A second-hand Christmas is as good as new!

tree house badgeSecond-hand bookshops may not be everyone’s first port of call for Christmas gifts, but there are all sorts of things to be found here.  We often have books in excellent condition, and personally I’m always happy to receive second-hand books even if they are a bit rough round the edges.  Lots of books are no longer in print, and it’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two, browsing the shelves and finding unexpected treasures and pleasures.  A paperback book makes a great stocking filler, and they are inexpensive enough for children to spend their pocket money on if they are looking to buy gifts for parents or other relatives and friends.

As do our badges – we now have some Christmas-themed ones as well as our own Tree House ones and other literary inspirations, and we can customise them to order as long as what you want fits into a 25mm diameter circle!  They are just 50p.

You could also buy someone a Tree House voucher, to any amount you like.  These can be redeemed against books or films (but not our other events, which have to be carefully budgeted).

You could also, if you want to pay a bit more, subscribe someone to our Mail Order Book Club or local membership (whereby you pay a certain amount each month and get a voucher to that amount to spend on books).  The Mail Order club involves getting surprise books in the post each month – what larks, Pip!

So do think about us when you’re doing your Christmas shopping.  We are currently open Monday to Saturday, and will be open late on Friday 27th November for the Warwick Road Christmas lights switch-on – there may be a few crafts on sale then and the urn will be steaming away, with a few edible treats as well no doubt.

Hope to see you soon!

Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

tree house badgeThis is a fairly desperate plea to see if you, our faithful supporters, can keep supporting us and maybe find more people to help with the support!

The Tree House is thriving on its own terms – selling books, creating marvellous friendships, providing a friendly space to hang out in the centre of town, putting on lovely events that are very much enjoyed and occasionally well-attended…  We have a full programme of films, music, craft group, reading evenings, mindfulness courses, art history lectures and more.  The music events have been wonderful and packed out, our open mic events are also well supported, the mindfulness course this term is over-subscribed, the art history lectures get weekly audiences of 10-20 people, the needlecraft group is growing.  The films are not well attended, but the few who come seem to enjoy them very much, and we’ve watched some wonderful films.

However, the finances are a struggle.  Rent and rates are high – we need around £1800 a month to pay those two bills alone, then there are our utilities on top of that, occasional accountant’s fees and other expenses.  I am working here six days a week and from three to five evenings a week, and really need to be paid to do that – only because I need to pay my own rent and bills too!

I would love to do the whole thing on a non-commercial basis – it is intended very much as a community venture – but that is not realistic.  I keep it as non-commercial as I can (to the exasperation of some friends!), but we do need to meet our overheads if we are to survive.  We are constantly in danger of not meeting them, despite the way the venture as a whole is growing and strengthening in terms of community and bookselling and promotion of the arts as a means of enriching our souls and our communal lives.

That’s the basic thrust of what I want to say.  If you want more detail, read on; if you just want to see how I am suggesting you might be able to help, jump to the How can you help? bit!  There are simple things people can do, not all of which involve spending money.

The community that has grown up here, and continues to develop, is just fabulous.  More and more people are coming in and discovering us and are often surprised to find such a lovely place.  There are seats to sit in if you’re tired, an ever-chuntering urn for making tea and coffee for just £1, and an atmosphere of calm in these bookish surroundings, with occasional music or cricket commentary or Radio 4 Extra to add some excitement.

We are now struggling with the finances, though, which may just mean that our venture is not viable, or we have to change it to something more commercially focused.  We are in the process of trying to change our status to a social enterprise, or Community Interest Company, which would bring some financial benefits, but we have an immediate need if we are to pay the rent over the next couple of months.

This is not so much a begging message as a way of being open about what’s happening and suggesting ways that you can help if you feel you would like to.  Some are simple and don’t involve you spending any money, others do involve a bit of financial expenditure, but we have always worked on the principle of lots of people giving a little as our main means of functioning.

