Shelf Life: what’s in a bookshop?

All those put your hands up if you bought books online in the last week.

Now all those put your hands up who bought books in a bookshop.

Let’s go back in time. 1978 – the North East, and I was ten. The picture you may have in your head now if you’re a Southerner may be of grim, cold, windy tragic scenes: a second cousin of mine once said he felt sorry for me because I didn’t come from London. Well, it really wasn’t too painful to be brought up there, that is when they let me out of the broom cupboard. The elders of my tribe taught me how to create warmth, and what made it even less painful was that I was brought up in a bookshop.

Back to 2014. I am witnessing this show of hands in an audience listening to a panel – ‘What Future for Words’ – introduced by Vikki Heywood, Chair of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value. I put my hand up for both.

‘Slightly more people in the room’, Vikki says, put their hands up for the bookshop one. ‘Perhaps’, she adds.

To put this in context, this is Cheltenham Literature Festival, where people have chosen to attend in order to explore words and books, so it doesn’t represent a random cross-section of the British public.

I am reminded that one of my own children proudly told his head teacher last week that he wouldn’t be buying the book at the school book sale even though he desperately wanted it, because he could get it cheaper online. Ouch.

The question that these hands in the air are making me ask is, what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or hard copies of books disappear?

Newcastle in the 80’s. It was a survival strategy of mine to spend as much time as possible in the bookshop. I’d never have seen my real live mum in the flesh, or got fed, if I hadn’t gone there.

Home did not have any in-date food in the fridge and was sometimes not very tidy and was quite often filled with pale skinned spotty goths and dope smoking teenagers.

I liked them, they taught me how to smoke, and they seemed to think I wasn’t too irritating but I knew even then that they were into a little bit too grown up kind of stuff for me to be hanging out with them all the time.

At the shop, reference books became my grandparents, poetry books became my well-stroked pets, novels my big sisters, art books gave me my special treats and cookery books read me bedtime stories. It was warm (the heating was on, unlike at home) and it smelt of Italian coffee.

Sometimes the bookshop spilt into home life. My siblings and I had a joke that when Mum wanted to say something, like ‘Time you knew about sex’… she’d just casually leave ‘the latest’ book hanging out on the kitchen table at home for us to find.

The Bookhouse was an independent bookshop with a coffee bar. We thought we were terribly original and that it was before anyone else in the UK had thought of that combination, which might be true. The Bookhouse was my very own mother’s shop. It was around that time I copied my brothers and sister and started to call her Iris: ‘I don’t want to be called Mum when I’m 77 years old,’ she said.

Whilst I was attending my father’s wedding and getting to know a new bunch of step siblings, and – more importantly – discovering my sister’s Lou Reed and Bowie records (which she had stolen from our eldest brother), Iris was busy. Somewhere or other she was persuading a bank to give her a loan, choosing the location (13 Ridley Place… spooky since my dad had married Mrs Ridley), shelving out two floors of the shell of the shop, then ordering the books.

Her dad – a Geordie grocer – sat on the sidelines, as he died slowly of a smoking related lung disease, warning her gloomily that she probably wouldn’t succeed. She was a single mum – not that we used that phrase – and a feminist, and we knew that his words just fuelled her resolve.

When the first book orders were delivered, a team of us slid knives into the tape holding the boxes together and opened them up one by one. Oh for that unmistakable inviting fragrance of a box of brand new books. The silky smoothness of a quality hard-back cover. The sensation and thrill of sliding each volume out, carefully so as not to damage it, holding each one as though it were a new-born baby, checking it for eyes, ears, nose, mouth and then working out which section to put it in.

They might well have been called worlds: worlds of ideas, for that’s what each one was, and the whole lot together on the shelves was a universe, and I greedily wanted to read them all.

