Thursday, June 30, 2011

'Sentimental Amateurs' – five years of Mostly Books

If a week is a long time in politics, five years is a lifetime in retail. On Saturday, July 1st 2006 – armed with books and a bubble machine – we opened the doors of our shop. This Saturday we will be serving champagne and cake, and we invite you to drop in and celebrate our fifth birthday with us.

During the five years that we’ve been open – in fact, even before that – this blog has been an integral part of Mostly Books, a sort of ‘running commentary’ of what we did and how we did it. At the beginning we never really thought anyone would read it, and it was very much a warts-and-all look at two enthusiastic, but possibly deluded, neophyte booksellers following their dream. But even from the first few posts we started to get readers – and more importantly commentators – who, looking back, probably couldn’t bear to watch a potential car crash happen, and weighed in with all kinds of suggestions, tips and assistance which made (and continue to make) a huge difference in the success of the shop.

Looking back through the 316 posts we’ve made over the past five years (approx one post every six days apparently) you get an accelerated and very scary whistle-stop tour through five incredible years of bookselling. I did this last night, and I’m still reeling.

The story (the way the blog tells it) seems to go like this: Couple have dream to open shop, start blogging, muse on the difficulties of everything from shelving to stock selection, indulge in slightly naughty underhand spying missions to nearest large city which catch the imagination and advice starts to come in from authors and booksellers from around the world. Shop opens, congratulations follow, amusing posts on the realities of running shop (hard work), dealing with customers (a joy) and interacting with the wider book trade in getting hold of obscure orders (often complex to the point of baffling insane). First events start happening, Christmas arrives leaving bookselling couple happy, but in heap on floor on Christmas Eve. New Year sees events start to get bigger and more complicated, hiatus caused by change of lifestyle having unforeseen impact on family life (a baby) then threatens to become crisis with apocalyptic floods, over-ambitious outdoor event and first Harry Potter launch, but victory and triumph snatched from jaws of defeat with New Bookshop of the Year Award. Cue stream of celebrity authors, courses, appearances, a radio gig, fame and fortune.

That’s the way the blog tells it of course. But the blog is ever-so-slightly one-sided. It gives a resolutely positive and, yes, spun side to events. What doesn’t appear on the blog are the mistakes that were made (several biggies), errors of judgment (many) and the things that didn’t come off (or, more usually, came off in ever respect apart from commercial). It doesn’t record the dark teatimes of the soul and late-night impromptu planning sessions over one-too-many glasses of wine as we tried to solve problems, change tactics and work out how the hell you make a bookshop work in the 21st century.

At the heart of it, it is difficult to over-emphasise just how demanding bookselling is on a day-to-day basis. Retail is physically demanding anyway, but bookselling has the added intellectual exertion that comes from a constant shifting of the mental gears as you switch between “recommendations for a bright 5 year old who likes dragons” to “a 60th birthday present for my Uncle who doesn’t read much” to books on infant sleep problems, diabetes and bereavement.

Those last subjects hint at a third element, one unique I believe to independent community retailing; the emotional demand that comes from sharing with customers, and them sharing back. It is the most incredible thing, and is what Anna Dreda at Wenlock Books once described to me as the magic that can happen in a bookshop when you recommend just the right book. There are plenty of people who get ground up by modern life, who – for all kinds of reasons – find they suddenly don’t fit into the neat systems of megalithic and Internet-powered modern business, and are in danger of getting squashed by the tectonic plates. At that particular moment, local community retailing – and bookshops in particular – provide a haven from the madness, and a place where they can simply talk to someone who can, in a very basic way, sit them down, give them a cup of tea, try to understand their problems, and genuinely care enough to work hard to suggest some answers. Sometimes this does not involve books even.

Many of our customers have become friends, and we have watched children grow up (and even start working in the shop). On the flip side, Abingdon has many families who are here for a short time, and it is always sad to see cherished customers moving away (although we try to recommend them a good bookshop before they do).

In the first year we were open, a customer (who we now know extremely well) described us as “sentimental amateurs”, and that was probably a not altogether inaccurate description of how we started. But as we’ve grown in confidence, as we’ve understood what we do well (and more importantly, what we don’t do well) I like to think we’ve hung on to all that’s good about sentimentality (caring about our customers) and amateurish-ness (open to new ideas) but this is now housed under thicker, and more rugged bookseller skin that allow us to run a much more professional and effective operation.

We genuinely feel very positive and upbeat about the future of our shop, and thanks to the fantastic staff that we have – past and present – we feel it is running better than ever, and we are still enjoying the experience. What may happen in the future next five years – with profound changes underway given the current economic and technological revolution in the book world – is a whole ‘nother question - and one for a different blog post methinks...

