It is mid-morning on a blustery, sunshine-and-showers summer day and we are off to the lovely Rogan’s Books in Bedford.
A passion project, a popular local venture, a treasure-trove for delicious finds, an inspiring place to browse, it is also a hub for community activism.
This independent bookshop was opened by Rachael Rogan in the October of 2015 and the first thing to ask, as we sit down in the story-time style armchairs in the back of the shop, is why she launched the project in the first place.
Rachael tells us that she moved to Bedford in 2011 and wanted an activity for her 4-year-old daughter. She particularly wanted something reading-based, as a love of books and reading had been a vital part of her own childhood, but there wasn’t anything. So, with some friends she decided to start something herself. They ran “Booktastic” from the training rooms in the local Waterstones – a free event for children, split into two age groups: the younger reading picture books, and another slightly older taking on longer, chapter books. They would have an hour session, chat about the book and then do something crafty related to the story they’d just been reading and talking about.
The popularity of Booktastic (and, I think, Rachael’s skill as an organiser) encouraged some parents to say “Do you know what would be nice, if we had a book-festival!”
Rachael explains that it just seemed to fall to her to organise. This is a theme throughout her journey, that although books and reading were also real passions of her own, at every step she was responding to supportive local demand for book and reading-based initiatives. She ran the first book festival in 2015 and it went really well. She says “I have no shame!” explaining that she would just email anyone to see if they would come – and they all pretty much said yes.
The book festival has just celebrated its fifth year – and Rachael has already started work planning the next!
After the first festival in 2015, a shop in Bedford’s Castle Road became available – again people made a suggestion to her, this time they said she should run a children’s bookshop! Which she did, by popular demand - though she had no background in either retail or the book industry. She’d been a marketing manager in a very corporate world.
But she was resourceful! They’d had Chris Riddell to the book festival that year and they asked him if he would come and open the shop – which he did. The opening was then so successful that they made £3,000 worth of sales on the first day and had hundreds of people come. She describes the early days as a “baptism of fire” in which she made many mistakes – she didn’t even have a budget that allowed for an assistant to work in the shop with her. So many of her plans were not possible at first because there was only so much she could manage alone. Now, though, she does not regret the journey. Despite running herself ragged, she made a lot of good contacts and had a lot of support. People said she was brave, but she thinks she was more naïve as she didn’t fully appreciate the task ahead!
The first location was in a beautiful building, but was further from the town centre, so had less footfall but also, due to the flats above the shop, the building had a problem with flooding. They had to leave their first location after 18 months as it wasn’t fit for selling books, but without a new location lined up to move to. They were closed for 4 months, a third of the operating year. But there was so much local support that even this set-back didn’t matter!
She had all the books packed up in her spare room, and she says that those months were like a “hilarious black-market in underground books,” people would contact her and say “I need a birthday present book for a child of this age,” she would go and clamber through the boxes to find just the right thing, then they’d come to her door to do a handover and she’d scribble them a receipt. Her customers were determined that the shop would not collapse. Finding and agreeing new premises took a while, before she was able to set up again in the current Castle Lane location.
When we ask why there was so much local enthusiasm, she says she thinks it was because “everybody loves reading” and everyone has an idealised idea about bookshops and reading from their own childhoods. But she had also already done a lot in the community, that had built her a network. The book workshops were part of that and she had also used her house as a collection spot for the refugee crisis. A spirit of local activism that she has brought with her into the shop.
As we talk, she constantly has her eye on the shop, welcoming customers and being ready to answer any questions or sell any books. Each time a customer does need her help she leaps up, responding to each query as a new challenge to find the right book for them – and then comes straight back and picks up exactly where we were in the conversation without any bother at all.
One customer asks her, “What is the nicest, most beautiful book of nursery rhymes that you have?”
“For what age?” Rachael asks. It’s for a younger child. “Oh, this one!” she says decidedly, taking the customer to the window display.
When she comes back, she talks more about her journey both in the community and to the bookshop. Six years ago, Rachael was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer – fortunately, she says, of a more treatable form. Though she had hardly been in Bedford a year, the community rallied. There was a rota to put a card through the door each day to make sure she felt supported and help was given driving her over to her appointments in Cambridge and also with picking her daughter up from school. “In a weird way” she says this gave her an extraordinary local network, but also “made me less frightened of things.” It was an intensive course of treatment, but after that she said she lost her fear for a lot of things. She was offered a job in London, but suddenly she now knew that the commute was no longer what she wanted. She wanted to be there for her children and had this opportunity of a shop and this astonishing and vibrant local network.
She says that one of the things she has found from having the shop is that “people want an opportunity to do something nice, if you give them an opportunity to do something good, they will grab hold of it with both hands”. With the book festival they have offered pay-it-forward tickets, whereby when you bought a ticket you could also buy a ticket for a family who otherwise couldn’t afford to go. The first time they tried this they sold 60 pay-it-forward tickets.
At Christmas the shop has a gift-a-book scheme. They work with local foster-care agencies who give the shop a list of the reading ages of the children and then shop customers are given the option of also buying a book for a child in care. By the end of the scheme, they usually have about 4 times as many books as they need. People even come into the shop specially to do this. They then wrap them and give to the foster agencies. “A lot of children in care don’t have their own books,” Rachael explains, “having only a small bag of possessions that they take with them from place to place.” The shop also has a period-poverty box and customers regularly come in with sanitary products to drop off so that they can then be distributed through schools. Rachael firmly believes that schemes like this have played a real role in building the shop’s popularity – as it gives people an “outlet” to do a good thing.
The shop has also become a “hub” for interesting conversations. She has been able to encourage it as a meeting spot where people come in and get to know her, but then she can introduce them to each other and already there have been collaborations and initiatives furthered that started as conversations in the shop.
Again, she says this is a great place for these discussions to happen as “everybody loves reading.” It is one of her favourite things about the shop – the conversations that are had there and that she also gets to meet such interesting people. The conversations can be about the most diverse subjects, she says, from quantum physics to existentialism.
The Bedford she sees is thriving with indie business. There is an impression of Bedford, that it is rather run-down and there isn’t much going on. For her, there is actually a lot going on. She started the book festival in a context of many other yearly events and festivals already going on with a thriving energy, which also encouraged her. Partly, Rachael believes that you find what you look for. She has found great places to eat, great events, great local culture. She talks about the success of the Place and the Quarry Theatres, where they held the recent BedFringe and explains that if you are willing to set something up, there will be huge support from volunteers to help out as well as people who will come to events.
She was already a keen reader growing up. It makes her laugh now that kids with headphones or on their phone are called antisocial, when she managed to be just the same for years but with books.
Though she is doing many of her events unpaid, she also says it is “selfish.”
“Authors and illustrators are like my popstars” she says, so she loves getting to programme events where she will be able to meet them. For the first book festival she ran, she asked her daughter who, of all the authors she liked, she’d most like to see at the festival. Her daughter said Kes Gray – and though Rachael had little hope at first of getting a name like that, he said yes! Suddenly she found that it was possible to get big names and sold-out audiences. Chris Riddell was announced as Children’s Laureate the week before her first book festival. The first author she got after opening the shop was Cressida Cowell who wrote How to Train Your Dragon.Last year she got Philip Pullman. She loves getting authors you’d normally only associate with events in London so that children in Bedford can experience meeting real authors and have their aspirations lifted too.
Every year since opening, her shop has been a finalist for Independent Bookshop of the Year They won the James Patterson prize and the Diversity and Inclusivity Prize and are constantly looking at industry standards and keeping up. Selecting what to sell is particularly important to her. She doesn’t stock any of the major, commercial bestseller series. Not because she dislikes them, but because no one buys them from her as she cannot match the prices supermarkets can manage. Though she thinks it’s brilliant that books are then getting a huge audience through these series, it is better for her business to stock a contrast. She stocks work that is important to her. There is a section on feminism for adults (in the small but developing grown-up section of the shop) but also one for children. She also has an activism section for children, with books that look at modern issues such as refugees and climate and how children can get involved. She also likes to stock stories about different kinds of families. Her goal is always to ensure that any child coming into the shop will be able to find themselves. “If they can see themselves on the shelf, they will feel less marginalised,” she says. But it can’t just be any book. She would hate for a child to see themselves represented on a low-quality cover. It must be of as good or a higher standard than everything else. Content, title, cover, must all be of equal quality. She grew up with her own insecurities and does not want other children to feel the same. If there is a new book coming out that is about something she feels is important, people will tag her in it on social media, sometimes 10 or 12 times by different people. So it is rare for her to miss anything!
She agrees that there is a higher standard that we must ask of children’s authors, but also feels that the standard is incredibly high. Publishers know that quality matters. She or her volunteer assistant read all the books between them before they buy them for the shop. She gives an example of a book about a young trans-protagonist that she actually chose not to stock. The author wasn’t trans and in that instance she did not feel that the tone had the right level of understanding – to the point that she feared a young trans reader might well have found it upsetting. Topic is not enough, it must be well-written and thoughtful, never tokenistic. “That is as dangerous as anything else” she says as books can have a great impact on their readers. “Tokenism is not allowed in here,” she says, laughing.
We ask her particularly about the representation of the Climate Crisis in books for children. Largely, she feels it is positive as it is all oriented to what you can do. It is realistic, it states the problem, but also seeks to empower children to take action into their own hands where they can. She thinks children are savvier about these issues now, than she feels her generation was. Publishers are not just box-ticking and “doing a book on climate change” she highlights a DK title that was actually printed using Soy inks.
She tells us that the Bookseller Association also has a Green Manifesto now, with Facebook groups for where they can raise issues with publishers. A book just came out that is about waste and recycling, but the book was sent to the shops in a single-use plastic sleeve. A bookseller photographed it and posted it and publishers now listen. Again – it cannot just be a tokenistic thing.
She loves the solution-based work being published for children. She has a lot of hope for her daughter’s generation. Her daughter, at 11, self-regulates her phone-use as she doesn’t want to spend too much time on it or get addicted. She has also become vehement about such things as single-use plastics. Rachael thinks that the younger generation will certainly be a “force for good.”
Another customer comes in who needs a picture-book with women driving tractors or fire engines to help counter the sexism she has begun to notice in her toddler son – Rachael takes up the challenge! She says that through the Bookseller networks, because the Independent bookshops are usually too far apart to be at all competitive, they often ask for help and advice and tips on books if a customer comes in asking for something really specific. She is even involved in an up-coming indie booksellers retreat, where a group of them have coordinated a trip to a house by the sea. They will be coming from all over the country. It can be a lonely thing, running a bookshop basically by yourself, she says. So, it will be great to have the chance of a sort of “works do” and talk to people who have been through all the experiences that she has.
We ask her for her favourite titles and recommendations. Her all-time favourite book is A Necklace of Raindrops, by Joan Aiken with illustrations by Jan Pienkowski. Her favourite book growing up - she had tried to find it again in her twenties, but couldn’t remember the author or title of the book – only that it held this magical memory for her. She had tried googling descriptions of it, but eventually saw a picture on a facebook group that was clearly by the same illustrator and had found his name. When she found the book, it was out of print. So, she got herself a personal second-hand copy, but then a month before she opened her shop, it came back into print. She now has ten copies on the shelf at all times and has recommended it to many of her customers. She feels it is a perfect collaboration as Pienkowski just understood the magic that exists in Aiken’s stories.
A new book that she is recommending is a YA title, The Black Flamingoby Dean Atta. She saw him perform something from it live and was stunned by it, even having read it already. It is the coming-of-age story of his coming out as a young black man, and just “got her in the chest,” as it captures something so profound about being at school and not even being sure yourself of who you are.
Invisible Womenby Caroline Criado-Perez is her current bestseller, so much so that she can hardly manage to keep it in stock! She aspires to be like Caroline, she says “she is the person that I’d like to be when I grow up! Even though I’m sure she’s younger than I am. She just puts so much of herself into what she does.”
She has come a long way, but has great plans for the future as well. Organising her events and bringing literary names to Bedford is her real passion now. She wants to do even more author and illustrator-led events. She plans to work with Arts Council England to bring events together in collaboration with smaller publishers as well so that many different voices can be heard. She is aware that there are barriers to entry in the world of publishing, the starter jobs being often so low-salaried that family support is needed at the start of a career. Equally, black and ethnic minority and LGBTQ representation is getting better, but still needs to be strengthened in the mainstream. She has plans to use the shop, where she can, to advance these causes.
Going forward she wants the collection she sells to be focused on the issues that matter to her, feminism, equalities, climate change – so that every book in her shop “has a message, a positive message.” Inclusion has been a huge theme in her planning, down to the fact that when setting up the shelves, she wanted there to be easy movement for parents with pushchairs. From memory, she herself knew that with a pushchair it is easy to feel in the way or that you are causing difficulties in a shop. She didn’t want anyone to feel that way in hers.
She reads everything before she chooses it and has to love everything on her shelves. It is important to her to be ready when asked for any kind of recommendation and to be genuine in what she says about it. It is clear, even from the way she conducts herself in the interview, joking about how easily she picks up a train of thought again after she has gone away to help a customer, diving back in exactly where she left off, that it is her favourite thing of all to talk about books.
If you are in the area or fancy making a special journey to Rogan’s Books – you will not be disappointed. It’s a wonderful bookshop with a very special person at the helm.