Art lectures at the Tree House

In my past life, I was an art history lecture – at Bristol University, the Open University, as a freelance lecturer and for Oxford University (summer schools, dayschools and the like) – I still edit and tutor online courses at Oxford.  Art is very much part of what the Tree House is about, and I’ve always given lectures – mostly on my specialist subject, which is the Northern Renaissance, but on a few other things too.  I am currently giving lectures on Tuesday evenings – they are a great way to get to know a bit more about art, or just spend an hour or so looking at beautiful images in congenial and stimulating company – even when the audiences is small, people are always thought-provoking!  This Tuesday, 25 July, I am focusing on my PhD subject – the extraordinary sculpture produced in Germany in the Renaissance period.  So different from their Italian counterparts – they were contemporaries of the very much more famous Michelangelo – these sculptors carved beautiful but often strange (to our eyes) works in wood.  There is a beautiful example at Compton Verney, so we have some local interest.  The images here are a snapshot of the three most significant of the sculptors, but if you want to find out more, come along on Tuesday evening.  Lectures start at 8pm, and the cost is £8 including tea or coffee.  They are informal in tone and last about an hour, plus time for questions at the end.  Next Tuesday, 1 August, we’ll be looking at how Vermeer, a painter much-loved today, drew on the earlier painters in the Netherlands, who created a very strong Northern tradition in the fifteenth century.

But for now – my beloved German sculptors!  Would love to see you on Tuesday evening.

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Happy Birthday Bob!

A very happy 76th birthday to Bob Dylan, the single most brilliant, most influential, most indefinable singer-songwriter of modern times!  I will take no arguments on this.  One of the household gods of the Tree House, and a constant source of motivation, inspiration and sheer poetic beauty, which we all need in this troubled world.

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And no more shall we part…with your help!

**UPDATE:  GOAL £2300, CURRENT TOTAL £2326 – THANK YOU!**

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The title is a Nick Cave reference, as some of you will recognise…if you don’t, no matter, find the song on youtube and prepare to have your heart broken. But the Tree House can help to heal broken hearts!  (As can the music of Nick Cave, but that’s another story.)  We’ve had a strange year – perhaps every year seems like a struggle, but this last 10-12 months has been particularly tricky.  We always sail close to the edge, and it doesn’t take much to tip our finances into the danger zone.  We had some setbacks in 2016 that have put us behind with our business rates and it’s been impossible to clear that backlog.

But on a day to day basis, things are good.  Book sales are pretty healthy, we now have three book groups that are thriving, our live music events tend to sell out (the money from those goes to the performers, so those don’t bring many funds to us, but as long as we’re breaking even, that’s all that really matters), though we have had to subsidise a couple of them, our open mic Tree House Sessions are lively and wonderful, our craft group is still going strong after three and a half years, and there is such a great core community at the bookshop, with people discovering us all the time.

I feel we really do offer something a bit different to Kenilworth, something that embraces all sorts and ages of people, that promotes the arts at a time when we need their communal and healing powers more than ever.  I struggle with my health, which means I often lack the energy to do as much at and with the bookshop as I would like, but there is a great team of people who help to keep it all going.

Having decided – for health reasons as much as financial ones – that the strain was becoming too great, I decided I had to ask the landlord to find a new tenant for the premises, and that we would close.  A few days after that decision, various things happened to make it seem possible that we could not only stay open but develop in new ways to make the business stronger.  Our landlord at Berkeley House has been incredibly supportive, and so I made another decision – to launch an emergency fundraising campaign, as our backlog of rates and other expenses needs to be paid by the end of March to avoid further difficulty.