We are not a charity, but when we can afford to we give what we can to charity.  After much deliberation, we will be supporting the Alzheimer’s Society and Mind, as charities that do so much to enrich the lives of those suffering from mental illness, disability, impairment and degeneration which is such a dark side of our society, and something which literature and the arts can do a lot to help with.

There is lots of potential.  On the strength of the success of the art history courses, I would like to set up a sort of Lifelong Learning programme of short courses, dayschools and one-off lectures on other arts subjects as well as art history (literature, film, philosophy, history, etc) and am seeking out suitable people to teach.  We still want to bring more in the way of literature to the town – we’ve had some lovely poetry evenings, which we will continue, and have plans to do more with fiction and other forms of writing, including nature writing.  We are hoping to be very involved in next year’s Kenilworth Festival, which will have a clear focus on the arts.  We can branch out into some literature-related cards and gift items if we find the right products.  We are going to set up online book selling, which we should have done ages ago, but there is only so much time in the day.  There are now more people regularly involved, which will make all these things – and more – easier; and will also make coming up with creative ideas easier, as we pool our imaginative resources!

So…if you would like us to continue (yes, it is coming to that level!) and would like to support in some way, do read on.

How can you help?

  • Spread the word about our events (as well as our books!).
  • Share our Facebook posts if you are Facebook, retweet if you’re on Twitter, join our mailing list and read and forward our emails.
  • Join our membership scheme – for any amount per month from £5 upwards, by standing order, you get a voucher (posted out to you) to spend on books for the full amount.
  • Try one of our events – especially our films, which are lovely!  And only £3 including tea/coffee.  We have a mixture of old classics, foreign language films, music-based documentary type films (the kind of film that’s hard to categorise!), and some more general films but ones you don’t tend to see on television.
  • Join our mail order book club or recommend it to a friend who doesn’t live in or near Kenilworth.  Or buy a subscription as a birthday or Christmas gift.  £5 a month for one book, £7 a month for two.
  • Buy books!  A paperback book is cheaper than most cups of coffee in a cafe, much cheaper than a magazine, half the price (or less!) of a pint of beer, and a book a week is a healthy habit to develop!  And second-hand books make great presents and stocking-fillers.  People shouldn’t mind if the corners are a bit worn – we are too fussy these days.
  • Become a patron by giving £3 a month to support our enterprise.  It will give you a lovely warm glow, worth far more than £3 a month.

Get in touch if you want further information about any of these things.  If you have read this far – thank you!

Day 5: what is it all for?

5 November 2015

treeI am a bit behind with posting my daily musings, and don’t want to overload, so will try to catch up at intervals over the next couple of days.  Here is what I wrote on 5 November.

This is all a bit random, but I am just going with the thoughts that come to me on different days.  Having tackled the question of how I thought up the idea of the Tree House, I should tackle the next most frequently asked question – what is it for?  This usually means where do the proceeds go, a reasonable question from those donating books – though many also think or assume it is a charity shop.  Some even express open surprise when they walk in about the narrow selection of stock – ‘Oh…they only have books!’ – and then they leave.

But it is a question that deserves an answer – what is the Tree House for?  It’s all a bit of a moot point, in a financial sense – we say we are non-profit and we give our profits to charity, but the truth is (as I often admit) that we are yet to make any profit.  We do have some collecting boxes at the bookshop, and I put small change in there, as do customers – and we did help to fund the William Morris garden at Compton Verney designed by Dan Pearson.  But we have yet to make regular donations.

The William Morris garden was something I felt I wanted to support, as it combines the arts with nature.  Overall, my aim is to support charities that make it their aim to protect the natural world, and trees in particular.  The Woodland Trust springs immediately to mind, but a customer has encouraged me to support the Sylva Foundation too, so I am looking forward to the day when we can start donating something.  Beyond that, I would like to support local charities and fundraising events, depending on individual campaigns and needs.  There is also a wonderful national charity called Nordoff Robbins, which provides music therapy to individuals, both adults and children, affected by serious conditions or illness.  I was introduced to this charity by the wonderful Michael Burdett, who has twice come to the Tree House – once to the old premises, recently to the new – to give his fabulous talk on a lost Nick Drake recording that he has in his possession.

