After a quite extraordinary week at The Book Hive, I would like - in the spirit of yesterday's World Book Day - to thank the thousands of people who reacted to Susan Hill's absurd and unpleasant behaviour. We can draw a line under it now - she clearly has no intention of apologising for or retracting any of her remarks - but the reaction from the public is worth a mention: that I say thousands is no exaggeration. We were deluged online and in the shop with messages of support and well wishers. Writers, including, off the top of my head, Eimear McBride, Patrick Ness, Val McDermid, Meg Rossoff, Amanada Craig, Joanne Harris,Anthony McGowan, Max Porter, Sarah Perry, Chris Riddell, S.J. Watson as well as many, many more offered their support over the matter, and the overwhelming response from the press and other bookshops and booksellers should prove to us all that however hard it is sometimes, we still matter and we are still valued!! (A special mention for the Waterstones employee who sent us a £20 book token, either to give away to a customer or just put through our till - and for the 'Illiberal Bigot' badges which were made for us that we now wear with pride. Oh, poor Mr. Gove). And I must say that Norwich came out of the whole thing very well - what a great place to live and work. If you dont yet know us - come and visit! Onwards and upwards then - having got through this, hopefully the government wont now kill us stone dead with their splendid new Business Rates Review. Here's hoping... THANK YOU!
I read with interest the article Susan Hill wrote for the Spectator blog “Why I’ve cancelled my event at an anti-Trump bookshop” on 25th February. I am the owner of the bookshop in question (The Book Hive in Norwich) and read the piece on the same day you carried a separate story about the backlash against Waterstone’s and their pretend independent bookshops, so the subject of the role of booksellers seems to be of some interest. In the sprit of expanding on that interest, let me respond to Ms Hill here.
Firstly, I need to clear up some facts before addressing the heart of her argument. She claims that we are “stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him” (Trump). This is not the case and I would ask her to point out where that aim has been stated by us.
She also adds “You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him” True – the autobiography (it can be ordered and would be if anyone wanted it) is not in the shop, but a number of books about him are, by journalists and biographers who have opinions to write about.
She expounds about how, were she a bookseller, she would not ‘ban’ - as I apparently have - books whose authors are of differing opinions from her own, nor would she refuse to order them in for people, as it seems I am also guilty of, as well as interfering with my customers ability to browse and choose books. Such a ban has never existed in my shop. She would know this had she ever visited, which she hasn’t.
But there are bigger issues here:
Her argument appears to be that as a business my bookshop must remain politically neutral in order not to alienate people, a point I understand to an extent, seeing that I don’t claim to own a shop dedicated to any political theory or culture, or indeed any specific mode of thought. However we are talking about a small independent bookshop in the centre of Norwich. As a business, it would be churlish of me not to reflect in much of my stock the prevailing political temperature of the place I am in – just as it would be nonsensical for me to keep a wide range of books on the hill paths of North Wales. Norwich is and always has been a city with a strong sense of radical thought and rebellion, and although I don’t claim to be a ‘radical’ bookshop, I am keenly aware of that fact. The strong sense of community and citizens of Norwich standing up for what they believe to be right has been shown several times since my shop opened in 2009: Norwich was a tiny oasis of Remain in a sea of Brexit voting counties; when the EDL came to march here they met with a vast show of defiance from a crowd of thousands who refused to let their tiny rabble of protesters have their racist chants heard; when a ‘foreign looking’ shop had it’s windows smashed after the Brexit vote, a city-wide whip round was set up to pay for the repairs – and raised over £30,000 in a few hours. And when a local book group came to me and said that they had read about a bookshop in America giving away free copies of certain titles they thought people should be reminded of in the light of the Trump administration’s behaviour, they felt they would like to do the same. Not having a book shop of their own they asked me, and I happily obliged – yes, as it happens, because I admire their generosity and their politics chime with mine – but also because to do so was good business. It strengthened ties with parts of the community, admittedly parts who already like us, but plenty of people heard about the scheme on social media and in the press and thought it was great. I should also say that a member of staff took a phone call in the shop the day after we announced