Did you know that I am a DJ as well as a bookseller and Kenilworth’s most famous art historian? (The latter title bestowed by Neil and Gayle, my great friends and fellow DJs, hosts of the wonderful Brunch with the Bradleys.) I do two shows on local internet station Radio Abbey, one about books and folk music, one a celebration of nostalgic tunes from my youth – meant to get everyone dancing! Here is this week’s episode of both. BookFolk is on a Monday from 1-2pm, Old School Disco! is on Tuesdays from 6-7pm. You can also Listen Again later.
There is a lot going on at the bookshop this autumn…to be kept up to date, it’s a good idea to join our mailing list! I am not the world’s most efficient promoter (ahem…) but the more avenues you follow to find out what’s going on, the less likely you are to miss something! So if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, do follow the Tree House Bookshop there too, and I will be working extra hard to keep all the different media up to date.
This Friday we are launching our new film club with a free screening of The Philadelphia Story. We’d love a few more to sign up to the club to pay for the licence! Our new equipment is working very well, it’s a joy to use – thank you to Mustard Presentations of Coventry for an excellent job! – and the films and lectures we have had so far have elicited very positive responses from the audiences. So do join us on Friday if you can! Film starts at 7.30pm.
More soon about other things that will be happening!
For a long time, I have been wondering about making the Tree House officially a non-profit social enterprise business. We are a limited company, mainly because that was the easiest thing to do when I first set up the business. But after five years, I feel I have invested so much of myself in the whole venture that I am struggling with the idea of giving up overall control – that says a lot about me, I know! It is still a longer-term possibility, but for now I don’t feel ready to change the status.
The principle remains though: we operate as a non-profit. Any profit we make is ploughed back into the business and given to charity when we can – though we don’t technically make any profit, as I don’t yet earn a wage from running the place, and profit would begin after staff wages were considered. We are, however, getting there, and the phenomenal support of the local community continues in humbling ways: a long-time supporter has just set up a very generous monthly standing order, which will help us to put in place some ideas that should generate more income in the longer term. More on that in due course!
One initiative I am going to start from September is a more formal way of giving to charity, and making our non-profit aspirations more transparent. We will be supporting two charities each month – one national, one local – by a variety of means.
I will be installing a filter coffee machine, and coffee will be available on a donation basis. Half of what we get from these donations will go to our chosen charities. (You can have tea as well, just ask!)
Since we started our Tree House Sessions four years ago, we have charged an entry fee – intially £2, now £3, which includes a £2 book voucher and tea or coffee. From the next THS, on 1 September, we won’t have a charge; we will ask £1 for tea/coffee, and we will raffle a £10 Tree House book voucher each time.
Our book clubs and Nifty Needles will also be donation-based, and half of the donations going to the charities.
There will be other one-off events at times – coffee mornings, raffles, book promotions, etc.
September’s two charities have really been decided for us. We are joining in with the Macmillan World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, as we always do, this year on Friday 28 September, so Macmillan will be one of our charities; and Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance have a charity week earlier in September, so they will be our local charity.
So – do come and have a cup of coffee – bring your reusable cup if you want to take it away – and leave a donation. We’ll be using good coffee, you can drink while you browse, and the aroma should be fab!
I hope we will be able to be both more regular and more generous in our charitable giving, and people will see more clearly that their donated books are creating a place that has all sorts of benefits.
I spent about 25 years living in Bristol. I went to university there, and after spending a couple of years after graduation working in London – at Waterstones on Charing Cross Road, where my bookselling career began! – I went back to Bristol in 1990 to work in bookshops and libraries, staying there until I moved back to Kenilworth, where I grew up, in 2009. I am not a city girl; I loved Bristol, it’s an amazing city, but in the end I knew I wanted to come back to Warwickshire, back to a small town, and the lure of Abbey Fields and the Castle proved too much. I miss Bristol, especially its bohemian, creative side, but I love rural Warwickshire and living in a place where everything I need is right outside my door.