One things we are working on is changing the status of the bookshop to a social enterprise, or community interest company, which will bring certain financial benefits, and in turn speed up our ability to make some profit and support these charities.

But the Tree House is not just ‘for’ some external causes.  It is essentially a community venture, and it is ‘for’ the community in more ways than financial ones.  It is, as I’ve  said before, a means of drawing people together through literature and the arts, and through providing a physical space in the town where people can meet – at events or during the day.  One elderly lady said how wonderful it was that there was somewhere that she could just sit down for a few minutes when she was out.  She comes in from time to time and we have lovely chats.  There is now a great group of people who know each other through the Tree House and would call each other friends.  My own circle of friends has grown enormously!  I moved back to Kenilworth in 2009 after 27 years away, and hardly got to know anyone until started the bookshop, other than my work colleagues and my next door neighbour, having left some great friends behind in Bristol, so it’s been a great way for me to make contact with all sorts of people.  I love it when one friend comes in and we have a cup of tea and a chat, then someone else joins us, sometimes one or two more – people drop in and spontaneous conversations develop, arrangements are made for further activities, people help each other and work together in support of the Tree House.  These friendships wouldn’t exist without the bookshop – and the bookshop wouldn’t survive without them!

So what is the Tree House for?  It aims to support various charitable causes, but it is also and more importantly to enhance, create, sustain, enrich a sense of community.  It’s also to sell second-hand books, which I happen to think are important – making available things that might otherwise be thrown out or stuck in attics or be lost in the mists of time.  I love second-hand bookshops because you find all sorts of things, sometimes while you are looking for something else.  Literature on the high street – it’s fabulous.  We have customers of all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly lady I mentioned above (who is in her 90s), and all types, looking for all sorts of different things.  I mentioned in a previous day’s jottings that I want ultimately to specialise, but I realise something will be lost, which is part of the reason for dragging my heels on that!  We really need a bigger shop…a floor of general books, a floor of more specialist subjects…  One day, though it doesn’t look as though we are going to make our fortune any time soon.  That’s OK, as we are not in the business of making fortunes!

We do need to make it more obvious what we are for – a window graphic or something on the fascia board or something public-facing that tells people why we are there.  The fantastic generosity of people in giving financial donations at crucial times and donations of books on a virtually daily basis happens because we are ‘for’ something, but there is inevitably some confusion too.  We had a wonderful poster in the old shop, but I had to ditch that as we put our running costs on it, and those have changed, and I haven’t got round to making a new one (someone else made the old one!).

Hopefully it will become increasingly apparent as to what the Tree House is for, by word of mouth and by experience, but I will work to make that more obvious.  We do have some small posters in the window setting out the basics, alongside our boards of photographs of famous writers, but it’s all a bit busy and we need something clearer.  But in a way – does something have to be ‘for’ something?  We just are, and what we are has changed and continues to change organically through the involvement of different people, and no doubt will continue to develop in its own way.

Day 4: looking ahead

4 November 2015 

The Strange Face Project: adventures with a lost Nick Drake recording, with Michael Burdett.  The bookshop was packed - took this as we were setting up, too engrossed to take photos during the event!
The Strange Face Project: adventures with a lost Nick Drake recording, with Michael Burdett. The bookshop was packed – took this as we were setting up, too engrossed to take photos during the event!

I generally don’t really know what I’m going to say when I start writing these daily scribblings, other than a general sense of a theme, so I am liable to get carried away at times.  I had no idea where yesterday’s entry was going, but in the end it was cathartic!

