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!

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Live music – let’s keep it happening!

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Ashley Hutchings

Live music is the best.  It really is!  We are so lucky to live in an age where recorded music is so easily available, from an increasing number of sources.  But fabulous though that is, it can make us complacent.  Live music is a whole different sort of experience.  As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Bob Dylan and of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and having seen both live last year, I am still feeling the impact of those concerts.  If you doubt the reality of any kind of spiritual element to life, go and see Nick Cave live.  Or a great symphony orchestra.  Or live opera.  It is far removed from even the most wonderful time spent listening to recorded music, however good your stereo system.

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Emily Barker

Here at the Tree House, live music has always been part of what we do.  Our aim is to bring people together through literature and all the arts, but books and music are our two chief means of doing that.  The day we opened, we had a fantastic jazz trio, and that set the standard.  As well as our monthly open mics, when anyone can take part, we have regular gigs by professional musicians who are usually on national or even international tours – occasionally they just come because I ask them.  We’ve had amazing people: the biggest name has to be Ashley Hutchings, founder member of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, among many other accolades.  But hosts of fabulous musicians: Emily Barker, The Little Unsaid, Duotone, Ange Hardy, Lukas Drinkwater and Tobias ben Jacob, Siobhan Wilson, and so many more.  Local genius Wes Finch has played several times, with a variety of collaborators – he really deserves to be better known, he’s a brilliant songwriter and performer.  Sorry to leave people out, but in five years, we’ve had a lot.  The above are all people who have been described as ‘off the scale’ or something similar by the audiences.

It’s wonderful to go and see major acts in a big stadium, but there is something very special about intimate gigs like ours.  Sometimes there is no amplification at all (as with Emily Barker, pictured) and that’s very special.

But putting on gigs is harder work than it might seem, and this is one aspect of running the Tree House that I do alone, which is truly hard work.  From booking and corresponding with musicians, deciding who to book, deciding what fee to agree to, to marketing the event and selling tickets, to hosting on the night – putting out chairs, making sure musicians are OK, making sure refreshments are sorted (basic, but all still needs sorting), checking tickets, sorting out the lights, and more, it’s a lot of work and occasionally quite stressful.  The hardest thing is persuading people to buy tickets in advance – but without this happening, the future of any live music gigs is in jeopardy.

This is not an issue specific to us – I chat to enough musicians and venue owners on social media to know that it’s a constant struggle everywhere in the UK.  It’s understandable to a degree, but it can be frustrating.  Often people turn up on the night simply expecting that there will be tickets, but sometimes we have to turn them away – other times, we are hoping desperately that people *will* turn up on the night.  When major artists announce gigs, you have to be online at a certain time to book them, and they sell out sometimes in minutes, usually on the first day.  I don’t mean that our gigs have that much clout, but something between that and our current predicament would be good.

This Friday, 13 July, we have the wonderful Anne-Marie Sanderson playing for us.  Quite a few regulars are away; some are going to protest against Donald Trump’s visit; but generally ticket sales have been slow.  So if you are around on Friday, and perhaps haven’t been to a gig at the Tree House before, why not come?  It’s only £8.  You can bring your own wine or beer; we can offer tea and coffee and we will have some non-alcoholic cold drinks as the weather is so warm.  Anne-Marie’s latest EP is songs based on books, which makes it all the more wonderful for us as a bookshop.

Below are some tasters of her beautiful songs and lovely voice.  She is just back from touring in Europe, and it would be great to give her a very warm welcome to Kenilworth.  We do need to sell more tickets, though…and if you want to keep seeing top quality professional musicians in an intimate venue right here in the town centre, then consider buying your tickets in advance.  You can buy online or in person at the bookshop.

Treehouse of Stories – launch event

mattWe 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!

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!

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!