In this extraordinary Sausage Hall launch week, which I am enjoying so much and for which I am very grateful, I’d like to pay tribute to two amazing bookshops.
The first is Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop (the CEO of the Booksellers Association, Tim Godfray, has even been known to serve behind the till there on occasion). Bookmark very generously offered to host the Sausage Hall publication day party, which took place in the evening of November 17th, after the day that I spent at Spalding High School. The event was masterminded by Christine Hanson, the owner of the shop (who is both practical and imaginative – she fixed both a toilet roll holder and a broken table joint within minutes of my arrival, while the shop itself, resplendent with its Christmas stock and decorations, achieved a standard that I’d have dearly liked to replicate in my bookselling days), and Sam Buckley, also a former pupil of Spalding High School, who organises author sessions at the shop. Equally generously, the launch party was sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the local pork butchers, who supplied sausage rolls for the occasion.
This event was attended by members of Bookmark’s lively reading group and some old friends of my own. I was astounded to see Finola, a day-job friend – she had driven for more than an hour from Cambridge in order to support me. I was also staunchly supported by Madelaine, one of my oldest friends, and her husband, Marc, who have both offered me hospitality every time I’ve returned to Spalding as Christina James and also bought many copies of my books as presents for everyone they know who might enjoy them.
Madelaine’s contribution to my writing is acknowledged in Sausage Hall. I was also delighted to see Sarah Oliver, whom I first met at the Priory Academy last spring and who came with her husband. The book club members, who lived up to their reputation for being engaged and vivacious, were shrewd and perceptive: as well as listening attentively to two readings from Sausage Hall, they launched into an animated discussion about all three DI Yates novels. Everyone present bought at least one of the books, some more than one. (Sam Buckley later this week let me know that one member of the audience, who had not read any of the novels and took away with her In the Family, returned within forty-eight hours, having read it, to acquire Almost Love and Sausage Hall as well!) And, of course, I couldn’t myself resist making a few purchases in this fairy-tale bookshop.
Having spent the night with my son and daughter-in-law at their house in Cambridgeshire, I arrived in good time on Tuesday November 18th for a signing session at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford. Although I first met Tim Walker, its owner, last year (he’s currently President of the Booksellers Association), I had not visited one of his bookshops before, The one in Stamford is in a listed building in the town centre; he also owns another in Oakham. I was particularly impressed by the huge range of stock in this shop, both the cards and gifts downstairs and the extensive range of books upstairs. Tim and the manager, Jenny Pugh, were respectively at the other shop and taking holiday, but everything had been set up for me and Mandy, the assistant manager on the book floor, couldn’t have made me more welcome.
Bookmark and Walkers are two fine examples of thriving independent bookshops, packed with atmosphere and individual charm and led by brilliantly creative people who understand how to serve their communities very well indeed. It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to have been able to enjoy what they had to offer and I’d very much like to thank Christine and Tim for hosting Sausage Hall events this week.
Rickaro Books, of Horbury, is one of our most distinguished independent bookshops and, like all distinguished independent booksellers, Richard Knowles knows that events don’t just happen: you have to work at them. Therefore, although World Book Day – and, by extension, World Book Week – is getting a huge amount of support from the Booksellers Association and individual publishers, with lots of media coverage, whether or not a bookseller succeeds in making it work is down in the end to himself or herself.
Richard has arranged events for almost every day of this week, leading up to World Book Day itself, which is tomorrow, Thursday March 6th. (If you’re interested in finding out more, please click here.) Tomorrow, he is entertaining a group of schoolchildren in the shop, all wearing fancy dress, and is even going to dress up himself! (I find this amusing: Richard has obviously mellowed since I worked with him all those years ago, when, if not exactly child-unfriendly, he was certainly selective about the children that he liked!)
However, when I read about Richard’s celebrations for World Book Week, the Rickaro Books event that most intrigued me was the one that took place yesterday. I made plans to attend it immediately. It was a live poetry evening, with Ralph Dartford and Matthew Hedley Stoppard (who refers to himself on Twitter as ‘the poor man’s Benedict Cumberbatch’, a soubriquet that immediately endeared him to me). The shop has an excellent track record at organising poetry readings (I’ve written about them on this blog before) and I knew that yesterday’s would not disappoint.
