#MondayBlogs: Ross Bradshaw on winning Independent Bookshop of the Year

Five Leaves winning

In this guest blog Ross Bradshaw explains what winning Independent Bookshop of the Year means to him and his staff – and it’s more than having the carpet cleaned. Back in Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread we featured Ross and his bookshop because we were thrilled someone had the balls to open a bookshop when print media was supposedly dead.   

Just round the corner from Five Leaves Bookshop is a statue of Brian Clough, sometime manager of Nottingham Forest (described as the “bronze homophobe” by one of our customers). Among Clough’s famous quotes is “I wouldn’t say that I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” For one year only, Five Leaves can say something similar, without having to get involved in football. We are currently the Independent Bookshop of the Year. We won the accolade at the British Book Awards, the booktrade “Oscars”.

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Byron Clough was first created for LeftLion in 2010. I had great fun with Al Needham coming up with a suitable quote for this monstrous hybrid. Then he was brought to life in issue 5 in 2014.

And it was like the Oscars. Red carpet, 1,000 important people in the industry, at the Grosvenor in London, posh frocks, dinner jackets… and us. Yes, we did wear DJs too, including Leah from the shop who also (according to some of the women present) won the dress award, because she wasn’t wearing one. Leah also did a traditional Oscars thing when she accepted the award on behalf of the shop by forgetting her lines – but only during the bit when she was saying who her fellow workers were. She should perhaps have learned our names over the last four years she has worked here.

What did we win it for? Well, perhaps not for our setting, in a previously forgotten jitty near Primark or for our vast selection of books on military history (we don’t have any) or our lack of political bias. We are biased. But the judges liked that our stock is carefully curated (kill me, I used that word), that we engage with lots of different communities in the events we run (88 last year, or 92 depending on which member of staff you ask) and the projects we run. They liked that two of our former staff published important books last year. And they liked that we were organising/initiating and funding Feminist Book Fortnight nationally. That’s just happened, involving fifty bookshops, a couple of galleries and two or three other organisations. And they liked that we had made a radical, independent bookshop economic, and diverse in our staff, our stock, our programme of events.

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Diversity is the big thing in the trade at the moment – trying to change the profile of the staff in the industry, trying to change the profile of the books that are sold/published. There’s a long way to go, but a week after our award our trade association launched a fund to help bookshops work on diversity in their programming and in every way they can. The Booksellers Association has put our money where their mouth is and we are pleased about that.

What has the award meant? Well, there was a financial prize. Have you noticed that we have had a refit? That’s where most of the money went. We even had the carpet cleaned, so please take your shoes off before coming in from now on. But it meant a lot to our customers. There wasn’t a popular vote, but customers of the shortlisted bookshops were invited to say why they shopped with us all. Names were redacted by the BA but they sent out a selection of the comments. We blushed. And we picked up new customers – thank you East Midlands Today for reaching some people we’d not managed to reach in four and a half years.

So, not long until our fifth birthday. On our birthday weekend we started giving people a discount – 1% a year. A daft joke, but nobody refused their 1, 2, 3, 4% discounts so far and they probably won’t at 5% around November 9th (our actual birthday). But it looks like we are in for a reasonably long hall, which is worrying as Hatchards in London opened in 1797. If they’d done our daft joke they’d have been paying people to take books away for over a hundred years.

Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham, NG1 2DH
Tel: 0115 8373097 Open 10-5.30 Monday-Saturday, 12-4 Sundays

RELATED READING

 

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Beautiful Bookshops: Aardvark Books

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Brampton Bryan is a small village in north Herefordshire that straddles the Shropshire and Welsh borders. I’d originally come to have a look at an ancient Yew hedge that bends and curves along the main road, but then I saw a sign for Aardvark books. At first I thought it was an old sign that hadn’t been taken down yet as I was directed to a carpark on a farm with large cow sheds. It turned out that these were home to 50,000 books and a café.

