We’re open!

We are open again – back to normal hours of Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Donations welcome any time we are open – we take books (any), DVDs, CDs, maps and jigsaw puzzles. We also have some lovely greetings cards (including handmade ones), Tree House mugs and pens (Bad Seed Warren Ellis said our pens were ‘awesome’ and bought 20 of them!), some handmade bookmarks too. Come and see us.

They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings…

Last night I watched the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for the first time. Richard Burton as John Le Carré’s hero Alec Leamas. I think he’s a hero, anyway. A spy disillusioned with corruption, with the price paid for loyalty to national security, with the concept of national security, with the moral self-righteousness of nations, with the soul-destroying nature of espionage and the cheapness of human life that it involves. It wrote large my current preoccupations over the current desperate move towards nationalism, patriotism, clan-based responses, isolationism, countries breaking away from each other rather than pulling together, and all these things at a local level as well as a national and international one.

As I said before, the thing that has been most difficult through this pandemic is facing the introspection of a small town, the introspection of lots of people, the sense that ‘community’ is a local thing. I loathe the rise of overt nationalism that has come to the surface in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and has grown – not just the thugs and Farageites of this world, but the kind of isolationism at different levels of society that is painful to see. At the moment, there is a trend for politicians to appear in Zoom calls with the union flag in the background – often two. We are in danger of starting to worship the flag, as Americans are wont to do. People say, Why are other countries not allowed to be proud of their flag but not us? That’s not the right question, for me: no one should be proud of their flag. Nationalism and patriotism are destructive. The flags are an emotive thing that undermines careful thinking. Lately a Tory councillor has taken to putting up quotes about how many here have been vaccinated with a union flag as the background to his posts, and it’s nauseating.

Why am I ranting about patriotism and nationalism? Because this emphasis on local places and local people is patriotism writ small, and narrows the world for everyone. This year I have spent a lot of time grieving for Kenilworth Arts Festival. It is still going, and the current committee did a lovely job of putting on a small festival with online events. But for four years, the amazing Lewis Smith organised the most beautiful Arts Festival for Kenilworth – put together quite fabulous events bringing some of the most interesting and exciting writers, musicians and creative groups to Kenilworth. Whenever I tried to spread the word, people would say. ‘But what’s it got to do with Kenilworth? Where are the Kenilworth artists?’ And it always broke my heart. It was never meant to be about Kenilworth, it was about bringing the highest quality arts events TO Kenilworth – like Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye and others. The parochialism is soul-destroying. It was a shock when someone just mentioned almost casually that Lewis would not be part of the Festival any more, and I have been crying over it ever since, and still going through a grieving process for something that we should have nurtured, developed, continued to grow into a nationally-respected festival. But all people want is a platform for local artists.

The musicians who have come to the Tree House have all been professional musicians on national – sometimes international – tours. They may not be household names, but they have all been significant, sometimes stellar, names on the folk and acoustic scene, which is producing some of the most talented singer-songwriters around. We should be excited that these musicians made Kenilworth part of their tours, but Kenilworth rarely was, beyond a handful of people who were either knowledgeable or adventurous. There was very, very little in the way of sharing our gigs, encouraging others to come to them, spreading the word about how good these musicians are. Lots of businesses and individuals ask me to retweet their stuff on a daily basis; I can count on one hand the number of people who regularly share(d) our events, and three of those are personal friends. We are a very small venue, and without selling 30 tickets each time, we struggle to meet the fees of those musicians, let alone pay for extras such as giving them food, and the shop almost never gets anything to help with rent and paying for my time. This is my livelihood too.

I am being unkind, I realise. But I don’t mean to be, only honest. Having the shop closed for eight months of the last year has given me plenty of time to think, and seeing people not just locally but around the country responding in inward-looking ways to this pandemic has been very sad. For me, sadness and anger can be emotions that overlap and it can be hard to find the line that separates them.

The quotation in the title of this post is from Bob Dylan’s Sweetheart Like You, and is adapted of course from Samuel Johnson. Bob’s song goes on to say, ‘Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.’ We have had a chance over the last year to change our way of thinking about society, about capitalism, about lifestyle, about our place in the world and the cosmos, and it feels as though we have largely failed to do that.

One of these days I will list the things I am most proud of at the bookshop, and half of it won’t mean anything to the people of Kenilworth, but we have done lots of things. The live music, however, is the pinnacle of what we have achieved, though hardly anyone acknowledges it as anything at all. That’s OK – those of us in the know, know! Thank you to those who have supported our gigs.

