Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not a pasty in sight

Last Thursday evening we welcomed Cornish poet - and Bard of the Cornish Gorseth - Tim Saunders to Mostly Books. We've never done poetry particularly well (I think) at the bookshop, but this may have to change because the event itself was pure enjoyment. This is the kind of thing you run an independent bookshop for!

You might not immediate think of Cornish culture and Abingdon as natural bedfellows, but it turns out that the chair of the London Cornish Association lives in Abingdon, and there are plenty of people with a Cornish heritage who live in the town. With the added bonus of some singing by Clive's daughters (both professional singers) we had a shop full on the night (put it this way, I ran out of chairs from the back).

As well as Ani and Gwenno, Tim also turned up with his publisher Clive - and the evening was very much a double act, with Tim reading in Cornish (and Breton, and Welsh incidentally) with Clive reading a translation. This made the poetry more accessible to non-Cornish speakers, but in all honesty, Cornish is such a rhythmic and lyrical language that - to my ignorant ears at least - the poetry could be enjoyed without the English words. (Perhaps when that part of the comprehensing brain is turned off, you are more alive to the music of the poem? It's a theory...) I'd learned about Tim from a tip-off from the Wood Green boys after a gig at their shop last year, and the Abingdon Arts Festival seemed a perfect time for a poetry reading event. I'll be honest - Cornish language poetry is not something I knew a great deal about, but on the strength of this event it's something we'll do more of in the future. This was a reading of Tim's poem 'Colours'. I was very annoyed not to have captured his reading of the poem 'Cornish Words' - but you can find it in the anthology of Cornish poems we have in the shop called "Nothing Broken". Stunning. When Tim's daughters got up to sing, the effect was eletrifying. Gwenno has a remarkable voice, and again the Cornish language seems to lend itself to the lilting tones of a talented singer. Interspersed between all of this was nothing less than a comprehensive introduction to Cornish culture. Tim explained the history of the spoken language, the 'dying out' of the last Cornish native speakers in the 1780s, the resurgence of the language and culture, and plenty of examples of persecution, the links between the Gaelic languages (including an impromptu poem from memory in the Welsh language, possibly the oldest in existence). So where next for Clive and Tim's 'world tour'? Well, we feel the Wood Green boys passed on Tim Saunders from their bookshop, we'd like to recommend him to another independent. Any bookshops out there willing to be next on their tour - please get in touch. You won't regret it...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Not for the squeamish

If I was an American bookseller, or conceivably (in some bizarre, difficult-to-imagine parallel universe) I worked for Sky Sports, I might have dubbed this weekend "Super Saturday" (or similar). As it is, I'm a UK bookseller, so I will limit myself to saying that we had three very different, but fantastic events on Saturday. I'll try to rein in my usual breathless prose (mindful of Vanessa's advice in Edinburgh) but suffice to say that we collapsed - tired but happy - at the end of a busy day on Saturday, having greatly enjoyed all three events. But what theme linked them together? Well, all three were, in places, definitely not for the squeamish. First up was Tommy Donbavand - the exceptionally hard-working author of the Scream Street books, and one of the authors behind the TrappedByMonsters website.
(That's a Mummy's heart in the foreground in case you were wondering) Tommy has been a clown, a stage-performer, children's TV writer and now children's author. In fact, so much has this guy done that one of the Mum's at the event said (and I'm sure this'll make his day) "he doesn't seem old enough to have done all that". Being a former clown is a big advantage when you are performing in front of a bunch of 6-10 year olds. He had them all in stitches. Taking the form of a werewolves v vampires gameshow, there were genuine vampire fangs and mouldy zombie tongues doing the rounds... Kids were being turned into Mummies courtesy of some special 'Mummy wrap' (which bore an uncanny resemblance to toilet paper) :

And Tommy played hard and fast with rules of taste, decency and health and safety legislation with an incredibly dangerous stunt where he tried to shoot an apple of a young child's head (please don't try this at home, Tommy has special insurance): Everyone had a great time, and despite the risks of turning into zombies later that evening, so far we've had no reports of any adverse reactions from close contact with Scream Street relics... We cleared the room of slime, blood and body parts - and then set the projector up for the arrival of Professor Richard Fortey, former senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, and now renowned science writer and communicator. You might not think that natural history would be squeamish, but in places it definitely was (I won't go into the grim toll that the Screwworm inflicts, not the NHM's role in preventing a major outbreak, but if you must know, take a look here). Professor Fortey took us on a behind the scenes tour of the Natural History Museum, and on the way made it very clear - for those who might not know - just how incredibly important the work of this, and other museums are around the world.

In his words 'you judge the state of a culture by its museums' and the many millions of specimens that fill the labyrinthine corridors and rooms of the NHM hold keys to biodiversity, species loss, habitat conservation - and the incredible collection of often unusual people that work there are true heroes in their field.

During his signing I chatted to him about his view on the state of our species, from someone used to dealing with fossil records going back hundreds of millions of years. His view - which would definitely cause tingles down the spine - is that the average lifespan for a species is approximately 1 million year. At 100,000 years, and at its current rate, the danger is that Homo Sapiens might become extinct in a frightening short timescale. We are, at the moment, distinctly below average. Pausing only for some fish and chips, we then hotfooted it up to the Amey Theatre in Abingdon for the final event of the evening, Trust Me I'm (Still) A Doctor, with Private Eye and Have I Got News For You regular (not to mention Countdown sensation) Dr Phil Hammond. Dr Phil is seriously funny - and here the squeamish nature of the evening concerned the secrets to good health, tips on staying away from doctors, poking around the soft fleshy underbelly of the NHS - and a few near-death experiences (courtesy of some of his colleagues). During the intervals he collected up a series of questions from the audience, the best ones may end up in his next book. I'm afraid my photo skills were failing by then, but take a look at the event reports from the Abingdon Blogger and Gaskella. Dr Phil signed copies of his books at the end of the evening, posing for pictures before heading off for a 'beer and a lie down' (I'm not surprised). Signed copies of everyone's books at Mostly Books of course. Thursday evening (March 26th) it's something completely different - an evening of Cornish Language Poetry, and Cornish and Welsh song (!) before we do the whole Saturday thing again on April 4th with Mousehunter Alex Milway, and one double-Nibbie-nominated Kate Summerscale with the publishing phenomenon that is The Suspicion of Mr Whicher...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Festival Envy

It’s festival season again - if there is such a thing as a festival season. The Bath Literature Festival has already finished, the Oxford Literary Festival takes place at the beginning of April, Hay is in May, and then after various other festivals in Edinburgh, Harrogate, Dartington, we finish up in Cheltenham in October. So which one is pre-eminent? Well, mischievously, I typed ‘Literary Festival’ into Google and you get the following order: Hay, Oxford, Ilkley, Manchester, then - interestingly - Henley (not bad for a festival in its 3rd year). Of course, type in "literature festival" and Bath comes out on top. "Book festival" delivers Edinburgh, but when you type in "Reading (rhymes with 'leading') Festival", and you bump up against the marvellous ambiguity of the English language... Anyway, I think it's safe to assume that Hay is the Daddy. But like every other area of publishing, the growth in book events and literary festivals has been nothing if not explosive since Hay began twenty odd years ago. (If you want to see the frightening number of festivals that do take place every year - go take a look at the British Council's master list - it's by no means comprehensive). The outcome of this has been increased competition for authors, and whilst the top-tier events probably have their pick of all the hot authors, those lower down the pecking order probably have to work incredibly hard to entice authors to come. Especially if they have no budget to pay them. In a world in which something like 95% of published authors ‘can’t give up the day job’ literary events must seem a great way of making a bit of extra cash, and get your name out there. The reality must be though that the big names get the fees, the lesser known names are obliged to do it for free. It will be interesting over the next few years if squeezed budgets mean some of the smaller events have trouble getting the authors in. Anecdotally, I know this has happened with two festivals elsewhere in Oxfordshire. From the festival side, having a track record of staging good events definitely helps. Pretty much every author I've spoken to about this has a 'war story' of some horrendous event they attended - badly organised, badly attended - which has left them scarred and reticient about saying 'yes' automatically to anything that comes up. Even the bigger festivals can sometimes be guilty of scheduling snafus, and it can be bad luck you if you find yourself scheduled at the same time as a Melvyn Bragg or Jodi Picoult. As in retail (and business generally I guess), if you are not a big or established player, the key is going for a defined niche - and ensuring that you are firmly plugged in to the local community. We have our own Abingdon Arts Festival which kicks off this Saturday, and is relatively middle-aged in festival terms, having been established for over ten years. Last year we dipped our toe into the water with a series of events - including the wonderful Barbara Trapido - and this year we have an equally great line up. Not only are we selling books at one of the kick-off events this Saturday (the extremely funny Dr Phil Hammond) but we also have events with Professor Richard Fortey, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher author Kate Summerscale and an evening of Cornish language poetry and song with Tim Saunders - with backing singers! (Thanks to the boys at Wood Green for that introduction). We're particularly chuffed with the two children's authors coming over the fortnight. Tommy Donbavand is an ex-clown and author of Scream Street (he's coming this Saturday at 12.30pm) - and we will also have Mousehunter author Alex Milway, last seen covering Crow on the Hill with his weird and wonderful mice. That's on April 4th... Anyway, PR puffs aside, and despite the current economic climate, everyone seems to be very happy with ticket sales for their events. Even though we won't have the promised Festival banners flying in the market square (due, apparently, to unforeseen 'planning' restrictions - ho hum), the Abingdon Arts Festival committee have done another superb job, and I hope you - reading this - can find something to titilate and amuse amongst all the events on offer over the coming fortnight...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Private opening