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Aardvark started life towards the end of 2003 after two former Harpercollins Executives decided to convert the disused buildings on the farm into a bookshop with the help of £100,000. The owners wanted to name the bookshop after an animal and it became Aardvark after ‘Squirrel’ was rejected. No hidden meanings or symbolism, just a love of nature.

If you haven’t been put off by the shabby exterior of the barn as you enter the farm (left image) you’ll come to a more aesthetically pleasing bricked front entrance with an outdoor seating area (right image). Greeting you at the entrance is a lot of local history paraphernalia. The counter is to the left, surrounded by books waiting to be priced up or dispatched, and a small brass bell on the counter to ring when you want serving. If you go straight ahead you enter an open plan café in the middle of the bookshop. This is a good use of space as it means the smell of coffee follows you through the rooms. The café is surrounded by art, cookery and gardening books. These seem appropriately placed as they’re the kind of books you can dip in and out of while tucking into a cake.

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To the side is a children’s reading room, kitted out in the design of a castle so kids can run around and let off steam. The stairs to the back of the café led me to a DH Lawrence section where I purchased a copy of FR Leavis’s DH Lawrence: Novelist. There were plenty of Lawrence paperbacks and a copy of The First Lady Chatterley. These specialist texts are offset by a bargain basement collection; and for those who want the latest bright thing, fear not. The proprietors had recently returned with fresh stock from the London Bookfair, so expect to find new authors nestling shoulders with the canon. The varied and diverse stock allows for serendipity, which is the key to a good bookshop because it means you never want to leave because you don’t know what you’re going to discover next.

As Five Leaves recently demonstrated when they became independent bookshop of the year, the key to success is building community. Aardvark do this through a varied series of events. Previously they’ve hosted art exhibitions, and a rare collection of maps of Shropshire – some of which dated back to 1607. On 14 July there’s a jazz brunch. They make the most of their surroundings too, such as through an annual Vide Grenier (yard sale doesn’t sound so glamorous in English) which brings together various stalls against the backdrop of live music. But the most adventurous event has to be the English Civil War Society re-enactment which includes cannons, muskets and lots of dressing up.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2013 we tried to start a conversation about whether libraries and bookshops could become focal points of the community in the digital age. As libraries increasingly become run by volunteers or lumped into one stop centres to appease the diminishing budgets of councils, bookshops, such as Aardvark, seem to be the most viable option. Becoming the hub of a community means listening to locals, putting on relevant events, and giving punters plenty of excuses to make a visit. A good bookshop is also one that you don’t want to leave. The varied stock was enough to keep me intrigued, as was the expertise of the owners. I had an interesting chat about Roy Hattersley and his brilliant biography of William and Catherine Booth. I was nearly convinced to buy his book about the Edwardians, but resisted. Now I’m having regrets. Now I need to go back again.

Aardvark Books,The Bookery, Manor Farm, Brampton Bryan, Bucknell SY7 0DH

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

#Mondayblogs Beautiful Libraries: Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

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in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro… (Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book)

The first library at Oxford University was a room above the Old Congregation House in 1320. So if you haven’t returned your books yet, expect a very hefty fine. If we skip forward to the 15th century, a chap called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester pumps in a bit of cash as well as his personal collection of 281 manuscripts, meaning larger premises are required. Humfrey was the younger brother of King Henry V, so he had a bit of clout. But although plans to erect a new library above the Divinity School had been banded about since 1424, work only really began in 1478. If you’re getting excited about seeing these incredible manuscripts, don’t. From the 1550s onwards, various kings and queens destroyed any texts that didn’t conform to their own religious viewpoint.

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It’s at this point that our hero enters the scene, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613). Bodley had done the obligatory tour of Europe, gulping down as much culture as his elastic guts could contain, as well as diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I between 1585 – 96. Bodley wasn’t short of cash either having married a wealthy widow, and so he pumped all of his energy and cash into creating what is now known as the Bodleian Library. This would see 2,500 books added from his personal collection as well as from donors. There’s no point making influential contacts if you don’t use them.

