Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

I must confess to feeling a bit out of my depth when I learned Jane Brocket had agreed to do an event with us last Saturday in Abingdon. After all, it's probably safe to say that I was probably not the first person she would automatically think of when conjuring up a typical example of her target market for her first book - The Gentle Art of Domesticity. And her Yarnstorm blog focuses on knitting. Now I can *sew* a bit (thanks to my boarding school upbringing) but knitting - no. Anyway, I am ashamed to say that I had Jane rather stereotyped in my mind as a crafts/domestic/well, yes, 'girlie' author. But when she turned up clutching this my interest was seriously piqued: After all, I have power tools in similar-looking cases. Inside was a serious piece of kit for sugarcraft, making icing - and of course icing cakes. What followed - on a bustling bank holiday Saturday at Abingdon's Broad Face - was a highly entertaining, cake-filled, nostalgia-fuelled celebration of recipes from classic children's literature. Jane is an excellent speaker, and her passion for - and excellent research into - the subject is extremely contagious. And that was before the rock cakes started to be passed around... Jane started off by laying a few myths to rest. Although in her research she had come across plenty of ginger beer, and there were often 'lashings' of specific foods (bacon, for instance), it seems we probably have The Comic Strip to thank for the phrase "lashing of ginger beer". Jane read from some classics of the literature - Enid Blyton, Milly-Molly-Mandy. She made the point that, for the children in these books - who were continuously active, and burned calories like navvies - concepts such as obesity were irrelevant, and in fact often children ate in response to 'their tummies rumbling'. These children were always thinking of where their next meal was coming from. Jane made the point that - when you read through the classics - good children's authors scatter their writing with food, because children do spend a lot of time thinking about the subject. In the course of her research she had made plenty of the recipes herself - some had failed spectacularly, many were a joy to cook (although she had drawn at attempting Polyanna's Calf's Foot Jelly). She also name-checked a few other classic recipe books that hailed from that era (notable Florence White's Good Food in England). Her comments on social changes with food were enlightening - the fact that what would have been a treat in Enid Blyton's day (a picnic away from adults) might now be (in a Jaqueline Wilson novel) a bar of chocolate, or a Chinese takeaway, reflecting changes in eating habits within families. Then it was on to the important part of the afternoon. Mellie and her excellent staff had already ensured the tables had plenty of ginger beer and sandwiches, now it was time for tea as Jane passed around the cake. The rock buns (to be pronounced 'boons' in a broad northern accent) were heavenly (the trick here apparently is to use soft brown sugar, and not skimp on it). There was then an enthusiastic and energetic demonstration of making icing (another tip - dip a cocktail stick into the colouring, to get the perfect amount, then dip this into the icing to avoid a colouring/icing 'arms race' in which you end up with enough icing to cover several hundred fairy buns). Here's the finished article: Jane's daughter Phoebe performed brilliantly, beavering away in the background to ensure everyone had enough cake to eat. Thanks also to Ali for making sure I got one at the back. Jane stayed behind to talk to everyone who had questions, signed books, packed up the power tools - and showed great stoicism in posing for various photos. There are a whole heap of thank yous due to everyone who helped make this event possible. Firstly to Jane herself, for putting so much heart and passion into the event - and Pheobe for giving up her Saturday to help Mum. Mellie and everyone at the Broad Face who looked after us extremely well. Ali for doing the lion's share of the organising and not hassling me to get the blog entry written up (see, if Ali had blogged this, it would have been posted last Saturday evening with much better pictures - but she gamely left this one to me). All that remains is for me to point out the obvious fact that the only thing better than copies of Jane's books as gifts, are signed copies of Jane's books as gifts. And you know where to come for these...

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Ever since we set the event up, I was unfeasibly excited about last Tuesday's "Survival" event with Kenn Griffiths. I'm pleased to say it met all my expectations - and more. A really great event. The shop still smells (faintly) of wood smoke, but the parachute-covered shelter is now down, and lots of children in and around Abingdon now have a better idea on a whole range of subjects - from knowing the best way to light a fire to concealing themselves in foliage - and even the dangers (and best way) of drinking your own wee.... Yes - this was "Survival" at Mostly Books! The weather on the day was suitably challenging, but our investment in some marquees last year paid dividends as we erected a 'roof' over the courtyard garden. It would have been somewhat ironic to have had to cancel a survival event due to bad weather... Suitably protected from the elements, the one bit of garden left exposed was enough to build a shelter from a parachute (kindly loaned to us by a skydiving customer), and the rain running off it could be collected for cooking on the wood fire. (BTW, if you smelled a strong smell of pine wood burning in Abingdon on Tuesday, chances are that was us) Kenn is a remarkable individual. I first met him at an event last year, but had the opportunity on Tuesday to talk to him at length about how he came to be teaching survival skills - something that has taken him from the army, via a number of "career changes" (which in this instance is highly euphemistic, given the higly dangerous nature of much of what he has done, and continues to do). He is very softly spoken, but the most remarkable aspect of his teaching is the way he engages kids totally - particularly boys - so that you just know they are taking onboard everything he's teaching them. He taught firelighting skills:

He taught ways of disguising yourself - Oliver here is being dressed in a 'Ghillie Suit'...

...his face camoflaged...
...and then he's sent to hide in the bush at the back of the garden:
We did three sessions and the kids sat rapt for the whole time:

...with Cailin doing an impromptu storytime for younger siblings who preferred to hear stories about rabbits, rather than find out the best way to eat them (and why you can't eat too many - vitamin A apparently)...

It was an incredible day, the shop was utterly trashed back and front, but we're definitely going to do it again in the future.