I will resist the use of the words 'Jam', 'Jerusalem' or even the phrase 'considerably bigger buns'. Instead, I'll just focus on what a lovely evening we had in the shop yesterday when we held a private evening for the ladies of the Wootton WI.
Having invited me to speak to them last year about the shop (which is tough for me, given my introvert nature, and the fact that I don't like to talk too much about the shop) the ladies turned up en masse, armed with cake (I provided the coffee) and I was able to chat a little bit more about the shop, what we try to do with the space we have, and some of the aspects of the shop we are particularly proud of. Thanks very much to Kate Jones for organising it - and for all the exceptionally nice comments about the shop which made it tricky for me to get my head out of the door once I'd washed up all the coffee mugs...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Taking a deep draft

Bookselling is a pretty gruelling business. I'm sure the perceived wisdom is that it is a dream job, where you get to sit around all day reading and chatting to people about books. We certainly get enough people asking us for a job (a trend that's sadly increased in recent months). But bookselling challenges on every level - it's extremely physically demanding, even on days when you don't need to hump boxes of books round the shop. Busy days have you leaping around the shop, executing a mad dance as you shuttle between customers, deliveries, opening doors for buggies, making the odd coffee. On days when you are 'in the zone' this all seems an effortless and graceful waltz around the shop, giving satisfaction to all as you earwig on conversations, pull books seemingly out of the air, and generally perform superhuman feats of stock matching that leave laughing children and gobsmacked adults in your wake. On other days of course, you simply look like a mad stalker, and everyone - young and old alike - back away from the over-caffeinated jibberish you're spouting and flee the shop. The mental stick-shifting that is required can also leave your brain mush by the end of the day. An ability to flip between different areas of expertise can be exhausting, and the interrupt-driven nature of retail does not lend itself to periods of focused concentration to get any big jobs done when you are on the till. As a business-owner, you also have ultimate responsibility to keep the shop open and operating smoothly, despite any staff crises, bad weather, electrical or till problems - and of course, the odd delivery going AWOL. And if problems crop up at the end of a VAT quarter, tough. So - just occasionally - it's nice to 'bang out' of the bookselling environment for a couple of days, and get inspired by other mad people who've chosen the same profession as you. Last Monday I did just that, taking part in a business forum organised by the Bookseller's Association, which was held in Edinburgh. It was a great experience - and I returned to Abingdon with the flywheel energised, albeit desperate to do about 100 things immediately, and knowing after a couple of days back, that I might just get 3 off the ground if I'm lucky (but that's conferences for you). The BA gets a bit of stick from the trade from time to time, after all they represent *all* booksellers in the UK, so if you have a problem with any particular Bette Noir operating in the marketplace, then the fact that you both belong to the same organisation must stick in the old craw. But I love the BA, and they seem to bend over backwards to do stuff for Indies which is extremely valuable (providing you get involved of course). I'd never been to Edinburgh, and - suitably primed by one of my customers (thanks Alisdair) - I instantly fell in love with the place. It's a bit bruised at the moment, and was described at one point as "Credit Crunch Ground Zero", and it's certainly true that you can't escape from RBS, Fred the Shred, et al, because you drive past the £350m HQ at Gogarburn the moment you leave the airport. The centre of the city is in a bit of mess too, due to the construction of an ambitious tram project (which runs, as far as I can tell, from the city centre out to the, er, RBS headquarters) which was suspended when I was there due to a contractual dispute. But no matter. It's a lovely city, and the choice of venue at the Scottish Storytelling Centre was inspired. I listened to inspiring presentations by Jayne and Kevin Ramage of The Watermill in Aberfeldy (a truly jaw-dropping bookshop - a bookselling trip to Scotland is definitely now on the cards just to be able to visit this place), and before I flew back on the Tuesday, I was able to visit The Children's Bookshop in a part of Edinburgh whose name escapes me (Bruntsfield?) but all I know is it teeming with the most uplifting collection of wonderful independents, and I was very well looked after by Vanessa and Malcolm, who I know are bursting with pride at having been named on the Scottish shortlist for Independent Bookshop of the Year (find out the full regional shortlists here BTW). So, throw in some extremely energising sessions on using the web, event publicity, a few early morning bookshop chats over the 'eggs and b' back at the hotel, and an evening with Ian Rankin to boot - no prizes for guessing that I had a great time. So - back to Abingdon, and looking forward to the beginning of Abingdon Arts Festival in just under two weeks time. As usual, everything can be found on our events pages or the special Arts Festival part of the website. We have some cracking events coming up during the fortnight, and some very exciting news about an author coming early May (but I'll save that for another blog). Yep, it's good to be back...