My love affair with English literature began with Peter Rabbit, an enchanting fellow whose fluency sounded exotic to a child who spoke the language of Br’er Rabbit. It didn’t begin with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which I found spooky, nor did I become Anglicised during the long summer my grandmother read David Copperfield to me, which filled my heart with terror and despair.
Whatever the origin, what amazes me is that books were so plentiful. Until I was 17, the only bookshop I’d ever been in was the sole one in the state of Mississippi, the Baptist Book Store in Jackson, which barely touched the secular. Gone With the Wind was there, but To Kill a Mockingbird was not. Eudora Welty squeaked in-she lived nearby-but not William Faulkner.
But now I’m grateful for this book-lined poverty. It’s meant that I’ve never taken a good bookshop for granted. When John Sandoe, the higgeldypiggeldy bookshop in Chelsea, offered me an account, I knew England was where I belonged.
This bookish trip down memory lane was sparked by days spent placing orders with book wholesalers and publishers. I’m now turning the ‘book tables’ in our country store into the Book Room. Friends gasp: ‘Bookshops are closing faster than pubs! You’ll be devoured by Amazon and e-books.’ I know the risks.
I also know that being in retail of any kind these days is tough. When we opened 20 years ago, part of the farm diversification, I vowed to sell only things that were beautiful and useful. The shop manager and I roam the country like bloodhounds in search of the new, the good and long-lasting.
The shop has never looked better. And guess what? Our turnover is now 30% less than it was five years ago. Of course, it’s the economy, stupid. We all have less money.
* Country Life Summer Subscriptions Sale – Save £55 a year!
And it’s the weather: a mild winter, a rainy summer-any climactic ruckus discourages folks from spending. But I have a couple of theories. First, we all have so much stuff that we’ve gone off the idea of acquiring more unless it’s absolutely irresistible and it feels like a bargain. I also believe that people still need somewhere away from home, a gathering place. As pubs and bookshops close and Starbuckses and Pret A Mangers replace their chairs with crummy stools and low tables that mean ‘don’t linger’, the joys of blissful public congregation are slowly disappearing. We are losing what Henry James called ‘The Great Good Place’, an informal gathering place where you can get a good coffee or a glass of wine. Where you can see someone you know or be peacefully anonymous.
Where you can walk the dog, look at books and quietly be. Amazingly, our ‘hand-picked’ books are what we now sell the most. The classifications are inspired by a mail-order catalogue called A Common Reader: Mayhem (Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Baroness Orczy); Re-Reading (old favourites); Thumping Good Reads (P. G. Wodehouse in Everyman’s Library Editions); Country Life (Little Toller books); Growing Old (Diana Athill); Reflections (Michael Mayne, Ronald Blythe); On Writing and Reading (Anne Fadiman). The catalogue was founded in 1986 by James Mustich, who focused on little-known and underappreciated books. His eloquent descriptions introduced me to many of my favourite writers.
But if Mr Mustich is my inspiration, he’s also my warning. In its 20th year, A Common Reader went out of business. Customers would use the expensive, wonderful and labour intensive catalogue as a reference and then buy the books cheaper from Amazon. The hand-painted sign that will hang in the new Book Room says: ‘Thank you for not buying all your books on Amazon.’
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter