If you live in Kenilworth, keep your eyes open as you walk around town…we’ve released some books into the wild! You might find one on a park bench or at a bus stop or who knows where. The books are free to take, and the slip of paper encourages the reader to pass the book on when they’ve finished, or rewild it! We’d also love to hear about any finds – there is a Books in the Wild page here for reporting back. We’re raising awareness of Kenilworth Arts Festival as well as just spreading bookish fun around the town. Happy hunting, happy reading!
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!
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.
I 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).
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.
The Tree House was not intended originally to be volunteer-run, but the realities of survival on the high street mean we have had to be. It does add to the sense of it being a community venture, about people and reading and promoting the arts more than about commerce, but it is also a challenge. I run the place full time, but have not been able to earn anything since we moved from our old premises. So I need to find other ways to earn money, if I am to carry on running the Tree House. This in practical terms means I need a bit more time away from the bookshop.
So I am looking for one or two volunteers who would like a regular commitment and have half a day or a day a week or a fortnight to spare. We currently have one person who works every other Wednesday morning, and it’s a godsend – if we could find someone to do the afternoon on the days she works, that would be even better! It would also be good to have Friday afternoons covered, as I have some opportunities to work elsewhere then. But any days or half days would be welcomed.
You need to be confident of being at the bookshop on your own – though if we have enough suitable applicants, we can pair people up. You need to be able to engage with customers and keep up to date with what’s happening at the bookshop. There is always work to be done in terms of tidying and stocking the shelves, but if you have computer work to do or even want to spend some time reading (!) you would be able to do that too. Some are keener to be physically busy than others – and the main thing is to keep the bookshop open as much as possible and be there for customers.
So if you are interested, do get in touch and we can talk more about it all – what’s involved, what level of availability you have and so on. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call into the bookshop to arrange a meeting – I can’t always stop and chat then and there, but we can fix a time to discuss things if I am busy.
I am also always looking for evening help – at music events, film nights, etc – so if you are interested in being involved in those, I would love to hear from you too.
Inevitably when you thank a large number of people, you forget someone. Or more than one. I think these people should take it as a compliment – it means they are so much a part of the furniture that life is unthinkable without them. (That sounds better than being taken for granted…)
There are three important people that I left out of my ‘thank you’ post, and as compensation they get a post to themsleves.
So – huge thanks to John Shaw, Andy Jones and Michael Burdett. John contacted me when he first heard I was thinking of opening the Tree House, and we arranged an assignation by the door to the clock tower…no trenchcoats or brown envelopes, but the start of an extremely supportive relationship between John and the Tree House. He has helped in all sorts of ways, including buying Tree House vouchers for his friends for Christmas (a great idea, in case you’re stuck for ideas!), selling his own secondhand books through us in the old shop, chatting through lots of ideas, and frequent contributions when we were nearing crisis points. He also comes to lots of our events, which is wonderful.
Andy Jones was our neighbour in the old shop when the wonderful Town & Country Furniture was at Abbey End. Our existence is unthinkable without him. There is not much else to say, but he still calls in regularly, still helps out with practical things when he can, and while I miss his daily visits and having him as a business neighbour, he is at least still around to cheer us on our way. He is part of the fabric.
Michael Burdett called in one day because I was following him on Twitter – he is the genius behind the Strange Face Project, and as Nick Drake fan, I was fascinated by it. He was on his way to Coventry, I think, and called in to see if I’d be interested in hosting his Strange Face talk. He left us with a poster of Billy Bragg listening to Nick Drake to put in the window, came back to give his talk some weeks later, and has now given it three times. It makes me cry every time. He takes no fee for it, and so supports the bookshop in a practical way, and has become a lovely friend, calling in occasionally on his way through, keeping in touch, and always generous on many levels.
These three typify the spirit of the support the Tree House gets – they all see it as something worth supporting, and support it in their different but equally practical ways – as well as being lovely people to have around, which is also crucial. It’s lonely running a business, and these guys help combat the loneliness!
Thank you to them, and continued thanks to those who are still with us, behind us, beside us, even in front of us – we’re surrounded by supporters, looking out for our interests and making the Tree House the magical place it continues to be, against all odds.