it and had abuse and insults shouted at him down the line – but that’s fine. The caller was quite entitled to their opinion and to let us know – but it wasn’t going to put us off. They need not come to our shop, in the same way that people who want to find, on our shelves, biographies of celebrity sportspeople should not come to our shop, or Mind Body and Spirit books, or GCSE revision texts, or as the writer and critic DJ Taylor wrote about in The Independent after witnessing me turn a disappointed customer away, Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course, we can order anything in for the next day and will happily do so, but we don’t have the space to keep it all in stock, so what we do keep in is what we as booksellers and readers know about, what we love, what we think other people should be introduced to and that which reflects how we feel about the world – as well as a fair amount of material which may express opinions we don’t agree with but which others might find interesting. We even stock – can you believe?! – some badly written books, because we know they might be popular! But we won’t order everything for people. Over the years a number of people have asked if we keep Mein Kampf, and on being told ‘No’, ask if we could get it. Now it seems that according to Ms Hill’s argument, we should order that book in for people as good business practice. But we don’t, and wont, because for one, it isn’t the kind of material we want to promote, and two, I don’t want to make a profit for my pocket by selling fascist works. So yes, in that case, I am expressing a political opinion through my business. In fact, I am not sure that a shop like The Book Hive doesn’t actually have a responsibility to stick its neck out over such matters, if for no other reason than because it is not answerable to a chain of command, because it can… And we have form. When Coca-Cola came to Norwich and set up a huge inner-city branding exercise and asked all shops to put promotional material in their windows in exchange for a few bottles, the shop manager in that day said no, and instead put up a simple A4 poster quoting Dr. Steve Maraboli “Many companies expect loyal customers without providing loyal service. This has been the visionary failure of countless corporation”. Coke asked us to take it down, several times, even bringing in their senior staff to request we remove the sign. We didn’t – but the whole episode played out on Twitter, and in the end Coke issued a formal apology.
Ms Hill goes onto to argue that we have exercised a type of censorship in the shop, which no bookshop should ever do as it goes against freedom of thought, expression and belief. But, and surely this is the main point, a bookshop such as The Book Hive must exercise some discretion in its stock choices, for that is precisely what makes independent bookshops the special, loved places that people so vigorously want to defend - and are doing so when they see their uniqueness being eroded by Waterstone’s launching its ‘pretend indie’ branches. (Although I am not convinced they are as bad as people might believe). The point of an independent bookshop is that it creates an identity, fostered by and for the community which it serves, the authors who live near by, the landscape that surrounds it, the trades and professions that flourish there, it’s history, its future, and so, yes, very much, its political persuasion. That is what makes a bookshop in Norwich so different from one in Bristol, or Birmingham, or Inverness - that’s the point, otherwise they’d all be… well, a chain. And that is why Ms Hill’s opinion - which she is free to voice, although had she more conviction in them one wonders if she might have told me the reason she was cancelling the event rather than getting her publisher’s PR people to offer the excuse of ‘undisclosed personal reasons’, (PR people it turns out who knew full well the real reason which puts more than a little shame on them) – is such a sham. She has tried to use our fairly innocuous involvement in a local enterprise to give weight to her political views in the press. As I said on social media to the EDL when they started their Norwich march outside the shop and half an hour later were back again, looking a little afraid with their tails between their legs; sorry – you lose.
URGENT - PLEASE READ AND SHARE
For those of you who have followed recent events at the shop, you will know three things:
1 – An event we had booked with the novelist Susan Hill was cancelled by her for 'personal reasons' which she would not disclose
2 – A local book group asked if they might use the shop as a base to give out a number of copies of various titles which they thought make essential reading in the light of recent actions by the Trump administration, which they would pay for. We happily agreed, and said we would waive the full retail costs of those books as we admired their generosity and did not want to make money from it
3 – We have been short listed in the Bookseller best bookshop awards, reflecting our popularity as a small bookshop, which in turn reflects the broad range of people we cater for.
