“No 10 Beaumont Road – Anecdotes of a Bookseller”
(NB Burway Books has moved from No 10 to No 18 Beaumont Road since Ros gave this talk)
I have been passionate about books ever since my Mum and Dad bought Puffin books every Christmas for me: yes I was one of the Kaye Webb Puffin Club. Two of my favourite books were Heidi and The Secret Garden. My bibliophile Dad also introduced me to Thomas Hardy and the poetry of William Blake and Wilfred Owen: we spent many school holidays travelling the country looking for good bookshops, usually ending up in Blackwell’s, Oxford.
Dad was for ever moaning that there wasn’t a good enough bookshop in Shropshire; it was true there wasn’t a comprehensive one at the time, well one that had more than one title in the poetry section! So my heart was set on opening a bookshop when I found the right location which suited my health and the locality wasn’t too far from my home.
Firstly I started my bookselling life at the SADA bookshop, College Hill in Shrewsbury to see if bookselling was really for me. Six months later a shop came on the market in Church Stretton, so it obviously was. Burway Books was established in September 1974. The shop had previously been a failing laundrette – I only received one load of washing, there was a hasty retreat by the bearer of the washing!
Setting up a bookshop is a little tricky, it is essential to be a member of the Booksellers Association of GB & Ireland. They sent me a guide to opening a bookshop with very useful tips. I did have one problem that was major: how to find two trade references to open an account with a publisher when you’ve never been in trade! I ended up asking my local greengrocer and newsagent.
On the first day that I opened the bookshop my Dad entered the shop, hoping for a quiet browse, and when a customer followed him in my Dad promptly walked out through the back door!
Later my Mum and Dad (he did get used to customers) helped a great deal, usually looking after the shop on Saturday afternoons so that I could have a break.
Until I had the shop I’d not come across the “bestseller” – I just thought books were books. The first Christmas bestsellers were Jennie a biography of Jennie Churchill, and David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon. And being the 1970s, Goat Husbandry and John Seymour’s Self Sufficiency were bestsellers throughout the year (due to The Good Life on TV).
I soon picked up the necessity of keeping an eye on ”bestseller charts”, however with recent changes in bookselling, and online and supermarket bookselling, bestseller lists have become less important.
Bookshop browsers/customers special moments
I met Monica Taylor soon after opening the shop: she had just moved to Church Stretton from Tunbridge Wells – it turned out that she was the co founder of Concord College. She lived at 100 Sandford Ave with Paul and Anne Oertel. One day she rang me and said “ They’re asleep come up for tea now!” so I did. She was a woman of great presence and if she said come to tea you did. We did enjoy each other’s company although I was in my 20s and she in her 70s. Sadly she had a stroke only a couple of months after I met her – I visited her in hospital everyday but she died 3 weeks later. I learnt a great deal from her– she was just a wonderful person. The library at Concord College is named after her.
Christmas is always a delightful time in the bookshop, especially Christmas Eve. We always get a husband or two who’s forgotten to get a Christmas present, there is no time to order anything in so it’s a book off the shelf – “Oh and please will you Christmas wrap it for me”. We used to have one customer who only visited the shop on Christmas Eve to buy his two sons an English dictionary each “because they’re hopeless at spelling”. I think his sons must have shelves full of English dictionaries! One Christmas when the shop was pretty full (which it often is at Christmas), in the corner a chap just burst out laughing at full volume, he was reading a Spike Milligan book – we sold a few copies on the strength of his laughter!
Over the years many of my customers have become close friends, I even have customers who remember me from my days at the SADA bookshop. The young man who came to fix the window lights in 1979, I married in 1982! More recently we as a family will be for ever grateful to our bookshop customers and friends for their support throughout our son Alun’s critical illness.
I have had lovely communication with customers, one of whom, Sven, I have never met. I quote from email : “It was nice of you to write to me. I was moved by your double news of your son’s illness and academic success. They are a constant worry, sometimes justified, set off against moments of euphoria, our kids. I hope your Alun has come through health-wise. What a clever family!”
