Our first encounter with Magalleria is still fresh in our memories: it was the end of June 2017, and we were roaming around the city on an unusually hot summer day with illustrator Eleanor Hardiman, who was keen to take us to her absolute favourite shop in Bath ‒ an independent and niche magazine shop on Broad Street called Magalleria. The moment we stepped inside, we fell in love with the whole atmosphere: the endless number of magazines and art books on the shelves, the unmistakable smell of freshly printed paper, the shopkeeper reading by the window, the whippet sleeping untroubled under the table, the jazzy tune in the background…
Ever since that moment we eagerly wanted to return to this magical place and to find out more about the people behind it, and one fine Sunday afternoon we had the pleasure of meeting with its founders ‒ Susan Greenwood and Daniel McCabe ‒ at their lovely home on a quiet cul-de-sac area near River Avon. Sitting down with Susan and Daniel in their stylish, light-filled living room, we enjoyed a beautifully brewed cup of coffee and a lively and interesting conversation about their joint venture.
Sharing an interest in ideas and the flow of information and capitalising on the recent boom in independent magazine publishing, Susan and Daniel came up with the idea of opening a magazine store in Bath inspired by European 1980s kiosks and museum book stores, and not long after they found a shop in Broad Street on the edge of the central shopping area and opened Magalleria in July 2015, enthusiastically received by Bath residents and visitors alike. Rivalling the most famous independent magazine sellers in the world, Susan and Daniel (with the help of Enzo, the whippet) have managed to establish an iconic cultural landmark in the city of Bath and beyond and to create a haven for breaking the urban routines, for slowing down in the city and for sheltering daydreaming and imagination, while enabling fruitful interactions, inspiring encounters and a real sense of community and belonging.
Later on, we joined Susan, Daniel and Enzo for a walk across the city on our way to Magalleria, where we had the pleasure to further explore the myriad of independent magazines from all around the world homed by this inspiring space, finishing our get together with a cup of coffee and delicious cake at Society Café in Kingsmead Square and a chat about the local community and why it is important for Magalleria to promote people’s genuine views about magazines.
Who are Susan and Daniel, the people behind Magalleria?
Daniel formerly worked in book publishing and health comms. He works full-time for Magalleria while Susan does various things with computers, and the people who use them, to help pay the bills.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Daniel: Around the age of five or six I remember a shoe being sucked off my foot in the deep mud of a creek near our home. The creek was totally out of bounds, forbidden. But we played there anyway. I couldn’t find the shoe, which belonged to a new pair specifically purchased for my pageboy role at a wedding the same day. I was a pretty good kid, but I failed there.
Susan: I remember endless card and board game sessions, successively with my alcoholic and bedridden grandmother, followed by my parents and then my (much younger) brothers. I am currently working at Wild & Wolf here in Bath who happen to design and make real, physical board games, which seem to be making a comeback. Like magazines!
How did you two meet?
We met as neighbours in an East London tower block in the late 1980s, a time and place of council flat squatting, clubs and warehouse parties.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship and how you influence each other.
We talk a lot and kick around ideas while drinking wine most evenings or while walking the dog. It’s fair to say Susan is a one-person idea factory. She literally fizzes with ideas which she gives away rather than acting on them. Probably because I’m more cautious and tend to filter them down to what seems inspired and achievable to me. A store that sold only trendy magazines was one idea that got a bit of momentum and then it happened.
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
At the moment Magalleria has to be our focus but our dog Enzo also takes a lot of our attention. We’ve never really worked on developing or presenting any public persona and, odd as it sounds, Enzo is at the shop all day and thanks to social media he is pretty much the face of our business. Although it has been said I look like a whippet.
Your shop stocks a beautifully curated selection of mags from all around the world. What is the overarching philosophy that informs your choices in terms of stocked items?
Magazines are about ideas or current thinking in various subject areas. They offer the chance to grasp something fairly quickly, so we look for strong content. We like long interviews, consistent editorial viewpoint and, hopefully, a unique selling point. If we had too many flimsy or lightweight titles I don’t think we’d last long. To build our range we started out with magazines from a few key distributors, but very quickly it was apparent there was much more out there. Large suppliers understandably lack detailed knowledge about what they sell, so it was hard to grow things from there. In fact it was hard to get information from anywhere. Fortunately we have very knowledgeable customers who we can rely on for recommendations. I’ve learned that just about everybody carries a little specialist knowledge inside their head, even if they don’t know it. Someone who had interned there tipped us about Tidal and it’s now one of many favourites that came to us this way (Iron & Air, Please, My Residenceamong others).
What makes the city of Bath the perfect hotbed for Magalleria?
Bath has two universities, public and private art galleries and a fair few design agencies. Bristol is very vibrant and it’s on our doorstep. Bath gets a lot of visitors from all over the place and because the centre is quite small and compact they often find themselves in our shop. I think it’s now established as a must-visit and without being particularly proactive we increasingly find Magalleria listed in all those ‘things to do’ and ‘places to go’ guides.
Since opening in 2015, Magalleria has grown to become an iconic landmark in the city and beyond. What are the major factors that contributed to its success?
