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.
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.
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
Dawn 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.