James ThomasThis was to be a proper library, and so a librarian, Thomas James (1572/3–1629), was appointed. The doors opened on 8 November 1602. This was swiftly followed by the first printed catalogue in 1605. But the real stroke of genius came in 1610 when Bodley entered an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which ensured a copy of every book published in England would find itself into the collection. This still exists, with the library receiving an average of 2,500 texts a week.

When Bodley died in 1613, his death was suitably commemorated when work began on the building of the Schools Quadrangle the day after his funeral. This was a project he had pushed for, wishing to replace ‘those ruinous little rooms’ with something more fitting for scholars and book lovers. His will would see additional money left for what would become a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The last addition to this incredible library came between 1634-7 when an extension (Seldon’s End) was completed. This would enable the storage of valuable manuscripts and scrolls, making the university an absolute must for any scholar worth their salt.

But what marks this library out from all others isn’t the grandiosity of the buildings, nor that it would be the setting for the Harry Potter films, but the observation of a tradition that dictates nobody is allowed to loan books out of the library! Even King Charles I was rebuffed in 1645. Given that heating wasn’t installed until 1845, and proper lighting didn’t arrive until 1929, you had to be a pretty serious reader to visit.

I recently went on a tour of the library (£6 – make sure you book in advance) and it was a mesmerising experience. The ancient texts are chained to shelves, and are right weighty boggers. They’re catalogued according to when they were received and are shelved back to front so that the spines face the wall. This isn’t some fashionable whim, but a necessity to help preserve them. Therefore they are numbered, meaning you always have to ask a librarian where a book is – a useful tactic to ensure a librarian keeps their job.

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Oxford oozes history, none more so than in the main entrance to the library tour. The ceiling contains the initials of scholars who had passed their masters, back in the day. This would entail a three hour debate at a pulpit in front of the public, while being constantly interrupted and interrogated by your lecturer. And just to spice things up a bit, you were expected to switch between Greek and Latin. Given that you couldn’t take books out of the library you would be expected to memorise religious texts, along with the rest of your cohort. But as there was only one copy of each, and these were chained up and only accessible during opening times, you had to be pretty patient and pretty good at remembering stuff.

Readers of this blog will know that I was put on this earth as a Notts propagandist and so here’s your six degrees of separation to Oxford: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998), author of 113 books.

Trease excelled at Nottingham High School under the careful guidance of his English master Garry Hogg, a kind man who gave him access to his personal library and who encouraged Trease to plump for an Oxford scholarship over Cambridge due to the literary emphasis of Classics at Oxford. Trease did as advised but found Oxford an unpleasant experience, dropping out after his first year in 1929. In his autobiography Trease writes:

trease“I could not go on. I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life”

Despite the disappointment that things hadn’t worked out, Hogg was on hand to offer alternative support to his favoured ex pupil. He had an aunt who ran a settlement in the East End of London who could put him up for a while. Trease took up the offer and found himself at Kingsley Hall, which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory”. Here he met Muriel Lester, an extraordinary woman who was the antithesis of his dull academic peers. Writing in his notebook at the time he recorded “she never spoke ill of anyone. Her praise was ready and frequent, her blame rare but terrible…she was amazingly human, loving songs and good company”.

Trease took up a series of jobs that ranged from cleaner to youth worker. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters. He transformed children’s historical fiction by avoiding the jingoism of the era, such as sidling with the superiority of the victors, and instead emphasised the universal needs of people. To turn your back on Oxford took a fair bit of courage and is one of the reasons we celebrated Trease’s life in issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.

Source: Bodleian Library Souvenir Guide by Geoffrey Tyack

RELATED READING

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Tongue and Talk – Pit poetry and Notts dialect…

Tongue and Talk is a three part series exploring dialect poets. It’s broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and produced by Made in Manchester. Episode 2 features an area that’s neither north nor south: Nottingham. 

When I was putting together Dawn of the Unread we were faced with an impossible task: Who do you include? We had a budget for 10 chapters and I managed to extend this to 16. But there’s 100s of authors from Nottingham who never featured. Many of these can now be found in the recent Five Leaves publication Nottinghamshire Writers, though there are many absences too. It’s an impossible task.