The reason I’m telling you about Bristol is because while I was living there, they launched the Great Reading Adventure, as part of their bid to be European Capital of Culture, and it was great. The idea was to get everyone reading the same book: in that first year, we read Treasure Island.
I would love Kenilworth to do something like this, and a while back I tried to launch a similar scheme here. One of the things I struggle with is keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and after an enthusiastic initial response, I failed to follow it up properly, and time has gone on. But summer seems a good time to boost the initiative.
The book I have chosen is My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal. I chose it for a number of reasons. Kit is local – she grew up in Birmingham and now lives in Leamington (and some of you may have heard her speak at Kenilworth Arts Festival last year – she will be back at this year’s Festival too). It’s a book that can be read by teenagers as well as adults, giving a wide scope. And it’s a book with a lot to think about and discuss. It’s also a wonderful story, written with warmth and humanity. It has an easy, readable style, but it makes you think and it makes you feel.
Leon is an 8 year old boy at the start of the book. His mother has just given birth to his baby brother; the baby has a different father from Leon. Their mother is white, the baby’s father is white, Leon’s father is black, both fathers are absent. Leon loves his baby brother; he loves his mother too. But she struggles to cope, and the book is the story of what happens to Leon when crisis point is reached. You will love Leon; his story will both break your heart and warm it. It’s several months since I finished reading it, and I still think about him often.
So: why not join in our Kenilworth Reads adventure? You can buy the book from Kenilworth Books, or borrow it from the library. I will soon have a sheet that you can pick up at the bookshop or that I can email to you with questions and discussion points. I will create an online forum, and there is a Facebook group already for those on Facebook. If you’re in a book club, why not read it as a group? And we will have some face to face meetings at the bookshop.
I have plans for a Christmas read too, a book that will also appeal to a wide age range, and I will also include a book for younger children at Christmas.
I will post more soon, and let you know when the discussion sheet is ready and an online discussion space sorted. There will be a page on this website dedicated to it as well – you will be able to post comments there, maybe even just let us know you are joining in.
It would be great to get this off the ground and make it an annual event. I hope lots of Kenilworth people will join us!
The Tree House Bookshop is five years old! We opened on 26 July 2013. It’s true that we had a hiatus – we had to move out of our premises at Christmas 2014, and moved to our current premises in April 2015, and there was also a month when Astley Book Farm took over; but in all that time, the company has remained in my name and we never got as far as transferring the lease to Astley. And we did stay open! Somehow we have survived. Huge thanks to all those who supported our crowdfunders, to our patron Warren Ellis who remains a daily inspiration and motivation, and to a great team of volunteers and supporters – plus our constantly growing army of customers. Amazing. I am still not earning anything from it, but both I and the bookshop somehow manage to keep going!
I am taking this opportunity to think a bit about what the Tree House is, why we’re here, why we’re *still* here, and some of the issues at the heart of what we do. There’s a kind of awkwardness to it, as we don’t really fit into the kind of categories we often seem to belong to. We are a bookshop – but not in the sense that those selling new books are. We don’t deal with publishers, we are not part of the Booksellers Association, we are not really a retail business in the same way because the finances work differently and the relationship we have with the rest of the book industry is a bit different. We are not even a second-hand bookshop in the true sense of the word – we don’t buy books, we don’t have much in the way of antiquarian books (we do get some, but not much, because of our policy of only taking donations). We are a limited company, but operating as a non-profit (not that we make any profit!).
There has been much talk recently of the way the world of publishing works, and how little authors get paid. There is an excellent article entitled ‘Publish or Be Damned’ on the Kenilworth Books website to which I would refer you for an in-depth study of that. I am aware that the whole issue of selling second-hand books is problematic in some ways. We are not supporting authors financially, and may be seen as making life harder for them by offering cheap second-hand copies of books in competition with new books, whose sales do provide royalties (inadequate but essential to the livelihood of authors). This is undeniable. But is there a place for second-hand books?
