Why I'm starting a bookshop
Yes, I've quit my job. No, I don't have premises.
This week’s recommendations
I’m reading: Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. How Putin’s cronies cleaned up when the USSR collapsed
Recently loved: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews. A lyrical debut novel that I loved for its unusual setting (Sunderland, as well as London and Ireland)
Golden oldie: My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. Now covering Ukraine for The Times, this is Loyd’s beautifully-written account of grappling with his own demons while reporting his first conflict, in the Balkans
I love the smell of newsprint in the morning. You can get your news far cheaper, quicker and more up-to-date on your phone, but, after 11 years in journalism, I still get a thrill every time I pick up a printed newspaper or magazine. The rustling sound as you rifle through the pages, the serendipity of stumbling across something you’d never have searched for, the joy of tearing pages out and scribbling notes on them. As with the tastiest meals, dirty fingers are a price worth paying.
It’s the same with books, only more so. I’ve never really understood the draw of the Kindle. I want to sniff a book before I read it; to be able to tell how much I enjoyed it by how battered the spine looks. (The John le Carré I took interrailing is in a truly disgusting state, but it was the first of his I read and I’ll never throw it out.) Most of all, I want to stick it in my bookcase afterwards as a reminder of joyful hours past, like a selfie of an outing with a good friend.
Buying books is half the fun. I’m not going to pretend I never get them from Amazon. Of course I do. It’s just so bloody easy. But the smile on the box is no match for the ones you get in the best bookshops. They’re havens on the high street, at once reassuring and impossibly exciting (all those new worlds, so meticulously shelved). In my lowest moments, I’ve found comfort in a bookshop and escape in a paperback thriller. I can’t go past a bookshop without going in.
And it seems I’m not the only one. On Tuesday, one of my colleagues sent an all-staff email telling everyone at work about my mad plan to quit a well-paid, secure job that I love to start my own bookshop, so I fired off a quick tweet to share the news with my friends. To say the reaction has been overwhelming would be like remarking that Sally Rooney novels have the odd sex scene. I’ve been deluged by survey responses, tweets, emails, phone calls and unsolicited offers of help. Thank you so much.
To give you an impression of how mad it’s been, as I type this I am surrounded by seven used coffee mugs, several plates and a bowl which I think contained porridge one day earlier this week. I can just make out the floor beneath scraps of paper, sweaty gym kit, my dog Humphrey’s chews and (shamefully) books. I must be well on my way to becoming a bookseller: I’m already emulating Dylan Moran’s filing system.
What I think this means (apart from that you’re all lovely people) is that there can never be too many independent bookshops. It means that book people don’t just like books, they like people. And that, especially after spending the past two years behind our front doors, we long to share a physical space (and perhaps a bottle of wine) with others who feel the same way.
That’s the idea behind Backstory, which I hope will open in south-west London some time this summer. It will be a meeting space as much as a bookshop, a place to share ideas, to hear from fascinating journalists and experts as well as authors and to lean back in a cosy chair with a glass of wine. We’ll stock the best papers and magazines, too, because of course.
But there is quite a lot to do before then. I haven’t the first clue how to run a business and I haven’t even found a premises yet. I may well be the only journalist The Economist has employed who can’t really add up. So, each week, I’ll be sharing my adventure with you. Think of it as a cross between a diary and therapy. I’ll confide the ups and downs of scouting for a location, hiring staff and actually trying to make a bit of money. I’ll take you behind the scenes at London Book Fair, where publishers flog their latest wares. I’ll pass on the juiciest gossip I pick up and the secrets of the book trade as I learn them. And I’ll be sharing things that made me giggle, like this sign, spotted in the excellent review bookshop in Peckham:
Oh and I’ll throw in the occasional book recommendation. I’ll be living on beans on toast at least until the shop opens, so I’d be really grateful for any books you can buy via our website. It might even help me buy a posher brand of beans.
One last thing: it feels more than a little odd to be so excited about my new project at a time when so many people elsewhere in Europe are experiencing such horror. So as a tiny acknowledgement of that uncomfortable feeling, I’ll donate all of my income from any sales of Putin’s People by Catherine Belton to the DEC’s Ukraine appeal. I’m reading it at the moment and it’s proving an excellent primer in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the oligarchs and how Putin and his cronies accumulated wealth and power. Harper Collins bravely defended it in court.
More next week. In the meantime, please do share this email with anyone you think might enjoy it. And thanks so much for joining me on this adventure. You’re all very welcome.