Today I am thinking about some of my ideas for developing things further at the Tree House, having already written a little about what is already going on.  Part of what I think I need to do is to build on those things we are already doing – especially the films, which I think could be really popular (I still don’t really understand why they aren’t more popular than they are, given that the only other place to see films regularly in Kenilworth is the Talisman Theatre), but I also want to build on the success of my art history lectures.  So there will be a bit of a marketing push for the films, and the possibility of two films a week (Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings) to provide some variety.  We always aim to show films that are not easy to see elsewhere, including foreign language films and other things that don’t get shown on television very often, and we are also showing some music documentaries (The Last Waltz, 20,000 Days on Earth, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould so far, and Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of England, coming up soon) and when these run out there will be another genre to replace them.

As for the lectures – my plan is to expand these and bring in people to give talks and workshops on other arts-related subjects.  I would love to use the Tree House as a base for a sort of Lifelong Learning programme, perhaps using Sundays and Mondays and a weekday evening to provide a variety of fascinating lectures and short courses taught by people with some academic experience and expertise.  We have a screen and projector and room to seat 20-30 people comfortably, so the search is now on for some lecturers – some emails already sent out, and more to send.  In the meantime, there will be lots of art history in the New Year!  Including a course, as opposed to standalone lectures, and the course will include notes, discussion sessions, suggestions for further readings, perhaps even a gallery visit or two.  Being little more than an hour away from London by train means the fabulous riches of the National Gallery and V&A are within easy reach for a day trip.

I have been tentative about our live music evenings, as in the past we have rarely made any money from these, and at times have lost money – we want to have professional musicians play, and with small audiences it can be hard to raise enough money to pay the fees such professionals deserve.  But with the help of online ticket sales, our last three gigs have been sold out, and we realise we can fit in another five seats, and get 40 people in for our music events.  If we can sell all those tickets, we can pay our fabulous musicians and keep a little for our own needs.  So as word is getting out about how enjoyable these evenings are, we are getting more emails from people wanting to come and perform, and I feel confident about putting music events on a little more frequently, maybe two a month.  Another exciting development for Kenilworth is that two friends, Lewis and Charlotte, who run our open mic nights, have set up an arrangement with Kenilworth Castle and are organising folk events in the Stables there, following the success of the Blair Dunlop concert at the Kenilworth Festival in September.  On that note, we hope to be even more involved in the Kenilworth Festival next year.  But this initiative means that Kenilworth should become known on the folk music map as a great place to perform, and that can only help us!

Our open mic nights mentioned there, the Treehouse Sessions, are always wonderful, though numbers are down on where we were in the old premises.  These are run, as I say, by Lewis and Charlotte and not by me, but I am always trying to think of how I can make these events even more popular.  The atmosphere is always wonderful, mainly because of the group of regulars (performers and audience) who are just so friendly and supportive of each other and welcoming, and that’s what makes the evenings so lovely.  The array of local talent has been wonderful to discover, including a strong contingent from Warwick University during term times, but there is always room for plenty more.  We charge £2 to everyone, including performers, but that is fully redeemable as a book voucher for the Tree House.

We are planning some Christmassy things – we will be open late on the night of the Christmas lights switch-on in Warwick Road, and will be offering a lucky dip (wrapped books for adults and for children of different ages) and hope to have some local handmade Christmas decorations for sale, and I am thinking of other things we can do.  We were hoping for live music, but I think we will be too close to the radio stage by the clock tower for that to be feasible!  We will also be offering Advent Books – 24 children’s books individually wrapped for children to open each day in December up to Christmas Eve.

But the main thing is to find ways to raise about another £300 a week – which may sound a lot for a little enterprise like ours, but I think the potential is definitely there, especially now that our reputation is spreading beyond Kenilworth.  Building on what we already do will undoubtedly help, but I am also working on some other events and activities.  I need to promote our new Mail Order Book Club (surprise books in the post every month, so people anywhere in the UK can be part of the Tree House!) and need to start selling books online – we should have been doing that already, but it’s never too late to start!

So – lots to think about, lots of marketing to do, ideas to put into practice, and various projects large and small to work on.  In the meantime, our book sales are healthy and remain and will always remain the key area of income as well as the focus on what we do, so I will also keep working harder on making our book stock and displays the best they can be – I am indebted to my faithful friends for helping out with this!

