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Interview with Kate Harris from Harris & Harris Books

Tell us a little about Harris & Harris Books and your wonderful new bookshop.

I opened Harris & Harris Books in Clare in August 2011, a few months after we moved to Suffolk. It is a general bookshop with new and old books for readers of all ages. There wasn’t a bookshop here at the time and hadn’t been one for many years. I was cautious, but having worked in three chains and another Indie bookshop just prior to the move and a trusty spreadsheet from my husband Frank, I had average expectations and high hopes. We were delighted with the response and support from locals and the business steadily grew each year. Small, but mighty was what one of my customers called it. I had soon outgrown our little bookshop space but with the town being quite small, our moving options were … zero. 

The retirement and then closure of the much-loved hardware store just five doors up and the property came on the market. After over two years of planning, negotiating, conservation, complete refurbishment / rebuilding of what turned out to be a much neglected building, plus much wrangling with the shop fitters, we finally opened the door of the all new Harris & Harris Books on 14th October 2023 – National Bookshop Day, and I couldn’t be happier.

It's bigger, brighter, all on one floor (this was a problem with the old shop), I can now host events in the bookshop and everyone has been jolly enthusiastic about it. I have tried to retain the charm of the old bookshop whilst giving it a breath of new life.


If you had to sum up your customers in three words, what would they be? 

Supportive, book-hungry and really rather fabulous!

They have supported me during the twelve and a half years I’ve been here and enabled me to take the plunge of moving to a bigger bookshop. They have a voracious appetite for books and I love choosing the books with some of my lovely customers in mind. Fabulous? They certainly are! Everyone has been with me on the long and arduous journey to get the new shop open and kept me well-stocked with baked goods, bottles of deliciousness, they were there to help me move the shop and my goodness were they there on opening day! I never knew you could fit so many happy faces in one shop. Overwhelming. I felt blessed and overwhelmed.


How and why did you become a bookseller?  

After a career in restaurants and hotel management, I took a break and then answered a little ‘help wanted’ sign in a Hammicks bookshop window. Not an obvious career leap, but it was one I really wanted. Needed, in fact. That was about twenty six years ago and I then moved up with the company, it morphed into Ottakars and then Waterstones. A couple of years at ‘Much Ado Books’ in Alfriston and then I moved to Suffolk in December 2010. I’m still friends with many from that original Hammicks store and pretty much every bookseller I’ve worked with. It’s a wonderful community to belong to.

What’s the best part of running a bookshop? 

The best part? Crumbs, there’s lots of best parts. 

I love seeing people coming into the bookshop (still an honour I never take for granted), some I might know, some I don’t but everyone gets a cheery hello. A great many friendships have formed over that counter.

I love choosing the books to have in my bookshop. I love it when I find books to buy in with some of my customers in mind and they love them. That makes my heart sing. 

I love unpacking the boxes. It’s like Christmas everyday. Bookmas, even.

It could be having my own name above the door. I never tire of seeing that. 

Having worked in other people’s bookshops, I took with me many ideas of things I would do, would do differently, or absolutely not at all. I get to be in charge and that’s rather smashing. 

I’m sure many booksellers will agree, it’s not like going to work, you sort of host a bookish party all day, every day for seven hours. Who wouldn’t want a job like that? It’s jolly hard work, but I love it. 

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

That’s a big question and it’s not an easy one to answer. The most obvious challenge is the insane race to the bottom with regards to the price books are sold online. It not only reduces the worth of the book, it is damaging to many people, whether it is the author who gets a smaller advance for their life’s work, the publisher who perhaps feel pressured to offer the deep-pocketed online seller or major high street chain and supermarkets ludicrous discounts, who themselves can afford to sell at a loss, down to the humble bookseller who usually cannot buy in the books as cheaply as others sell them. It’s nuts really. Then we move on to the economic crisis we are all living through and the price rises that keep on rising. That’s uncomfortable reading I know, but it is important to realise that it is absolutely not a level playing field in a book world that is intent on destroying itself. 

I do not know what the answer is and I cannot compete with any of them with regards to prices, but I love my job. I love my bookshop and it’s my choice to fight my little corner. Books bring me and so many people a lot of joy and if I can make someone’s day with a brand new favourite book, a cheery smile, some bookish chatter, events, storytime, a listening ear and friendship, then my day is complete.

You’re a real star on social media and I love watching your unboxing videos. Tell us a bit about how this began and how important it is to your business. 

I had always done a bit of social media though hadn’t fully embraced it, just pootled about a bit. Roll on a few years and Covid struck. Once the panic calmed, I ramped up the rather sporadic social media posts and started doing little storytime videos for the little ones, whilst giving the grown ups a five minute break. While everyone was locked in at home, these videos morphed into gift ideas for Mother’s Day, Easter, Birthdays, etc and this well and truly saved the day. Then after seven weeks, deliveries started back up again but everyone was still in lockdown, so I thought I would try a box unpacking video and see what happened. It was very well received and prompted many book takeaways at the door, deliveries and trips to the Post Office down the street which was fortunately allowed to stay open. When the lockdowns were lifted, I announced that the videos would stop as we were all free to roam again. This was met with outrage and pitchforks, so I carried on, pretty much every week ever since. 

