Our Letter to The Spectator in response to Susan Hill

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.

Henry Layte

Henry Latte20 Comments