My daily routine, once shop life started, was to walk there after school, or get on the Newcastle Metro, once that was installed, and get out at Haymarket. When I arrived in my creased school uniform, with half my school dinner down my front and my homework in my bag, Iris would suggest I got myself a hot chocolate in the coffee bar and do my homework there.

Then she’d open the till and give me a fiver to get garlic chicken from M&S, maybe also enough for my brothers if they were around, because she’d always stay late and I’d be being helpful if I could put it in the oven, and it would be extra brilliant if I’d walk the dog.

She had to switch off the coffee machines in the coffee bar, and count the takings at the end of the day and tot them all up each week (takings ranged widely and often determined our family mood for the week), and sort the stock cards, when we had that system.

If I resisted buying joss sticks or retro hats from the Handyside Arcade with some of the money, I might manage to get chocolate éclairs or a lemon tart for pudding.

Working at The Bookhouse on Saturdays and holidays from the age of ten was cool, and getting paid in Collins English dictionaries or play scripts or postcards, even cooler. Sometimes I made chocolate brownies or dodgy Florentines to sell in the coffee bar. Occasionally they were good enough to sell.

Iris even let me select books from the reps: ‘Just get any that you think look interesting’, she’d say. How exciting was that? I got to order any book I felt like, as well as choosing what we’d have for supper, aged 12!

Spotting shop-lifters was an essential part of working on the till, and I developed a nasty glare for anyone I thought might EVEN BE THINKING ABOUT IT. This studying also gave me quite good lessons – I am ashamed to say – for my own subsequent (brief, I hasten to add) phase of shop-lifting nasty eighties earrings (from chain stores, never independents… that was my questionable moral code) which I didn’t need or even want that much, along with a very naughty friend.

Sorry shops, I would now pay you back if I thought you still existed. Guilt. Shame.

There was a host of staff in the shop – far too many to be economical – including Gran and our rocking horse in the children’s section (the horse got the highest wages of any of us) and Aunty Ruth and sometimes my friend Didi. Beth Kessler, Mum’s choral singing friend, and Elizabeth Hammill, who went on to set up Seven Stories, the children’s book centre in Newcastle, were also there from the beginning.

Neil Astley had free rein in the poetry section, which was tucked up on the shelved section on the left side under the stairs. Neil could often be spotted at our house drinking wine, planning and discussing with my mother how to bring to the attention of the reader the slim volumes (obscure volumes as I saw them at the time), but which in fact comprised a huge collection of modern international poetry which deserved an audience. This was in the years that he was setting up Bloodaxe Books, cutting and pasting cover design in the kitchen of his flat.

Sometimes there were two people working in the coffee bar, down the spiral staircase, and also Mick, the guitarist on Saturdays. We had visitors too – illustrators like Michael Foreman and Colin McNaughton drawing wicked monster and witch pictures for kids (I still have some).

Royal Shakespeare actors dropped in to recite works such as Beowulf – in between sips of mulled wine – on winter evenings. There was a bunch of us, (including – most exciting for me – the boy I had the hots for) who often visited after we’d been to the People’s Youth Theatre, on a Saturday morning.

Reams of Newcastle Literary Festival writers and opera singers came back to our house for parties. At least that’s how I remember it. God knows how my mother did it all. She was even on Woman’s Hour once for winning Young Firm of the Year, awarded by the Newcastle Advertiser. Agony to listen to your mum talk on the radio when you’re 16, but in retrospect, that’s not a bad accolade is it? Especially for running a shop, which never really made quite enough money.

As A.L. Kennedy says at Cheltenham: “If money becomes the sole purpose for words, it becomes bit depressing”. Iris was not, you can fairly say, into selling words for the sole purpose of making money.

Our Bookhouse got sold ten years later for not very much, as an ongoing concern, which really is an unfortunate phrase. It didn’t survive that chain – Waterstones – arriving in town and setting itself up in Northumberland Street, where there must have been an astronomical rent, but, as we’d put it, ‘Everybody is always walking past, so they just drop in’, unlike the Bookhouse which suffered from just-off-the-high-street syndrome.