However, future projects currently underway are enabling me to address those that slipped through the net, particularly miners. Having grown up in a mining village I’ve witnessed the brass bands marching through the streets twirling batons and holding aloft tribal banners. I’ve heard the sounds of pit life, such as men quenching pay day thirst after a stint down below, looking like a collection of burly Goths with their eyeliner; playfully harassing each other with a quick-fired wit that comes from risking your life every day. But one thing I wouldn’t automatically associate miners with is poetry. This is based on the fact that I was hassled for reading where I grew up. It signified that I thought I was summat. Having said that, it was the eighties: Unemployment, Falklands, AIDS, Russia v America, and, of course, the Miners’ Strike. It didn’t take much to get people rattled.

Over the past six months I’ve discovered there were lots of pit poets within the East Midlands thanks to research by Natalie Braber and David Amos. Poetry served many functions, not least helping pass time as a cage lowered you five miles down into the bowels of the earth. Poetry was a way of making sense of the danger, the regulations, and the slow erosion of an industry that can be traced back to medieval times. It was also a way to reconnect with the world. More recently, poetry is helping to rebuild a sense of community, bringing miners together to share their experiences.

Al Rate and Bill Kerry

Al Rate (left) and Bill Kerry III

David and Natalie have hosted numerous public engagement events such as Songs and Rhymes from the Mines, whereby musicians such as Bill Kerry III are taking the thick dialect of pit poets such as Heanor’s Owen Watson and translating them into folk songs so that they reach new audiences. Al Rate (Aka Misk Hills) has penned new songs inspired by specific pit words, such as ‘powder monkey’ and ‘elephant’s tab’.

To celebrate this and other forms of dialect, I’ve recorded an episode for a BBC Radio 4 series called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets. It’s produced by Made in Manchester. The series kicks off on 13 May when Catherine Harvey returns to her roots in the North West of England to see if the dialect poetry of the cotton mills of the 19th century is alive today. In episode two (20 May), I’ll be discussing the local accent and then exploring ‘pit talk’ with ex miners, musicians and a new generation of poets inspired by life underground. The final episode in the series sees Kirsty McKay return to her Northumberland roots to witness the erosion of dialect and culture by the encroachment of urbanisation and influx of people moving into the area.

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Nottingham’s favourite mard arse DH Lawrence features in episode 7 of Dawn of the Unread.

Episode 2 of Tongue and Talk also features Al Needham (who wrote our Bendigo issue) and Andrew Graves (who wrote our 5th Duke of Portland issue). We also visit DH Lawrence’s former home ‘Breach House’ and discuss his dialect poem The Collier’s Wife (featured in issue 7) I also interviewed Norma Gregory, a historian and writer whose research focuses on forgotten (ignored) black histories. She featured briefly in the final issue of Dawn of the Unread when we told the story of George Africanus and George Powe. Recently she’s undergone a mammoth project called Digging Deeper whereby she’s recording the experiences of African Caribbean miners. But the interview wasn’t used in the end as the emphasis of the programme is dialect.

However, I am pleased to announce that Norma is one of the commissioned writers for Dawn of the Unread II: Whatever People Say I Am. This interactive graphic novel serial explores myths surrounding identity and so Norma will be able to tell the story of one of the many miners she has interviewed recently. I’ve been working on scripts for this for the past year or so. It’s coming soon, I promise.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

RELATED READING

#MondayBlogs Much Ado About Wenlock: A home for book lovers

We’ve been very busy working on Dawn of the Unread II: ‘Whatever People Say I Am‘, but decided to take a break to head down to Much Wenlock to visit a tiny little library and two bookshops that have cemented themselves within the heart of the community.   

