2 November 2015
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.