I truly hoped that some of the books that were still hanging out on the shelves unsold were not ones that I had ordered, randomly, in those early days, but I suspect quite a lot of them were.

For a long time, I would not go into a Waterstones anywhere, out of loyalty to our shop. Iris didn’t ever ask me to have this loyalty. I even sent unfair sour glares (learned from the shoplifting spying) to the staff in there, especially if they’d opportunely side-stepped from our shop. It’s odd to me that we are all now hoping that the chain won’t go bust. Waterstones is now one of the rare surviving bookshops.

The longest I’ve spent in a bookshop for years is at Cheltenham Literary Festival, and that isn’t even a bookshop, it’s a marquee. It’s filled with the books by the writers giving talks, the public who are listening to those talks, and the writers signing the books, which they’re giving their talks about. What a party again! I have indescribable urges to join in, but I don’t quite know how to not be part of the team organizing the event and whipping the writers off for a meal or a drink afterwards.

What happened to my own regular bookshop browsing habit? Whilst having those delights called very young kids, who have tendencies to rip out pages from books then vomit all over what is remaining, I tried to make sure I was a good book Mum. I gathered enough books to feed their hungry souls, read to them as soon as they could sit up (in my womb) and then just left them to rip out pages and vomit as much as they liked.

We were living in deep rural Devon in a seventeenth century kind of way, where it was hard to get a proper radio signal, and the ghosts spoke more loudly than my husband, and books made a contribution to keep me in modernish times. I hardly noticed bookshops then, because I hardly noticed the outside world at all in that time, but when I did sit up and notice, all the bookshops had started to close. The one in our nearest town – Tiverton – closed suddenly, before I’d even been in it. The person who pointed it out to me, was Iris.

Now I’m a bit more normal, living a bit less of a sheltered existence. I actually have neighbours, and there are cities quite nearby and in those cities there are bookshops though some of them only have remainders, the cheap books that publishers want to sell off. If I have time, I will give myself fifteen minutes to check over the titles and buy something. I still have some getting back in the groove to do. After all there is so much to know and follow nowadays if you’re interested in words, ideas and communication. How can you be expert of digital media, of film, music and art and dance and children and school and housework and earning money and looking presentable and try to eat the food in the fridge in time, then read regular papers and novels too?

There have been a few conferences which work has taken me to… such as Sheffield Documentary Festival, Cinekid in Amsterdam, Kidscreen in New York, Vision in Bristol. Fast paced adrenalin vehicles for pitching, selling and flirting. The focus is often multi platform: words and ideas across media. Telling stories over the internet, TV and on mobile devices.

This is my first visit to Cheltenham Literary Festival and to a literary festival at all since 1986. I am gate-crashing Iris and Aunty Ruth’s annual expedition, and they’ve been really kind taking me out for lunches. The festival is gentle, thoughtful, relaxed. It’s reminded me of the importance to put away your mobile phone and forget about text messages, slow your pace and read words in print, and then let the thoughts wonder.

At the ‘What Future for Words’? debate which I attend, the debate has the feeling of scratching the surface of something enormous. I come home wanting to know more about all the panelists: Amereh Saleh, a spoken word artist who has a strong online presence; the shrewd, confident writer A. L. Kennedy, Rebecca Levene who is a cross-platform writer and the publisher Gail Rebuck. I find them all on Twitter, and I also look up The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value.

The question of what exactly is it that we risk losing if bookshops or even books disappear has taken quite a bit of answering, and I haven’t covered all the points by any means. The bookshop I was brought up in might have parented me, but it didn’t change my nappies and it didn’t give me hugs. However, the people in and around the bookshop, including the customers, did give me hugs, or at least warmth. Luckily by the time I was 10 I was out of nappies, so they didn’t have to do that too.

