by Caroline Kinneberg
What bookseller has the most popular account on Instagram? Random House, you might guess? It has almost 10k followers, compared to Barnes and Noble’s 18k. Maybe more visual brands, like Taschen (20k) or Assouline (23k)? But the most popular book specialist on Instagram could very well be IDEA Books, with (at the time of publication) 98,400 followers and growing every day.
This might seem improbable for a small, family-run company (named after founders Angela Hill and David Owen, and their two daughters, Iris and Edith) with only one or two other people helping them out. It’s even more improbable given that the brand is run out of an unmarked office space in London’s Soho, open by appointment only.
And finally, it’s surprising given that what they do is sell used books; an industry characterized by being slow (the oddball bookseller hawking the same dusty titles for who-knows-how-long, customers aimlessly wandering labyrinths of stacks)—and even unsustainable (sadly, few of these shops have survived). But IDEA Books has managed to flip the used-book industry on its head.
Every three (waking) hours, David posts three images of one book they’re peddling on Instagram. “Usually it would sell within a minute,” he tells Cool Hunting. “You hear the phone making a buzzing sound when you’ve put the first picture up, and by the time you’ve put the third up, there are three people after it.” Customers in London will have their books that evening and those in Paris the next morning. (They also ship worldwide.)
IDEA Books specializes in illustrated titles that make a certain type of creative person tick. Recent posts include “Il Design Italiano 1964–1990”—a 2004 photo book by Tom Wood—as well as Salvador Dali’s erotic cookbook from 1973, a skinhead zine from 1981 and Charles Jourdan catalogues from the ’70s that caused an intense bidding war. Francophile staples Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot regularly appear in the stream.
The duo’s homey office—with candles glowing and cookies on the table for guests—has become a staple on the fashion week circuit: “Designers stop by to get ideas for next season, while editors need ideas for how to present what they’ve just seen,” explains Angela. Major names like Calvin Klein and Bruce Weber have walked through the door; an insider’s secret all the more seductive for being indiscreet.
However, IDEA Books caters to design students just as much as it does heavyweights. “Quite often we show books just because we want to share them, even if they won’t make us that much money, because it’s really quite a common book. Then maybe 20, 30 copies around the world get sold,” David says. Their wares range from £30 zines to rare “Super Books,” averaging around £750 and promoted on a wry weekly newsletter written by David. Since prices fluctuate over the course of a day depending on demand, their Instagram captions simply state “Email if you want[at]idea-books[dot]com.” The lack of pricing also makes the feed seem more aspirational than commercially oriented, attracting many followers who probably won’t ever purchase, but thrive on the thoughtful fodder.
David and Angela didn’t set out to sell books. “We originally started doing this because we’d see books we like in bookshops. We’d end up with lots of multiple copies because we didn’t want to leave them.” One day Sarah Lerfel from Colette visited Angela’s flatmate, saw the collection and offered to sell it in her Parisian concept shop.
Nearly two decades later, IDEA Books is more popular than ever, operating mini shops inside Dover Street Market in both London and New York, wholesaling anonymously to other concept stores, curating personal book collections for private clients, selling Super Books via the newsletter and, of course, running its incredibly popular Instagram account that serves as a virtual store. (IDEA also has nearly a million followers on Depop; anyone who downloads the London-based marketplace app automatically follows them.)
Before launching IDEA, Angela worked as a stylist and photographer, while David moved between film, writing, TV and music. Their backgrounds play a huge role in the success of their business. Unlike most used book dealers, they don’t care about markings, dimensions or even whether the publication is technically a book. And customers rarely ask about such details either. Where their talent clearly lies is in editing the selection.
“What we do is the same as we’ve always done,” explains David. “If we’re in a store and a customer comes in and shows some interest in a book, we’ll open it to a certain double page where Charlotte Rampling’s legs go on forever, she looks incredible. And then they’ll buy the book. Done, sold. That’s the same as what we now do—six times a day, times three pictures.”
Images courtesy of IDEA Books