Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What a nice guy

Tonight we had our third author event since we opened - an evening with Sam Jordison, author of Crap Towns, The Joy of Sects and (his latest book) Bad Dates. It was a really interesting evening, quite different from the other events we've run (and a first in that I'm posting immediately after the event, rather than the usual week later). I know this sounds cheesy, and hardly imaginative, but Sam is a really nice bloke. Arriving before anyone else, and having turned down the offer of wine in preference to a cup of tea, he then immediately endeared himself to us by buying a couple of books. Sam discussed his book Bad Dates (read more about the launch party for the book, described as the worst singles party of all time), explained how he'd ended up in Oxford (which featured in Crap Towns, mainly by dint of Blackbird Leys and drunk students), confirmed that he had indeed been a goatherd in the Ardeche region of France (something I had been sceptical about before this evening) and answered questions before the obligatory signing. I sincerely wish him well on his next venture, going off to live in small-town America for six months in the hope of learning more about right-wing Christian groups. When your next book is out Sam, we'll get it in no problem. And I will check out the Jack Kerouac piece. And thanks for the primer (from The Joy of Sects) on founding myths of Scientology, British Israelites and the Mormons (amongst others). Not quite the discussion we might have expected at the end, but completely fascinating. One apology to everyone who came tonight. Having trailed the event as consisting of a glass of wine and 'the odd festive mince pie', I completely forgot to actually bring the mince pies through into the shop. They are still sitting out the back. So consider yourself owed one any time from now until Christmas...

Friday, November 24, 2006

The nightmare before Christmas

Having stumbled through all our novice bookshop owning beginner mistakes, here we are plunged headlong already into our novice bookshop owning Christmas mistakes. We started off with a pretty good outline of the sorts of books we wanted to stock to create a welcoming feel and lots of reasons for people to stay and browse. So, really, our opening stock selection was relatively easy (although several weeks of ISBN hell to actually produce meaningful lists for our very patient wholesaler). Then of course, you have to keep things fresh and give people something new to look at. So since then we have been swimming with all the others, trying to choose things from catalogues, before books have even been published, let alone read or reviewed, trying to spot things that look fantastic, but, hopefully, not the sort of things that every other (ie big chain) bookshop is likely to be selling in huge, highly promoted piles right by the door. We don't want to look like all the others. We are less than ten miles from Oxford, which offers fantastic choice when it comes to book buying, so we have to give people a big incentive to shop locally and it has always been extremely gratifying when people come to us and comment that they found more things in our shop they wanted to buy than on book-buying trips into Oxford. Christmas so far has been a nail-biting time. Trying to avoid the sorts of books that will be everywhere, yet making sure you have the Christmas 'essentials' that people are going to want to see, is a tricky path to tread. We've tried to stick to our own ideas about what are good books to stock. By and large we decided at the outset that if you start worrying what every other bookseller is doing you will not do yourself any favours (and possibly go slightly mad). Yet I couldn't resist a sneak peak at the display of a favourite (until recently) Ottakers (now Waterstones), in a town I know very well. I have to say, it did set me thinking. They are directly opposite a WH Smith, with no independent bookseller in the town. Yet both shops really look like they are already into panic January sale territory, with huge red banners announcing price cuts. Aside from a few selected 3 for 2 offers, most other shops in the town seemed to be promoting positively their fantastic Christmas goodies and had beautiful windows to tempt people into the shop to buy rather than shouting at people how cheaply they are selling. I was at a bit of a loss to work out who these bookshops were competing against to battle so hard on price - apart from each other. The Waterstones and WH Smith offered a bewlidering range of different prices on the same promoted books, so hadn't even managed to agree on the deals to offer (aren't they the same company?). Supermarkets can't stock anything like the range a bookshop can manage. And not everyone wants to buy on the internet. Browsing is still pretty big in the book buying business, particularly at Christmas when people are choosing for others. Books are wonderful to hear about, talk about, pick up and dip into before you buy and feel you've made wonderful discoveries, aren't they? You'd think there must be something more tempting these shops could find to say about their books to woo people in other than that a few highlighted titles are half price. A bit mad and a bit sad?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Abingdon Extravaganza and Sam Jordison