Day 3: creativity, responsibility, knowing we exist

3 November 2015

chauvet-cave-horsesI feel I have to keep reminding everyone that these posts are just written and not edited!  That’s the one thing this project has in common with NaNoWriMo, as well as the daily discipline.  The original purpose is to get things written, and then refine afterwards, so publishing as you write is not part of the intended plan, and may be a bit crazy.  I do sometimes change a word as I go, but I don’t go back and rewrite anything.  It’s liberating, but because I’m making it public, also a bit risky.  I would love to write well-crafted prose, and above all to develop a style of writing that is engaging and distinctive, but that will have to wait!  It’s good to learn to swallow your pride and just put stuff out there.

One of the things that’s hard about running the bookshop is that I don’t really like being the centre of attention.  In a way, I’m not – especially now that there are lots of other people involved; but I do still do most of the organisation of events, make the important decisions, and am the most obvious face of the Tree House.  (As if treehouses had faces…)  On the other hand, I do like indulging my own ideas – the films we show, for example, are pretty much all my choices!  Responsibility – that sense of knowing you will be judged in some way for the choices you make – is at odds with my lack of self-confidence, but it’s also a chance for me to be creative.  I can’t do the more orthodox creative things – art, music, dance, acting, and those sorts of things – but I can be creative in how I decide to run and develop this venture.

I am always thinking of how to develop what we do.  I am inundated with ideas from other people, and I mostly listen but it’s rare that anyone says anything I haven’t already thought of.  As I said yesterday, it’s not the ideas that are lacking, it’s the energy and sometimes the know-how to put them into practice.

One area where I do wish I had more flair is in the interior design of the place.  I spend a lot of time looking around at the shelves, the walls, the ceiling (I love those two big wooden beams across the ceiling!) and try to work out how I want to decorate those surfaces, to make the place more magical.  I want people to come in and feel a sense of wonder.  I just don’t know where to start, despite the inspiration of many other places!  But I am sure I will start to work on that side of things soon, and there will inevitably be a lot of trial and error, especially as I can’t afford to pay artists and artisans so will need to do most of it myself or press-gang my noble and willing volunteers.

Creativity is not just about those more obvious things, though – there is a creativity in relationships with people, in transforming abstract ideas into things that work in reality, in creating an environment that then sets in motion its own dynamic.  The latter is probably the bit that relates most to me.  I get disheartened quite often, but then I sit during a live music gig or an open mic or a poetry reading, and look around at engaged, happy people interacting with each other and sharing or enjoying a particular talent, and I tell myself that all this is happening because I have created a space where it can happen.  Other people do most of the rest, but that’s what keeps me going when I feel like giving up: this is here because of me, these people are here ultimately because of me, we all know each other and are developing lovely friendships because of me.  Not in a hubristic way, but just as a means of acknowledging that I am actually doing something and it’s good!

As a child I often felt I didn’t exist; I was always surprised at little things that reminded me that I did – being counted with the others on a school trip, for example, being picked for a sports team (I was useless at sport so that was always a test of self-esteem), little things like that.  So apart from anything else, this project is a way of proving to myself that I do exist!  Or maybe none of us do, but then it doesn’t really matter.  I exist as much as anyone else, that’s all I need to know.

Getting a bit philosophical, though philosophy is real!  It’s about reality.  At the bookshop, we have a resident philosopher, and he makes us all think.  I realise I haven’t had a good philosophical discussion with him in a while, that’s something to remedy!

