5 years old today - the fun and the flukes
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.