One of our IBW Book Award judges for 2014 was Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Perfect. Here, she shares her look of books and bookshops, in celebration of IBW this year.
Writers – it is our job to look after our bookshops By Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Perfect
Whenever I enter a local bookshop I know something is going to happen.
It will involve a book, of course. But it will also involve a ritual of a kind, a process of choosing. I’ll leave with something I didn’t have before and that is exciting.
In order to write this, I’ve been trying to remember the first time I visited a bookshop as a child. All I can picture is our local library. We went once every week after school (a Wednesday, it was) and we were allowed four books. The more I write about my old library, the more I remember. The vanilla smell of the books, the plastic covering, the label to be stamped by the librarian with the return date. The detail was part of the journey. I chose carefully and at great length.
Sometimes the librarian would suggest a different book, or ask how I had enjoyed the previous one. A local writer might visit and it was as if the books came alive and – quite literally – became a person.
The books belonged to us. Words and thoughts; they were there for us to take away. You just had to find the right ones. When I finally left with my four books, I knew I had something ahead of me. Something I didn’t know yet. I remember running home.
It doesn’t exist any more, my old library. I know we can buy books on the internet now, but there is nothing like the local bookshop. It does all the things my old library used to do and more.
Bookshops are all different, of course, but what impresses me over and over is the way indie booksellers know their customers, and the way the customers treasure their booksellers. When we leave with a book in our bag we want it to be the right one.
Books are not just about commercial ownership. They are written to be talked about and opened and chosen and shared. Libraries are going, I fear, but indie bookshops continue their heritage. As writers it is our job to look after our bookshops. If we can help to keep them on the high street by attending a signing or giving an event, that is a small thing.
I wasn’t there when my childhood library was closed but I am here now – for my local bookshop. And I will shout for it.
Rachel Joyce’s new novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy will be published on 9th October (Doubleday, £12.99)
We were proud and delighted that some of the shortlisted authors for the IBW Book Award last year also gave us us some amazing quotes in praise of independent bookshops. Here’s a selection:
‘Thank you so much for voting for me. Thank you also to all Independent bookshops and booksellers for how hard and passionately they work to support and sell books. I’m grateful to you for the huge part you’ve played in the success of my books and delighted to be a part of IBW 2013.
‘The greatest honour a writer can have is to be recognised by people who know what they’re talking about, so thanks to the Independent Booksellers. You are the diamonds in the rock face (in a good way).’
The thing that excites me about independent bookshops is just how personal the experience is. My favourite children’s bookshops radiate an energy and buzz that I can only credit to the enthusiasm and dedication of the booksellers. I never fail to be impressed by how well independent booksellers know the families that come into their shops. There is something very special about their ability to see beyond what they sell as ‘stock’ and to find each child their perfect book.
I love independent bookshops. They’re the first thing I look for when visiting anywhere new and it’s just not the same if I don’t find one, it really colours how I feel about the place. I’m a huge fan of the people who run independent bookshops, marvelling at their dedication, their enthusiasm, the amount of hard graft they put in to make their shops special and to make customers and authors feel special too. Events and signings have always been particularly enjoyable and memorable with independent bookshops because of the terrific people who run them.
The first thing I do when I travel to a new city or town is hunt for the independent bookshops. I believe you can gauge the cultural health of a region by the number of independent bookshops and their ratio to, say, GAP outlets. Independent bookshops are more than just an indicator species in the cultural ecology of a city. They are what is called a keystone species, one that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its number. Like the architectural keystone that supports an arch, from whence the term derives, what defines a keystone species is this: if you remove it, the structure collapses. Independent bookshops are the keystone species of our cultural ecosystem. When they are endangered, the rest of our species is imperiled as well. When they flourish, so do we all. Luckily, we know this somehow. Independent booksellers are an adaptable and resilient lot, and readers and writers are loyal and stubborn, and together we form a strong relationship of symbiotic mutualism. I am forever indebted to the independent booksellers who have supported my work and enabled me, a tiny organism in this vast cultural ecology, to write and thrive.
Part of the pleasure of buying a new book for me is the act of choosing it. By this I mean, going to find the book. Holding it. Looking at what is inside. Listening to what the bookseller has to say. Deciding if it is the one for me.
What has moved me most of all in the publishing process is the passion and commitment with which the independent booksellers have embraced HF. There have been window displays, home made maps, assistants in yachting shoes, not to mention Pilgrim t-shirts, life size post boxes and Harold songs. Without this commitment to new writing from the booksellers and this inventive flair for sales, I fear that books like mine wouldn’t stand a chance.