The two poets recited alternately with the fluency and skill which comes from complete command of the material. Both were consummate performance artists, but what really impressed me was the quality of the poetry itself. It is my experience that many live poets are performers first, poets second, but both Ralph and Matthew are exceptional poets as well as being brilliant at engaging with a bookshop audience. The latter was pretty special, too, and included a small boy named George who was dressed as Peter Pan.
If you are not familiar with Ralph’s and Matthew’s work and you like poetry, I recommend that you invest in the two books (AND Matthew’s lovely green vinyl record!) that I bought last night. Cigarettes, Beer and Love, by Ralph, takes the form of a chapbook that has been beautifully produced by the Ossett Observer on hand-made paper. Matthew’s A Family Behind Glass, published by Valley Press, has all the elegance of a classic ‘slim volume’. Which poems did I enjoy most last night?
Well, the Co-op store in Ossett will never be quite the same to me again, now that Ralph has given me ‘Co-op Live Art Fiasco’, which describes his effort to show the individuals in the checkout queue that their investment in the Lottery pays for art (and his wages)… by stripping stark naked and doing some ‘live art’ with a Lucozade bottle. The constable summoned to the event says: “I once saw something like this in Berlin. A scratch card paid for the trip. I quite liked it.” (Ralph was led away at 08.46.) As readers of this blog know well, I’m game for a laugh, but there’s serious stuff behind Ralph’s humour.
Ralph describes Matthew as the ‘cerebral’ one of the pair (but all their poems last night were ‘thinky’, even the most superficially frivolous of them!). In fact, one poem of Matthew’s touched me a lot and spoke to me very clearly from my own past in our first rented marital flat in Leeds.
He set the context of a rented house in Rothwell, his and his wife’s first home, at a time when, he said, they weren’t really ready to be adults, yet. I’ll give you the first stanza, so that you may be touched as well:
Now that the streetlamps have stolen the stars
From the afternoon sky, sleep, content
And lovely as custard, pours over us. We sit
With winter on the settee, arm in arm –
Our legs interlaced like denim snakes,
Bedlam pressed between our palms. [From ‘The Wendy House’]
Matthew is about to take up a post with Leeds City Libraries: I’d like to wish him well with this. Ralph works for the Arts Council, and knows Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing. He observed, unsurprisingly, that they are both ‘lovely people’. He kindly bought In the Family before he left the shop, which gave what had already been a very enjoyable evening a considerable extra fillip for me!
I wish Richard every success with World Book Day. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he receives the schoolchildren tomorrow, but unfortunately I have to travel to London instead.) And I hope very much indeed that I shall meet Matthew and Ralph again. In the meantime, I shall enjoy reading their poetry for myself. Thanks to them for introducing me so beautifully to it.
Precious poetry pack
How to get a book signed by two priceless poets
[This is the second of my posts about BOOKS ARE MY BAG. You might like some background to the campaign here.]
I spent yesterday at the Booksellers Association Conference, which was held for the second year running on the campus of Warwick University. It was a wonderfully upbeat occasion and celebrated the many successes of the BOOKS ARE MY BAG campaign (now also known as BAMB), which was launched to the industry at the London Book Fair in April. All the activities that were built on this afterwards culminated in the public launch on 14th September.
Patrick Neale, current President of the BA (and also proprietor of a wonderful bookshop in Oxfordshire – and also, incidentally, a former colleague of mine) listed some of the many triumphs of 14th September. Here are a few of the key ones:
• The BAMB campaign ‘trended’ on social media.
• Footfall in bookshops increased by 17.4% and sales by 18.5%. Booksellers everywhere said that it ‘felt like Christmas.’
• The most pleasing thing of all was that everyone in the industry – booksellers and publishers alike – realised that this was just the start of celebrating the unique attributes of the physical bookshop.
Dame Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random House, who visited Patrick’s shop on 14th and cut his BAMB cake, said that she loved the sense of energy that the campaign has brought. She said, ‘Of course publishers care about bookshops; they are the lifeblood of our culture.’ She was not the only celebrated person to visit Patrick’s bookshop on that day. First of all, Samantha Cameron came in with her daughter (so the staff decided not to pester her); then the Prime Minister himself followed and the staff, deciding that he was fair game, asked if they could take his photograph. He said that he was in favour of the campaign and obliged (all memories of Jimmy Wales and the ‘free’ information in Wikipedia evidently forgotten!).