Our timing was quite propitious. There was a small buzz about magazines before we opened, but nowhere obvious to buy them. It seems odd to say it, but because neither of us come from the magazine business we’re more objective about the way we operate within it, so we do things differently. I think it’s quite an inwards-looking industry, whereas we’re always looking outside of it for people, ideas or methodologies to bring into it. A magazine today is a finely finished thing for relatively little outlay (compared to say a mass-produced paperback book) and we don’t miss an opportunity to highlight this. We want others to come around to this way of seeing. We review magazines and blog about them – we’re very fortunate to have Libby Borton with us, a creative writer who is published in some of the magazines we sell and writes part-time for other successful magazines. Libby writes for us as well as helping to manage the running of the place.
What is the craziest situation you have ever had to deal with in the shop?
Nothing spectacular, just those odd days when somebody decides they have to buy every single issue of a magazine (‘This is fantastic! How many have you got? I have to own them all!’). Or when people suddenly undergo a total, almost religious conversion to magazines. In our earliest days a very imperious, retired society magazine editor came and told us we were doing everything wrong (‘You need to buy some meat hooks and hang your magazines off them in the window!’). She didn’t buy anything, she hasn’t been back and we’ve just had our third Christmas! She was an anomaly – many magazine makers, writers and fans visit the shop and they’re always really supportive and encouraging.
What are the major trends happening in the magazine publishing world at the moment?
The obvious thing is the decline of mass-market magazines, much trumpeted to people who receive their news from populist media. The rise of smaller, passionate and very successful magazines – the type that we sell – is quite evident to those with an ear to the ground. The new breed of magazines is more fluid too in terms of subject or genre. Many of our best photography magazines are travel magazines. Some of our best art magazines are fashion magazines and vice versa. There’s a significant boom in magazines by women for women. The Gentlewoman or Riposte for example are by women for women but I’m not sure Vogue is.
How do you deal with the fact that so many people nowadays read online? What’s your take on print vs. digital?
We don’t really see any debate or battle lines here. We wouldn’t have a business without the internet and digital technology, so we’re glad it’s part of the landscape. Not many people are reading digital magazines (or rather reading long-form versions on phones or tablets), and no company has turned a profit with one. There’s little doubt that people are gravitating towards the physical nature of the object and the significantly more satisfying reading experience print offers. Also, the internet has spawned several magazines; Minimalissimo, Iron & Air, 91 and many more started on social media or taste making sites before progressing to print.
What do you love about being a magazine seller?
As we said earlier we’re both very interested in ideas and the flow of information. Magazines are fascinating because they deliver both on ‘slow journalism’ i.e. writing that takes its time to deliver the facts, and the fact that they’re somewhere usefully between ‘instant’ culture (rolling news, social media etc.) and the longer gestation required by books and academic journals. A quality monthly or quarterly seems well positioned to pitch the important ideas of our day. We all enjoy opening a new box of magazines delivered to the shop and seeing them for the first time. It’s a fairly dysfunctional industry by general standards so things tend to drop on us out of the blue.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Cookery writer Rachel Demuth advised us to open between Christmas and New Year – often seen as a dead zone but actually a good tip for us, given that people can feel cooped up by the cold weather, and ennui sets in. A trip into town to browse in Magalleria is quite restorative for visitors and often profitable for us.
How does a typical day look like for you?
Susan has her own career as well as involvement with Magalleria. I take Enzo for decent walks so that he’s happy to nap out over the course of the day. I work every second day, with Libby running the shop when I’m not there. We all share counter work with the writing stuff. We also have to maintain the website and manage the internet sales which are growing quickly now and bring me into the shop every day.
Tell us a bit about Enzo. What are your favourite dog-walking routes in Bath?
We sold our car last year because we live in the town centre and we didn’t need one. Enzo’s happy with Victoria Park which is a large green space nearby, and because he’s a whippet he likes a run around on the velvety golf course next to the park. Now he’s eight he’s pretty well behaved. He doesn’t chase golf balls anymore.
How do you interact with your local community, and what ties do you have with other local places and people?
We established the shop as a salon or talking shop for local people to make useful contacts and get inspiration – a ‘store of ideas’ was an early tagline we used and I believe it is. We have very good links with both Bath universities and other educational institutions in the south west. We have regular pop-ups at the universities and usually deliver a talk for students interested in the business end of the creative industries. The magazine is increasingly viewed as an interesting and legitimate form of creative expression, but if you want to ‘take it to market’ what are the steps?
What does the future hold for Magalleria?
We wanted to get the magazines out of the shop and on the road from day one, so we’ll be increasing the number of pop-ups throughout the year. Because universities have proved so receptive to what we’re doing we’ll be looking at other businesses and organisations to develop this activity throughout the south west.
And now a Max Frisch question: When did you stop believing you could become wiser – or do you still believe it?
Susan: I have never felt wise but I learn a lot from magazines. They’re great conversation starters too.
Daniel: I’m always telling myself ‘Why do I never learn?’
Can you recommend us:
A magazine - Daniel: The Protagonist / Susan: Gather Journal
A book - Daniel: Ice by Anna Kavan / Susan: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
A song - Daniel: I Want You Back – Hoodoo Gurus / Susan: Germfree Adolescents – X-Ray Spex
A film - Daniel: Harold and Maude / Susan: Desperately Seeking Susan
Thank you, both for the lovely time and insight into Magalleria's story and your personal realms.