The irony of books being my business hit me today when I walked into my daughter’s nursery to be confronted by an array of mock-chiffon-clad princesses and a super hero. Then, it hit me – in the midst of preparing exciting new book ideas ahead of the London Book Fair in a fortnight, I’d forgotten to dress my own daughter up for World Book Day. Of course, this was not an ideal start to the day, slightly saved by the Paddington Bear badge I’d absent-mindedly stuck on her dress this morning and by the saving grace of another forgetful/oblivious parent!
However, my epic parenting fail was a timely reminder that being in publishing doesn’t always mean that you are immersed in the world of books. For the most part, I’m at the nascent end, nurturing an embryonic idea that will one day give birth to a book you can actually hold in your hand, but at the moment is gestating in flurries of emails, half-complete chapter breakdowns, mountains of research, long nights and passionate exchanges. That’s what I love – taking a message and crafting it into something that, potentially, once read, will change someone’s mind and perhaps even their heart. But that’s all very abstract.
So, when I need to remind myself why I got into publishing in the first place, I seek the sanctuary of my local bookshop. Bookshops to me are places that return you to yourself; time doesn’t really exist for the bookshop browser, it is about being transported back into a world of reading that has fed your soul from childhood. The very smell of the paper pervading the atmosphere and the temptations of covers adorned with beautiful designs and embellishments that can never translate to the screen are all succour to the world-weary. It is frequently the case that I’ll go into a bookshop not really intending to buy anything or with a specific title in mind, and am seduced by something simply because it is beautiful. That’s where good bookshops are clever, because they are masters – not at the sales pitch, but at creating an environment in which their goods sell themselves. They are the ultimate realisation of the author’s (and the publisher’s) dream for their book.
As such, I was heartened to see that this year’s British Book Industry Awards Independent Bookshop has had a record number of regional shortlisted entries. It is vital that we don’t just pop into our local indie, but that we celebrate it too. Independent bookshop owners are some of the brightest and bravest entrepreneurs out there. They’ve had it tough over the last 10 years with the ever-dominant internet giants undercutting them, the increases in rents and business rates, and the decline in high-street spending. But they don’t just struggle on, they innovate and they respond to the needs of their customers.
My local indies are absolutely a testament to that independent spirit.
Hereward of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury and Nailsworth is a bookseller par excellence. He curates his offering as carefully as any museum or gallery manager does. He doesn’t give in to fads and it is rare that the celebrity biography is found on the shelves, let alone the window display, unless it is well-written, beautifully presented and offers something exceptional to its reader. It is those criteria that he applies to the books he carries, and it works. You go into the bookshop, knowing that you will find something to challenge, inspire or uplift you or your friends and family. He also runs an amazing literary festival alongside his usual events programme and his reputation brings some of the biggest names to these small Gloucestershire market towns, because authors know too of the power and importance of a brilliant bookshop.
While for children of all ages visiting Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester (which was on this year’s South West shortlist) is a joyful experience – you are greeted by an enchanting array of Moomins, all dressed by Octavia’s mother, and the shelves are crammed with books to meet the needs of customers big and small. Octavia herself is a pioneer, she has been in the bookselling industry for years, having previously headed up children’s departments at Ottakar’s and Waterstone’s, before opening Octavia’s in 2011. In 2012 the Bookshop was runner up in the Telegraph’s Best Small Shops in Britain Awards and in 2013 it won Best Children’s Independent Bookshop in The Bookseller Industry Awards. She runs book groups for ages 6-7, 8-9, 10-12 and 13+, and a book spa that involves her personal recommendations, washed down with tea and cakes. Like many great independents, she runs fantastic events where you can meet your favourite authors and has a loyalty card to reward her adoring customers. Children’s bookshops need to be places that foster the imagination and Octavia knows that. Undoubtedly, there has never been a more critical time to laud the children’s bookseller than when the recent World Book Day statistics seem to suggest that quarter of eight to 11-year-olds would not own a book without the initiative – a terrifying statistic. It is time that society as a whole addressed the urgent need to foster a love of books in the next generation, not just because research shows books can make us more empathetic and mentally healthier human beings, but because they help us to grow into people who are curious about the world we live in and encourage us to engage in making that world a better place.
So, although today is about celebrating books – let’s also take a moment to celebrate the people who commit themselves to bringing those books to us and who set us off on reading pathways we may never have explored on our own.