The response has been phenomenal.  We raised nearly £1000 on the first day, and in just a few days we have now raised around £1700.  What this shows more than anything is the fantastic level of support there is, a huge desire to see the bookshop continue.  We are not out of the woods yet, but if we can raise another £500 in the next two weeks, we will clear that backlog of debt and be able to continue.  From 1 April, our business rates will be reduced by a very significant amount.  Our wonderful landlords will sponsor us through their business.  We are planning some things that will enhance the bookshop both as a physical space and as a business (still in very early stages, so no details yet!), and we know now how strong the support is.  I genuinely believe that with these changes, the business will be truly sustainable.

If you would like to read about our fundraising campaign, click here – many of you have given in the past, and I don’t expect people to keep giving, but if you could share the campaign, that would be wonderful.  It’s not just the people of Kenilworth and regulars at the bookshop who have raised the money so far – through social media, people far and wide have supported it.  Every £1 helps, and some have given just that, others have given more.  We’ve had the support of our very lovely patron, musician Warren Ellis, and his followers are now retweeting and responding to the campaign.  Here’s a bit of Warren in action – his genius and energy and creativity inspire me every day.

You can donate via the button below, if you feel so inclined, but this post is mostly about sharing what’s been happening and asking you to help us by spreading the word so that we can get the final few hundred pounds that we need before time runs out.  You can, of course, just come and buy books or come to our events!  We have local folk group Romany Pie playing on Friday 24 March, an open mic on Saturday 25 March, a very exciting gig with The Little Unsaid on Thursday 30 March, and I’ll be putting on films and lectures in the next couple of weeks too.  But if you’re local and haven’t bought a book in a while, why not come and buy one – or two! – this week?  Our paperback novels are less than the price of a cup of coffee in most cafés, they are more nourishing, and the enjoyment lasts a lot longer!  They also make great accompaniments to a cup of coffee – today is a sunny spring day, what could be lovelier than sitting in a cafe with a book?  It’s my day off, so I will be doing that in a while.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us, in so many ways.  Thank you to those who have already given to this campaign, and/or have spread the word already.  If you’d like to see us not just survive but increase what we already offer, at a time when small independent high street businesses are closing or moving away, please consider getting us through this hurdle, and I know we can survive and grow if we can clear our debts.

And come and see us soon!

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I meant to include this in my earlier blog post – but will now give it its own space, as it’s wonderful!  Tim the Swim, one of our core customers since the early days in the old premises, found this lovely card, designed by Fiona Hart, and gave it to me as a Christmas card.  It is perfect!  I will get a frame for it.  We’ve been having fun deciding which character represents the regulars.  I think that’s me sitting on the balcony on the left in blue…though it looks more like Hillary Clinton.  Tom the Philosopher and Vicki on the right in yellow and red.  John Who Sang In Swedish with the telescope, though that may be a girl.  John could get away with a dress though.  India in the tyre swing, Angela sitting on the branch above her…  Tomorrow they’ll all look like someone else.

Anyway – Happy New Year!

 

The night John sang in Swedish

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Local music legend Will Pound playing our piano during the lead-up to the EU referendum.

There is always a tendency to take stock at New Year – to look both backwards and forwards, to be a bit reflective.  Though I have to say that I am pretty much always reflective about the Tree House, trying to work out what is going well, what could be improved, what isn’t working, what the best way forward is.  We have been in business for three and a half years now, which feels like an achievement – one friend says he gave us about three weeks when we started!

It’s always going to be tough financially.  We are not a very commercial outfit, and I am not by any stretch a natural businesswoman.  But finances aside, I think the achievements of the bookshop are enormous.  These are all to do with people – the regular customers and volunteers who are part of the place, some of them since the day we opened, and the growing community of followers around the world, the connections via social media, the fact that we are an easygoing space in a pressurised world.  That’s a direct result of not being commercially-focused…and yet we do have to survive financially, which is not easy.