This Friday (24th Nov) the Christmas Lights get turned on in Abingdon - traditionally the shops all stay open late, everyone dresses up, it's a fun evening for everyone. Several of the shops will be liberally dishing out mulled wine as well. We shall be opening until 8pm, and - if we can find anything vaguely 'tudor' to wear (the theme this year) - we might dress up too. This year, being as it's the 450th anniversary of the Charter being granted - a horse will dramatically ride across the bridge into the town to hand the mayor the Charter, and this will be the cue for the Lights going on, and a firework display. All good fun. I'm sure the abingdon blogger will cover the event in some detail at the weekend. We've decked out the children's room with snowflakes as part of our snowflake challenge. Each snowflake has a children's book character, and children are being asked to find all the snowflakes, identify the characters, make a well-known Christmas word, and then enter our competition. A suitable children's literary prize is up for grabs (to find out exactly what, you'll have to come into the shop). We've also managed to squeeze in another author event before December - next Wednesday evening we will be welcoming local author Sam Jordison, author of Bad Dates - a book delving into the soft, fleshy underbelly of dating in the 21st century, and the real-life horror stories of When Dates Go Bad. With his first book Crap Towns (claimed by some to be the real 'rough guide to the UK') Sam managed to upset huge swathes of the country - including Oxford (which was included). So our first question to him next Wednesday is: why did he end up moving to Oxford afterwards? More interesting, in light of recent media discussions on the value (literary or otherwise) of blog and Amazon reviews, is his recent confession in the Guardian that he inserted his own five-star book review on Amazon. I'm keen to learn if there's been any fall out about this... He appears at Mostly Books Wednesday November 29th at 7pm - tickets £3, redeemable against a purchase on the night.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Mostly Books customer query challenge

Here's the latest in our series of tricky queries from shop visitors - obviously we are compiling these into a future quiz compendium for book fans, so any suggestions / answers would be gratefully received and acknowledged: - one of our good friends (Melissa) wants a book plus CD of both traditional folk tales and songs, for an overseas Christmas Present. I've done some hunting around on-line, but the challenge of finding a book that comes with a CD has been the tricky part. Perhaps there is a separate book and CD with some overlap that can be put together into one package? - there is a new book of Fairy Tales published which have gone back to the origins of the tales, and therefore they are significantly different to most of the contemporary versions around today. So far, I've drawn a blank on this one. - Jeremy James books (by David Henry Wilson) - the one with Buckingham Palace in it?! (Question from a little girl) - Suggestions for a good book for an 8 year old, really into animals (not animal stories) and wants to become a vet. I did find a book "I Want To Be A Vet" but it's Out of print...I've also recommended Gerald Durrell, but not for another 2-3 years. - A good, originally-illustrated (was it ever originally illustrated?) Alice in Wonderland for young children. I must admit, I've been a bit lazy on this because I was only asked yesterday, and haven't actually done any checking... (OK, I've just gone and checked its Wikipedia entry - well, well, well. Did you know that the correct title is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", the first edition (1865) was illustrated by John Tenniel - but he objected to the print quality, so another edition was printed the following year. The Rev Dodgson must have been delighted with that delay...and, would you believe it, there is some critical debate about whether it should be classified as a fantasy or a horror story. Blimey!)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What motivates people to read?

I've lost so much weight since opening the bookshop, that yesterday my wedding ring flew off whilst throwing a football to Alex in the garden. Cue hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack, only in this case it was a gold ring in a pile of yellow/brown sycamore leaves, which our garden is full of. Nightmare. Alex enjoyed this game for about, ooh, 5 minutes, but with my increasing frustration and muttered swearing, he quickly wanted to go back inside and watch Little Red Tractor. 'How to motivate a toddler' is something that parents get pretty good at, so I quickly explained to him the (rudimentary) plot outline of Lord of The Rings, and - armed with his sword "Sting" (i.e. a stick) - we set out on our quest. Half an hour later, having slayed a few orcs, and with me beginning to look a bit like Gollum (it's a bit muddy out the back) we spotted it sitting in a patch of earth. Happy Dad, quest over, chocolate biscuits all round. I'm not sure whether this event will give him a lifelong thing about Tolkien (not that he'll need much prodding I feel once he gets older) but it did get me thinking about what motivates people to read (as well as the possibility of publishing my own "bookshop diet" book). Since we opened, we get a lot of questions from concerned parents and grandparents about book suggestions for children, either because they are precocious in their reading ability, or - more often - they seem not to be interested in reading at all. This may also be causing problems at school. They feel - rightly or wrongly - that the right type of book might provide the inspirations and motivation to get back into reading. It seems a tall order for even the best fiction to achieve this. Often books need to be read 'at the right time'. I used to think it was better to ask a few questions, find out what motivated the boy or girl generally, etc. If you find out what their interests are, or what else they've enjoyed, a book may practically leap off the shelves that sounds ideal. A particular character may suggest themselves. It may be Holden Caulfield, or Captain Underpants. It doesn't really matter as long as the book and its characters will make a connection when read. I'm coming to the conclusion that this approach also misses the point. It's not the book quality, but the delivery mechanism, that's at fault. If everyone else in the family loves books, then shoving more books at them is probably going to exacerbate the problem. This is especially true if their peer group think that books are 'uncool' (or, as one boy complained to me recently, "my friends all think that reading is gay"). I think at this point, you need the help of a mentor. Having an interested - yet detached - third-party intervening is often an important way we break out of ruts, and discover new things - or even see things in a new light. For teenagers - and teenage boys in particular - having appropriate mentors is an important part of developing independence, as well as growing into healthy adults. (There's a fantastic book by Steve Biddulph called "Raising Boys" - which we recommend a lot in the shop - which talks about the importance of mentors during the teenage years. It's well worth reading, especially if you have a son.) I think that we - as independent booksellers - can fulfill the role of mentor where books are concerned. If we know our stuff, and are not just pushing the bestsellers, we can sincerely recommend a book in terms different from the party line at home or school (e.g. how it made me feel, or why it was important to me). You've reframed the whole thing - a book is no longer a 'problem', but a potential source of new experiences and answers. This is selling at its finest - the sizzle, not the stake. Only in this case 'the sizzle' is a tantalising glimpse at a bigger, more adult world - something that will overcome peer pressure, and hopefully develop a love of reading for its own sake.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christmas Poetry Please