I shall write more about the conference – which was full of good ideas for authors as well as for publishers and booksellers – and about the campaign. For now, though, I’d just like to share with you the contents of the wonderful goody bag that I received at the end of the day, along with another BOOKS ARE MY BAG bag, which I shall carry with the same pride as its two predecessors, now grubby from a whole summer of being paraded everywhere I’ve been. I’m doubly proud that a postcard about Almost Love was included.
Oh, and in case you’re interested, here’s that photo of the PM outside Patrick’s shop!
A lovely Friday conversation with Jan Smedh, joint proprietor of The English Bookshop in Uppsala, a thriving independent business…
I’m delighted and very proud to discover that Almost Love has been chosen as the British Crime novel of the month by The English Bookshop in Uppsala. I asked Jan Smedh, who, with his business partner Christer, is joint proprietor of the shop, if I could call him. He kindly agreed to talk to me today, although he was busy making final preparations for his absence: he and his wife and three sons are about to leave for a holiday in Greece.
Jan told me that every month he chooses books for his reading groups and his book club. There are three reading groups: one for the Book of the Month, one for classics and (in Stockholm – he and Christer have just opened another shop there) one for children’s books. The book club operates as a subscription service. It has between fifty and sixty members scattered throughout Sweden. They choose the category to which they wish to subscribe and are each month sent a book in that category that Jan has chosen. They do not know in advance what the title will be.
He chooses titles from six categories altogether: the Book of the Month, which is always a literary novel; British Crime, ‘Tough’ Crime, Paranormal, Fantasy and Science Fiction. He tries to introduce a spread of themes and to get a balance between male and female authors and authors from different countries; for example, he has featured Asian authors who write in English. His choices are pretty unerring: his customers always seem to like them.
Jan said that when he read the description of Almost Love, he ‘loved it at once’. (I’m blushing as I write!) He tries to pick books by authors from small publishers that aren’t necessarily well-known, rather than blockbusters. The subject of Almost Love seems to be exactly what his readers are looking for: it has a bit of history, a bit of archaeology, some local background, a good plot and a strong psychological element. He says that his favourite customer is ‘someone who leaves the shop with a book that they didn’t know that they wanted.’ His copies of Almost Love have yet to arrive (there has been a slight delay in the printing, caused by MPG’s having gone into receivership two weeks ago), but they should reach the shop next Monday, so he didn’t know until I told him that there is also a Scandinavian element to the plot. He was delighted about this.
Jan learned about Almost Love from a Scottish publishers’ rep who carries titles from several independent publishers. His name is Stuart Siddall. I had not heard of him before, but I shall certainly get in touch with him now and I should like to take this opportunity to thank him.
I asked Jan about the inspiration for The English Bookshop. He said that he and Christer came up with the idea for it in 1995. They received no financial backing; they raised all the money themselves. Christer was already working in the bookselling industry (largely in the academic sector), so he had the contacts with UK publishing companies, who were therefore prepared to set up accounts for the new venture. It would not have been possible without their support. Jan’s own background is in communications and the business has benefited a great deal from this. It is he who designs the graphics for the website. He is prolific on the social networks and the shop has very active Facebook and Twitter accounts. He says that the key thing with social networking is to be consistent. He has worked hard to build up a loyal customer following and he knows he must maintain their interest by continually being there for them. His own love of books goes back to his childhood. He also speaks impeccable English: he explained that he has lived in Cork and has also visited the UK (he would like to see much more of it) and the USA.
