The C word

One thing you have to embrace as a retailer is that Christmas starts in September. As someone who grew up in a home where the tree did not go up until Christmas Eve (something I still think is wonderful), this took a lot of embracing. But some things do have to be planned in advance, and it’s time to start thinking ahead!

I have launched our annual Advent calendar of books – quite time-consuming, so we have to start now! 24 individually-wrapped books, one to open each day in Advent. Great fun, and always popular. Head to the page to order one – we sometimes run out of books, so don’t leave it too long! We can post them too, but will need to work out a postage charge – usually not as much as you might think.

There will be no big event for the lights switch-on this year, sadly – another casualty of that other C word – but we will do our best to make the shop fun and magical during December. Not going to spoil any surprises on that yet.

We will also have lots of ideas for stocking fillers, and since we can’t have a craft fair, we will be selling things by local crafters in the shop too. More of that soon.

But if you’d like a bundle of wrapped books for Advent, get in touch – early orders are great as it gets a bit manic by mid-November!

Price rise…but still good value!

We have been in business now for 7 years, and have not put up our basic prices since we opened. The standard price of a paperback novel has been £2 right from the start; some are £1.50, especially crime and thrillers and chick lit, the kind of books people read once and bring back or pass on, and if books are in poor condition they are put at £1 or in our 50p boxes, depending on the book (and the condition!). Hardback non-fiction is individually priced, as are children’s books – we keep all children’s paperback fiction under £1, much of it is 50p-80p so that kids can spend their pocket money or buy more than one, and parents can buy several if they want to.

However, I’ve decided that it’s time to put our standard paperback price up to £2.50, for fiction in good condition. This is still less than the price of a coffee in most cafes, and still very good value, I think! Half the price of a magazine.

There will still of course be books at cheaper prices, as above. And I am not relabelling anything, so most fiction is still £2 for now – if it says £2 on the label, that’s what you pay! I will simply price new stuff that comes in at the new price.

We will also be hiding books around town – if you find one, its yours to keep! There is another little game tucked inside it, but that’s for you to discover.

Happy birthday to 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.

Happy reading!

Books in the Wild

kafIf 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!

treehouse

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!

 

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.

Volunteering

cropped-cropped-treehouse-header.pngThe 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 victoria@treehousebookshop.co.uk 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.

Further thanks

bookshopInevitably 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.

As you were…

gigAs most of you will know by now, the recent changes I referred to a couple of blog posts ago have fallen through.  Sometimes it becomes clear that things are not going to work out, and business is often a risky thing, especially on the high street.  Things are unpredictable.  While the recent change may have seemed a good solution to our crisis a few weeks ago, it was clearly not meant to be – and we have unexpectedly been given another chance to carry on with what we’ve always done at the Tree House: focus on building community through books and the arts.  This seems a very positive thing despite the difficulties!  I am meeting with the landlord on Monday, and all being well, we will carry on and the support during the last week has been fantastic – loads of books donated, and good book sales each day.  We will start regular evening events again very soon, but I want to get the books sorted first – those who have been in will know that there are lots of empty shelves and books everywhere, it’s very similar to when we first opened!

It is not easy running a small, independent, high street business – especially when the heart of that business is not commercial.  We do need to strengthen our commercial activity, but not at the expense of the more important things – making books accessible and affordable and offering great quality cultural events to our town, bringing people together and cementing friendships.  Community, for us, means sharing experiences and exploring ourselves, our humanity, our place in the word through the arts.

It’s so exciting to be given another chance, however daunting the finances.  We still have an imminent crisis – we have only two weeks of the month in which to raise the rent and rates, due on 1 September – that’s £1700.  There is a little left in the bank from before the recent brief takeover, and we’ve had a good first week since we regained the business, but it’s going to be touch and go.  However, I will do my best and there is certainly no lack of support!

If you wish to support us with a donation, however small, we have a fundraising page; if you are local and have books you are going to get rid of, we always need donations – DVDs too; and we have a programme of amazing music and exciting performers coming up in the next few months.  First up is the wonderful Mark Harrison, blues singer/guitarist and a very engaging guy, this Friday, 26 August.  I know it will be a great night.  Tickets are just £10, online or from the bookshop, and there are just 12 tickets remaining – see our Events and Buy Tickets tabs for more details.  Live music is such an amazing experience, especially in an intimate setting such as the bookshop, so I hope you can join us.

It’s not going to be easy, but life rarely is.  Certainly things that are truly worthwhile rarely are.  I believe we have something a bit different, something life-enhancing and even a bit magical to offer at the Tree House, and I am hoping we can take it forward and strengthen the foundations of what we have begun.

Thank you, thank you

th2As the Tree House enters a new era, I want personally to thank lots of people who have made it possible for us to survive as long as we did as a non-profit venture.  It is three years since we opened our doors for the first time, and it’s some achievement to have provided the kind of place we have for that long in a difficult time for small high street businesses, and that’s thanks to a lot of people.  I hope I don’t forget anyone!