Our customer-base is very varied in terms of age, background, nationality.  We really don’t have either a target market nor a typical customer.  Even an interest in books is not always a factor – partly because we do other things here, partly because sometimes people come just because they like the atmosphere.  One thing I love about it is how international our broader community is.  Lots of European nationals, especially, who are among the regular faces we see.  Being close to Warwick and Coventry Universities undoubtedly helps with this.  The day after the EU referendum vote, when many of us were feeling hollow and a bit desperate, some of these European nationals came to the bookshop to talk, be with sympathetic souls and generally try to find some sort of solidarity and sense of community with others.  We had made no secret of our desire to Remain in Europe, and we continue to promote a sense of Europeanness in what we do.

That’s why when, at a recent Tree House Session (our regular open mic sessions), John decided to sing Santa Lucia in Swedish, unaccompanied, I was fighting back the tears, not always successfully, and not in sadness so much as pride.  It was wonderful.  John is one of the most solidly loyal members of our community and a regular contributor at the open mics, usually with his own poetry.  He has lived in Sweden and has long been advocating that we create a more hyggelig atmosphere here – I know hygge is a Danish concept, but it is part of Swedish culture too.  I love all things Scandinavian – I am a true northerner, give me snow over sun-baked olive groves any day!

Anyway…we are now facing our toughest challenges yet, and who knows if we will get through them.  If we don’t, that’s fine, I will find a new direction.  But that moment on a dark December night at our open mic session summed up for me what is at the core of the spirit of the Tree House.  It is and always has been about people coming together through a love of the arts, especially literature but also music (very much) and film and a celebration of creativity.  But it’s also about deeper things, things we can’t always put into words, things that run through our collective identity as a community.  It’s one of my favourite things that’s happened at the Tree House, John singing unaccompanied in Swedish.

Feeling festive!

treeI normally find having to think about Christmas too early spoils some of the magic, and as a shopkeeper you have to start thinking about it much too early…I’m the sort of person who puts up their tree on Christmas Eve, and apart from an Advent calendar doesn’t want to think about it too much before then.  But I am feeling festive early this year, thanks in part to our wonderful Christmas tree.  I had seen photos of these on the internet and often thought I would like to have a go at making one, but when a friend offered to come and do it, I jumped at the chance – I’m not very practical when it comes to being creative, lots of ideas but no skills!  So Clare came on Friday afternoon and built us a Christmas tree, helped by Will (who also played jazzed up versions of Christmas carols on the piano while Clare worked – it was fab!).  Lights arrived the next day, and the whole thing looks amazing – lots of comments online and in the shop about how lovely it looks.

Last year we had a wonderful papier mache tree in the window, made from pages of worn out books, made by the excellent Vicki, and I was heartbroken that it accidentally got thrown out earlier in the year – I don’t think Vicki was too happy either!  So it’s lovely to have another tree, also made by someone in the wider Tree House community, though I still miss Vicki’s – would have been amazing to have both!

But that’s sort of the story of the Tree House – ups and downs, mistakes and triumphs, and through it all a wonderful group of people contributing in all sorts of ways.  We have made it to the end of another year, always close to the edge financially, but with more support than I know how to respond to.  Thank you Vicki, thank you Clare and Will, and thank you to whatever force in the universe keeps us going.  I have a sneaky feeling it’s Warren Ellis, our patron, whom I plan to put on top of the tree…well, a picture of him, at least.

I’ll write an annual review soon, but in the meantime here is one of my heroes and another of the bookshop’s household gods – the man awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, and my favourite Christmas pop song of all (he didn’t write the lyrics to this).

Urgent appeal!

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We need to raise at least £1000 urgently.  It’s been a difficult few months, as you’ll have gathered, not helped by me not being too well, and we have debts to clear.  I’ve set up a fundraising page – options for both locals and non-locals – do have a look, and even if you can’t help, spreading the word would be wonderful. If you can give just £3, that would help so much – or check the other options for spending a bit more – books, book vouchers, monthly schemes.

And here’s our lovely video made by Lewis Smith of one of our Tree House Sessions to give a flavour of why we’re worth supporting! So many friendships made here, so much to offer the town in terms of books, the arts generally and a place to come together.