Coming up at Backstory
Wednesday 21st February, 7.30pm
One of Tom’s favourite social historians returns with a lively portrait of Edwardian Britain. Think music halls and the real Peaky Blinders, with the First World War just around the corner.
Wednesday 28th February, 7.30pm
Picked by The Times as one of its environment books of the year, journalist Louise Gray tracks the story of our food from farm to fruit bowl, asking what impact our voracious appetites have on the planet.
Wednesday 13th March, 7.30pm
Bone-tired, anxious and overwhelmed, the author of Wintering sought to feel more connected and at ease by exploring the restorative properties of the natural world and reawakening her sense of wonder.
Tuesday 19th March, 7.30pm
The Channel 4 News presenter brings us life lessons from “women who scaled the ladder and dodged the snakes”, from activists to scientists and religious leaders.
Wednesday 27th March, 7.30pm
Dubbed “the Wolf of Wall Street with a moral compass”, Gary Stevenson was a bank’s most profitable trader before winning started to feel like losing. In this “confession”, he delves into the uncomfortable realities behind how he was making all that money.
SOLD OUT: Bryony Gordon — Mad Woman
Monday 12th February, 7.30pm
Coming up at the Non-Fiction Book Club: Ed Caesar (The Moth and The Mountain), Henry Marsh (And Finally), Maria Ressa (How To Stand Up To A Dictator), Tania Branigan (Red Memory)
Coming up at the Fiction Book Club: Eliza Clark (Boy Parts), Tomasz Jedrowski (Swimming in the Dark)
Seeking pitches for Backstory magazine
Are you an author or journalist? If so, do you fancy writing for the second issue of our very own Backstory magazine, published in April? If not, do you know an author or journalist who might be interested in writing for us?
Here are the pitch guidelines, including the kind of content we’re not keen on pitches for! The deadline for ideas is February 12th.
It’s not a literary magazine, just a mag for people who love good books and great bookshops. Just like the shop, we hope our magazine is approachable, lively, informative — and a little bit cheeky.
Still not read our first issue, featuring original writing from our favourite authors like Jessica Andrews, Alice Winn, Colin Walsh and Tom Crewe? You can pick it up in shop, order a copy for delivery anywhere in the world or read it right now online.
(If you work in a bookshop or other outlet that would be interested in stocking Backstory, a lively mag championing all things books and indie bookshops, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
I HAVE INTERVIEWED THOUSANDS of people over the years, but only a few of those conversations come back to me all the time in the bookshop. Tim Martin, the boss of Wetherspoons, is a controversial character (to put it mildly), not least for his enthusiastic embrace of Brexit. Even so, a day with him taught me a lot about management: I was impressed by his ruthless attention to detail, insisting on spending at least one day each week dropping in unannounced on various of his pubs, taking meticulous notes on anything he noticed, from the temperature to the range of condiments on offer, and bringing them up at the next board meeting.
Another of my interviewees I keep thinking of is Mike Barton, who was then the top cop at Durham Constabulary. His more bonkers tendencies made for great copy, but his gimmicks masked a deep thinker, probably the smartest guy I met in several years covering the cops. He was an advocate of what he thought of as ‘bungee-jump management’, delegating lots of day-to-day responsibility, while making a point of picking up litter if ever he saw any or pointing out seemingly trivial issues he spotted.
I thought of him again last week, when Backstory participated in an international bookshop exchange (if “exchange” is the right word for a one-way deal, in which we were lucky enough to have Georgia Wye, a bookshop manager from Australia, come and work with us for three days). In justifying his extraordinary decision to let me roam free for two days in Durham Constabulary, talking to any cop or member of staff I pleased without a PR chaperone, Barton told me he saw it as free management consultancy: if I spotted a problem, he wanted to know about it.
Likewise, I was thrilled to have Georgia work with us for three days. Geographically speaking, the “exchange” may have been one-sided. But the flow of ideas and expertise was anything but. Georgia is delightful and we all loved having her around. I know some of you got the chance to meet her and I’m sure you enjoyed it, too. But I got the best bit: free management consultancy!
Georgia has managed a big bookshop in Sydney (part of the Harry Hartog mini-chain) for five years and I came away from our time together fizzing with ideas, everything from practical improvements to pernickety things like the returns process to ideas to expand the range.
Anyway, because I know some of you like a sneak peek behind the scenes, I asked Georgia to write a little bit about her tour of Britain’s bookshops and her reflections on the similarities and differences to those back home. Hope you enjoy! - Tom
FOR THE LAST MONTH my partner and I have traded sunny Sydney for the bitter winds of Britain, on a wee road trip around the UK. In that time, I've scaled the misty peaks of the Lake District, sojourned on the Isle of Skye, and kicked along the pebbled beaches of Brighton. But I’ll let you in on a secret: all of this sightseeing was a cover, an elaborate ruse to justify my real reason for visiting the United Kingdom… a tour of the country’s bookstores.