For me then, it’s the people in a bookshop that makes a bookshop. It the talking about a book, enthusing, knowing about the book you’re looking for, sharing, giving advice, suggesting, looking together for an author or a title. Online does do that, but it’s not quite the same when there isn’t another human being in front of you, is it? It’s a need I don’t think I am alone in having…. I need that sharing, and that energy. The same energy and need attracts us to live comedy and live music and brilliant theatre, doesn’t it? Otherwise we’d all just sit at home in front of our screens right?

The Bookhouse was a place where a bunch of Northern people could explore a little bit about who they were, for a decade. It was a place where artists, even Southern artists visited and shared their ware. It was a place for creative folk or just any folk to get a book and have a coffee, have a giggle or feel sad, just something human…. and then get on with the rest of their lives. For me, as a teenage bookseller, there was the tantalizing mystery and excitement behind the question of which book would a customer buy? Was it for them or was it a present? It’s the customer, and the future reader that eventually gives a book its breath.

Iris doesn’t sell books anymore, but my sister and I reckon she singlehandedly props up bookshops all over England with the amount she buys, and it’s great visiting her house for a weekend: each time there’s a month or two of fascinating material to get through.

My own children feast on library books, spend their earnings or savings on books and read anything else they can get their hands on in their spare time… I have to limit it in order to get a conversation out of them, and it has to be juggled with playing Terraria and Minecraft.

It feels important to Tweet about this after the festival. I want to say I was brought up in a bookshop, but Twitter doesn’t let me have enough words to say why this has any relevance at all. Then it crosses my mind (ok, I admit, I am a bit behind everyone else) that I can tweet a link to a blog post. Brilliant. This is what I will do. I spot one of the battered dictionaries that I now prop my laptop on so that I don’t get neck ache when typing – ‘The Collins Dictionary of the English Language’. I pull it out, and find on the first page an inscription in it in spangly young writing.

“Elspeth Penny.

In payment for working in the Bookhouse.”

You could say – couldn’t you – that my words literally came from the Bookhouse and are still literally propped up by the Bookhouse.

The morning that we leave, we finish off an enormous breakfast at the hotel. It’s Mum’s – oops, I mean Iris’s 77th birthday.

What do Ruth and I give her?

Books.

PT (Postscript Tweet)…

Elspeth Penny ‪@elspethpenny‬

Love books, love digital both. Thanks ‘What future for words?’ panel ‪#cheltlitfest ‪@GailRebuck ‪@Writerer, ‪@Voiceofthepoets ‪@RebeccaLevene

Amereh Saleh @Voiceofthepoets has retweeted it! Yay! I now feel a little bit part of it all again.

Any ideas or thoughts this article has prompted in you? I’d love to know.

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11 thoughts on “Shelf Life: what’s in a bookshop?

  1. Thanks Elspeth. Some lovely memories there, of times when everyone’s love of books was palpable, and people coming into the shop would absorb that, and want to support The Bookhouse not just for the books they wanted and often couldn’t get anywhere else but also for the haven it gave everyone, a respite from the 80s outside. Being stuck behind the till or running around fetching books for customers most of the time, I wasn’t so aware of the subterranean delights of the coffee bar, except when a brownie came my way. But I do remember Mick’s wonderful guitar music – accompanied, on some days, by a young Northumbrian pipes player called Kathryn Tickell, then still at school. I think the Bookhouse was one of her first gigs. And then there was the time I asked Iris if a poet friend and his wife could come in to browse through the poetry section after the shop had closed because he couldn’t get there earlier and wanted to see the shop while he was in town (but I didn’t say it was to collect an honorary degree up the road), and it wasn’t until he came up to the till with his purchases that she recognised him, and asked us all to join her downstairs for a celebratory glass of wine!

    (And happy birthday Iris!)

    1. Great to hear your memories of that time Neil – thanks for this. I didn’t know Kathryn Tickell had played in the coffee bar, but I do remember all kinds of personalities and a host of talented people finding their way into the shop.

