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Interview with Abbie Clements of Halesworth Bookshop

Interviewed by Katie Flaxman

Tell us a little about Halesworth Bookshop

I am the fifth owner of The Halesworth Bookshop which was founded in the Ancient House building in 1977 by Mr McLachlan. Due to problems with flooding, he moved the shop to the current site, close to the marketplace. The shop contains everything from poetry to cookery books and a magnificent children’s department waymarked by a larger-than-life ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ mural. We also host regular events including signings, storytelling, and craft sessions.

How and why did you become a bookseller?

I had always worked in education, but I began to struggle with many issues in our education system. I've had a lifelong love of books and value the importance of reading. My three sons were getting older and I was turning 40 when the bookshop went up for sale and I felt this was the perfect time to try something new. My husband didn’t think I was completely insane, so I went for it and I've never looked back. It was the best decision I've ever made.

What’s the best part of running a bookshop?

I must confess, it's great being in charge. Anything you can think of you can try. Often my ideas don't work out, but that doesn't matter, it's wonderful having the freedom to do new things without having to check with someone first. I do often run things past my colleagues, Alison and Karen. They are super-duper booksellers and have taught me everything I know. They already worked at the shop; I remember being really worried about making enough money to pay them but thank goodness I kept them both. They're truly wonderful and have put up with so many mistakes and crazy ideas. I really couldn't have done all this without them.

What’s the biggest challenge independent bookshops face and what do you think is the answer?

The energy crisis is having an enormous impact on all businesses. I have to keep the heaters on otherwise the books would be ruined, but it's so expensive and really affects cash flow. It's very worrying during these cold months. I do hope we can hang on and make enough in the better months to cover the cost. There have been concerns since the electronic book idea that the written form would become obsolete, I think we can safely say this is nonsense. The Booksellers Association have produced figures in the last few years showing an increase in both indie bookshop book sales and new independent bookshop openings. Indie bookshops are always going to struggle against the giants like Amazon but unlike Amazon, we offer an experience with the opportunity to discuss literature, give recommendations and of course events, book signings, meet the authors, books festivals and so much more. I can't tell you how many times I've had help and support from the other local indie bookshops. I was told when I took on the shop, ‘everybody's kind in the bookie world’ and that is so true.

You’re a champion of the local community, new and local authors, and local schools. Tell us a bit about this.

I’ve always lived in this area and I brought my sons up here. Being part of the community is something that I feel is part and parcel of the job, to be honest. I have a motto, ‘say yes to everything and worry about it later’. This includes school orders, discounts, supporting author visits and organising talks. I link with other community groups which lightens the load. Alison (colleague), is a prominent member of the local community, which really assists the shop, she keeps me in the know. The community and our customers support so many of our initiatives, like the successful 'Act of Kindness' where customers buy a book for a person spending time in hospital over Christmas. We wrap and deliver these a few days before the holiday. I'm especially proud of linking with the Laxfield Low House for our Low House Lit. Fest. The third one is taking place this year on 1st and 2nd July. We have set up a 'school's fund' to help local schools buy books and our book group continues to grow meeting the second Wednesday of every month, 6pm at The Angel Hotel, Halesworth. I can be found at Folk East, Flipside festival, and Firstlight. I am also working with Waveney and Blyth Arts, to develop our own book festival 'Two Rivers'.

Halesworth bookshop has a beautiful welcoming children’s section. Tell us how you view the importance of literature to children.

Right up there! It’s fundamental.

To inspire a love of reading in our youth is such an important part of a bookseller's role. Hence our work with schools and support of literacy projects like World Book Day and Suffolk School’s Book Mastermind. Our children’s section is something I’ve worked hard on developing since taking the shop on. We’ve increased our stock and as a result, improved sales. We have regular children’s events and storytelling.

What was your relationship with books as a child? Has this changed over the years?

We had books read to us and visited our local library as a child. I particularly remember our Dad reading the Brer Rabbit and Flat Stanley stories. I loved Shirley Hughes and Roald Dahl. Getting older I really enjoyed Anne of Green Gables. I remember my first teacher at primary school reading to us under a big oak tree on the school field. With my own children, I have a wonderful memory of my husband reading Dr Dog to our three sons. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, Dr Dog says ‘don’t scratch your bum and suck your thumb’. We regularly visited our local library and all three boys would participate in the Summer reading challenge. I've kept all their medals and certificates.

Do you read children’s books now? Who are some of your favourite authors?

Yes and yes, according to Katherine Rundell we should all read children’s books, forever. I love love love Tom Percival with all his ‘Big bright feeling’ books. I was thrilled to see recently his book Matilda Tries Again being read for the BBC Bedtime story by Rob Burrow (the Rugby star with MMD) and Tom also had a WBD book published this year: Billy's Bravery.

With roughly 186,000 books published in the UK each year, how do you choose which ones to stock?

We have an awful lot of guidance from the BA, publishers, distributors and even authors themselves as well as our customers who have a wide range of interests which I feel is reflected on our shelves.

What’s your view on self-published books?

Self-published books often offer little or no money for the bookseller, but normally a deal can be made between the bookseller and author. I am always happy for that to happen, it’s a pleasure to stock a book and meet the author. It can be difficult as I love the fun aspect of my work, but as my husband likes to remind me, ‘I am supposed to be making money’.

Quick fire questions:

Which book(s) is on your bedside table right now?

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, I am currently obsessed with Claire Keegan and I want to read everything she’s ever written.

What’s a book everyone should read that most people haven’t heard of?

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills. It was described as hilariously surreal - I love a book that leaves me with questions. I had thousands.

What’s your ‘go to’ genre?

Contemporary Fiction. I like horrible books, sometimes I think back over a book and I worry about myself as to why I enjoyed it so much. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, so tragic, but elements of hope in both titles.

Non-fiction book you love?

I loved the Bookshop Tours of Britain by Louise Boland, so proud to be included. One day I’m going to visit all those bookshops across the UK on my bicycle. One of my all-time favourite reads is Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth. I read it most summers, a true story of growing up in Manchester in the 1980s. She overcomes great adversity to find her place at Oxford University where she finished her degree and travelled to Yale on a graduate fellowship.

Favourite poetry book?

I'm not sure. Probably Luke Wright with his The Feel-Good Movie of The Year. I love performance poetry and he’s one of the best.

If you could only take one book to a desert island, what would it be and why?

It’s got to be Pride and Prejudice, I’m one of five girls. As I'm the second eldest I’d be Lizzy. It makes me laugh thinking about my parents being so worried about marrying us all off. I’ve read this so many times and could keep reading it, so it’s the perfect choice for a lonely desert island.

Katie Flaxman


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