There certainly is, despite some of the complications. One major asset is that books that are out of print or not easily available any more remain in circulation. Most of the books we have are older books – certainly many contemporary ones, but we don’t get the current titles until people have read them and passed them on. There is also the issue of what people can afford: not everyone can afford to buy as many new books as they would like to read. I would add here that libraries, which are under threat, are the biggest asset here, as authors do get a very small amount each time you borrow a book – so if you can’t afford new books, use your library – and if you don’t have one, campaign to get one! Libraries are invaluable resources on so many levels. But I digress… Another factor for us is that people appreciate having somewhere to take books they no longer want. There is a limit to how many books charity shops can take, simply due to storage issues, and so people bring them to us. We support charities and local campaigns where we can, and the non-profit promise means that we do give any surplus to charity, so people feel the whole venture is worth supporting.
We have also built up a strong core of regulars who are a community. Friendships have been made, even couple got together through the bookshop and are still going strong four years on. Books are a means to that end as well as an end in themselves. The books we sell would end up in the recycling bins at the tip – but it’s much better to recycle them as books, to offer people affordable reading material, a nice place to browse, even to sit and read, the opportunity to take a chance on a new author. They might not pay £8 to take a risk, but they will pay £2. This is dangerously close to the ‘exposure’ argument – that writers and musicians should perform without pay because it’s good ‘exposure’, an iniquitous practice; but it’s not that, and while the author gets no royalties, I hope there might be a knock-on effect.
I urge everyone who can afford it to buy new books, at full price, from independent booksellers. This makes for the healthiest possible book industry. If you can’t afford new books, borrow them from the library. If you don’t have a library, or if you want to own the book, buy second-hand. That would be my pecking order. It seems as though I am shooting myself in the foot, but that’s because I am not about the business model, I am not here because I want to be a businesswoman, and the only reason I run a business is because I have to pay rent and rates, and selling books enables me to do that. Otherwise I would have a completely different sort of environment. If I were to win the lottery, that’s what I would do – something that doesn’t involve commerce. The books and the people who want to read them and who want to meet other people who like books – those are the things that matter. My life would be transformed if it weren’t for the financial side of things – I am sure that’s true for many or even all of us! I don’t enjoy the business side of things one tiny bit. But I am proud of my little bookshop, on all sorts of levels, and the good thing about charging for books is that at least they retain some sort of value; one of the big problems in the arts is that we don’t value them enough, we expect free live music in bars, we prefer to buy discounted books than support authors and independent bookshops and small publishers, we think they are some sort of extra, when in fact the arts are intrinsic to the health and richness of any society. We cannot live without them. I for one do not want to live without them. And in a tiny way, I am trying to promote this very big idea.
So I make no apology for selling second-hand books, neither to authors nor to customers. I think it’s a good thing. I think second-hand bookshops are vital, for keeping books in circulation especially when they go out of print, for the serendipity they provide in browsing shelves of unexpected things, for promoting the idea that books are valuable objects and for doing all this on the high street, as part of sustaining healthy communities.
As we celebrate five years of being in business, and despite being financially worse off in my 50s than I have ever been before, I am as committed to all of this as I ever was, and with so much of myself now invested in it, I hope to be in business another five years from now.
We are thrilled that poet Matt Black will be working with us over the summer and into the autumn, funded by West Midlands Readers’ Network. Matt will be hosting poetry and storytelling sessions in the bookshop and down by the swimming pool/play area in Abbey Fields, and there will be other events and activities over the summer. He and Tree House bastion John Watson are even building a treehouse to go inside the Tree House, big enough for Matt to sit inside and read stories!
We are launching this initiative on Saturday 30 June, from about 12.30 until about 4pm, with live music from the fabulous Hatstand Band, a cartoon drawing working (1.15pm) with artist Okse, poetry, free tea and cake, and more. We will incorporate watching the Carnival parade as it passes by at around 2.45pm.
Do come and join in the fun!
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).