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.