Recent discussions on the bedside crow bemoaned the fact that the could-be-a-lot-better Waterstones Christmas Catalogue has plenty of "cloakroom classics" (or 'books for the bog' if you run that through babelfish using the "Marketing-to-English" setting) but no poetry. Anyway, it just so happened that poetry was one of the sections that we really hadn't put a great deal of thought into when we opened (there was a long list of those BTW). But last week, with the back-ordered arrival of "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins, we cut the red tape and declared the poetry section 'open'. (Thanks to dovegreyreader for the Ruth Padel recommend. Sets the shelf off nicely.) We have another section in the children's room - although it's a bit hidden away with the children's classics, so we may do one of our many rearrangements (the Sysiphean never-ending task of a bookseller, so I'm learning). So, as a suitable repost to the big chains, Nicki and I have decided to launch our "give a poem for Christmas" campaign. This started in humble fashion on our chalkboard: More sadly, I decided to dust down my teenage poetry-writing skills which have suffered badly in the intervening 20 odd years. However, this may become a regular feature, so there is a possibility that these poems will improve over time. I apologise for any aesthetic offence: So - anyone else feel like hopping on board this slightly blatant bandwaggon? The perfect response to cloakroom classics methinks...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sophie Grigson

On Thursday November 2nd, we welcomed Sophie Grigson to Mostly Books for our biggest event to date. It really couldn't have gone any better. I did wonder about how best to post to the blog about the event - my first effort came over rather too 'luvvy'. This is because Sophie Grigson, superstar cookery writer and culinary guru that she is, was simply a joy to have as our guest for the evening. I shall simply say she was massively interesting to listen to, contagiously enthusastic about her subject, by turns fascinating, surprising and genuinely funny. My friend Paul would describe her as an all-round "top lass", and Nicki and I are very grateful to her for making the event as successful as it was. Exactly four months since we opened, and - as with most things at Mostly Books - representing a series of 'firsts' (another way of saying 'we hadn't done this before') I don't think we could have fit another person into the shop if we'd tried. Once we'd publicised the event, and with strong demand for tickets, we decided to have a cut-off first at 30 attendees, then 40. As the day drew nearer, with a few cancellations, we raised the number again. All in all we must have had nearly 50 people. Having run our of our own chairs, Jill at Added Ingredients leant us hers, as well as providing glasses and some excellent wines which helped the evening go even better. Sophie talked and answered questions for just over an hour (and, for those in the audience who want to read Sophie's v. amusing beer-can chicken recipe, here it is). We then packed up a few chairs so that people could actually move about, and Sophie signed books and chatted to people at the back of the shop. Splendid. Not even a post-event migraine could dim my delight and happiness (although it did serve to remind me to eat more than a solitary banana ahead of our next event). We have of course raised the bar for future events, with people enquiring eagerly who our next author will be. Also, having spent the Tuesday night moving chairs and tables around, and the Wednesday bookgroup having met the night before (and the fact that we still haven't quite put the shop back together) we're having a little break from events this week...phew.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ghostly Books

OK, we couldn't really do a great deal for Hallowe'en, with our two events this week, but I couldn't resist doing something given our shop name... For the lucky kids that did come in yesterday, they got handfuls of Hallowe'en cookies. And just in case you wanted to know, "creepy apple fangs" are in fact pieces of apple. My contribution to healthy eating, but no-one wanted any... The Wednesday bookgroup meets this evening, and our big event is less than 2 days away...