For now, this Saturday, Nicki and I will be in the shop to celebrate heartily with whoever comes in. Thank you seems a fairly inadequate expression for how we feel, but really – a heartfelt thank you to the many, many wonderful people who have helped make the shop the success that it is.

If you are in Abingdon on Saturday, please do drop in for some champagne because we would love to see you. I’m sure five years has seen plenty of changes in your life – why not come in and mark this as well? And if you can’t make it to the shop, post a happy birthday message below, tweet something suitably birthday-ish, or drop by our Facebook page and let us know you’re thinking of us. It means a great deal to know you’re with us, we’ve come a long way in five years and we couldn’t have done it without you.

Oh, and we found the bubble machine, repaired it. And it’s ready to roll on Saturday…

With very best wishes,

Mark & Nicki Thornton
Mostly Books, July 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

Big debut for little Stuart

(Review of Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans)

The opening of a mysterious money box and a cache of old threepenny bits is the start of a magical adventure for Stuart Horten (10, but looks younger).
Stuart has just moved to a new town with his crossword-puzzle-compiler father, and busy working mother and longs for his old friends. What he has is next door’s nosy triplet girls (April, May and June – tall with glittery hairclips and a love of investigative journalism).
But Stuart is soon on the trail of a mysterious ancestor and an even stranger mythical magic workshop and must work through a series of puzzles and clues – to find the truth, and of course, discover the workshop before the baddie gets there first.
Uncovering an old family mystery is glorious fun. (I know I am a pushover for mystery stories and this one has magical clues, photographic clues and safe-cracking). Fantastic!
With genuine humour and a pacy plot it’s an absolutely cracking read for both boys and girls aged 8+, but a secret pleasure for parents too – perfect family reading. If only they would bring it out as an audio book it would be in our car like a shot for summer holiday travel.
It’s out now in a gorgeous little gift hardback size. It looks lovely, even down to all the line drawings.
'Small Change for Stuart' is on the longlist for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award (judged by fellow professionals). I am always heartened to see not only a debut children’s author up for a big award – but a book that is also written for younger children.
But the best news of all is that apparently the author, Lissa Evans, is already working on a sequel.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review: It Had To Be You

David Nobbs’ latest novel is everything we might expect from the creator of Reggie Perrin and one of our most consistently brilliant comic writers. By turns hilarious and poignant, Nobbs’ latest book It Had To Be You follows James Hollinghurst through his hurriedly re-examined life in the eight days between his wife Deborah’s death and her funeral.

James is a man whose life of quiet desperation seems to be heading towards ignominy. MD of the London office of troubled British packing company Globpack UK, burdened by a spectacularly inept PA, he is under pressure from his American boss, Dwight Shenkman the Third, to lay off staff – and he uses corporate trips as cover to cheat on his wife. The strands of his wider family life provide no comfort: an estranged daughter he is desperate to see, over-achieving siblings and a constantly disappointed mother. But then his wife Deborah suddenly and tragically dies in a car accident, and the circumstances of her death throw up all kinds of questions about the life he thought he was living.

The loss of Deborah – and the uncomfortable scrutiny that all his relationships are suddenly subjected to – gives Nobbs scope to bring many of his favourite themes to the fore. Nobbs excels in the tortured, flawed, fifty-something British male – basically decent, but adrift somewhat in the changing values and absurdities of modern life. There are some splendid diatribes against some of Nobbs’ favourite targets: banal TV radio commentators, call centres and organised religion. And of course Reggie Perrin is always lurking in the background (for Dwight, read CJ?). But what elevates this book way above a grumpy old man ‘guilty pleasure’ is the emotional depth of the characters – and a genuinely compelling mystery that gets murkier, and creepier, as the book progresses.

As we approach the funeral, many of James’ relationships undergo profound changes, and what Nobbs does particularly well is to examine the arc of love over many decades. The result is unexpectedly touching and – through several women who have played a role in his life – an unexpected love story emerges, but it isn’t what you might think.

Nobbs seems has actually written a book about things that matter. Unfashionable things like loyalty, respect and unsung heroes of working life. There is plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and (incidentally) if you had any doubts about the urgency of preventing climate change, there is, through the character of his son Max, one of the most powerful and succinct arguments I think I’ve ever read.