In 30 days, I have visited more than 30 bookshops, and have stood sadly outside at least another ten that were closed. I have a few favourites. A special place is reserved in my heart for stores that wear their values on their sleeve (or on their shopfront as it may be) like Gay’s the Word, Gay on Wye, The Feminist Bookshop, Afrori Books in Brighton (which sells books by Black authors) and Rare Birds in Edinburgh, which celebrates writing by women. There is something to be said for a store that can lay aside some of the tenets of capitalism in order to provide a safe space for their community, and to champion marginalised voices.
Another favourite was Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay. From the outside it almost looks like an old-fashioned grocery store, but the interior is like a church of books: three stories, beautiful wooden fixtures, the floor in the children’s section was painted like a koi pond… I just loved it.
A delightfully quirky treasure was Mr B’s Emporium in Bath: each room has its own distinct personality, including the children’s area which is decked out as an eerie forest, or the fiction section, which has a vintage bathtub in the centre. There’s also a basement level where the ceiling is covered with tote bags: I’ve unlocked a great use for all the totes I’ve picked up on my travels. One of their counters has pens hanging down from the ceiling and there’s a stairway wallpapered with what appeared to be the entirety of a Tintin comic. The whole store felt as though it was pulled from the imagination of Lewis Carroll.
Another must-visit in Bath is its branch of Topping & Company, one of the most beautiful bookshops I’ve ever visited. And finally, you just can’t walk past London’s own Word on the Water, a bookshop on a boat. Their selection is small but incredibly curated, and they’ve got two dogs: I don't know about you, but it ticked all of my boxes.
So what have I learned in all this time spent in British bookstores? What’s different to back home?
Hardbacks, hardbacks everywhere. Most of our fiction new releases come out in paperback; only super special books get a hardcover. Although our paperbacks are generally a similar price to your hardbacks, so don’t feel too hard done by!
Nearly every British bookshop has a tote bag, so you can rep your favourite store with some sweet merch. There’s also no better way to take home your bookish goodies. I personally need another tote bag like I need a hole in my head, but has that stopped me from buying one in just about every shop? Some particular favourites include the one from Topping & Company which is wider than your traditional tote, and therefore can fit way more books. Gay’s the Word wins for the range of colour options, and Daunt Books has a miniature tote that I just couldn’t resist.
In Australia, the majority of stores are open 7 days a week. On our travels I’ve noticed (and been deeply disappointed by) the fact that loads of stores here will only open for 5 or 6 days in a week. I can understand the reasoning for this, but you too would be disappointed to find yourself locked outside a bookstore that you flew 24 hours across the globe to visit.
There are loads of multi-storey book shops! You Brits should count yourselves very lucky for this one; so many of your shops are delightfully labyrinthine. I could lose myself for hours, and indeed have. Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye is one such maze-like marvel, with narrow corridors and staircases stacked with piles of books, a room called ‘The Bat Cave’ filled with spooky mystery and horror books, right next door to the mythology room, which was so small and tucked away I almost felt like I was trespassing in a storage cupboard. See also The Bookshop in Wigtown: room after room with floor to ceiling shelving packed with second-hand books, wobbly piles on antique tables, and a frankly surprising amount of taxidermy. I have truly been living the dream on this trip. Granted, I’ve scaled some questionably rickety staircases and dodged towers of books piled along hallways, but gosh, I’ve never savoured a safety hazard more.
You Balham locals have a real treat in Backstory. I now feel qualified as a proper expert having visited so many shops, and I can say with no degree of bias or special consideration that Backstory is a truly brilliant shop. Tom and the team are friendly and know their craft, a surprisingly rare combination. I was shocked by the stony silence I was met with in some bookstores. Managing a store myself, I’m well aware of how important customers are: we quite literally cannot survive without them, and yet in some stores I felt like I was doing the owner a disservice just by being there. Imagine my relief arriving at Backstory and finding that the team there is full of absolute gems, who appreciate their customers, and provide a wonderful experience, whether that’s a coffee and a chat, or help with a book recommendation. Don’t get me wrong, we have some great stores in Australia, but so many people opt to buy books from huge conglomerates that few actual independent bookshops survive. Support your local book stores folks, they’re so so important to your community.
I’m now back in Australia: it’s like 40 degrees here and I’m missing your winter so much. More importantly, I want you to know that we did manage to get all of our precious cargo (books and tote bags) home, but it was literally down to grams, and technically I got a tote bag more than I should have onto the plane. In the end, I bought myself 28 books (I know, I’m ridiculous) and probably bought at least half as many again as gifts, so when I say I’m really into books, I mean I’m REALLY into books. There were over 20 tote bags. Some of them were gifts, but not that many.
Must dash, I've got some reading to do...