A Shop for the Community: Conversation at The Haslemere Bookshop

The two things we are most passionate about here at Guide the Wild are literature and climate. Both these interests are, in fact, causes that need love, attention and local, independent freedom to build communities that cater to the present and the future, imagination and lifestyle. We wanted to know what might be happening already to connect the worlds of reading and environmentalism, so we went to the independent Haslemere Bookshop to find out.

This independent bookshop sits on a pretty High Street in the Surrey town of Haslemere with tempting displays and an alluring interior that begs to be explored. It has been an important presence in the town for many years – previously owned by Mr Timms and then taken over more recently by its current owner, Ian Rowley, who has evolved it into a bookshop that not only sells books but supports the community by addressing many of today’s social needs. We went there to enjoy its lovely, welcoming atmosphere and to interview Tom, an enthusiastic, knowledgeable bookseller who has had a part-time job there for about a year-and-a-half whilst he completes his sixth form studies.

Tom describes the bookshop as giving a very personal service which customers really appreciate. “It’s about uniqueness – indie bookshops have a personality as well as the people who staff them, so that even if there’s a change of staff you still get continuity and the personal service.” They also promote local authors – some of whom come in themselves to promote their work.

He told us that the shop has some very particular aspects to that personality. Its upper level is devoted to a smart set of rooms devoted to the second-hand collection that, more unusually, also features a large children’s section. This means that people can find books that they might not otherwise try at a very reasonable cost and also families with a book budget can still have lots of interesting choice. Tom explains that some books come back to the shop once purchased and read, some which were bought in the time of the previous owner. The staff ensure that all second-hand books they take are in good condition and this aspect of the shop is proudly considered to be a strong part of their environmental policy by re-circulating already published material. They also recycle everything they can, keeping the quantity of packaging that they receive from their frequent book deliveries, another strong part of their commitment to keep the local community green.

Tom told us that they are also very involved with local schools. “We try and raise reading with young people especially. We run a reading challenge over the summer for children where they are asked to read things like – a book with a journey or a book that’s been previously owned or a book with a blue cover, all to diversify their reading.” They recently also donated a copy of The Lost Wordsby Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris to many local schools.

The shop supports lots of different charity and environmental initiatives and gets involved with things that really matter to the local community. Care for the environment, for example, is a really prominent theme for the bookshop and is welcomed by the residents as there are many local areas that are frequented by walkers and birdwatchers who want to preserve them for future generations.

This led us to discuss the rise of interest in travel and natural history books – Robert MacFarlane being a very popular example - which has possibly taken up the standard for vivid landscape description that was a strong presence in Victorian fiction and on into the early twentieth century. “The task is often left to nature and travel writing rather than modern fiction – I think that’s a shame because we do need to remember our connection to the landscape.”

Tom also noted that, “a lot of focus has turned back to the British Isles. It’s an amazing island. It’s spectacular.”

On a different theme, Tom explains that he has often discussed with customers what they are looking for in a book, “a lot of customers say they are looking for escapism in their reading material. How they do that is down to personal taste but fiction has definitely increased in popularity and history is also much sought after.” Tom himself curates the sci-fi and fantasy section, but also helps to cater for the classics and some natural history. All the staff can give advice across the genres, but they also have their own particular preferences and can therefore encourage people to branch out and try new genres.

We asked Tom about his recent award as one of the recipients of the James Patterson Young Bookseller of the Year. He had been put forward by his manager Emily, but modestly felt that it was unlikely anything would come from the nomination. It was a surprise then, but an exciting one, when he received notification that he was one of the winners. He won because of all that he had done to promote books and to encourage young readers. He intends to put most of the £500 grant back into the shop to promote more projects that will encourage younger readers as this is something he feels very passionate about.

As our interview drew to a close we asked Tom for some of his personal recommendations of books he had especially enjoyed:

At a younger age he had loved:

The Ranger’s Apprenticeseries by John Flanagan

Currently he would recommend:

Record of a SpacebornFew by Becky Chambers

Good Omensby Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

And the upcoming The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

We had a wonderful time after the interview exploring the bookshop itself and enjoying the atmosphere of a place where it was obvious how much the staff loved their work. If you are in the area call in to enjoy all this gem of a bookshop has to offer – you won’t be disappointed!

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