With those things in mind, this extraordinary article by Susan Hill in The Spectator has left us astounded. She has never been to the shop, has fabricated almost everything she has said about our stock, has claimed we have imposed a 'ban' on books we don't approve of with no evidence to support this at all and says our 'bias' interferes with customers' rights to browse and choose. It is a deeply flawed and inaccurate portrayal of the shop – to say nothing of unpleasant - and the way we operate. Not only that, she she chose to cancel the event without reason and then publish her reasons in the press - a cancellation which has cost us a not insignificant amount of money in returned ticket prices and wasted advertising. She has not named the bookshop in her article, but the questions are flowing in to us now – we had told the many thousands on our social media platforms that the event was cancelled, so the question 'is this you?' is an obvious one.
This subject is now open for debate.
The launch for Custom Fast Wheels is tomorrow night, so as a treat, here are three more animations to tickle your fancy...
...and here is the first of four great little movies to with it. Have a peek - it's brilliant!!
For those who have been given this information which was on the mail out yesterday in relation to David Taylor's new book...
In yesterday's email about January events I said this:
"Back in the days when I still worked at Galley Beggar Press we were hosting a launch for one of our titles in the bookshop and as David Taylor and I were chatting we came up with the idea that we should publish a collection of his short stories. "
Please note, this is not the case and I apologise to Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar Press whose idea it actually was to publish David's collection of short stories. The conversation that I remembered clearly happened after Sam had already persuaded me that the idea was a good one, via email.
I should also make clear that this is not an isolated incident. I'm a bugger for stealing the thunder, me! Apologies to all at Galley Beggar Press for any upset I have caused in the past by claiming responsibility for success not due to me.
My friend Tom's mum, Di, was recently heard to say, after buying something from a supermarket, that she had chosen the nicest one, part of their 'Do Yourself A Favour' range. After much hilarity, it was discovered of course that she meant 'Taste the Difference' or 'Finest' or some such thing. So in honour of her - and the fact that it is a much, much better name than 'Staff Recommendations' - we have introduced our own Do Yourself A Favour range from The Book Hive. Where ever you see a sticker with our lovely thug on - you know it's one of our best...
Despite the fact that my last post here was couched in slightly self-congratulatory terms, (I use the fact it was the anniversary as an excuse), I am afraid I am going to riff on the same theme. On the Tuesday just passed we had our second event with Arc Publications, the country's leading publisher of poetry in translation. Over the last few weeks they have been involved in a monumental tour of the UK with a number of different poets from their stable of European writers. We were lucky enough to have two visits from the in the space of a month. Of course I understand that these events will be of limited interest to most people, and had I been a punter I might well have looked at the billing, considered it noteworthy and then forgotten all about it. Indeed, the majority of the audience on both evenings were affiliated in some way with the translation course at UEA. However, being the boss an all that, I was obliged to attend, and how glad I am that I did. It seems to me always to be the case that the events schedules which are the most obscure or apparently inaccessible are the ones which turn out to be the most rewarding - perhaps for that very reason; I may not have a clue about what the event will be or who the writes in question are, and therefore no apparent interest, but I also have no expectation. It therefore makes for an experience which is hard to be disappointed by and, as is most often the case, easy to be impressed, or even bowled over by. On such occasions I am prone to feeling a mix of shame and pride - the one because I have adopted an attitude which I get frustrated by in others, namely, it aint my bag so I aint interested, and the other because I have gone on and programmed the event nonetheless and have had the pleasure of sharing the experience with other members of the public who are clearly also enjoying it. I wont attempt to relay what happened in Tuesday night, it would be pointless, but as a brief overview, three poets read their work in their native language and in English: Katariina Vuorinen and Janne Nummela from Finland and Sigurður Pálsson from Iceland. Briefly, Janne has been described as a 'Genius in the wilderness' and lived up to that title, with all the eccentricities and wildness one might expect. Katariina performed - and sang - her work without reading, giving perhaps the most mesmerizing delivery I have ever experienced from a poet, and Sigurour, something of a literary icon in his homeland, gave a more traditional reading. All three were exceptional, but it is Palsson's work I would like to highlight on this occasion. Several of the pieces he read struck me as being something very special, but this poem in particular I found moving, funny, clever and affecting. I have work by all three poets in the shop should you wish to read more. I also attach a video of him reading it, which I had no idea someone had recorded in the shop - just found it online!