The bookshop is partly about making elusive things real.  It’s about those things that are not of commercial value or measurable in rational ways, it’s about exploring and promoting the importance of those synapses between the areas we do understand or can put into words.  Literature is about words too, of course, but it’s also about conveying something in words that goes beyond words.  The symbol of creativity for me is a tiny part of the magnificent ceiling that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel five hundred years ago: that famous scene where God creates Adam, with Adam as a kind of Greek godlike human figure, and God swirling in majesty, and the whole thing surrounded by Michelangelo’s huge, muscular figures.  But the symbol itself is that tiny gap, that synapse, he leaves between the flaccid finger of Adam and the turgid finger of God – that moment forever caught where the spark of life is about to be transmitted.  That’s where we all live, and everything we do is about reinforcing that creative moment – I don’t mean in a religious sense at all, just that the gap between our understanding of the world, the universe, and our sense of mystery is at the heart of anything creative.

Nick Cave – one of the household gods of the Tree House (more of that in a future post!) and someone who exudes creativity from every pore and every word he speaks publicly – says it better than me, in these final scenes of the wonderful film 20,000 Days on Earth.  Watch this clip to the end – his last words are truly beautiful and resonate profoundly with my own understanding of what creativity is and what life is – ‘this shimmering space where imagination and reality intersect, this is where all love and tears and joy exist, this is the place, this is where we live’.

Day 2: looking back and taking stock

2 November 2015

Most of all we have sold books...lots and lots of books!  The vast majority generously donated by the lovely people of Kenilworth and nearby.

The question I am most frequently asked is, How did you come up with the idea for the Tree House?  It’s a slightly long-winded answer.  I have always thought it would be nice to run a second-hand bookshop.  There is nothing in particular that I’ve ever wanted to do, I’ve had no particular ambitions or dreams and have largely drifted through things.  I wanted to do a PhD, and did it.  Other than that, paid work is for me simply a means to an end, not an end in itself.  But I was doing freelance work as a lecturer and getting fed up – one or two big contracts had come to an end for different reasons, and I was tired of short contracts, uncertainty, constantly having to be evaluated by half a dozen different jobs, and more things besides.  I was working at Warwick University library, and a colleague there, who was a good friend, asked me what I really wanted to do – so I told him that the only thing I’d ever thought I’d particularly like to do was to own a second-hand bookshop.  So he suggested I just do it.  It was essentially his idea to make it into a community space, however, with arts events and a non-profit ethos.  What we have now is quite a long way from what we both envisaged at that stage, but while he was involved for a while, that came to an end and things have inevitably developed in a different way.  You can also never predict where something will go once you have set it in motion – when people are involved, there is always a dynamic that is unpredictable, and the development has been organic.

That’s the short answer!  There have been various constraints, mostly financial.  But right from the start there has been an enormous level of generosity, material and spiritual, from family and friends, including Facebook and Twitter friends around the world whom I have never met.  I am not a businesswoman and never will be – I still don’t really understand what I am doing on that level!  It is a straightforward operation in business terms though.

The basic motivation has always been to use literature and the arts as a means of drawing people together – creating, enhancing, enriching community.  I have a very strong belief in the importance of literature as a key component in a civilised society and as something that can deepen our connections with each other and our understanding of the world we live in.  While all sorts of things go on at the shop now, I am keen to restore a focus on literary events and literature as an impetus.  Not to replace the things that happen, which are part of our community, but I don’t want the literary emphasis to get lost.  Eventually I will be more selective about the books we stock, rather than taking anything and everything as we do, and specialise in some way, but until we have the capital to put into buying books, that can’t happen.  The bookshop as a bookshop is still very far from what I would like it to be.

The books do provide the bulk of our income – I haven’t worked it out properly, but a quick estimate would suggest that around 80% of our income is from the books.  When I started out, people were sceptical about second-hand books as a commercial thing, but I always knew there was a market.  I have visited many successful second-hand books in my time, and was in touch with various shops around the country via social media, and have never agreed with the view that e-readers will cause the death of the book or the bookshop.  There is so much that is not available electronically, and never will be.  One of the joys of second-hand bookshops is the excitement of the unexpected – never knowing what you might find nestling on the shelves amid the more famous or contemporary books.  We often get old books on mathematics or engineering, long out of print and never likely to be reprinted in any form, and they sell.  We get old novels that were popular in their day but again are not likely to be resurrected now, and people love them – whether through nostalgia or through the physical appeal of an older book or because a title catches their eye or for some other reason, but they find a new life in new homes.

