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.
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.
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.