Our Mentors

Sheila O’Reilly

Sheila has been in bookselling and publishing for over 30 years, in customer-facing and logistics management roles. She has been specifically in bookselling for 20 years as she owned The Beckenham Bookshop from 1997 to 2007 and bought Dulwich Books in 2002. Under her ownership and management, Dulwich Books was voted London Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and in May 2014 the book industry voted it the best bookshop in the UK and Ireland.

This wealth of experience has given Sheila a deep understanding of both customer needs and how to balance that with the commercial needs of a business. She has the analytical skills necessary to identify the best way to resolve an issue and the industry knowledge to advise on changes which will ensure best practice and continued financial success. Her in-depth knowledge of the book trade and her wide-ranging network ensure a clear understanding of the opportunities available for bookshops to help their business succeed.

During her 30 years in bookselling Sheila was a member of the Booksellers Association Council and a member of their Independent Booksellers Forum. She has judged many industry awards and been involved in a variety of discussion panels. She has presented papers at industry conference and has run workshops at the annual Booksellers Association Conference.

‘I am delighted to be involved in this UCT/BA project to work with independent bookshops to help them improve their business, develop ideas or discuss new strategies.  Independent bookshops are a key part of our high streets and contribute enormously to our cultural landscape. Over the past ten years, they have been ingenious in dealing with issues outside their control. To be able to talk through and develop ideas with great bookshop owners will be challenging and exciting, and I am looking forward to helping in any way I can.’

Patrick Neale

Patrick Neale left the University of Kent with a History and Philosophy degree. He joined Sainsburys Graduate Retail Management scheme and stayed with them for two years.

He has worked in the book trade since 1988, when he joined Waterstones, and has worked all over the United Kingdom in both large and modest sized stores. He has run his own bookshop since 2001.

Together with his partner, Polly, he won The Independent Bookshop of the Year award in 2007 for their bookshop and café, Jaffé and Neale, in Chipping Norton. They have since opened a second shop in Stow-on-the-Wold.

He was President of the Booksellers Association (2012-2014) and is UK Ambassador for Above the Treeline and Edelweiss. He remains a member of the BA Council, fighting to keep bookshops vibrant on the high street.

Patrick has spoken in China, America and Europe in support of the high street and the Books Are My Bag Campaign.

When not fighting for the high street and real books, he likes to read, cycle, climb hills and play rugby.

‘Giving customers a reason to support physical bookshops and buy physical books is what gets me out of bed every day. I believe every bookshop must give their customers a memorable experience that drives them to return time and again. Providing excellent customer service isn’t enough to succeed. You have to have a sound business understanding and ground all your activity in the bottom line. I’m passionate about the value independent bookshops give their communities and am glad to do more to assist this whole sector. Having stood down as BA President I’m still motivated to help UK bookshops to thrive. It’s important to me that booksellers don’t burn out and give up. They need to be fit and healthy to assist the next generation of retailers. It’s fantastic that the Unwin Charitable Trust Mentoring Programme will help with that.’

Mark Thornton

Mark Thornton, with his wife, Nicki, launched Mostly Books in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 2006, which quickly established itself as a key destination in the town centre.
From the outset, Mark explored collaborations with individuals and businesses to promote shared goals of encouraging people into the town and boosting Abingdon as a destination.

Mostly Books quickly became a cherished local institution – a place not just to buy books, but to meet like-minded people. People were quick to support its aim to put itself at the heart of the community, offering book groups, book-themed activities for children, as a centre for promoting reading for pleasure in local schools and to meet authors through a busy events programme. Mostly Books won the inaugural ‘Best New Bookshop’ Nibbie in 2008.
Mark used his background in digital marketing to reach out not only to book-lovers, but beyond, building a community, increasing footfall and sales – of everything from new books to sell-out author events.

This was all put to good use when Mark went on to help establish a popular science festival in Abingdon, pulling together venues and business through the town by playing to the town’s strength of being at the heart of science in the UK.

Mark and Nicki sold to a new owner in 2017 after more than ten years of successful bookselling. Mark now consults on digital marketing to retail and start-up tech companies. He is more closely involved than ever with the ATOM science festival, which enjoys a reputation for popularising science to families and to a diverse community beyond those who work in science.

He has spoken on social media strategies for the Booksellers Association and runs the #UCTMentor monthly Monday evening twitter chat sharing good practice and bookish tips.

‘Town centres are fragile ecosystems and no one has more at stake than independent retailers – or more to offer – in making a difference to a town. Indies have been at the forefront of becoming leaders in offering a unique customer experience and understanding how to add value to compete with online sales. Bookshops have the potential to play a unique cohesive role in communities. My job as a mentor is really to listen to how a bookshop sits within its community, and help develop and prioritise tangible action (and hopefully quick wins) that can make a real difference to bookshops and communities. It’s a privilege to be part of the UCT/BA Bookshop Mentoring Scheme and to be able to help bookshops strengthen their businesses with practical and strategic advice.’

Nicki Thornton

Nicki Thornton, with her husband, Mark, established Mostly Books in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 2006, quickly turning it into a cherished local institution.

One of Nicki’s main aims was to create a cultural centre in the town and one that could benefit as many schools as possible as, when it opened, author events and visits were a rarity. She helped to build Mostly Books’ reputation as a safe pair of hands and ran events and book launches for some of the best known names in children’s fiction. Mostly Books frequently hosted joint events for hundreds of local school children for everyone from Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore to Matt Haig’s The Girl Who Saved Christmas.

Nicki gradually steered the bookshop to team up with as many local schools as possible, working with them to boost recommended reading, individually tailored book fairs, supporting schools with their reading for pleasure plans, starting up school literary festivals and book weeks and making the most of World Book Day with a range of reading initiatives.

Her huge enthusiasm for reading meant she loved curating the book choices every month, giving Mostly Books a solid reputation as a place to come for recommendations – for everything from the best books for babies to the best in new literary fiction.

But her favourite part of the job was always helping anyone to fall in love with reading, or helping the most reluctant or most voracious readers to know what to read next – particularly children.

She also began to write for children and her debut children’s novel The Last Chance Hotel was published in summer 2018 to critical and popular acclaim. Since selling the shop to an enthusiastic new owner in 2017, Nicki continues to support schools and reading initiatives, plus is now going into schools to inspire children by talking about her own books and writing career – helped by her years talking to children about what they love to read.

‘Bookselling is such a fantastically rewarding job and is so important. Reading is such a vital skill and bookshops provide a wonderful and safe place for people to learn to fall in love with books. But it’s also complex, exhausting and there is often a very fine line between profit and loss. There are so many things booksellers can do that are truly appreciated in their communities, but this can often become overwhelming, and it isn’t always clear to see which are worth doing or how to do them in a way that is profitable. Or even how to make changes when you are so busy just staying in business. I really hope to be able to be there for any bookshops that feel they need a listening ear and a little help for any part of their business as I feel it is crucial that bookshops stay on our high streets.’