The Bridge Interviews
Independent booksellers have become an endangered species over the last 20 years or so. The Net Book Agreement between publishers and booksellers controlled the price of books from 1900 until 1995 when it collapsed after several publishers withdrew from it. In the same year a little-known company called Amazon was founded. The Booksellers Association had 1894 members at that time. By 2016 there were 867. The following year there was an increase – of one. Twenty three had closed that year but 24 had opened. Last year, mirabile dictu, this increased to 883. The association said that this demonstrated “the creativity and entrepreneurship of booksellers in the face of difficult challenges”, notably the “challenging retail landscape” including increases in rents and business rates.
Given these challenges, Burford is fortunate still to have a bookshop and we are indebted to Sara Hall who has owned it for the last eight years. This month The Bridge went to meet Sara and hear her story.
Her father and mother came respectively from Birkenhead and Manchester. They met during the Second World War when her father was in the Royal Navy and her mother was in the WRNS. They became engaged two weeks after meeting following which her father went to the Pacific to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. He returned at the end of the war and they were married. They moved back to her father’s home town of Birkenhead where he worked for Lombard’s Bank and had three children, Sara being the baby of the family. (Her brother, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, is the Director-General of the BBC and her sister is a retired cytologist). The family later moved south to Oxted in Surrey after Lombard’s Bank was taken over by Barclays Bank After completing her schooling, Sara went to the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University and took a degree in comparative law. Her speciality was pre- 19th century Chinese legal systems (“I had spent some time in Hong Kong and became interested in this. I learnt some Chinese but have now forgotten it”). After graduating she qualified as a solicitor with a firm in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then moved to the well-known firm of Paisner & Co (now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner) in Fleet Street where she specialised in commercial law and commercial property.
After six years there she moved to Oxford to do similar work for a year and she then joined Nuclear Electric plc (subsequently Magnox Electric plc) as company solicitor and company secretary. This lasted for eight years during which she had three children. “In the end I did not think I was doing the job very well. There was a lot of restructuring going on involving meetings in London and documents being biked to me at 11pm which I had to respond to by the morning. This did not fit in well with looking after three small children, so I gave up”.
Her then husband suggested that they should go away for a time so they moved to Malaysia where he was setting up MBA courses for the Pearson group. “We could have gone to live in Singapore but we thought Kuala Lumpur would be more diverse and interesting, which it was. We lived in what was rather grandly called jungle reserve but was really just jungle. Most of the time there was no electricity and only cold water. My fourth child was born there. There were lots of animals, reptiles and insects and I was terrified that the children would be eaten by them.”
About those children: Ilka (23) studied English at Bristol and is now works for an art dealer Oscar Humphries (son of Barry of Dame Edna fame). Keir Louis (21) and Kesta (20) are what Sara calls “Irish Twins” as they were born twelve months apart. He is reading zoology at Bristol (an interest acquired in Malaysia) and she is reading anthropology and innovation at Bristol university too. Sabah (18) is on a gap year prior to studying history at – guess where? (Do we see a pattern here?) “The children are very close to each other, which can be a disadvantage when they all gang up on me”.
After two years in Malaysia her father became ill and she felt she needed to be nearer home to support her mother. The family moved to Southrop. “The children all went to the local primary school where they were 10% of the total number of pupils. We were always late for school even though we only had to walk across a field.”
In 2001 her father died and her mother moved to Bull Cottage in Witney Street in 2007. Sara moved to Burford in 2011, having separated from her husband. The same year Kesta said to her “The bookshop is for sale. Why don’t you buy it, sell hats and call it the Madhatter Bookshop?” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Why the unusual combination of hats and books? “My maternal grandmother was a milliner and a suffragette in Manchester and ran three shops. Her photograph is in the bookshop. We have always had a thing about hats in the family. My granny wouldn’t go out of the house without one on.”
Sara ran the shop for six years but two years ago she decided that, with children still needing financial help through university, she had to go back to paid employment. It was 12 years since she had left legal work so, in order to get herself back into the groove of the commercial world, she studied for the exams of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries (“very intensive”). She is now senior commercial lawyer at UK Research and Innovation. This was formed to bring together seven research councils such as the Medical Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council and directs funding into science and research. She manages a team of lawyers and paralegals. As a result of this she is rarely seen in the shop but is still heavily engaged in administering the business including ordering the books and hats. Her team of Liz (the manager), Kim and Caroline are the ones you meet in the shop.
What about the hats? We suspect that not many of the other 882 bookshops have a line in hats. “The hats sell very well. Tourists often buy them, and we have hats for weddings and Royal Ascot. Sometimes women come into the shop on the way from the Bay Tree to the church for a wedding and, having left their hats behind, buy a fascinator”. She tells the story of a couple who came into the shop to buy a hat for the wife to wear at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. They chose a black rain hat. “I tried to persuade them that it was not suitable for a funeral but he became quite angry and insisted on buying it as his wife had to have a hat. I told a friend about it and later she called me and said ‘I have just seen your hat going down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral’ ”.
And the books? “There is a future for small bookshops as long as there is a strong local community” insists Sara. She points out that Woodstock still has a bookshop, although the Book House in affluent North Oxford has recently closed. “A bookshop is a quite different animal from, say, a shoe shop in the way it can reach out into the community”. She runs a book group for the Women’s Institute and provides the pop up bookshop at the biennial onform sculpture exhibition. “We also support the authors at the Burford Festival by providing the books for them to sign and sell. We used to be the box office for the festival but it has gone up several notches and is now much bigger and is going to sell tickets on line in future”. Similarly they work with local schools by supporting talks by authors and providing a stall on the annual book day, and there are “meet the author” events in the shop itself. In an ideal world she would like to have a coffee shop within the bookshop but there is not enough space for this.
“When I started it was the reign of the ebook but books have fought back. People like to handle and own books. I have noticed that even those in the 20 to 30 age group want to have their own books on their shelves.” She is pleased by the range of independent shops in Burford but even so she has concerns about the long- term survival of the High Street.
“It helps that Burford has a library as that also fosters a reading community. Veral [Marshall] has done wonders for the library and Anne Youngson has done very well”. Another source of business is tourists who often come in and browse the shelves although she finds it annoying when they examine a book and then take a photograph before going home to order it from you- know-who. The price of books, she points out, has not gone up in the last eight years. “Paperbacks are still £7.99 or £8.99 and hardbacks have come down in price massively”.
“I was told I was mad to take over a bookshop. Most people who do it have some background in retail or publishing. I had none of this but was always an avid reader. People have a romantic view of bookshops but you have to understand the commercial side.”
How does she decide what books to stock out of the huge number published each month? “There is no real system. I just choose books that look interesting. I read the reviews. The publishers’ reps still come round and I talk to them about what is coming out.” This task does not put her off reading for pleasure. What authors does she read herself? She mentions William Boyd (having just read his latest novel Love is Blind), Sebastian Faulks, Kate Atkinson, Helen Dunmore, Sarah Perry, Kazuo Ishiguro and the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose book Killing Commendatore she recommended in the November Bridge.
What books sell well? “Poetry is surprisingly popular. People seem to turn to it in times of trouble. Anthologies such as The Rattle Bag and Penguin collections. Nature books such as those by Robert Macfarlane are also popular, as well as biographies”. A huge number of celebrities have been into the shop. She mentions a few: Mary Berry, Anne Robinson, John Simpson and Alistair Campbell (who arrived in running gear).
To repeat, Burford is fortunate to have its own bookshop, but it will only survive as long as we all support it. Lose it or use it. In the meantime, hats off to Sara Hall.