Despite its focus on flawed human behaviour and tragedy, it is actually a hugely uplifting book, full of hope.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Mary Hoffman's 'David'

Very little is known about the boy/man who modelled as Michaelangelo's "David", perhaps the greatest work of Renaissance sculpture, and certainly one of the world's most famous and well-known works of art in any medium. So what a tantalising subject for a writer to tackle: reconstructing a possible biography for the model, as he lived and worked in 16th century Florence.

Taking on such a job is a real high-wire act for any author: Bend a few historical facts to fit a compelling narrative, you risk the ire of academics; Gloss over important aspects of the politics or art of the times, you'll be dismissed as a lightweight. But throw in too much historical detail and you risk killing the narrative and turning off the general reader. Luckily the author in question is Mary Hoffman, someone who has distilled a passion and knowledge of Italy history into thrilling works for children, including the Renaissance-inspired Stravaganza series and The Falconer's Knot.

And she gets the balance just right in David. It is a total triumph. What emerges is an intelligent yet exciting story, which plunges us into the brilliantly realised city-state of Florence, with all its tensions, rivalries, culture and networks, and then ratchets up the tension as the sculpture takes shape. And the stakes could not be higher for the central character, the 18-year old 'Gabriele'.

Gabriele arrives in Florence keen to seek out the master sculptor, having been nursing 'brothers' early in life. But as a young man of dazzling beauty, he soon finds himself inducted into a world of wealth and privilege, and a political situation of which he is desperately naive. He brushes up against a heavyweight supporting cast including the Medici family, a Borgia, and even Leonardo de Vinci himself.

(In fact, one of my favourite bits of the book is a slightly mischievous side-plot about the ongoing - and very slow - production of a painting by de Vinci of a noble's wife, Lisa del Giocondo, which may or may not bear more than a passing resemblance to Leonardo's male 'companion'. The painting is destined to become very famous, incidentally - no prizes for guessing the title...)

So there is humour, passion and beauty. But this being 16th century Italy, there is also sex and death. It is at times unflinching in the descriptions of what was a brutal and bloody age, but nothing is gratuitous: Gabriele's beauty, and the women who fall for him, provide the network for him to move in circles way above his class. And you understand by the end why noblemen would fight each other to the death to defend - or destroy - a single piece of art.

The book requires a lot from the reader, particularly in the early stages, as there is a lot of context that needs to be put in place as a backdrop for the story - but that effort is richly rewarded. The book is aimed at the Young Adult (YA) market, but will easily find a readership with anyone who wants to truly understand the importance of this period in Western history, and why Michaelangelo's work is still admired today.

By the end you understand intuitively the city of Florence, where it sits in the European power-plays, and the high stakes that are being played - but by then Gabriele is in mortal danger. Whether he will survive or not is something you absolutely have to know, and for that you are going to have to grab a copy when it's published in early July.

We are delighted that Mary will be at Mostly Books tomorrow at 5.30pm for a special teachers and librarians event. More details about that can be found here.

But in the meantime, here is a suitably grand trailer that Bloomsbury have produced. You may just spot that painting in there...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father's Day books - Our First XI

Ah Father's Day. A day close to my own heart, for personal and professional reasons. When I was a boy, we didn't celebrate Father's Day (in fact, was there ever a Father's Day 40-odd years ago?). In those days there seemed to be a stiff-upper-lipped "we-don't-do-that-kind-of-thing" agreement between father and son. An old maths teacher of mine use to rail against creeping americanisation (not spelled with a 'z' naturally) and I remember him singling out Father's Day as a classic case in point.

But these are different times, and a day celebrating Dads is very worthwhile. And whilst I would not dream of suggesting that flowers or chocolates would not be appropriate gifts (I'd be very happy to receive them), there's something about a good, solid, man-book that works well as a gift, but still carries an echo of a past stiff-lipped age ("Here you are Father, didn't want to make a fuss, got you a book on WG Grace, I'll be off then").

Anyway, this Father's Day all of us at Mostly Books have worked really hard to read through and recommend some fabulous Father's Day gifts, giving you perhaps a bit more inspiration than the piles of Clarkson tottering precariously at your local supermarket. Part gripping read, part improving book - here are our top man-books for Father's Day on June 19th:

How To Avoid Being Killed In A War Zone- Rosie Garthwaite (£12.99, Bloomsbury)
"What might have been a dry how-to manual, or a thrill-fest for armchair tourists, is actually a well-written, practical yet readable manual that does exactly what it says on the front. Peppered with anecdotes and advice from many journalists and reporters, the book helps you build intuition which I would suggest is useful wherever you travel in the world. Advice on coping with the heat and stress relief provides some more lighthearted - but nevertheless extremely useful - little gems which are as useful in Tenerife as they are in Tripoli." - Mark