95% of The English Bookshop’s customers are Swedish, though there is an ex-pat community in Uppsala, which is a university town (Jan describes it as ‘the Oxbridge of Sweden’). Most Swedes read English, and Jan’s customers are getting younger: some twelve-year-olds now buy books in English. Uppsala is also Sweden’s religious centre and the city in which the Monarch is crowned. It is Sweden’s fourth largest city and not huge, but it has the weight of history behind it and is home to many very well-educated people. Jan and Christer made the conscious decision to stay away from university course texts: they wanted their bookshop to provide leisure reading. By this, he doesn’t mean that all the books he sells are ‘light’: his readers like books about many subjects, as well as fiction. British history, books about war and books about psychology are all popular. Sales of non-fiction titles are growing; also crime fiction and children’s titles. The Swedish government has now set up English language schools, which means that parents are looking for books in English for their children. The English Bookshop tries hard to keep abreast of the continually changing interests of the local community and its unique stockholding reflects this. Jan says that ‘other bookshops aren’t doing this any more; there’s often a drab uniformity about what’s available from the big chains.’ Smaller publishers often complain that it’s difficult to get a proper presence in them. This view would certainly resonate with Salt, whose many distinguished authors often struggle to get adequate shelf-space in chain bookshops. It would also be endorsed by the UK’s many excellent independent booksellers, some of whom Jan knows. He has met Jane Streeter, a former President of the Booksellers Association, and is himself a member of the BA, for which he has a high regard.
In the last six years the turnover of The English Bookshop in Uppsala has doubled, enabling it to open the second shop in Stockholm. Jan says that this ‘goes against the grain’ of Swedish bookselling generally, so he feels that he and Christer ‘must be doing something right.’ I’d say they were doing a great deal right! The business is now eighteen years old.
It was delightful to have the opportunity to talk to Jan, and I am very grateful to him for giving me so much of his time and as well, of course, for choosing Almost Love. I now have an open invitation to visit The English Bookshop, which I am determined to take up. I’d like to visit the one in Stockholm, too! I wish Jan and his family a very happy holiday indeed in Greece. If any of his customers should read this, I’d also like offer you a big thank you and to say that I very much hope that you will enjoy Almost Love. Perhaps we may meet in the bookshop one day.
As a former bookseller, my heart was gladdened by attending the announcement of the Books are My Bag campaign, which for me was the most exciting single event held at the London Book Fair this year. The campaign has been devised by M & C Saatchi and is entirely based on a single, simple, very effective message: that the passion for books and bookshops is a precious part of our national heritage and something that we should cherish, celebrate and promote. It is a campaign of perfect solidarity: all booksellers (whether they belong to chains or independents) and publishers are uniting with one voice to celebrate the pleasures and cultural importance of the high street bookshop.
Tim Godfray, CEO of The Booksellers Association and Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association, both spoke at the event. They were joined by some industry legends, including Patrick Neale, currently President of the Booksellers Association and joint owner of the marvellous Jaffé Bookshop in Oxfordshire (in a previous life he was the inspiration behind the equally wonderful Waterstone’s Sauchiehall Street bookshop in Glasgow) and Gail Rebuck, Chair and CEO of Random House (who, like Dame Marjorie Scardino, has proved that women can get to the top of large corporate publishing houses and stay there).
Patrick’s message was strong and direct. He made the point perfectly that there is far more to the experience of buying a book than receiving a brown cardboard parcel through the post: “We all know that there are many ways to buy and sell books, but what Books are My Bag captures and celebrates is the physical; the simple truth that bookshops do more physically to let people enjoy their passion for books.” Gail Rebuck said: “In these challenging times for the UK High Street, it is terrific that a world-renowned advertising company – M & C Saatchi – has devised such a positive campaign for all booksellers.”
In keeping with its message about the physical presence of bookshops, the campaign will feature strong branding and a very distinctive prop: a cloth bag with the words BOOKS ARE MY BAG printed on it in capitals in neon orange. These bags will be given to customers by bookshops across the country when the campaign is launched on 14th September. I wasn’t sure about the colour when I first saw it – and I was hugely impressed that Tim Godfray was prepared to spend the whole day wearing a matching T-shirt emblazoned with the orange slogan. However, throughout the Book Fair, I spotted people carrying these bags (the BA gave them out daily) and I concluded that they are very effective indeed. As Patrick put it, “This is the first time anyone has needed sun-glasses when inside the London Book Fair.” I have acquired two of them, one from the BA stand and one from the event, and I shall carry them with pride throughout the summer.
Anyone reading this blog who is interested in knowing more about this, here is your link Books are My Bag to its dedicated website.
I love bookshops!