And our authors shortlisted in 2012 were no less fulsome in their praise:
“Independent booksellers have become an endangered species who do far more for our civilisation than pandas or rhinos. What prospect is there of a new generation learning to love books as so many of us have done, unless they can experience the thrill and serendipity of browsing real books in real time in real shops, rather than merely online ? We all find Amazon a huge convenience, but book-buying through the internet bears the same resemblance to roaming the shelves of a proper bookshop as does fantasy football to the game on the pitch. Independent booksellers love their wares, and thus bring to their business a knowledge and a passion which every buyer can exploit and learn from. Britain is deeply fortunate to have the booksellers we see around us today, and we must strive mightily to ensure that they survive and prosper through the decades ahead, for the sake of readers still unborn.” Max Hastings
“For me nothing quite beats time spent browsing an independent bookstore, emerging hours later with an unexpected treasure that someone with real passion has pressed into my hands. Over the last twelve months it has therefore been a huge pleasure for me to meet a handful of the wonderful
independent booksellers who have taken Before I Go to Sleep under their wing, and it’s truly heartwarming to hear of their enthusiasm for this, my first book. I am hugely indebted to them and forever grateful.” SJ Watson
“If ever the great web of independent bookshops were to pass away, it would be like the loss of the library at Alexandria. They are an essential bright thread in the tapestry of civilization, tying into the heart and soul of a country.” Sebastian Barry
“There’s nothing like an independent bookshop. You walk in and chat to a real human owner who says, “Oh my god, have you read this?” So you buy it and read it and think, “perfect! Whatever will they recommend next?” This makes me totally happy.” Meg Rosoff
“In a world of quick-onto-the-next-thing, indie booksellers take the time to understand their books and their customers – they can match book with reader better than any dating-site algorithm. They’re the best-read people we’re ever likely to meet. I’m in awe of their passion and their dedication. Champions all!” Kate Grenville
“All bookshops are magical, but there’s something special about independent ones. Whether it’s because each one is unique, or that as customer you know that every book on the shelves has been picked by the person behind the counter, like an expert fruit picker choosing only the best and most delicious fruit, I’m not sure. What I do know is that reading is a wonderful adventure and where better to start that adventure than in the tightly packed shelves of your local independent book shop?” Alex T Smith
“I like to browse, and a good independent bookshop is a browser’s paradise – a bookshop that has its own unique flavour, with a selection that’s interesting, different and surprising, and might introduce me to something new.” Kate Saunders
“I feel at home in independent bookstores. They’re the colourful, quirky, opinionated friend you meet for morning coffee, only to realise that hours have flown and it’s now past lunchtime. I like the fact that they have chairs in secluded corners and friendly cats. I like the fact that people who work in independent bookstores love and know about reading and books and go out of their way to share their love and knowledge with readers of all ages. That the most passionate champions of Blood Red Road turn out to be librarians and independent booksellers makes me very happy indeed.” Moira Young
“I meet a fair number of independent booksellers in this job, and I am always astonished at the sheer level of hard work, knowledge and dedication they put in. Organising author visits, selling books at festivals, hosting launches, championing obscure books which then go on to be bestsellers, pouring a ridiculous amount of obscure knowledge into their quest to get good books in the hands of the general public. Hurrah for booksellers! And hurrah for the bookshops they run.” Sally Nicholls
“I love a bookshop with a unique personality. My favourite indie in Norfolk makes me feel both relaxed and inspired every time I walk through the door. The promise of the unexpected lies within. I love bookshops where I’ll be waylaid by surprising new discoveries that will spark my imagination. Where interesting books are temptingly placed so that I cannot resist the pleasure of picking them up and opening their covers. Where no title, or author’s name – or that punchy strapline that took so long for a publisher to compose – is hidden by a shouty fluorescent sales sticker. Where conversations with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff are part of the pleasure of discovering and choosing – and where the book you ordered yesterday has already arrived from Bertrams! It’s a lot more enjoyable than opening an Amazon envelope. Independent bookshops are simply much more fun places to shop in, which is why I’m more likely to find myself putting my credit down at the till for another book I didn’t know I wanted but is suddenly irresistibly desirable. It’s a habit I never want to break.” Marion Lloyd, publisher of One Dog and His Boy
“I always remember when I was growing up, my mother having this irresistible urge to go in to bookshops and they were usually the second hand or smaller independently owned ones. She rarely came out empty handed and it’s true to say that our house was filled, almost to overflowing with books of all kinds and not always the ones you’d find in the larger chain bookshops. Her immense love of books and reading was infectious and I think it rubbed off on me.