Bed - David Whitehouse (£11.99, Canongate)
"Bed is a coming-of-age novel like no other about a man with huge prospects who, one day, goes to bed and decides never to get out again. Told through the eyes of Mal's younger brother, you're carried on a roller coaster of emotions. It's fantastic writing that is humorous and engaging, and it's a vivid and imaginative debut novel that explores the metamorphosis of a young man and the effect of love, loss and family on a lifetime." - Ellie

The Way of Kings Part 1- Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz, 8.99)"From the mighty Gollabcz, the first in a new series from Brandon Sanderson, contributor to the latest Wheel of Time and author of The Mistborn Trilogy. A man sold into slavery, a Warlord, a thief, a liar and a renowned Scholar are just a few of the characters in this complex story of war and conflict set in a whole new world. Good start to what I hope will become a classic fantasy series. Get in at the start..." - Julia

Inflight Science - Brian Clegg (£12.99, Icon Books)
This is one of those 'cor, I wish I had written that' books, a deceptively simple concept brilliantly executed. This marvellous little book tells you all about the sights, sounds and experiences (not to mention rock-hard engineering) going on from your vantage point in your aircraft seat. Packed with facts, figures and head-scratching information it sets out to restore some of that childlike excitement that you used to feel before air travel became 'yet another damned business trip'...I also like the fact that author Brian Clegg is a regular bearded British bloke living in Wiltshire. Top Dad points!" - Mark

The Damned Busters Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot, £7.99)
"Chock full of humour, this is a fantastic romp with superheroes, Satan and a strike in hell. Given the choice of selling his soul to the devil, Chesney says no - only to find there are disastrous consequences. An interesting concept and a mismatched duo of costumed, crime fighting hero and demon sidekick make for an hilarious novel. This book is perfect for fans of Tom Holt and Robert Rankin." - Ellie

The Natural Navigator - Tristan Gooley (Ebury Press, £14.99)
"Get Dad to put aside the GPS this Father's Day and go out with this book and do some Natural Navigating. In Tristan Gooley's hands it can be surprisingly simple to work out directions from the sky, to get your bearings in a wood, or find inspiration in the drying of a puddle! Great stuff for those dads that want to be Steve Backshall or Bear Grylls - or for anyone who wants to turn a camping trip into a really wild experience!" - Nicki

Fall of Giants - Ken Follett (Pan Macmillan, £8.99)
"Starting in 1911 this book follows the lives of five families from different countries and social backgrounds. With his usual skill for historical descriptions and his attention to detail, Ken Follett takes you into situations as diverse as a mine collapse in Wales to the battlefield at the Somme, through World War 1 to the Russian Revolution and the struggle for votes for Women. Although a big book, it's extremely easy to read with an engaging plot and likeable, believable characters." - Julia

Fold - Tom Campbell (Bloomsbury, £11.99)
"Fold is fresh, blackly funny and aimed unashamedly at us blokes. It tells the story of five men, who meet once a month at each other's houses to play poker. But against this suburban backdrop, the stresses, strains and petty jealousies of each of the men's lives begins to impact not just on the poker they play, but on their lives, and the lives of those around them. Leading their 'lives of quiet desperation', one of the group - unlucky, bitter, a loser - decides he will bring down the alpha male. The result, not at all obvious, and nicely ambiguous, has consequences for everyone as they decide whether to raise...or fold. Definitely an author to watch. Oh, and a great cover!" - Mark

Peter Pan's First XI: The Extraordinary Story of J. M. Barrie's Cricket Team - Kevin Telfer (Sceptre, £8.99)
"Coinciding (loosely) with the 150th anniversary of JM Barrie's birth, this gem of a book tells the story of JM Barrie's cricket team, who included at various times AA Milne, PG Wodehouse and Jerome K Jerome. Fired with enthusiasm, lacking actual talent, they embodied a spirit of the times, an England about to descend into mud and trenches of WWI. A really lovely little book." - Karen

Other People's Money - Justin Cartwright (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
"Both comic and clever, a stunning page-turning read about a banker in the aftermath of the banking crisis. Brilliant, engrossing and laugh-out-loud funny. My favourite book of the year." - Nicki

Carte Blanche - Jeffery Deaver (Hodder, £19.99)
Jeffery Deaver has great fun bringing Bond bang up to date, with i(Q)Phone Apps, brand names galore, and a truly great cast of characters including a creepy death-obsessed villain, an extremely nasty henchman, and even a scheming weasel of an upper-class MI5 colleague. All told with such an easy English charm that Deaver must be in line for an honorary knighthood. And we have a few signed copies left from our recent event..." - Mark

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Local indie produce part 1: wine and passion with Bothy Vineyard and Rosalind Cooper

I love doing our big events - honestly. They can be exhausting, high-wire stress-fests that satisfy the adrenalin-junkie in me, but they are also great fun and will provide some very special memories when we eventually hang up our bookselling spurs.