Much Wenlock is a tiny town in Shropshire, snuggled on the A458. It’s big brother to the aptly named Little Wenlock, which is 7 miles away down the A4169. Wenlock most likely comes from the Celtic name Wininicas (white area) which is a reference to the limestone of Wenlock Edge rather than any affiliation with UKIP. Loca means ‘enclosed place’. Wenlock Edge was the subject of several poems by A.E Houseman in A Shropshire Lad (1896). One of these (XVII) suggested that playing cricket could help console a broken heart, leading Edith Sitwell (who features in issue 1 of our comic) to comment: “If he means to say that cricket, and cricket alone, has prevented men from committing suicide, then their continuation on this earth seems hardly worthwhile.” Ouch!

Visitors to these parts are most likely making a pilgrimage to the 12th century Priory or to pay homage to William Brookes, but we’re here for the bookshops and the library.

In terms of literary history, Much Wenlock can boast Carol Ann Duffy as the patron of their annual Poetry Festival (6 May), Mary Webb (25 March 1881 – 8 October 1927), the romantic novelist whose work inspired the parody Cold Comfort Farm, and the English classicist and feminist Mary Beard (1955-) who the late A.A. Gill once described as ‘too ugly for television’. If you want to read Beard, we’d recommend starting with her TLS blog A Don’s Life or Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017)

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Much Wenlock Library is situated within the Grade 2 listed Corn Exchange building. It’s the tiniest library we’ve ever seen, occupying a small rectangle of space and snuggled under three arches. The Corn Exchange was built in 1852 and originally included an agriculture library. There’s a marble tablet dated 1887 that pays homage to Dr William Penny Brookes (13 August 1809 – 11 December 1895), the founding father of the modern Olympic Games with the purpose of “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”.

It’s very hard to obtain any information about the library as the website links on the Shropshire Council website don’t work. It’s also only open for two and a half days a week and was closed when we visited. 12 of Shropshire’s libraries faced reduced hours as of 2016 in an attempt to save £55,000, as reported in The Shropshire Star. Ludlow North councillor, Andy Boddington, said: “We are entering dangerous territory. Once opening hours for libraries and other public services are cut back, they are rarely restored. When people get used to facilities being closed a lot of the time, they use them less.”

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The town boasts two bookshops. Much More Books (6 High Street) is over 10 years old and boasts a collection of 40,000 books to browse through. Like many modern bookshops they have a digital presence, largely because they specialise in out of print and rare books. The shelves are stacked high and well categorised. My favourite section was old maps, some of which date back to the early 1900s and fold out of leather cases. There was also a substantial volume of DH Lawrence books, so we purchased five Penguin editions of his short stories (£10 in total). These were in excellent condition, making me feel guilty about defacing them with a yellow marker as I continue research for DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage. What I liked most about this bookshop was they welcomed dog walkers and staff looked up at you from the till, as if wanting to have a conversation. Always a good sign. It wins the award for the strangest music I’ve heard in a bookshop. When we visited on 9 March they were playing some strange mystical music with a bit of a dance beat. The kind of thing I’d expect to hear in a holistic shop in Glastonbury.

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Wenlock Books (12 High Street), a few shops up the road, is an independent bookshop that prides itself on introducing readers not only to standard editions, but quality imprints such as Persephone, Little Toller and our favourite, Slightly Foxed for memoirs. They also stock the Collector’s Library, pocket sized editions with gold edges, pale blue covers and a ribbon bookmark. Owner Anna Dreda is keen to curate tastes, saying ‘introducing readers to books that they might not otherwise have happened upon is one of the enduring joys of my life’. Upstairs they have a collection of second hand books as well as access to coffee making facilities. They also put on a series of events, that include Poetry Breakfast (second Thursday of the month, 9-10am) and Knitting and Poetry (fourth Thursday of the month, 2.30pm-4pm). This is a bookshop that is very hard to leave. And if you do manage to lure yourself away, the alleyway at the side of the shop (leading to a restaurant courtyard), has more books – and they’re here 24/7. This is known as ‘honesty alley’ and books are paid for through donation. Money raised goes to the Friends of Conakry Refugee School in Guinea, West Africa.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

 

FURTHER READING