Sunday, 17 June 2012

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: Scent of a (book) Woman, Kate Agnew at the Children’s Bookshop, Muswell Hill

The third in our new series of Sunday guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.

The Children’s Bookshop first opened its doors nearly 38 years ago. To this day I still vividly remember my own first visit. Encouraged by a brilliant infant school teacher, I went with my mum, ostensibly in search of the latest additions to the series I was enjoying, but really, I suspect, just for a good browse. The then owner, Helen Paiba, took the time to talk to us about what I was reading, what I enjoyed, and to think about what else I might like. It was a revelatory experience for us both, and, having received some wonderful, personally tailored advice, we left clutching not just the pirate book I knew I wanted, but also an armful of books to enjoy. My mother Lesley took over the shop in 1994 while I was running Heffers Children's Bookshop. Now I work there myself, along with my sister Emily.

There are days when, if I shut my eyes and don’t stop to think too hard, some things don’t seem to have changed all that much in the intervening decades. As I open up on a Monday morning, the shop still smells of that heady new book aroma (which Karl Lagerfeld is trying to bottle!) and at least some of the books I enjoyed then are still selling today; the outside loo has grown no warmer over the years and the pillar that holds up the ceiling is still as inconvenient as it ever was. On the plus side, even in these days of ebooks and cut-price offers in other high street stores, in the specialist independent bookshop our in-depth knowledge and passion for what we do are what reign supreme. We still spend a great deal of each day enthusing about the books we love and talking to customers about just which books will be right to meet their child’s particular needs.

Meanwhile the role of authors – as readers of this blog need little reminding – has experienced one of the biggest changes in bookselling since the Children’s Bookshop first opened its doors. Our active relationship with authors is almost as obvious to customers coming into the shop today as that distinctive scent. Piles of signed stock jostle cheerfully for space with Carnegie short-listed titles, and passers-by might be forgiven for thinking that we are suffering from something of a split personality at the moment. One of our windows is draped in dark fabric, covered in gore, blood and spiders ahead of a signing with Darren Shan. The other features bright-yellow flowery trims, pastel eggs and little fluffy chicks to mark the launch of Helen Peters’ delightful first novel, The Secret Hen House Theatre.

That kind of variety, and the chance to do different and exciting things in support of the books we love and the authors who’ve supported us, are among the delights of an independent bookshop. Last month alone featured a typically vibrant blend of events involving authors and children from a wide range of backgrounds. With so many good things going on, it seems invidious to single out particular events from the mix, but perhaps readers will get a flavour if I say that they included shop signings with Nick Sharratt and Lauren St John; an extraordinary succession of scintillating talks, readings and drawing sessions with a rich range of authors in schools; an inspirational residency with Kevin Crossley-Holland and some delightful workshops with Polly Dunbar creating Dream Boat hats; as well as a family author event with the local literary and scientific institution. And among all that, we enjoyed being involved in a wonderfully individual local launch, for Sita Bramachuri’s Jasmine Skies; it took place at a deli and involved barefoot Indian dancing on the streets of Muswell Hill!

As a child, although I visited the bookshop almost every week, I don’t remember ever seeing an author there, or one coming into school. It just didn’t happen, and we didn’t know to miss it. But a few years on from that first visit to the bookshop, it seemed an extraordinary treat to meet – at a Puffin book fair in Kensington – their editor Kaye Webb. It felt such a privilege to come face to face with the woman who’d worked on so many of the books I loved, I can only imagine what it would have been like to meet a real-life author!

Except, of course, I am lucky enough not to have to imagine it: as a young bookseller in the early 90s it was an unbelievable treat to come face to face with many of my childhood idols, among them Philippa Pearce and Jill Paton Walsh, whom I met in the gardens at Hemingford Grey, home of The Children Of Green Knowe, which our book club is enjoying this month. That delight is something I often think of as I see the pleasure in young fans’ faces when they meet a favourite author. The teenage girls who baked a cake for Derek Landy; the family who brought a huge bouquet of flowers for Jacqueline Wilson; the eight-year-old who quietly handed Michael Morpurgo the story he’d written; the class who made a big biscuit bear for Mini Grey: these are some of many moments to treasure.

