What is your first memory of a bookshop? It’s fuzzy; I remember hanging out at Hill’s bookshop in Sunderland when I was young, but I also remember a travelling bookshop that visited our school and where I bought my first Animal Ark book. I kept it as a prized possession and read it over and over again.
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? I like to head to the display tables. I treat bookshops as a curated space, headed by the people who run them. I want to discover cherry-picked books I’ve never heard of before, and I want their recommendations.
Please describe in detail your ideal bookshop. I’ve always wanted to open a bookshop in a lighthouse. It wouldn’t be practical, but it would be beautiful.
What do your bookshelves at home look like – where are they and how do you arrange your books? A full bookshelf tour can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsIH-mtHFvM I split my books into fiction, non-fiction, poetry and fairy tales. Oh, and a shelf of different editions of Alice in Wonderland, too.
For you, what are the joys of reading hard copy books? The feel and the smell – the way the book looks, too. Publishers are putting a lot of effort into creating beautiful objects these days. Recently I had a chat with Leo Nickolls – an amazing book designer about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKQqqBeee6E I also love how we can associate particular books with a time and place in our lives, which is more true when it comes to physical books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB6d2XDutJo
What was the best thing about writing this book? The stories. People had amazing stories to tell me. From Gerrie who performs weddings inside her bookshop in Scotland, to Sebastien – a French guy living in Mongolia – who sells books to herders of the Altai mountains… the stories were moving and incredible. I felt privileged to collect them.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? I loved interviewing some of my favourite authors, and seeing how moved they were by bookshops and the people behind them. Audrey Niffenegger – author of The Time Travelers’ Wife – in particular, was moved to tears when she was talking about her favourite bookshop in Chicago, how she’d written a graphic novel to talk about preserving the souls of bookshops, and how she’s hoping to open one of her own someday.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I found out about a guy called Walter Swan, in America, who had self-published his book and decided to open his own bookshop… to sell his book and nothing else. Everyone thought he was mad, especially when he wrote a second book and opened up a second bookshop to sell that book there, instead of simply selling it in the first bookshop! He ended up selling 20,000 copies… not bad!
What do you think makes a great bookshop? The experience of the bookshop; bookshops cannot compete with online prices from big corporations who have tax breaks. However, they win every single time when it comes to events, talks, recommendations, the overall experience and safe haven-esque place of a bookshop. They move and they adapt; they’re fluid and they’re passionate. The wonderful people who run them are what make bookshops great. Shakespeare and Company in Paris, with its underground cinema, small cafe, weekly events, podcasts, beautifully selected stock and amazing ethos (letting writers stay in the shop in exchange for a few hours’ work, etc.) is an example of a bookshop that’s doing everything right and has done for a very long time.
What are you working on next? I’ve just finished writing a children’s book and a poetry collection – that’s my second, the first (The Hungry Ghost Festival) is published by The Rialto. Now I’m working on a short story collection, heading back to my fiction-roots. But that’s not to say I won’t write about bookshops again!
Jen Campbell is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ series and ‘The Bookshop Book.’ She’s also an award-winning poet and short story writer, and runs a Booktube channel over at www.youtube.com/jenvcampbell. You can find out more about her books at www.jen-campbell.co.uk/non-fiction
Read my review of ‘The Bookshop Book’ here.