Thanks very much to Kenn (who travelled all the way down from the Peak District to be with us), to my two nephews who were willing volunteers for demonstrations, and our apologies to parents who may have suddenly been learning lots of interesting - and somewhat gruesome - survival 'facts' over the past few days...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Rainbow Weaver

On Tuesday we welcomed mother-and-daughter writing team Lyndsay Russell and Tippi Hanson to Mostly Books for the first in our series of Summer children's events. How their book The Rainbow Weaver came to be written (from a sleepy storytelling session) is a rather magical story in itself, and they certainly brought a fair amount of magic to the shop (not to mention a lot of energy and enthusiasm).
It was a great event. Taking advantage of some (rare!) good weather, Lyndsay and Tippi (and Lyndsay's husband Mike on guitar!) read the story aloud in the garden. The Rainbow Weaver is (as far as I'm aware) unique in that - as well as being a wonderful story with Lyndsay's trademark illustrations - it uses different typefaces to emphasise different characters in the story, to help readers tell the story out loud. On the Wenlock Books blog, they like to post pictures of events and let them tell the story. In this instance - and with Nicki behind the camera (who is a far, far better photographer than me) - I will do the same. Suffice to say that with games , colouring and facepainting (courtesy of Lyndsay) throughout the afternoon, it was a very magical - can colourful - day.
We have copies (signed by both Lyndsay and Tippi) in the shop of course. It might be too early to start mentioning the 'C' word, but it goes without saying that we feel these books make a very splendid and original gift. Thanks to Lyndsay and Tippi for making the journey up to Abingdon, and for their (very great) efforts to make it a fantastic event. Our next event is this Tuesday, when survival expert and author Ken Griffiths will be pitching up for the day in our garden (whatever the weather!) and teaching survival skills to kids. How cool is that! Sessions at 11am, 1pm and 3pm (strictly tickets only). We haven't quite decided how wise it might be to demonstrate how to light a fire yet...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

In Praise of Independent Bookshops. Or maybe not...

On Wednesday afternoon, one of our customers came in excitedly saying that there had been a piece on Radio 4's You and Yours about Independent Bookshops. She said the programme made the point that Alexander McCall Smith would not have achieved the success he did if he hadn't been championed by an independent.

So yesterday I managed to listen to the programme courtesy of the beeb's listen again service (I guess it will stay on the website until this coming Wednesday). It's about 8 minutes in. You should go and listen to it, it's very interesting.

It was also a bit of a stitch-up job. After an extended intro about the Number 1 Lady's Detective Agency, there were a number of grim stats about the decline of the independent in terms of market share, and then the redoubtable (and formidable) journalist Liz Barclay got to quiz Chris Conway (of the Book Partnership) and Paul Henderson (or Leading Edge).

Liz first wanted to establish the context of this decline, starting with the Net Book Agreement. She then did an excellent job of batting away every reason put to her about the value independents bring to the world of books.

The advent of the supermarkets and Am*zon: good news for the consumer says Liz. Chris countered with the loss of diversity - independents 'nurture not just 'fulfill' - Liz says "well, chains do recommends and they stock local books". Liz sounds a bit non-plussed - what's the problem here, she seems to think, why the big fuss about independents? Well, how are independents fighting back? Paul Henderson chips in with how Leading Edge Books can help, by essentially 'bulking' orders from buying groups of independents to get the 'big discounts'. But (says Liz), doesn't that compromise their independence? Aren't they just buying the same books as everyone else? Good point Liz. And Chris Conway agrees - you play a dangerous game when you start playing on the opposition's playing field.

It's actually worse than that Chris - in their 'nurturing' role, independents often sell books at the RRP, and often give the publisher a bigger slice of the cake. Liz may be appalled that consumers aren't getting a good deal (after all, this is a consumer rights programme, and cheap books are surely unequivocally good?). But independents nourish the supply chain. More money goes back to those publishers backing these different books, allowing them to invest in more new authors, and increasing the range of books on offer to the consumer. It's called enlightened self-interest but it requires a slightly longer-term view than currently seems fashionable.

In the context of the book publishing eco-system, cheap books simply emaciates the entire supply chain, threatening the smaller players. Taken to extremes, the only publishers who will survive are those that 'get big quick' and essentially become the 'Tesco' of publishers, etc.
Anyway, back to the programme. Liz finally asks the big question - what can be done to ensure that indies survive? Chris suggests "we need a mechanism that rewards honest bookselling, not just fulfillment". But what mechanism *is* that Chris. I was left dangling...

I don't want to come over all 'Crockatt & Powell' here, but the programme really wound me up. I thought Chris Conway did his best to put over the case for indies. Aside from the 'will this do' approach to the whole programme, there were several words I didn't hear at all: community, experience, involvement. To complete Chris's point, the mechanism that rewards bookselling rather than fulfillment is called "the market". More specifically, the local market.

If you want to know what an independent needs to do to survive, check out Andrew Stilwell's piece in the Guardian last month about the London Review Bookshop. If you were about to embark on a new bookshop, listening to Radio 4 this week may have left you utterly depressed. But the success of the LRB is joyous to read.

And in case you think he makes the case that the only successful independents have to be highbrow, I don't think it does. What it does say is: understand your local environment, marketplace, customers - listen to them, work with them, put on great events, develop a community, give them an excellent experience - and the enterprise can flourish.

Sorry - I don't do the grumpy old man bit particularly well. But the piece on radio 4 was a bit of a travesty. I happen to know that both Chris Conway and Paul Henderson are both pasionate and committed to the success of independents and I thought they were a bit shafted on Wednesday. I may be completely wrong. Listen to the programme and let me know what you think...