One of the things I was able to do over the last couple of days was visit one of the most inspirational bookshops I know, the Albion Beatnik in Walton Street, Oxford, and chat to its owner, Dennis Harrison. He made me tea, looked at me quizzically, found out about what I was doing with the Tree House and why…talked about the way shopping has changed, the challenges a bookshop faces, the challenges any shop faces (he said that one of the encouraging things is that now the place is struggling because it’s a shop not specifically because it’s a bookshop – an example of his melancholically-tinged sense of humour!), about how to run a shop on your own when you can’t afford to pay staff wages.
But it was certainly not all doom and gloom. He has been in bookselling for 30 years, and is clearly still finding a way. Albion Beatnik sells both new and secondhand books, though it was hard to see the join, and his stock of second-hand books is enviable in terms of quantity and, especially, quality. A table laden with lovely old orange-spined Penguin classics. Whole bays of quality fiction and non-fiction, not a James Patterson nor a Martina Cole in sight. No children’s books, that I could see at least. He talked to me about pricing, about attitudes (one’s own) to being a shop-owner, about how there are no longer any rules.
Albion Beatnik also hosts evening events – primarily poetry and jazz, clearly Dennis’s two great loves – wherever he sets up his store, he says, he makes sure there is poetry and jazz. Jericho (the district of Oxford in which Albion Beatnik is situated) is very different from Kenilworth, but his model is still inspirational and, perhaps more importantly, aspirational. He made me feel better about having to close my shop for a couple of days, because my chat with him is an investment for the longer term development of the Tree House Bookshop. He made me feel better because he said sometimes you do just have to close the shop.
So I am now planning how to use what I found aspirational in this lovely bookshop to further the development of my own bookshop and community space. Mainly in terms of organising evening events, but am also thinking about both stock and stock display. It will always be a work in progress – though when I arrived at Albion Beatnik, Dennis was sitting quietly on a lovely old leather sofa, talking to a girl who was about to publish a new book and wanted to organise a launch event, and he seemed in no hurry to be doing much else, so perhaps one day you do get to a stage where the physical shop at least is holding its own…that in itself is something I aspire to.