Another emailer is Ruth: she is profoundly deaf and lives near Cambridge. I’m in regular contact with her and we obviously discuss books, but also little snippets of our personal lives or even the weather! Ruth recently wrote, “How was the ceremony? I hope it all went with a swing – strawberries and cream and all? Congrats to Alun again. Happily it’s a lovely book! I’m moved to ask for another: “The Business of Ethnography: Strategic Alliances, People and Organisations“. berg: oxford. 2005. Not too pricey I think.”
Malcom Saville introduced himself in the summer of 1975 and from our first conversation he persuaded me to run a story competition for young readers in the summer of 1976 – I have brought along some of the correspondence from Malcolm Saville to-night – during the break you are most welcome to read it.
He was the first of now many authors’ who’ve visited us. I have been trying to make the profile of Malcolm Saville higher in this area with the Town Council and tourism group and my words have often fallen on deaf ears. Hopefully the special event in Malcolm Saville’s memory on the 3rd October will spark more interest. There are hundreds of people past and present who have come to this area due to reading his Witchend stories. My suggestion to the tourism group and Council is to have a Lone Pine sculpture in the Square – his last few visits to the area were spent staying in a house in the Square. Hilary, a fellow bookseller, lives very close to Witchend too.
Vere Hodgson: I have brought along my copy of the first edition of Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges. In 1976 Vere lived in the same house as her sister in Hazler Crescent. Her war diary was published by Dobson Books in 1976 and was read on radio 4 on publication. Vere was an unpretentious, very matter of fact woman – a bit like Monica, strong willed. She looked like my old headmistress, prim blouse and long grey skirt, hair a little wild. She also invited me to tea and my Mum was invited too. My Mum tried Vere’s homemade wine, as I was driving home I declined thank goodness, it was a strong potion and my Mum fell fast asleep during the tea party! It was a very exciting time for Vere as she became famous overnight. Her book has been recently republished by Persephone Books.
After the heady days of the late 1970s up to 2006 the main author events were at the shop – authors signing books and talking to readers. We co hosted Jeremy James author talk at the Long Mynd Hotel in 2006.
In 2007 a very smart elderly man came in the shop and introduced himself as Norman Dewis and said he had just published a book on the history of the development of the Jaguar car. He did two talks for us at the Long Mynd Hotel and in each case kept 100 petrol heads enthralled for 2 hours and more, they would have liked him to continue into the wee small hours, but the G & T supply ran out! We are hoping Norman will have time from his busy schedule to give another talk in February 2011 it’s hard to keep up with him he’s just turned 90! He is still rally driving and recently drove Steve McQueen’s Jaguar at Clint Eastwood’s ranch.
With colleagues Hilary and Emma we have introduced some very varied authors to Church Stretton audiences:-
Momma Cherrie who talked and cooked at the same time she made Jambalaya, gorgeous chocolate brownies for an enraptured audience of 120.
Ian Marchant joined us on a trip in a vintage Boulton’s bus to the Three Tuns in Bishops Castle, and we had a great sing-song on the return journey, singing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Tim Pears, a writer of beautiful prose with associations with the Welsh Marches: his latest book, Landed, is due out in paperback early next year – I can highly recommend this book. On his visit here he read an unpublished short story about the widow of a soldier, it was very moving.
Camilla Carr, whose book The Sky is Always There is an amazing but harrowing account of her time in captivity in Chetchnya. It was read on Radio 4. Hilary my colleague was able to persuade Camilla to do a talk here as they were at school together.
Now we come to Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn: in 2009 they did three talks for us on the TV program Victorian Farm as well as their guest appearance at the More Singers summer concert. They are hoping to return in 2011 to talk about their most recent exploits in the Edwardian Farm. Alex has confirmed that he will return we’re just waiting to hear from Peter. They are both a dream to work with their three talks were all sell outs.
