our family home was in Parkville and then my share houses were in Carlton. In 1972 I opened a record shop, Professor Longhair’s Music Shop a few doors up from Readings. At the time Carlton was Melbourne’s artistic, bohemian and intellectual hub. That and its proximity to the University made it one of the best places in Australia to sell the books and music that interested Ross and I.’

By the time Ross approach Mark to buy Readings in 1976, Mark had developed his music business, joining forces with record store owners, Greg Young and Steve Smith. ‘In 1976, Ross approached me and asked if I was interested in buying Readings. He wanted a lot of money, $50,000 (about $300,000 in today’s terms) but I saw it as a great opportunity; I was getting jaded just selling music, and had always loved books. We raised the money from Greg and my families, changed our name to Readings Books and Music, and expanded the book sections in the other shops. I looked after the book side and Steve and Greg the music side.’

In 1983, while attending a bookseller’s conference in Brisbane, Mark met Robert Brown from University of Queensland Press. ‘He told me how they organised monthly events with writers and would get up to 200 people… Brisbane at the time was a very conservative backwater… I thought that if they could get 200 people, then, in Melbourne, we could get thousands!’

Mark worked with Greg Hocking and Iain Stewart to run an event with Helen Garner, Robert Drewe and Gerald Murnane, ‘it was fantastic, and we packed the house!’. Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox of Mietta’s approached Mark, and soon Readings events at Mietta’s were selling out. Mietta’s friend James Strong from Australian Airlines was approached to help bring in writers from interstate, with the first being Kate Grenville, ‘She arrived at Mietta’s very excited; Mr Strong had put her in First Class’. In the first few years more writers and spaces opened up and events were held with Bill Bryson, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Shane Maloney, John le Carré and Annie Proulx ‘just to name a few’. Today, Readings hosts around 400 events annually!

In addition to events, Readings cultivated community by using their shops to let locals advertise jobs, events and share houses, ‘it became the go-to spot to find somewhere to live… We were building up all these little communities.’ These little communities continued to grow, and armed Readings with the ability to defeat competition, even when it came in the form of US giant, Borders (which opened metres from Readings Carlton in 2003).

‘Our Carlton location had become one of the leading bookshops in Melbourne and Australia… I felt a competitor would like some of that action’ Mark recalls. Prior to Borders’ arrival, Mark and Steve had cashed in their Super to buy a bigger premise. ‘We had a shop big enough to offer people a range, and also to host bigger events. When Borders came we were in a much better place; our customers rallied around us and it became their fight too. People made a point of shopping with us, even though they knew the same book across the road was cheaper.’

While Readings survived (Borders closed), it wasn’t immune to the tsunami of eCommerce that swept in a few years later. ‘Our industry was hit badly by the likes of Amazon and Book Depository. We went early online line, and kept on investing more and more (we still are); initially, we tried to match our competitors’.’ After ‘haemorrhaging money’ Readings focused on being ‘more creative with offers, differentiating ourselves from those that offer the cheapest price’. This included spending more time understanding their customer and working with The Retail Doctor who conducted a huge survey of their audience. ‘The results were very illuminating – almost everybody loved us, loved what we did – our events, our service, our range, our monthly magazine – the surprising thing was that although they loved us, they didn’t shop exclusively with us,’ admits Mark. ‘The first thing we had to acknowledge was that people would use different channels to get their books – us, online, eBooks – and we had to respect that, so we had to concentrate on doing what we do to the best of our ability, and give them reasons to keep on shopping with us.’

Mark now views online as ‘another form of marketing, and a way of building our community digitally’, a community that’s nurtured by Marketing Manager Nina Kenwood and her team via online and offline content, email, social media, a monthly magazine and, most recently, a podcast.

So, after thousands of community-building events and almost half a century running Readings, what’s Mark’s advice for other small business owners? ‘I don’t see Readings as just a retailer… Be different and  DO NOT try to beat the competitors on price. If you are different you will build up a loyal core.’

Shop Readings online or find your nearest store here.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.


1. Understand Your Audience

The foundation for every business success starts with understanding who your customer is, and how you can best serve them. Community can only result when you get to know their needs and wants and are able to meet (or exceed) these. Just starting out? Follow the owners of Readings’ footsteps and talk to those in your own networks first, act on their feedback and ask them to help you spread the word. Utilising industry-specific Facebook groups as search engines can also help you uncover real-life customer needs, as can surveying an existing audience using Typeform or even utilising polls in IG Stories.

2. Pique Curiosity

What is your audience most curious about? What’s important to them? This is the starting point for all community-building. Are they new mums curious about how to get their child to sleep? Are they wannabe authors, curious as to how bestselling writers got their first book published? Are they recent arrivals to Melbourne looking for somewhere to live? Start by creating a thorough customer persona (using this template) and then drawing a mindmap of all the things that pique your audience’s curiosity. From this you can begin looking at ways you might cultivate community — from inviting your tribe to tune into a Facebook Live, through to attracting sales to a ticketed event.

3. Map Their Journey

As Mark found out after surveying his audience, people have different needs according to where they are in the Buyer Cycle (awareness, research, evaluation, purchase, post-purchase, advocacy). One of the best ways to build community around your business is to map your customer’s journey from start (hearing about your brand) to finish (becoming an ambassador for it). What could you do at various points to help them engage with you and attract others? An annual fundraising event? A monthly get together? A weekly podcast or Facebook Live? Or, perhaps more staff training and data processes so customers feel you “get” them through customisation (offline and online)? By mapping the journey, you begin to see the points at which community helps both your business and its audience grow.

4. Don’t Be Fooled by Followers

In this era of insta-everything, it can be easy for small business owners to believe that more followers = more community. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t grow/don’t have a community until you hit X followers or Y subscribers. In the words of Arthur Ashe, ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can’. Your community may initially start with just two women meeting once a month and grow into an online hub of almost 100,000 business women (hello, Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine).

5. Experiment & Collaborate

One of the keys to Readings success is their openness to experiment and collaborate with others. When it comes to building your community there are no rules. If events don’t work for you, consider another channel. If you find yourself loving a new brand, ask how they helped instill that feeling in you and whether that’s something you could replicate in your business. Consider who shares a like-minded audience and how you might collaborate to bring together, and grow, both communities.

Fiona Killackey is a business consultant and coach and the founder of My Daily Business Coach. Fiona will be running her workshop, Loving Mondays: How to Plan and Start a Business in Sydney on August 25th and in Melbourne on September 22nd. Tickets available here.

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