Announcement From The International Assembly Of Diamonds
Now we cannot do any more
can no longer show
this extreme hardness
this glowing hardness
We were once coal
it took thousands and thousands of years
to bring out
our diamond hardness
Now we cannot do any more
In the morning it was decided
at the international assembly
that we will soften
yes, that we would soften
That is our protest
against the inequality of man
against the injustices of man
We, the diamonds of the world
always adorn the same people
earrings and tiaras
Now we are going to soften
that is the conclusion of our assembly
We are going to soften
even though it leads to us
leaking out of those tiaras
down through the hair of queens
like old semen
from the bodies of long dead soldiers
Even though it leads
to us leaking
down from necklaces
like consumptive phlegm
from dead bodies
of promising young poets
Leaking out of rings and earrings
like choleric spit
on the pavement in a third world country
so that people miss their footing
in the finest areas of town
Miss their footing in us
who decided this morning
at the international assembly
As I write this, at my kitchen table surrounded by piles of junk and looking at a screen that has been heavily decorated with several shades of felt-tip by a two year-old, I wonder at the really extraordinary fact that it's only five years since The Book Hive opened. Really, I should remember these things. But actually it wasn't until after I dropped one of the children at school, got home with the other one and began putting the house back together after the get dressed/ready for work/school/eat/feed them morning rush, that I got a text from Rory who is manning the shop today saying Happy Birthday. Shortly afterwards I received another text, from Daniel Pounds who works up at the castle in Norwich, saying Happy Birthday - and joking that there had been no more books from CANT BOOKS in the past five years. Dan, and his imprint Cant, approached me when I was setting the shop up - literally, building the inside with my brother Sam. He said he had a new publishing outfit and it was launching around the same time as the shop - why didn't we combine, he suggested. There was an opening title called Southampton Dada which could be launched on the night and what is more, Stephen Fry had said he would come along - Dan had tweeted him about it. It was a fine bash, Stephen was very generous, the book was entertaining and there were readings and much jollity all round. But it's worth pointing this out: Stephen Fry, whose quote that he had dreamt of a place like this existing in Norwich when he was growing up, which he said on the night, was in fact there because someone else had got him to their book launch. It just happened to be the opening night of the shop too. I have also done an interview for the EDP this morning, with Kim Briscoe who interviewed me just after we first opened and she was asking me about why I thought the shop had such a good reputation, sighting Stephen's generous remark. The truth is that that very lucky episode - Dan, Cant, Fry, Shop Opening - was the first example of many that has gone towards making The Hive what it is. Of course there has been some back breaking work, (Sian and I also discovered we were having our first child in the week the shop opened, and have since had another one and moved house three times), but it quickly became apparent to me that although it is my shop and my business - my idea - The Book Hive is its own entity, with it's own personality and way of doing things, it's own relationship with people - near and far - which is different from my relationship with the same people. And as such it grows and develops organically, its reputation snowballing as people begin to pick up on it and discover it for themselves. Its success is testament to the idea that good news breeds good news, excitement spreading as people want to get involved with something, in this case by shouting about how much they love the shop, which attracts more people, which gets the interest of the press, locally, then nationally, then radio 4, then BBC Breakfast, then New York Times, then National Geographic Traveler and so on, until some 20 or so different media outlets in countries all over the world have reported on us, many of them several times. Then we win an award for being Best Independent in Britain, and that's subjective of course, but it adds to the story. A few more quotes from a few more famous people who have popped in and we're away. (Social media, for some people the very thing that bookshops are supposed to give one a break from, in fact has a lot to be thanked for - as do the staff who have laboured alongside my technologically-backward-self to embrace it so well). So although I acknowledge that a lot has gone into making the shop what it is and what it means to people, it is also the very fact that it means so much to so many that allows the success to continue. Because, that is the success. It certainly aint going to make millionaires of us anytime soon, that's for sure. But whenever I feel cheesed off with it, or tired of running a business or doing paperwork or staying late to run an event, it only takes standing in the shop and looking at people reacting to it when they come in, or watching the event unfurl into the evening to be reminded that this is a very special place indeed, and those of us who work here are really very lucky.
