Printed Press: 01
The unexpected joys of Parenthood, Energy Science, Cosy Mystery, Age of Sail – welcome to the first issue of our new miniseries ‘Printed Press’ which will look at the changing landscapes of print and publishing in countrysides today. Here, meet David, Janet, Linda, and James, the proprietors behind three local bookshops across England.
Words below by David, Janet, Linda, and James.
‘A specialised business like ours can benefit a village and nearby communities from the customers we draw, but we have to reach a far wider clientele to survive.’
How it all began: I had got a foothold in planning after a series of sideways hops, from civil engineering to a Ph.D. in transport studies, but found myself with few of the skills needed in the town-planning world and became disillusioned. Fortunately, instead of buying the recommended modern semi, I fell in love with Scarthin House: an unmodernised, three-storey Victorian house including a tenanted shop on the edge of a demolition area overlooking a silting-up pond. After a six-month struggle I succeeded in getting a mortgage and moved in, letting out three bedrooms to work colleagues. Wild parties! Fast-forward twenty years, with me on my third (and final!) marriage, the shop had crept up the stairs onto the landing and into the front rooms, leaving us with only a living kitchen and second-floor bedrooms. We had to “excuse-me” our way through the shop even to get to the loo. When the cottage next door came up for sale, we scraped together the deposit, knocked down a garden wall, and carried our furniture and chattels through the gap. Scarthin House took on a new life. Enhanced by the unofficial extension, the roof converted into storage (and children’s sleepovers) and the kitchen into the café. What has been most rewarding is the way we have become a beloved institution, a centre for groups to meet, a positive economic stimulus to the village, a great place to work for generations of employees and customers who are, like myself, well, misfits! Every day, going down to the café and bookshop and finding happy people in every room, I am again amazed and grateful. It’s a miracle!
Today: We are living through a golden age of children’s writing and, lately, outreach by professional economists, psychologists, scientists, and others explaining the latest discoveries in their fields to an eager, non-specialist audience. The brakes have also come off what used to be called “vanity publishing” but, despite reports of virally-selling self-publications, most books that cannot be widely promoted will remain invisible; it is still the big publishers with their prestige and distribution-power who dominate what we read. A highly specialised business like ours can benefit a village and nearby communities from the customers we draw, but we have to reach a far wider clientele to survive, extending nationally and even internationally. Being “rural” greatly reduces rent and rates, but means you have to have charisma, the wow-factor, or be the specialist in your field in order to attract customers to your out-of-the-way corner in the sticks. And at what cost, in carbon-emissions? For better or worse, restaurants and galleries have replaced Cromford’s traditional shops, and cottages are snapped up as second homes or holiday lets. The village has moved up-market and it is partly our fault.
Tomorrow: There has been a shameful deterioration in the quality of production of most British books over the last 50 years — paper that rapidly oxidises, cardboard instead of cloth covers, bindings that are too stiff to be opened without breaking the spine. This is particularly the case with long-established publishers of big-selling fiction, biographies, and history; their well-established authors should demand better of them, or little may survive of our era of book-production.
Value of printed literature: The feeling when reading or being spoken to by a passionate author, whether novelist, biographer, social historian or scientist. Too many books nowadays, though beautiful works of art, are produced by large teams, with no personal voice coming through. You need ephemeral advanced technology to access e-books and online text, and all you “own” is a password. A physical book can become part of your long-term library and is much more comfortable to read and refer to, though the word-searchable nature of digital media is a big advantage, especially when the conventional index is likely to be pathetic or absent.
Books that have greatly impacted my life: All the “Pevsners” in the Buildings of England series, David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and earlier books, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. So many books read to and by my children, old Ladybirds like Three Billy Goats Gruff, brilliant picture storybooks including by Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Shirley Hughes, Sarah Garland, Mairi Hedderwick, and Alex Brychta and Roderick Hunt with their drily funny Oxford Reading Tree series. T.H. White’s hilarious classic The Sword and the Stone and, of course, the Harry Potter phenomenon, with its midnight shop openings and films, that has united my children’s generation. As I write, R. and M., now in their twenties, are in the audience of J.K. Rowling’s latest play in London.
Favourite word or phrase: “…and afterwards at the pub,” “give Chance a chance,” “may your paintbrush shed no bristles.”
Favourite local spot: Our own garden, as eccentric as the bookshop, both to relax in and to work.
– DAVID, owner emeritus of Scarthin Books
THE CORSHAM BOOKSHOP
‘People appreciate the opportunity to browse and to get real booksellers’ recommendations, as opposed to algorithmic ones.’