Enough rambling for now. Others may be looking forward to returning to their normality, but I don’t want that at all. This is a chance to change, a chance to rethink and re-evaluate, and as I said in my previous post, I am not going to go back to how things were before. We may lose followers and customers, but ours is not a business in the conventional sense, and I am not going to compromise my beliefs and hopes in the interests of commerce-led values. I hope my accountant does not read this.

Here is Bob’s song. On a more positive note, here is something that my other hero Nick Cave wrote the other day: ‘The world still turns, ever perilous, but containing its many joys. Music remains a balm. Friendships endure.’ Thank you Nick. Thank you Bob. Music transcends national boundaries and cultures and languages, music is fundamental to us as humans and so it unites us in a way that being part of a political clan never can. It teaches us to look both deep into ourselves and then out, as stronger people, to others and to the world and the universe of which we are all a part. I will continue to champion music – and live music – in whatever ways I can, and there will be the occasional live and fabulous gig at the Tree House, and we will support Bob and Nick and Nick’s friend our wonderful patron Warren Ellis in all their endeavours. Music Matters.

Next time I will focus on beautiful things not the ones that make me angry.

Proceed with confidence

23 March: one year today since the country went into the first national lockdown. It was a Monday, and I had decided to close my shop on the Saturday, having deliberated for several days about what to do for the best. I don’t think any of us realised that a year on we would still be in lockdown, albeit with breaks along the way. But the Tree House has been closed for over seven of the last twelve months. The government has given us grants so that the bills can still be paid, I have been furloughed so I can still take the few hundred pounds a month I earn from the shop, and I am grateful to a government I generally don’t like much for that. We would not have survived without it.

Ours is not a business that lends itself well to click and collect, nor even mail order, though I did send out some surprise books during one part of the crisis. So the decision to close and go on furlough was not a difficult one. I am actually proud of the tiny part we have played in helping to keep everyone safe, in not encouraging people to leave their homes, and I have stayed at home through much of lockdown. Not being able to walk has made that easier in one sense! Though an extremely generous friend offered me money to buy a mobility scooter just before the first lockdown, and my secondhand scooter has been a lifechanger and means I can get out much more easily. I still stay at home mostly though, sometimes venturing out somewhere people-free, and otherwise only going to the bakery or the library as necessary, once a week or less.

We are due to reopen on 12 April, as long as there are no further setbacks, and I am gearing up to that. But this year has changed me in all sorts of ways. It has taught me about the dangers of parochialism – a kind of nationalism writ small, and little repels me more than nationalism. There has of course been a wonderful pulling together in many ways in our community, with a quite brilliantly organised volunteer team which was set up quickly and has done amazing things – very well run and full of committed people. But there has also been a sharpening of a sense of individual rights being removed, which has led to people pushing the covid restrictions to the limits. Town has been busy, social distancing very hit and miss (more miss than hit), lots of shops open that I can’t see are essential, and discussions on social media that make me feel quite desperate. I am not interested in my own town beyond all others – I am lucky to live in a lovely place, but I find some of the attitudes very hard to take. Having lived in Bristol and London, and spent large amounts of time abroad, I find the introspection of small towns tricky. The lack of interest in wider issues, the shutting down of broader views, the focus on the small and close to home rather than the worldwide picture is disheartening.

The world is my community. I am sad we have left the EU, for all its problems, because I now feel less connected to that world. But the EU is a political institution, and I am still part of Europe, still part of the world, still free of national restrictions. The realisation of this over the last year – the year in which we left the EU as well as dealing with the pandemic and in which the world got rid of Trump as a person of power – has changed my thinking about the bookshop.

Alongside all the other things, my heart has been with musicians. We hosted a couple of gigs a month prior to the pandemic, and my heart is especially with those musicians – the independent touring artists who have always had to struggle to make a living but whose livelihood and identity was swept away overnight and who are still facing a deeply uncertain future. Not many locally have been interested in this, and yet it’s at the heart of what the Tree House is about.

I raised £2000 to pay those musicians whose gigs we had to cancel and then to give a small amount each to a number of other musicians. I give art talks via Zoom so that I have a little money to spend on buying music each month. I have been to lots of online gigs. I share whatever I see of musicians on social media, to try to keep their situation in people’s minds. Drops in the ocean, but something each of us can do. The musicians themselves have been amazing – continuing to find ways to make music, to make recordings even, to keep in touch with audiences and fans, to keep their world alive. And in fact out of it all has come some positivity – nothing replaces live music, but online access has opened up audiences a little, and surely streaming live gigs in future will be something to think about, to increase revenue as well as reach more people.