And I am especially lucky, because I get to work along side those people. The shop has employed quite a few over the years, most notably of the ex-staff James Elliott, who is now manager at Daunt in Fulham Road. His role in the shop's history is a key one, seeing it though some dark times and shaky days early on as well as being there at all the major high points as we struggled into the world! (I shall never forget how drunk he got at the award ceremony for winning the Telegraph award - only to vanish into the train loo at Liverpool Street, not to be seen again until the following day in the shop...) Rory - an ex-customer who badgered me every week into giving him a job until I let him come in just to shut him up - is now the full time manager, and what an asset he is, for the shop and for my own personal sanity. In a world where so many people wrongly, stupidly say, and say it in the shop, too, 'Young people don't read anymore, such a shame' and 'books are dead I suppose, it's all computers these days', Rory Hill is the embodiment of the fact that the opposite is true. It was my masterstroke, (if a total accident) to employ a heavily tattooed kid with rock star ambitions and a severe book habit, who thinks people over the age of 40 are OLD but has probably read more than them and also who thinks all my friends are insanely posh but knows everyone in Norwich under 30. He is the face of bookselling as it should be; young, relevant, interested and, like me, utterly uninterested in pandering to the whole 'we must preserve books and bookshops in aspic - they are lost on the youth in society who do not care!' attitude and much more 'this world is cool: if you choose to ignore it, your loss...'
Along side him, Sally and Megan, writers with their own books on their way to us and years of bookselling experience between them and Holly, another cool young 'un - and an illustrator, to add to the mix of fields we cover. It's a great team.
Although I am no longer part of Galley Beggar Press, of course that too has had a huge part in the shops little life to date - indeed, GBP wouldn't exist were it not for the shop and neither would those wonderful novels. The fairy-tale story of Eimear McBride's book being rejected for nine years before being picked up by a bookseller in a little independent book shop and then becoming a global smash hit and taking its place in the hall of fame of modern literature is one the press the world over have lapped up - and it has, of course, been great for the Hive's reputation. But we need to remain level headed here - it's her wot dun it. I love the association with that book for the shop - it appears on the beautiful 5 Years Without Incident design that Adam Avery has done for this anniversary - but for all the plaudits received for finding the manuscript, it was just another chance event like so many others and I grabbed it as it passed. Eimear was always going to be a star, which is why the fame and adulation hasn't gone to her head in any way at all.
Rory also worked at Galley Beggar, where he had asked if he could be an intern and became assistant editor, and the designer was Niki Medlik, (some of you will know her from her desk at the top of the shop). I met her and got her on board when she popped in one day a few years back with her sister, (who works at the castle with Dan Pounds. That's Norwich for you...). Another lucky chance meeting. They have both joined me to set up the new imprint in the shop, Propolis, and that is now The Book Hive's own publishing arm, and what a delight that is to work on! I wont go on about our wonderful new book here - you can read about it on the site - but when we were launching the book at Daunt last week, which James had organized for us, it did make me think again how much we thrive on these splendid connections.
There are plenty of people to thank for helping keep the shop on its path, most notably my family I suppose - Dad's constant support, Sam's endless help keeping the place looking beautiful, my Mum, the sixth anniversary of whose death is today, who left me some money which I used to get the place going and who would have loved the place, and Sian for living with me and allowing me to let our lives be dictated by a beast to which I am more servant than master. Of course the wonderful staff, past and present - the genuine enthusiasm, the pride in the place, the battles with multinational corporations they bring everyday...
But most of all, the punters. The junk that surrounds me on the table I mentioned at the beginning comprises of, amongst many other things, a book hive canvas bag, a copy of Eimear's book and copy of Philippa Comber's book, a Book Hive Year order to be posted and some Propolis address labels. As Adam's five year poster suggests, the Hive is something of an ideas factory. But if YOU didn't respond to those ideas the whole thing would be a stupendous waste of time.
Hello Book Hive customers old and new. Some of you may be familiar with our previous, lovely online incarnation of the shop but, now, we have a brand spanking new one! On the 22nd of October it will be our 5th birthday (yes, five years!) so we've decided to give ourselves a little face lift. We hope you enjoy!