Now barely a week passes in which we are not involved in several different author events, and long hours are spent behind the scenes in matching the right author to the right venue at the right time. All the events we do come on top of the assorted days spent in schools with children and evenings in the bookshop with teachers talking through the variety of new books available, which in turn come on top of the ordinary days spent hand-selling in the shop. If there were only more hours in the day, more days in the week and – most of all I sometimes think – more square yards in the shop, we’d love to do even more. In a world where independent retailers are under constant threat we know it’s our relationship with authors – and their supportive publishers – alongside our in-depth knowledge and love of the books that keep customers coming back for more. We’ve recently been shortlisted for the Bookseller Children’s Independent Bookseller of the Year Award. Let’s hope the award, the specialist independent bookshops, and the smell of new, printed books are still here to be enjoyed in another four decades.

Team photo with Jacqui Wilson: Kate Agnew, Ellen Ellis, Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, Emily Agnew and Jenna Harrington.

The Children’s Bookshop website

Watch out for Independent Booksellers Week, a campaign celebrating independents on the high street, which this year takes place between 30th June and 7th July.


Pam said...

Long may it continue. I remember many happy hours browsing books with my son, now married, and daughter, just finished Uni. They both eagerly went to meet authors: Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson

Joan Lennon said...

Your bookshop sounds wonderful - thank you for all the hard work that keeps it so!

Emma Barnes said...

What a wonderful post - I will definitely be exploring your bookshop, next time I'm in London.

Both as a writer and parent, I think there's a real problem with lack of specialist advice about children's books. There are so few dedicated children's librarians, and primary school teachers are generalists who rarely have time to be really up-to-speed on what's happening with children's books. So parents and children fall back on the trusted, familiar names - Roald Dahl etc - or whatever is on the supermarket shelf.

But children vary so much in their reading tastes - which are always changing too. It makes a huge difference if someone can direct them, not just to a book about pirates, say, but the right book about pirates for their age, reading ability and taste.

It's wonderful that you are fulfilling that role and I just wish there were more independent book shops out there.

Keren David said...

Speaking as an author, but mainly as a parent, those of us who live nearby are so very lucky to have the Muswell Hill Children's bookshop nearby. I have always been able to find exactly what I need in there - and I get a thrill to see my books on the shelf!

Jackie Marchant said...

Well, I've not set foot in your bookshop but, from the photos, it looks like a wonderful place to be! Long live the independent bookshop!

Helen Peters said...

I echo everything Keren said. Hurrah for the wonderful Children's Bookshop. My children love going there, and what makes it so special for them is the fact that the staff always take the trouble to talk to them about what they like reading and then recommend great new authors for them to try. Shops like this enrich an area so much and we are incredibly lucky to have it.

Penny Dolan said...

Really good to hear this happy history of the Children's Bookshop. Think I must try harder to include Muswell Hill next time I'm visiting London.

I do agree with Emma. Good to know there are places where parents and all involved with children can find specialist book advice from people who know how young readers work and can find the next "just right" book.

Linda Strachan said...

All authors need such committed and enthusiastic booksellers and lovely bookshops, now even more than ever. They are a delight whether you are a writer or a reader.

Wishing you many more happy and successful years continuing the good work. I hope to visit when I am next down in London.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a fabulous shop! One of the best things about it is that the atmosphere is so welcoming. We go and browse; often you see a child (often it's mine!) just sitting quietly reading, trying out a book they might buy. There is help if you want it but no pressure and staff can answer any question you throw at them (any teenage fiction about Russia? what's that Viking book with a girl with shining eyes on the cover? what can I read if the new Penderwicks book isn't out yet?) They never prescribe books by age or narrow interest; they offer new ideas. We have to travel an hour to get there but we never leave without a pile of books.

Lily said...

What a wonderfully enthusiastic and encouraging post, in these days of hearing how children don't read and bookshops are disappearing. Will definitely make a pilgrimage to your shop.

adele said...

Coming late to this but adding my voice to say: A marvellous shop and always super going there!

batterychargersell said...

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Anonymous said...

One of London's best bookshops. And charming.
- Dedalus