So, when the lovely Em asked if I wanted to ask Jen some questions, I jumped at the chance! Before I start the Q&A, I must quickly thank Em from the publisher for setting this up and Jen for taking out to answer these questions!
Jen, thank you so much for doing this. First question: what made you write a book dedicated to bookshops?
Hi! Thanks for having me!
Well, I love books, and bookshops. I’ve got my first job as a bookseller when I was at uni, and have been working in new and antiquarian bookshops for the past seven years. I’m also a writer and my first book came out in 2012, called ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ - a book about all the funny things that have been said to me (there are quite a few!). When the book came out, I got to go on book tour and met all these amazing booksellers in fantastic bookshops (like Wigtown: a bookshop town on the west coast of Scotland by the sea: twelve shops all on one street. One of them is the largest secondhand bookshop in Scotland with a bed in amongst the books. Another is a feminist bookshop run by a lady called Gerrie who not only sells books but is also a humanist celebrant, so she marries people too! Sometimes in the bookshop itself!). So, I was going to all these places, and in turn going off and researching other strange bookshops - travelling bookshops; tiny bookshops; bookshops in the middle of a rainforest. And I thought, ‘Hey, I need to write about this.’
Did you travel to some of the bookshops you feature in the book?
Yes, I did :) The book looks at over 300 bookshops across six continents, so I didn’t get to go to all of them. (I now have a bucket list of places to visit that’s as long as... well... it’s long!). I visited most of the bookshops in the UK, the bookshops in Paris, Berlin, the ones in Amsterdam (I lived on a houseboat for a few days there), and I’d been to a couple in the States previously on holiday. As for the others, I’d get up early in the morning and Skype with booksellers in Australia/New Zealand and Asia; then I’d go to work at the bookshop, come home and Skype with booksellers in America and Canada. So I was constantly in several different time zones in my head. It was a little mad, but lots of fun.
You found some pretty cool and very unique bookshops. How did you discover them and what was your reaction to each new discovery?
It was a domino effect, really - every bookshop I talked to I’d ask them about their favourite places, likewise with authors. I obviously also researched myself - so much research! - and it was a constant delight to discover places you would never think existed. Like a Book Town in Norway next to the largest glacier in mainland Europe, where booksellers transport books around the snow on kicksleds and sell them in converted barns.
Out of all the bookshops featured, which is your favourite?
Ahhh. Don’t make me choose! I love Shakespeare and Company in Paris; I have a soft spot for Librarie Papillion in Mongolia, who sell books to herders of the Gobi desert; there’s a bookshop in Greece that’s also a laundrette; there’s a travelling library in Kenya on the back of a camel, and one in Colombia on the back of a donkey. There are bookshops on boats, in old factories, in rainforests... I can’t pick!
If you could revisit any of these bookshops, would you and which one would you visit?
This is one I didn’t get to visit, but I’d love to get to El Ateneo in Buenos Aires: a beautiful bookshop in a converted 1920s Tango dance hall. Give it a Google; it’s magnificent.
You spoke to several well-known and very respected authors about bookshops. Was there an author that made you have a bit of a geek out?
I was thrilled that so many wanted to talk to me about their love of books, and all of them had excellent things to say. Meeting Audrey Niffenegger for coffee was particularly special - her passion for books is outstanding - and I had a bit of a fangirl moment chatting to Ali Smith. I adore her.
The Bookshop Book is this year's official Books Are My Bag book. How did you feel when you heard this news?
I’d met Meryl Halls - who runs Independent Booksellers Week - before, and we’d discussed doing something together in the future. Earlier this year we met up for coffee and had a chat. The Bookshop Book, which I was writing at the time, seemed to be the perfect match for their BAMB campaign. We knew it would be silly not to team up, so we had a chat with Constable (my publishers), and off we went!
One final question: as this book is about bookshops, you must feel passionate about bookshops. Why are bookshops, indie bookshops especially, so important?
I think my feelings about bookshops are best summed up in the dedication of ‘The Bookshop Book:’
and safe places
(this book is for those who know this to be true)