Thank you to a fabulous team of volunteers.  Tom the Philosopher and Pauline have both been part of the Tree House from the start – both discovered us when I had a stall at Kenilworth market, before we opened, and are still very much at the heart of things.  Tom has sorted and shelved books on a weekly basis, Pauline set up Nifty Needles (still going strong) and used to help out on Saturdays before a hugely busy life and growing army of grandchildren took over.  Angela came to our opening night jazz concert – her son Ben helped me to set it all up in the first place – and has also been part of the team ever since, invaluable on so many levels.  Vicki joined soon after, as a member of Nifty Needles initially, and then as a fantastic volunteer at the shop, and also organising the monthly craft fairs.  In the new shop, Geraldine, Janet and Ginny have been helping out on a weekly basis, supportive in all sorts of ways including giving hours to work in the shop.  Paul has been amazing – always willing to lend a hand, providing bookcases and furniture, including the chairs we use for our events, and helping in too many ways to mention – a true stalwart.  He and Andy – another constant source of help – moved all our books when we had to close, and Paul stored them in his warehouse.  John has been a star, doing various DIY jobs, providing lovely touches to decorate the place, and helping out sometimes to give me a couple of hours off.  Kim has helped sort out and keep the children’s section tidy and well stocked.  Andrew has put bookcases together.  Thank you so much to all of them – I am missing having this team around me!  Not that they have gone anywhere, of course.

Thank you to Lewis and Charlotte, who came to see me saying they would like to set up a regular open mic event, the Tree House Sessions, to support the bookshop.  It was a success from the start, and is still going strong, pretty much fortnightly, and has brought amazing people to the bookshop (including Lewis and Charlotte themselves!).  We have such a great night, never knowing quite what to expect, but always so supportive, congenial, fun.  Next one is on 30 July, come and see for yourself – audience members always very welcome!

Karen came on board early on to help me with the business side of things (a thankless task!) and was a rock, and then and since has given very generously of her time and energies.

Emma painted our fascia sign, which we brought with us from the old shop and still hangs over the door.

Thank you to amazing musicians who have graced the bookshop, and often helped out financially by generously working with our financial limitations.  The fabulous Ange Hardy donated a free gig to help us when we re-opened in the new venue, having already given us a generous deal on her gig at the old venue.  Daria Kulesh, Sarah McQuaid, Steve Kershaw (with Leonid and Nick Vintskevich) all compromised on fees when we needed that – I don’t take such generosity lightly. Daria even worked in the bookshop for a couple of hours to allow me to escape!  Romany Pie have given two free gigs, Andrew Sharpe and his colleagues – Amy Kakoura, Harriet Guy, Lana MacIver, the Somerville Gents – have played for much less than they deserve.  Jez Hellard gave an amazing gig for next to nothing.  Thank you to all the musicians who have played, in both venues, it’s been an honour.  It was when we recently had to cancel our first music gig, the wonderful and incredibly supportive Red Shoes, that I realised things really were starting to get a bit too difficult.

Many I can’t thank by name, but you know who you are – all those who have contributed financially, right from the start, via crowdfunding, donations, patron scheme – faithful supporters who I hope will see that although the ethos of the bookshop has changed, it will continue and all because of the support you have given that has got us this far.  My family have provided vital support when things got tough financially!  I have rarely been paid out of the bookshop takings, and making ends meet has been a challenge, but family and friends have been extremely generous.

And of course to those who have donated books through the three years – our bread and butter.  I hoped to get to the point where I could buy books and improve the stock we had, in terms of trying to make sure we had all sorts of things that people asked for, rather than only relying on what we were given, but in fact that’s partly what made the old Tree House what it was.  Hit and miss – or eclectic! – never knowing what you’d find in the bags and boxes people delivered to us, loving it when unexpected treasures (not financial ones, but things we loved to sell!) were discovered.  To the cake providers too – especially Tamsin, who has not yet had a mention, but regularly brought us the most amazing homemade cakes and biscuits.  Her custard creams are to die for.  Blessed are the cakemakers.  Tamsin has also been a supporter from the market stall days, and made origami roses and all sorts of lovely things.

Thank you to our current landlords at Berkeley House, who took a risk on us and have been more supportive than any commercial landlords I could imagine.  They are genuinely great people.

Thank you to Warren Ellis, mighty musician, who responded with enthusiasm when I tentatively asked if he might consider being our patron.

So it’s been a huge team effort, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten people…I will add you in if I have!  Thank you to everyone.  We are carrying on, with a new owner for the bookshop – the wonderful Astley Book Farm – so we are in much more secure hands as a business, and we will still be able to host events in the evenings to keep building community around the cultural treats we have to offer.  I am working on a new programme of events, taking a couple of weeks off as it’s been all-consuming and stressful for a long time and I’ve been quite tired!  But from August we will have things back up and running again in the evenings.

The newly-revamped bookshop will be amazing – it will take a few weeks to get it sorted (you’ll notice some changes already), but is going to be a huge asset to Kenilworth.  A huge (inadequate) thank you to Viv at Astley Book Farm for coming to our rescue at a critical time.  Viv has long been a supporter – she came across the day we opened in the old shop with a bottle of champagne, amazing!  And I hope the evening events will continue to be an asset too.

Thanks so much, everyone – hope to see you at the bookshop very soon!