I have stolen ideas from the internet, such as the blind date with a novel, where we wrap books and add a very brief description, just a few words – or sometimes no description at all, so that anyone who doesn’t know what they want to read or just fancies a little adventure can take pot luck.

Energy has been a big problem for me.  I have lots (and lots) of ideas, and people suggest things all the time, but I don’t always have the mental, physical or creative energy to put these ideas into practice.  I’m working on it!

The books are clearly the heart of what we do, but the events and activities are what makes it what it really is.  Live music is always very special; I always have the sense during a gig that some of the magic from the musicians works its way into the walls and remains part of the bookshop long after the musicans have left, creating a cumulative atmosphere within the physical space.  The film evenings are a joy, once the equipment is set up and the lights switched off and we are sitting with our cups of tea enthralled by the flickering of the screen.  I am sad and a bit surprised that we don’t attract more people to watch films, I thought that would be popular, but we rarely get into double figures.  Those who come seem to enjoy it a lot, though, and I’m still hoping that the numbers will swell a little.

So from that conversation at the helpdesk at the university library, a venture has grown that, despite its shortcomings and as yet unfulfilled potential, is providing a space where the arts can be enjoyed for relatively little money and by anyone who cares to drop in.  Books, music, films, art history are the staples; crafts, mindfulness, tea and cake are also now firmly part of the routine and the magic.

This has been a bit prosaic, but I wanted to start with some of the more descriptive stuff, and eventually I will wax a little more philosophical about the nature, the impact and the future of the Tree House.

NaNoWriMo – the Tree House version!

bookshopI had considered signing up to NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – which happens every November, where people attempt to write a novel in a month.  In the end I didn’t, as I knew it was too big a commitment just now, and anyway I don’t really want to write a novel.  I enjoy writing, but am more drawn to non-fiction (surprisingly, as novels are what I enjoy reading most!).  So I decided to do my own version.  I aim to write 1000 words every day (less than NaNoWriMo demands) on the Tree House Bookshop – a sort of meditation on it, its past, present and future, what goes on there, my thoughts about it all, etc.  This may bore most of you rigid, but I’ve decided to publish my daily scribbles in this blog part of the website.

One thing that I am keeping from the official brief is that you don’t edit what you write – you just write, get it all down on paper (well, a computer screen in my case at least), and edit afterwards.  The aim is to get that novel written.  So what I post here is completely unedited, so any tedium of style, infelicities of grammar or inelegancies of sentence structure, are due to that.  Writing is a process that is harder than it looks, and I am nervous about simply writing and posting – but also looking forward to sharing my thoughts in a way.  Ultimately I hope this might be instructive to me and give me a chance to take stock and look to the future of the Tree House.  It’s probably hugely self-indulgent, but I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me – and the bookshop!  So here is my first day’s work.

1 November 2015

The Tree House Bookshop…what is it, why is it, what happens there, how is it going, where is it going, how does it survive?  Is it surviving?  Just a few of the questions that people ask me on a regular basis.  I am going to spend the next month doing my own version of NaNoWriMo writing 1000 words each day about the bookshop, partly to put into words what it’s all about, partly to help myself think through what the venture is all about and where we are today and looking ahead.

A lot goes on at the shop these days.  There is something happening most evenings.  Monday evenings there is a Mindfulness course; Tuesday evenings are Art History lectures; Wednesday evenings is Nifty Needles, our social group for those who enjoy any kind of needlecraft; Thursday is film night; Friday is silent reading; Saturdays are for open mic once a fortnight.  Sunday is an evening of rest mostly!  But we have some music gigs coming up on Sundays.  There are also one-off events – we’ve had some poetry evenings on free Saturdays, some live music on other free evenings.  Tuesday to Saturday we sell books all day – and quite a lot of books, which is lovely.  We are closed on Mondays, but the shop is currently used by Socially Shared, a local initiative for women in business to network and pick up tips and advice.  We have been opening on Sundays, but through the winter there will be craft fairs once a month, we’ve had a tabletop sale, we’ve started some films on Sunday afternoons – lovely old classics – Blithe Spirit was our first, and much enjoyed.

