‘It took my son and daughter-in-law a weekend to set up an online shop… In a week, we sold £10,000 of wine that was languishing in the bonded warehouse’

Carla Carlisle's lockdown has taken her farm shop to places she'd never imagined — but now she's there, she's not sure whether it's for better or for worse.

A few years ago, we spent three days lugging three generations of books down from the attic. When I came here as a bride, these once-loved books were on the shelves, but the marital rite of merging libraries — making way for the arrival of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers — sent into exile the rows of books on shooting, fishing, cricket and cattle farming in Argentina. 

The Attic Collection occupied every table in the house. A book dealer from Bungay was coming to have a look and, I hoped, take them away. My husband saw commercial potential; I hoped merely to avoid the tragedy of the books bringing down the ceiling in the rooms below. 

I say ‘a few years ago’, but that’s wrong. It was before Amazon and www.abebooks.com changed the landscape, back in the days when every town had a secondhand bookshop where you could spend hours lost in the quiet, claustral shelves. These bookshops were as English as the village church and the pub and the best ones understood the antiquarian book dealers’ iron rule: good books don’t pull bad books up; bad books pull good books down. Bookshop shelves not regularly purged of junk will soon look like a junk shop. Ditto, I fear, bookshelves at home.

The book dealer arrived in a Volvo estate the size of a bus, loaded with empty banana boxes, the perfect shape and heft for shifting books spine-side-up. Despite the car’s size, he had to make two trips to haul his purchases. The following day, he returned the banana box that contained the 12-volume set of The Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture, edited by Prof Sir Robert P. Wright — in the night, I’d suffered an acute attack of Sellers’ Remorse. Note: these volumes take up 2ft of shelf space and I’ve yet to get beyond Vol 1: Abbatoir to Auricula.  

The memory of this transaction makes me wistful. You’re now more likely to find a farmer who ploughs with Suffolk Punches than a secondhand book dealer. Except for vaut-le-voyage Hay-on-Wye, secondhand bookshops have all but vanished and the antiquarian book trade is in terrible shape. 

“Life was good — until lockdown. Overnight, our carefully curated world stopped”

Finding an out-of-print book online is satisfying, but it lacks the serendipity of coming across a book you weren’t looking for. No bell rings as the door opens, no incense of old books fills the air and there’s no conversation with the owner who left a poorly paid job in publishing to fulfil his dream of running a bookshop. Now, the book-loving proprietor stores his/her stock in every room in the house and garage and spends his/her day sitting at a computer.

If I’m reading the runes, the country denounced by Napoleon as ‘a land of shopkeepers’ may soon cease to be a land of shopkeepers. Instead, we will be a land of online traders, with websites, warehouses and delivery vans. The reassuring banknotes with the profile of The Queen will be replaced by Paypal.

I confess I spent two years heading in that direction. With the warning ‘the future of retail is online’ ringing in my ears, I met weekly with my shop manager. We created a list of ‘Wyken classics’ that were unique to us and not made in China. We searched environmental packaging, met with photographers, studied the who and how and gazed at sites we liked — our favourite was Toast.  

Then, one day, I got fed up: ‘People need to go somewhere. I want the shop to be one of the places you want to be!’ The staff are too young to remember the old V&A Museum advertisement — ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’ — but that’s how I felt about the restaurant and the shop. And so we muddled along. The vines produced grapes, the chefs cooked, the people came and bought stuff. Life was good — until lockdown. Overnight, our carefully curated world stopped. 

“Our 400-year-old barn outlived its usefulness as a shelter for cows and hay in the 1950s, then became redundant in the 1970s when farm machinery grew too big… Have shops you can wander around simply outlived their usefulness?”

It took my son, working ‘from home’ in their cottage in Firle, and my daughter-in-law, a doctor on the frontline in A&E, one weekend to create an online shop. In three days, we sold an entire pallet of our Good Dog Ale with a ‘best by’ date of May 30. In a week, we sold £10,000 of wine that was languishing in the bonded warehouse next to the old dairy. Now, they’re adding more stuff to the site. I haven’t lifted a finger.

It didn’t stop there. With no date for the restaurant to re-open, they hired a 1989 Citroen pizza van that arrived here on a flatbed truck. We now sell wood-fired sourdough pizza in the farmyard. At first, it was ‘takeaway pizza until we re-open’. Now it’s another arm to the farm diversification, specialising in pizza made with ingredients from the estate: smoked muntjac and wild garlic, confit pheasant and asparagus.  

Will we go back to being a ‘bricks-and-mortar’ shop? Which, in our case, is a 400-year-old barn that outlived its usefulness as a shelter for cows and hay in the 1950s, then became redundant in the 1970s when farm machinery grew too big for its humane dimensions. 

Have shops you can wander around simply outlived their usefulness? Strangled by rents and rates, many were on life-support long before the arrival of Covid-19, but now fear and anxiety are added to the picture. When Waterstones announces that any book touched by human hands will be removed and quarantined for 72 hours, it makes the most intrepid booklover hesitate. When you can’t try on the shoes or stroke the Scottish sweater, will you simply order online as everyone under 30 now does? I can’t get that Joni Mitchell song out of my head: 

They paved paradise
And put in a parking lot…
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone.