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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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!

Feeling festive!

treeI 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).

Warren Ellis

warrenWarren Ellis is, for me, simply one of the finest musicians around.  It’s easy to talk about the finest, the best, the most anything without really discussing what that means, as often it’s about personal taste and subjective response more than anything – and I freely admit that this has to be the case here too, on one level.  I love his music, I love how he plays and how he writes music, and the persona that comes through his performances, and so I think he’s one of the finest…and subjective response is always a factor in even the most serious attempt to be objectively analytical about any kind of art.  Art, I think, defies objective analysis – that’s intrinsic to what it is.  I say that as an art historian, someone who has been trained and has tried to train others to analyse beyond a subjective response.

But sometimes a work of art, or a body of work, comes along that shows just how futile academic analysis is, how futile perhaps any analysis is, even the late night debates and arguments with friends over a few bottles of wine where we try to make sense of why we love certain things and why our taste is better than anyone else’s, including (or especially) the people we’re debating with.

It happened to me when I was doing my PhD in art history, on German limewood sculpture from around 1500.  Part of what I was looking at in my research was its neglect within art history, and even the fact that no one wrote anything about it at the time it was produced.  I eventually wrote a 75,000 word dissertation on this that the examiners seemed to like, but really I had realised that the power of this body of art – the thing that had subconsciously attracted me to it in the first place – was that it was meant to be looked at, to be meditated on, to be experienced (I’ll write all about that some other time, perhaps!), not to be written about or reduced to verbal analysis. It’s not a great thing to discover part way through a major academic research project, but I still found plenty to say.

The same is true, I think, of Warren Ellis’s music, especially his work with Dirty Three, but also very much with his film scores and even his work with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

Dirty Three, though, perhaps convey most clearly what I’m trying to say.  You put on one of their records and from the opening notes you are simply engaged in the music and then quickly absorbed by it and into it and it creates feelings, thoughts, images, experiences that you can’t put into words – and don’t want to, because music is music not words.  They call their music songs, which I love, even though they don’t have words – because they nevertheless convey stories and human experience even without lyrics.  Warren often introduces them as being about something, part of his banter and interaction with both the music and his audience, but whatever they are ‘about’, the beauty of great art is that you simultaneously respect the intentions of the artist and find your own meaning in what they have created.

Warren Ellis is a multi-instrumentalist – has even created his own instrument, the tenor guitar – but it is his violin-playing for which he is best known and which for me takes his genius to its highest peaks.  He and the violin become one spiritual entity, his entire body creates the music that we hear from the instrument, and watching him play is as absorbing as listening.  Anyone who has seen him live knows how dynamic his performance is – with the Bad Seeds he would often crouch down when he wasn’t playing then literally leap into action when he was, but sometimes playing quietly, intently, often with his back to the audience.  He sometimes plays the violin like a guitar, pizzicato, the bow stuck down the back of his shirt.  With Dirty Three he hollers as the music takes hold, uses the space around him to express physically and viscerally the way the music seems to possess him.  I love the NPR Tiny Desk concert (see below) where in such a tiny space he still manages to kick out as he plays – while Mick Turner on guitar never flinches, no matter how close Warren’s shoe appears to threaten.

I love Nick Cave’s songs and his voice; I love it when he plays the piano; and sometimes I’ll be listening to a song, and I’ll be thinking that surely nothing could be more beautiful than what I’m listening to.  And then Warren’s violin comes in, and my heart finally breaks, and I realise that it could be even more beautiful, and now it is.

What am I saying?  Nothing at all really, because you have to listen to the music and watch Warren play to begin to understand what I’m on about.  But there is a reason for trying to tell you why I think he is so great.  A few weeks ago he agreed to be the Patron of the Tree House Bookshop – I wrote a nervous message, thinking I had nothing to lose, and was thrilled to the core when he said yes.

It’s not just the excitement of having a musical hero as our Patron.  It’s that he is the kind of musician that he is, which was the reason for asking him in the first place.  It’s that kind of engagement with art that is at the core of what I’m trying to convey through the bookshop – the intrinsic importance of the arts to being human, the passion that Warren exudes in performance and in conversation (you can find various interviews on YouTube), the lack of pretension in what he does and how he does it, the admiration for huge talent, and the sheer beauty of what he produces, all convey so well the sense I have that literature and the arts are fundamental to being human, to a rich, healthy society, to the way in which human beings connect with each other.nick and warren2

He also comes across as a great bloke – warm, funny, articulate, unpretentious, intelligent, full of life.  He also has one of the great beards in rock – what more could we want.

So to have Warren as our Patron is a magical, exciting, happy thing, and I am grateful that he agreed so willingly.  The bookshop now feels connected to the wider world of artistic endeavour and the power and sheer enjoyment of art that we’ve been trying to create on a parochial level.  This post is really just to introduce you to our lovely Patron!

I have interspersed this with a few clips of Warren playing, in case you haven’t listened to him before – do listen, they are all just beautiful – and I end with a lovely little interview with him and Nick (who have always been the household gods of the Tree House) – they are like a married couple, sitting there, but Nick’s short homage to Warren and the Dirty Three, that he had not heard anything like their music and that it was life-changing, is something I fully share.  Dirty Three are playing in Edinburgh in July – I can’t go, sadly, as it’s a standing-only concert and my stupid arthritic knees prevent me from standing for more than a few minutes – but if there are tickets left, you should go.  I’ll put on my CD of Ocean Songs and will be there in spirit.

**I have no photo credit for the wonderful thumbnail image at the start of this blog post, I stole it from the internet – if anyone knows who took it, please let me know!