So when the shop reopens, it will have a slightly different focus. More outward-looking. I like to think we have been that anyway, but the focus will be on books and music – selling books in order to support the music industry as well as to keep books in circulation. The community hub aspect will be less of a priority – in terms of the events we host, for example, and getting involved in things at a local level. My heart is with the wider world. We will raise funds to support musicians – whether we do that via donations to Help Musicians UK or more directly has yet to be decided. Shop profits will go to this, as will events or initiatives through the year.

Ironically, I won’t be hosting much live music, to start with at least. We are very small, and there have always been problems with organising gigs, exhausting problems for me. I am rethinking that, but it is not in any case possible while social distancing is still in place. We have had INCREDIBLE gigs from so many amazing musicians over the last 7-8 years, and I am so proud of having brought so many fantastic musicians to Kenilworth. But it was always so hard to sell tickets and I was not the most dynamic host. So I will focus on books – my original dream was to run a secondhand bookshop, and I want to make it a better bookshop than it currently is. And that now has an extra aim, of raising funds to support the music industry. Our glorious patron Warren Ellis remains my daily inspiration; he has lost two years of touring, but remains a major creative force. (The title of the post is a quote from him, a word of encouragement to his great friend Nick Cave in the film One More Time With Feeling.) Warren reaches for the stars while staying completely grounded, and that’s how we should all be living. Exploring our creativity but staying focused on the world around us.

A long-winded post, I am sorry. It may annoy some people – that’s OK. None of us can please everyone. It’s been a tough year for every single one of us, in different ways, many of them unexpected ways. But as spring now starts and the clocks move forward this weekend, we at the Tree House will embrace the light and the warmth of each day as it comes, and work towards creating a wonderful bookshop that keeps the essential presence of the arts in full view and accessible, with standards of quality but aims of affordability, and we will do so by being creatively adventurous and being fully focused on the wider world. It will be great to see customers again and find ways to promote the joy of reading and of owning books, and through this to help to keep the world of live music afloat.

#MusicMatters

Until the 12th of April…

Well that’s not quite how the song goes, but sing it anyway.

My previous post proved overly optimistic regarding book donations: it is proving too complicated to arrange drop offs, and so I am afraid we won’t be taking any further donations of books until we reopen on 12 April (God willing…). Not too long to go, if you can hold onto your books until then, but if you can’t, I am afraid you will need to find another destination for them.

Stay safe! And protect each other.

People get ready!

We have been closed since end of play on Christmas Eve, but we now have a date for reopening – all being well! 12 April, which is six weeks away. Time to dust off the cobwebs and get the Tree House shipshape in time to welcome everyone back.

With that in mind, I am happy to start taking donations of books again. If you have books you would like to bring to us, get in touch, and we can arrange a time. We can keep our distance – open the door and let people drop books inside – and I have now been vaccinated too, so I should soon be a bit less of a risk. I think the vaccine takes three weeks to become effective, and it’s nearly a week already since I was jabbed.

I am also making plans for a few small things to do when we reopen – still thinking about them, but nothing major. And from now on our charity focus will be to support musicians, who are still facing a year of uncertainty and often not covered by any of the government rescue packages. (Thankfully we have received government grants, which is how we have survived!)

More soon! Keep reading.

Tier 4

Well, we were due to reopen tomorrow – Monday 4 January – after our Christmas break, but of course we are now in tier 4, so we have to remain closed until that changes. I have yet to decide if I will be furloughed or if I will try to run some sort of business online and via local deliveries, but furlough is the most likely – I will make that decision today. I don’t think we can really operate without being open.

Here’s hoping we won’t be closed for too long, but maybe hibernation will be good for all of us, and we can sit out the coldest weeks and avoid the virus as much as possible! Thank you so much to those who have bought books and attended art talks and brought donations between the lockdowns, and generally given lots of encouragement. Every message means a lot! Each lockdown is a bit tougher, but my thoughts are with those on the front line, those suffering and those separated from loved ones, especially those who have relatives in care homes and hospitals whom they can’t visit. I am luckier than many! As long as I can pay the bookshop rent we will be OK, though I do need some income too, but for now, and with some government financial support, both I and the bookshop are just about OK.

I did some little live videos on Facebook each day in Advent, with a book recommendation each day, so if you missed those and want to catch up, head over to our Facebook page and look for ‘videos’ – I don’t think you need to be on Facebook to watch them, they should be public. I may do a few more little videos if lockdown carries on, just to keep in touch! But we are not selling any books for now, and I may be even less prompt at answering bookshop emails if I am furloughed.

Meanwhile it’s Sunday, so I am off to make some lunch and watch Columbo. Happy reading everyone!

Victoria

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!