But the essence of independent, community bookselling - where the magic happens - is small events in the shop. And we have had two fantastic events in the last couple of weeks: the booklaunch of Judy Stubley's The Story Traveller, and - at the start of June - an evening of wine tasting with Richard Liwicki of Bothy Vineyard and wine writer Roz Cooper.

Richard is a living, breathing advertisement for owning a vineyard (something he might be alarmed about - the economics of wine production are probably as precarious as bookselling). Almost uniquely amongst small vineyards in this country, his is a vineyard where the grapes produced go directly into the wine he makes, which allows him to produce boutique wines, and experiment with unusual grape combinations.

Over the course of the evening, we tasted three wines produced from last year's production: The Doctor's Bacchus 2010, Oxford Dry 2010 and the splendid rosé, Oxford Pink 2010.

Assisting him throughout the evening was wine writer and hugely experienced wine expert Roz Cooper, author of The Wine Year. Roz has worked in many different areas of wine production - from giving tours of vineyards, to importing and selling wines, to writing about wines in magazines and books. She was able to give her expert opinions on Bothy's wines - and also provide some context for the tasting.

(The fact that Roz lives not far away in Berkshire was an extra local touch that everyone appreciated)

Roz is just the kind of wonderful speaker you'd hope for - someone with plenty of superb anecdotes from a life in wine. She is an entertaining and passionate speaker, from speaking about how she got started in wine, to her experiences in business, the changes happening in the global wine industry (not all of it good of course) and the importance of discovering and cherishing our local producers.

Roz's book The Wine Guide is a gorgeously-produced distillation (or should that be fermentation?) of her experience, opinions, suggestions (yes, there are recipes in this book) and passion about her experiences with wine. There are interviews with great wine makers - this is a book you could sit and read in bed just as equally as cooking in the kitchen following "A Serious Sunday Lunch with a Spanish Twist".

It was a very warm evening, and after the first two wines, we decamped to the coolness of the courtyard garden for the third.

Richard answered lots of questions about his experiences of growing and producing wine. Bothy have won awards (and growing admiration) for their boutique wines, based on a reputation for experimentation and risk-taking coupled with attention to detail.
There were questions about terroir: I was amazed to learn that the vineyard itself sits in a very special microclimate, on a narrow strip of almost pure-sandy soil which runs from Boars Hill down to near Faringdon, which means that water just runs away quickly after the rain. Bothy also use an array of environmentally-friendly techniques in the production of their grapes.

Wines are available down the road at Added Ingredients - and we have signed copies of Roz's book in the shop. But I can heartily recommend a visit to the vineyard - particularly around harvest time when volunteers descend on the five and a half acres of vines for picking...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Dinosaurs sploosh crunch spray roar

Take lots of big, earth moving equipment, add some dinosaurs, a lot of squishy mud and you have the noisiest, messiest book about counting any toddler could wish for.
As part of our favourite transport theme for toddlers this week we have moved onto those perennail favourites - diggers, cranes, tippers and all manner of large-scale 'things that go', which are all brought together in one book.
Penny Dale's 'Dinosaur Dig' also adds in dinosaurs and a lot of noise in a big, colourful counting book by new publisher Nosy Crow.
For everyone who loves dinosaurs and diggers.

Monday, June 06, 2011

the super scooter - and other favourite modes of transport

We are featuring favourite books for toddlers this week as part of our celebrations for Bookstart week.
Bookstart is an organisation that supports and celebrates reading in children and this is their week for celebrating pre-school reads.
This week we are doing a special story time along this year's theme, which is 'All Aboard'. And we will be encouraging our younger visitors to take part in our transport treasure hunts all week.
Let us start by introducing you to Pip and Posy are two delightful new characters from the charming illustrator, Axel Scheffler (known for The Gruffalo and others with Julia Donaldson).
Pip and Posy are a rabbit and a mouse – two toddlers who play together, but sometimes things don’t go so well. In the super scooter there is a little bit of rivalry about a great new toy - and there is a good lesson about sharing. 
Also in the series is 'The Little Puddle' in which someone has a little accident, followed by lots of reassurance and hugs.
These are lovely brightly illustrated, not too much text for the target audience and a padded hardback format – surefire winners.Let's hope there will be more in this series.