  2. My first job was at The Bookhouse. Sadly, there was little training on how to use a Credit Card machine in those days (one of those slide across carbon paper affairs) which cost your mum a fair sum until her bookkeeper spotted that I was doing it incorrectly and effectively giving books away for nothing. I was subsequently relegated to the basement café where I proceeded to drink any profits in the form of thick, milky Horlicks ……. minimum four large mugs per day.

    Happy days, we were so young.

  3. That is funny. I think you must be Ali, in a helmet, are you? I remember well those sliding credit card machines, and reckon I lost the shop just as much money or more than you, the same way.

  4. So many lovely comments on Facebook and elsewhere, thank you all … shame I can’t post them all, but here are a few….

    Eleonora Belfiore and Warwick Commission retweeted you:
    Oct 20: Thank you for this and also for the inspiration @UoWcommission RT Oct 18
    @elspethpenny a warm and wonderful post, excellent! 🙂

    Alice Adams: So you know how you had that childhood fantasy of growing up in a bookshop, a haven of free-thinking where fresh boxes of paper-cased worlds would be delivered weekly on a truck and a bohemian cast of poets and other derelicts would shamble in and out, high on words and all manner of other illicit substances?
    Well, I did, anyway. So much so that when I learnt there was a girl at school who lived in a bookshop I overcame my shyness to befriend her and get invited to her house JUST SO I COULD GO BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE BOOKSHOP. (Helen, if you ever read this I’m so sorry. You were a very lovely friend and I was rather a Machiavellian seven-year-old.)
    And now I’ve just found out that Elspeth Penny grew up in a bookshop and has written a beautiful blog post about it and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and it’s made my heart ache a little bit…
    https://elspethpenny.com/…/17/shelf-life-whats-in-a-bookshop/

    Helen Oliver: What a fabulous article, many happy memories stirred during the reading. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Elspeth.

    Tony Lidington: The Left Overs consisted of me & Macko busking in Newcastle once Left Luggage had done Christmas Carol at Cwmistr Isaf & Newcastle. Happy days!

    Rachel Cole: Brings back lots of happy memories of working in the coffee shop……I loved it !

    Richard Kunzer: That’s brought tears to my eyes – the number of times I used to go there when staying with Aunty Ruth….I will never forget the Bookhouse!

    Ellie Bond: I remember iris penny well, as my mum lived there it seemed!!

    Dee Hutchinson: Anyone who remembers the wonderful Bookhouse on Ridley Place should read this! Very nostalgic…

  5. Hey Elspeth,
    great article. I recall The Bookhouse well. Your mum used to take in actors at that time and one of our company Connie Booth was staying with her. One of the bores of being an actor on tour was what to do with the daytime before the evening’s performance. The Bookhouse with good coffee, guitar playing on some days, and great recorded music other times, was like a warm paradise. Sadly for Iris’s revenue stream, she would take pity on (at the time) poor actors and say things like “just make sure you don’t bend the back of the book and put it back when you’ve finished reading”. I spent many an afternoon reading poems with a good strong coffee. But I didn’t increase the sales of the slim volumes from under the stairs as I would return the book before running off to give voice to Shakespeare on my first visit or Mamet on my second stay in the city. I was back there last year and walked past reminiscing and wishing we could turn back the clock so that such treasures could still exist. Like the Turkish Bath and the municipal swimming pool (one street parrallel to Ridley Place) the significance of The Bookhouse’s closure is only realised when the it is gone. I don’t tweet or Facebook and I prefer the solid book in front of me but I fear that I am a dying breed.
    Love Cyril

  6. Thanks for this. I have many happy memories of the Bookhouse from my mid-80s student days. At that time the Bookhouse seemed like a respite from the political climate – a reminder that the world could be different, more inclusive, more generous. I remember in particular Becky (wonder what happened to her?) who worked in the basement coffee bar.

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