So, I find independent bookshops great for variety when checking out the children’s book section and I appreciate the fact that they really do care about books. I also quite like browsing around some of the smaller, unique and individually owned bookstores for those older classic titles and annuals, which remind me of my childhood.” Sharon Rentta
“Every book has its own story. Its own character. A unique feel. This is what gives them their personality; what makes each one different, and special. Independent bookshops are like that too. All different. All refreshingly unique. Writing this stirred happy memories inside – thinking back to when my daughters were little. Two pairs of blue wellies tottering into our little bookshop in town. I remember the excited anticipation my girls felt, wondering who would be waiting inside…They made many friends in that tiny bookshop. Once a tiger (whom they longed to invite to tea!). Once a wonderfully different patchwork elephant. They willed a witch, called Winnie, not to squash her cat flat and hummed along with a bear called Pooh. This little bookshop gave my children (and me) a wealth of memories that will stay with us forever. Like stories and like children too, independent bookshops are filled with surprises just waiting to be discovered!” Tracey Corderoy
“My local children’s bookshop is a real gem of a shop for loads of different reasons:
1. They stock a HUGE variety of excellent books.
2. Links with local schools are cultivated and they organize great events in and out of the shop.
3. It’s a great place to drink coffee, eat brownies and chat while children get to choose the books they like.
I can still remember my mum and sister taking me to the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town (or, if we had the car, the Highgate Bookshop), where I’d spend AGES looking at as many books as I could fit in before they’d come to get me. I still have my favourite Chitty Chitty Bang Bang pop-up book that was bought for me on one of those trips. Some bits of the book don’t work so well now, but that’s old age for you.’ Liz Pichon
“Ernest Hemingway once said “There’s no friend as loyal as a book”. That’s why I say, there’s no greater matchmaker than an independent bookstore.” Chris Bradford, author of Young Samurai
“I’m not safe in independent bookshops. I’m a kid in a sweetshop, a bull in a china shop, a magpie in a jeweller’s shop. I’m the one sitting on the floor in the corner, coat off, groceries parked, reading. Disturb me, and I will chat. Recommend to me, and I will buy. Offer me a coffee and I will stay all day, and stagger off garlanded with those nice linen book bags, full of hardbacks and lists of forthcoming attractions. I like the owners, the clientele, the variety, the idiosyncracies. I realise that as some cheerful Americans think that strangers are just friends they haven’t met yet, I see an independent bookshop as an extra bit of my house, full of my books that I just haven’t bought yet and ideas I haven’t had yet. Wherever I am, the bookshop can be my haven. Sad is the day out where there is no interesting little bookshop to pop into. And at home, among the piles of books read and unread, there’s always the almost-worn-out Black Books dvds. The day one of our children’s books appeared on Bernard Black’s shelf (behind Manny in his bookworm/caterpillar outfit, FYI) was a day of immutable joy. If I ever get to go on Desert Island Discs, that shop would be my luxury.” Louisa Young
“Whenever I step into my local independent bookshop, I uncover so many gems of inspiration and treasured memories of growing up, all residing in that magical maze of shelves and staircases. It’s a place I can very often get lost in, with such a wonderful charm and character that the world’s market-driven giants fail to recreate. I feel happy and at home here, knowing that books have been individually handpicked with care, by book-lovers who have a passion for keeping the community spirit and joy of reading alive. Good bookshops can be trusted like good friends – and we want such friends to be around forever” . Kate Leake
‘ I love independent bookshops. If you know what book you want they will have it and if you don’t know what book to buy they will suggest one. Independent booksellers love books and this love seeps through to their shelves, cases and staff. ’ Eoin Colfer
“Among the browsers in any bookshop, you can usually identify the publisher among them because they’re the individual treating the stock like a suspicious food: turning it over to inspect its outer shell or sniffing its insides to check for the freshness of the ink. For readers, writers and publishers alike, how a book feels in the hand remains an important quality, as it does for independent booksellers, who face the challenging task of providing a little extra value in an age of dizzying online enterprise. Touch can be one of those values – and I don’t only refer to production values when I say that, but to the particular kind of connection that only our independent bookshops can offer: the personal variety of touch that nourishes a literary community. Our indies connect readers with writers and with other readers too. They curate and encourage, introduce and inform. They bring a world of writing to our high streets and side streets, and in so doing nurture that most expansive instinct within us: to roam with our reading, to browse further afield.” Matthew Hollis