Not only did they save the bookshop during those dark and troubling times, it allowed the business to grow. It also highlighted the power of books to a great many people and so later on, I heard some heartwarming stories of how a takeaway at the door or a slice of Harris & Harris in the post became so important to them. 


What were your most popular books of the Christmas period? 

There were a great many fabulous books out this Christmas and the pressure was on to keep the bookshop topped up and inviting. The latest of Elly Griffiths’ Brighton book – The Great Deceiver – was a big hit as I had recently been selling her books for a festival so I was lucky to get lots of signed books for the shop. A new ‘Thursday Murder Club’ book will always go down a treat and there were many Christmas cosy crimes to enjoy.  Sarah Winman’s Still Life is still our very bestseller ever and it keeps on getting our recommendation. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver was a constant seller, as was The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. 

Rory Stewart’s Politics On The Edge and a chunksta of a book about the RAF’s Mosquito were the standout non-fiction sellers and a surprising number of jigsaw puzzles sold too. It was our first Christmas in the new bookshop so we were just finding our feet before Christmas trading kicked off so it was all a delightful surprise actually. 

What was your relationship with books as a child? Do you read children’s books now? Do you enjoy selling them?  

We were always read to by our mother, we grew up in a house of books and our parents were always reading too so it was bound to happen that I would also become a bookworm. 

I don’t read children’s books, but I have been recently prompted by the wonderful author Katherine Rundell, that you should still read children’s books as an adult. I have given myself a stern talking to and two children’s books are now in my TBR pile.


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

I love this part of my job. I have been a book-buyer for many years and I have homed in on the buying habits and tastes of my locals and visitors alike. It’s nice to take a chance sometimes, safe in the knowledge that I can return it if it doesn’t sell. 

I browse the usual publisher and wholesaler catalogues and see as many publisher reps as I can. Then I listen. I earwig on bookish conversations and pry into so many bookish Instagrammers and see what they are reading, promoting, selling or talking about. I browse in other bookshops to see what I might be missing. I’ll even peer over your shoulder to see your bookshelves. I’m like a book magpie, gathering up shiny new books. I love the frisson of excitement when I spot a new treasure that I just … must …have!


What is your view on independently published books? 

It was Christopher Hitchens who said something like: ‘Everyone has a book inside them…’* and who am I to discourage this. I have tried and failed to write over many years and when I read the many books I do, I realise that I could not compete with these great writers, so I will stick to doing what I do best and let them do what they do best. 

I can’t possibly read all the books before I put them for sale in the shop and I have worked hard to earn the trust of my customers so The Booksellers Association compiled a really helpful guide to help writers get their book on the shelves of Indie bookshops and this has, I know, helped. 

I view each independently published book that I’m offered and will stock the ones I feel will suit H&H and our customers. It really helps when writers are proactive on their social media sites as this helps readers find them too. 

(*Hitchens was unfortunately said to follow with:  ‘…which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain’ – but that’s not very sporting!)


What are your hopes for the future of Harris & Harris Books? 

My hopes are that authors and publishers keep on producing the wonderful books that they are to fuel the hungry minds out there. I look forward to welcoming current and future readers to Harris & Harris Books for the Indie bookshop experience, many more book events and elsewhats. 

I love what I do and I love our little town of Clare in Suffolk, so long as there are still smashing books and glorious readers out there, then there’s a future for Harris & Harris Books on the high street. 


Quick fire questions: 

Which book is on your bedside table right now?  

An advanced copy of Clear by Carys Davies, author of West, and The Mission House. This new one is set in 1843 on a remote Scottish Island during the Highland Clearances. It’s beautifully written and one I’ll be eagerly handselling when it comes out in March. 

I also have back-up books – Miss Austen Investigates, A Bookshop In Berlin by Francoise Frenkel, and Nicci French’s Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter?


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

A book I read and loved by the then very new Gallic Books was The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Set in a Parisian apartment block with the rather prickly old lady concierge. It’s my go-to novel to recommend for something a bit different. 


What’s your ‘go to’ genre?  


Preferably interwar, but anything early to mid- 20th Century.


Non-fiction book you love? 

I read a book about The Mass Observation many years ago and although I can’t remember which one, it led me on to reading Nella Last’s diaries which I really enjoyed. I love the social history side of biographies so recently I read and loved Mazel Tov by J. S. Margot and The Last Days by Ali Millar.


Favourite poetry book? 

I confess I’m not really a poetry reader, but I do have a copy of The Poetry Pharmacy edited by William Sieghart to try. I have, however, agreed to do a reading at my niece’s wedding this year and I’ve chosen a poem by Lemn Sissay and it really is beautiful so I will try more by him. 


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

Well, depending on the departure date and if I had already read it/them, I might take War And Peace – no more putting it off. Or perhaps the first Robert Galbraith novel. I’ve never been quite in the right mood to start them.

Failing that, I’d take Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. Always a winner.

Kate Harris was interviewed by Tricia Gilbey 

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