Books are the core of what we do, of course.  We sell pretty much any kinds of book, and we get frequent wonderful donations from the people of Kenilworth – from popular novels that people don’t expect to read again to painful clearouts of parents’ houses; parting with the libraries of relatives who have passed on is often difficult, but people generally seem grateful to have somewhere to take these books that gives them another life and contributes to something else.  Much less painful than putting them in the recycling.  We get some wonderful gems – I love the ones with old inscriptions – school prizes, Christmas presents from grandparents to children, where you can read between the lines the hopes that a child will respond to something an adult has loved, friends wishing each other well, people sharing books they have loved.  Second-hand books are a complete joy because of the history they contain and sometimes I hold a book and imagine the stories it could tell beyond the ones printed on the page.  Some books are beautiful, others are functional, some are heartbreakingly falling apart so that no one now will love them enough to pay money for them but they have clearly been loved before.

But through all of this – the books, the events – there has grown a wonderful community of people.  There is now a good sized core of regulars who call in ‘just for a quick squiz’ as one sometimes says, always with a wave and a cheery hello, or to say hello, or to sit and drink a cup of tea in congenial surroundings.  More than that, friendships have grown up in and through the bookshop.  Even one good, strong, romantic relationship!  The bookshop has been life-changing for some.  I have made so many friends, and these friends have made friends with each other, and it’s wonderful to see.  Recently a volunteer covered the shop for me on a Friday afternoon; I was glad of the afternoon off, but also sad to miss a conversation that took place, as one then another friend called in, and the three of them had a discussion about neoliberalism and the state of the world!  None of these three people knew each other a year ago, and only know each other now because of the Tree House.  And they all met there by chance that afternoon – they thought I would be there, and the two visitors arrived independently – and they had a meaningful conversation that cemented their friendship even further.

I love being able to provide a space in which that sort of things happens.  A physical space, of course, but also a spiritual space, for want of a better word.  An environment where people welcome each other, enjoy getting to know each other, meet likeminded people, meet people who are not likeminded but connect anyway, feel they can just drop in, make a cup of tea and enjoy someone else’s company.  This is the best thing about what we do – and it all happens because we sell books, put on cultural events, and use the arts to draw people in then draw them together.  It’s a kind of alchemy.

On a personal level, I think of how much my own life has changed since I opened the bookshop.  There have been very painful experiences along the way, but I now have a wonderful group of friends and an outlet for all the things I care about.  And things are developing, as we continue to think about ways in which we can make the place better and commercially stronger – commercial interests are not part of what we do, we are a non-profit venture, but we need money to survive, so we continue to try to balance our financial needs with offering something to our town that is far more enriching than material things.  I would love more people to come to the films – those who come really enjoy it, and we do show some wonderful films, but numbers rarely get into double figures.  The art history lectures have gone down really well, and I want to expand that side of things – running some short courses, bringing in other lecturers on other arts subjects – literature, philosophy, music, film, history.  And I want to strengthen the identity of the bookshop in terms of its aims and what we do with its resources – one of the things I have always been committed to is connecting more deeply with the natural world, through charitable giving and through promoting the importance of this connection.  We have not yet made any profit, so that is one aim, but I also want to find ways to make our commitment to this aspect of life more prominent.

So there is much going on, and much more to do.  It’s very hard work, mainly because of the pressure of financial survival, but however tired I am, however much I feel I want to go home and watch Strictly Come Dancing or catch up with Frasier, once our events get going, they are always enriching, wonderful, a step forwards, a reason to keep going and an inspiration to ensure that we keep offering such things as a means of creating and enhancing a sense of community and the importance of the arts in engendering community as well as personal development.