How it all began: Although I worked in the bookshop from when it first opened in 2002, it was actually started by a friend with whom I had worked with at Waterstones. When he decided to move on to pastures new in 2008, I was able to take over as I knew the business well and was in a good position to make the most of the opportunity. Running the bookshop has given me a role in the community that helps feed our cultural and recreational needs; I find this deeply satisfying. I am convinced that having a good independent bookshop in the town helps to keep the High St vibrant and stops the historic centre from becoming merely some sort of filmset or ignored row of boarded-up shops.
Today: Since I first started bookselling over 30 years ago, the publishing industry has had to adapt to the death of the net book agreement, the birth of the ebook, and the proliferation of online selling. Any small business requires dedication and long hours, often for not a great deal of financial reward, and a bookshop is no different – the added challenge is that books are notoriously easy to buy on the internet, and since we cannot compete on price we must offer something else. We are lucky in Corsham to have customers who understand the “use it or lose it” principle and are also able to pay a little extra for the service. Most people appreciate the opportunity to browse and to get real bookseller recommendations as opposed to algorithmic ones! Also, although there has always been a market for beautiful books, I believe that the sale of books as objects of desire has much improved. Many authors are happy to engage with bookshops these days and we run a fairly extensive and popular programme of events. Endlessly reinventing ourselves and finding new ways to engage with our customers is a constant part of the business.
Tomorrow: There are certainly more self-published books, which in many ways is not a great thing — a well-known author who visited our shop said she was delighted she did not have the opportunity to self-publish, as she would probably have published her early books which she now realises were not fit. Crowdfunding for books is another matter, and can help get books out there that otherwise might not get published just because they don't tick various mass-market boxes. As for the general direction of publishing I await developments with interest!
Value of printed literature: Books are one of the very cornerstones of civilisation. Without books (in whatever form), the ability to learn from previous generations becomes far more cumbersome and less accessible. In the words of Bernard of Chartres when we read we are indeed “standing on the shoulders of giants.” I love sharing my love of books with everyone, most of all with young readers. I think some people just prefer the reading experience with a physical book, including (interestingly) children who have had the electronic option all their lives. Also, people enjoy books as objects in themselves – to paraphrase Anthony Powell, books do indeed furnish a room.
Recommended reads: The joy of working in a small shop is that every recommendation is personal. I am looking forward to the new cookery book from Rukmini Iyer, The Quick Roasting Tin; the publication of Normal People by Sally Rooney in paperback; Kate Atkinson’s new book Big Sky. I also love The Forager’s Calendar by John Wright.
A book that has greatly impacted my life: Hornblower Saga by C. S. Forester (it inspired my other career - sailing!).
Favourite word or phrase: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Lady Julian of Norwich) Or possibly, “pork belly futures” …it just rolls off the tongue!
Favourite local spot: The commons at Chapel Plaister.
– JANET, owner of The Corsham Bookshop
THE STRIPEY BADGER BOOKSHOP
Grassington, North Yorkshire
‘We believe the hardback book has possibly run its course, with customers waiting months for the paperback or downloading onto a device.’
How it all began: I had always wanted to end my working career working in a bookshop, so when we relocated home from Keswick to the Yorkshire Dales, I searched for a vacancy but couldn't find an independent bookshop. So we opened one. Grassington was chosen because it is a tourist village attracting many visitors and has a large community catchment area.
Today: We have been introduced to the world of publishers and are discovering independent publishers and authors struggling to get their books published. We are grateful for the support that publishers give indies with their POS etc, but we also stock local authors. We do believe the hardback book has possibly run its course, with customers waiting months for the paperback edition or downloading onto a device.
Tomorrow: There are unique opportunities for rural booksellers to get involved with their communities, to play an essential part. Not just author events, but workshops, coffee meetings, clubs - we can be a venue to help on a social front. Encouraging reading for all is paramount and we have the opportunity to recommend books and hand-sell to those who will love the choice.
Value of printed literature: We love literature of all genre. Literature to inform, literature to inspire, and literature to drown in. But mostly we love literature we can live in. There is nothing like the smell and touch of a paper book, it appeals on a sensory level and connects with emotions that reading on an electronic device cannot touch. Choosing the books for our shop is the best thing but it is also the most challenging. Have we curated wisely?
Recommended reads: We are excited by the children's book Malamander (Thomas Taylor, May 19), thrilled by Washington Black, Little Darlings (May 19), and we await Robert McFarlane's Underland with anticipation.
A book that has greatly impacted our lives: Lord of the Rings is the favourite book ever. But Wind in the Willows, with Badger, had such an impact we named our bookshop for him.
Favourite word or phrase: “Keep it secret, keep it safe” (Lord of the Rings) is often quoted.
Favourite local spot: There is a place near Grassington on the River Wharfe, which is peaceful and tranquil, with wildlife and birds and a place to sit and dream.
– Mother and son, LINDA & JAMES, owners of The Stripey Badger