Fast edition;Profile;Interview;Madeleine Lindley

9th April 1999 at 01:00
It started as one woman's dream, operating on a shoestring from a humble garage. Now it's a thriving business with swish headquarters that attract teachers by the coachload. Sue Palmer visits Madeleine Lindley (pictured) and her dynamic children's book empire

Madeleine Lindley is expanding. Again. Although the lady herself remains an enviable size 10, her eponymous bookselling empire near Manchester is growing once more, as it has done year on year since 1988.

That was when Madeleine, a 40-year-old primary advisory teacher with the Manchester Literacy Project, told her husband Mike that she wanted to give up her job and open a bookshop in their garage. For years, first as a class teacher then in the advisory services, she'd been frustrated at how long it took to choose and acquire good quality books to support teachers' work.

She wanted to provide a service "bridging the gap between the best children's literature and the children in the schools". Mike, a banker, supported her from the start, advising on the financial side of the venture and agreeing to park his car in the street for the foreseeable future.

Those early days were fun but hard work. With the help of her family, Madeleine lugged round endless boxes of books to set up displays for schools and conferences, and built up a reputation for carefully-selected collections for different age groups, provided by mail order. She worked all hours, and although she soon took on her first member of staff, Carmel Sandham, she took no salary for more than a year.

In summer 1989 the Lindleys returned from holiday to find next term's books had been delivered and the garage full. At first Madeleine stood and wept - then she realised this was a sign of success and the bookshop had to find bigger premises.

Within 24 hours they'd rented a small business unit - 400sq ft - at the Acorn Centre in Oldham. Family and friends helped clean, scrape and paint, buy display units and ferry in books in time to open for business the following Monday. Now they could expand the stock, and visitors began to appear to browse and ask advice. Within a year they had to take on another 2,000sq ft of showroom space, and the following year 2,000 more.

It wasn't long before Mike gave up his job to become full-time financial director, and soon the name of Madeleine Lindley Ltd was known and respected. I first heard it in Hong Kong, where I'd been sent by a publisher to promote a reading scheme. "Don't need it," said the headteachers I met. "We get all our books from Madeleine Lindley. She makes the selections and ships them straight out. Exactly what we want."

As the business flourished, a move to purpose-built premises became essential. In autumn 1997 operations were transferred to the Book Centre, an enormous purpose-built unit in the Broadway Business Park at Chadderton near the M62. It is beautifully designed and fitted out in white and Harrods green, with comfy sofas to sink into while you browse. "We wanted to make it somewhere teachers could come and choose books in really lovely surroundings," says Madeleine. "They work so hard with so little recognition - we wanted to offer them a bit of care and attention."

She has succeeded. When I arrive as an anonymous primary teacher wandering in off the street, I am welcomed into a paradise of children's books, offered coffee and given the choice of a guided tour or a solo wander. Everyone is chummy, knowledgeable and smiling - I feel as though I've landed among friends.

Oh, and the joy of it - shelf upon shelf of poetry, picture books, "longer reads", "shorter reads", National Literacy Strategy selections for each year, books for every conceivable project or national curriculum target. Like every other teacher in the building, I am enraptured. I want to bring my sleeping bag and live here.

Interviewing the Lindleys the next day, it is easy to see the reason for their success. They are all - Madeleine, Mike and now their two daughters, Rachelle and Amelia - committed to the educational ideals underlying their business enterprise.

They now employ more than 30 people (Carmel from the garage days is still with them), but the expertise in children's literature which made those early book boxes a commercial proposition has not been sacrificed. "Who reads the books?" I ask. "We all do," says Madeleine, "because we're all mad about them."

So now they're embarking on a pound;1.5m expansion, three years earlier than Mike projected. With more than 1,000 visitors a month, including teachers turning up now in coach parties from as far away as Southampton, and a growing mail order business, Book Centre already needs more showroom space.

The business is also expanding into training. It already runs a successful programme of talks by children's authors, and schools are increasingly interested in visiting the showroom on school closure days, combining staff training with a selection of resources. Madeleine is also planning a series of summer seminars about the new literacy training programme, Early Years, she's just imported from Australia.

By the end of next year Book Centre should have doubled in size yet again, with new buildings including conference and exhibition facilities for up to 200 people. The success of the business is a testament to the hard work of the Lindley family and their team. Despite the Government's standards fever, and OFSTED's fearsome cracking of the phonics whip, they believe that the teaching of literacy is not merely a question of developing a sequence of skills.

It's also about books, stories, enjoyment and enrichment; about bridging that "gap between the best children's literature and the children in the school". Teachers, from Blackpool to Bangkok, clearly agree.

Madeleine Lindley Ltd, Book Centre, Broadway Business Park, Chadderton, Oldham OL9 9XA. Tel: 0161 683 4400

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