Phil Rickman is a regular visiting author, he has written a series based in the Hereford diocese – the Merrily Watkins mysteries. Merrily Watkins is the vicar of Ledwardine and diocesan exorcist. We and his many fans are eagerly awaiting the next in the series. This year he has written a fictional account of the early adulthood of Dr John Dee called the Bones of Avalon. On publication in April we were delighted to welcome back Phil Rickman (and his lovely wife Carol) to sign copies of his new book. Fans travelled from far and wide to meet Phil, the shop was pleasantly full with a wonderful, eclectic mix of people, and we sold out of books after about an hour. That didn’t put anyone off chatting to Phil and quizzing him about the next, eagerly anticipated Merrily book …. which he tells us he is working on at the moment and is due for release next year.
We had the great pleasure of introducing Patrick Gale this year to a very appreciative audience in Cardington Village Ha;;. Two of his friends visited our shop in 2009 so that we were able to contact him personally and with Hilary’s tenacity with his publishers he finally arrived in May. He is a wonderful speaker and novelist.
Stevie Davies too gave a talk in May 2010 to an appreciative audience at the Long Mynd Hotel we were contacted by her publisher because her latest book, Into Suez, starts on the Long Mynd. We have since corresponded regularly by email.
And of course there are the authors’ who support the Booksellers Association Indie Book Week every June – Kate Long, Lady Kishwar Desai, Simon Whaley, Julia Williams to name but a few.
I should also mention JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. The first three titles came in as usual, but by the fourth title bookshops were expected to do something special and by the sixth and seventh we had to open very early and in the case of the seventh, very late. It was the year of the July storms: the books arrived here at 10pm in the middle of a thunderstorm, and at the midnight opening it was so wet that I think we managed to pack into the shop 70 or so customers and keep them amused from 11.30 pm until midnight when we were allowed to sell the books. Fortunately I’d made a birthday cake for “Harry Potter” that lasted 15 minutes or so with the usual Happy Birthday song and one or two of the young customers blowing the candles out. That left us with 15 minutes, those 15 minutes went very slowly and when midnight arrived the first book we sold was Salmon fishing in the Yemen! We did go on to sell 38 copies before 12.30 am!
Book selling has changed over the years – access to immediate information about availability has made a tremendous difference. We used to have a 2 volume red “Books in Print” which was out of date by the time it was published and weighed a ton. I still have my first 2 vol set (1974). Just before book information became available via a PC we had the dreadful microfiche and microfiche reader which kept information more up to date, however reading it I quite often ended up with a migraine at the end of the day. Our first computer was installed by Oyster Systems from Essex – I knew nothing about computers at the time 1994 and he kept telling me to use the “Out” key or so I thought in fact he meant the “Alt” key !!
Now information about pretty much every book that has been (or is due to be) published is available over the internet. Books in Print is now a live online service.
We now have a credit card machine which not only processes credit/debit cards, it can process the new electronic Book Tokens as well. There is a hitch though: if we’ve no electric (which does happen very occasionally) we can’t process a Book Tokens so be patient with us.
I cannot leave out my long association with my dear friend Ann Garnett. As you know she retired from the shop at the tender age of 80. We are fellow asthmatics and both love books. I think she’s still got more books than me, but with a little help from my children I’m catching up! We miss her for her tenacity in recycling – I think she should be the Government’s recycling tzar – as well as her book knowledge.
Finally I quote from Helen Exley: “Books can be dangerous. The best ones could change your life”.
My favourite books that I return to:-
Jane Austen’s novels; the novels of Thomas Hardy (bar Jude); Collected poems of Wilfred Owen, Blake and Keats; Women in Love D H Lawrence; Travel writing of D H Lawrence & Paul Theroux, To Kill a Mocking Bird;
Books I’ve recently read and enjoyed:
Witness the Night by Lady Kishwar Desai; Into Suez by Stevie Davies; Gentleman’s Relish by Patrick Gale; Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale; Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson; Small Island by Andrea Levy; Memory Box by Margaret Forster; Restless by William Boyd; A Woman in Berlin – Anon, Landed by Tim Pears.