Shoes and ships and sealing wax

treehouse6I meant to post a link to the personal website I have been using while the shop is closed, and I forgot.  In case anyone is interested, you can find it here! You can even see videos of me in my pyjamas with lockdown hair (I cut it all off short one day near the start of lockdown). I can’t remember what I talk about, but it all seemed important at the time. I am in the process of making the most important one yet!

You’ll find details of Kenilworth Reads there, my attempt to get people in the town to read the same book, but I have failed to get my act together – there is still time!

I am waiting to see what the Human Haystack (aka our esteemed Prime Minister) says at the next lockdown review, in terms of reopening the bookshop.  If I do open in June, it will be on Saturdays only, as I work out how to do it as safely as possible, and the proceeds from those days will go to my fundraiser to help musicians, who have lost everything and seemingly for some time to come.

Anyway, just checking in – thank you to those who have missed us!  I hope everyone is OK and managing lockdown and hope to see some of you before too much longer.  I was really struggling with the physical side of the shop before we closed, but I now have a mobility scooter, so life is and will be a bit easier!  You may see/have seen me zooming around town on it.

Stay safe, stay well, keep reading.

Furlough

The bookshop, as you know, closed a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I would be able to carry on with some online things (including our Cicero Boxes), but we are now ceasing trading all together during the current crisis.  The Tree House is a limited company, and I am employed as its director; for the last 12 months I have been able to join up to PAYE and pay myself a small monthly wage.  My accountant has suggested that I should be furloughed, and so henceforth I am indeed on furlough, which means the company has ceased trading completely.  So no more Cicero boxes, and no more web posts for now.  We are also eligible, as a small retail business, for a government grant, and so I hope that in due course we will open again, along with all our high street neighbours in Kenilworth.  But I am not allowed to post on social media or here, as that implies the company is still operating.  I will be setting up a personal website, where I can post bits of art history and blog about books and music, and I will post a link here when I have done that.

I leave you with the song that Bob Dylan recently gifted to us – a song he wrote and recorded a number of years ago but has never released until now. It is partly about the assassination of JFK, but really it’s a hymn to 20th century American culture and the need for music in dark times and, written well before Trump came to power, it strikes me as a powerfully anti-Trump statement too.  It’s 17 minutes long and utterly glorious.  Listen to it several times, listen to the lyrics, and it will soon have you under its spell.  There’s no one like Bob.

Let’s try again…

nick reading 1Well that went well, didn’t it!  I did think restrictions on movement were coming, but went ahead anyway.  In light of the government edict, we won’t be able to do our book deliveries and mail order parcels.  However, I think we can still do our Cicero Boxes, and this is the perfect time of year to order one.  This is our monthly subscription scheme: two second-hand novels, a few flower seeds from Higgledy Garden, a bookmark and some sort of treat in the post each month.  £10pcm inc P&P.  Bargain!  And April is prime time for sowing flower seeds.

Why can I do this but not the other?  Well, I can go and retrieve a stock of books from the bookshop and at just two books per person, it will be easier to manage.  I can print off postage labels here and go to a post box as my daily exercise or food shop without having to go into a post office, as the boxes I use fit through a letterbox.

Normally I charge extra for a one-off box, but I won’t be doing that during this strange period.  So if you would like a box, let me know – contact form below.  Easiest just to do that in the first instance, and then we can discuss further details in email (you can still give me ideas about the sort of books you like/don’t like).  Also makes a lovely gift for a friend or relative you might not be seeing for a while.  The seeds can be grown in pots and windowboxes if you don’t have a garden.

A word about Higgledy Garden.  This is a wonderful little company – really just Benjamin Ranyard and his Viszla hound Flash, who live on a narrowboat.  They have a bit of help now from one or two others, as the business has grown.  Ben sells British flower seeds, and gives guidance on growing them, to create lovely cut flowers in your garden – though you don’t have to cut them of course!  Do have a look at the website, it’s lovely.

And why do I call them Cicero Boxes?  Well, Cicero, the great Roman orator, said that if you have a garden and a library, you have all that you need.  I think he forgot the single malt, but maybe that was assumed.  According to a Classicist friend, he actually said ‘a garden IN a library’, which sounds amazing, but no one quite knows what it means.  Maybe he had a very big library.  Anyway!  That’s why.

Get in touch below for any further info – or look at the Cicero Boxes tab, and ignore the bit about the different price for a single box.

Stay safe people!  For me, three weeks of enforced staying at home is a gift, but I am very lucky, as someone who lives alone, has a garden and is a natural introvert.  I know others are not so lucky in many ways.  But reading books and growing flowers are lovely things to do during a crisis.