The next bookshop to feature in my online tour of independent bookshops in the UK is The White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough. It has recently been refurbished and now has a fantastic space for events, but the rooms are still full of character and history. I asked bookshop manager, Angus Maclennan my questions:
Can you tell me something about the history of The White Horse Bookshop? And how you came to be managing it?
The bookshop has been in existence since the mid 1940’s (we cannot be more accurate than that!) and on the present site on the High Street since around 1950. It has had four owners before the current ones, who bought the shop in 2014. I was brought in to remodel and run the shop at that time, having worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Hammicks over the previous 23 years. I think it is officially known as ‘landing on your feet’. I am convinced that I have the best job in bookselling.
What’s your favourite section?
I don’t think that I have a favourite section (what a terribly evasive answer). It depends so much on the books coming out. At the moment we are in a golden age of nature writing, which is wonderful for us here, so I am very fond of that genre right now. From a therapeutic point of view I have always enjoyed putting out travel guides – I must be part librarian.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Infinite space holds no challenge. One of the joys of this job is to have to make choices as we cannot hold everything. Having said that, we are about to open a ‘new wing’, which will hold a new art studio and an event and exhibition space. That is more than enough to be getting on with.
What’s the hardest thing about running an independent bookshop?
Having spent so many years working in chain bookshops the hardest parts of being an individual, privately-owned shop (I am not a fan of the word ‘independent’ in relation to bookshops – apart from Smiths all the chains are now privately owned and it sometimes has a rather condescending connotation.)* is the lack of context – having no colleagues to compare performance with. The other major difference is that people are far more forgiving of what you stock. They will presume that you have decided not to stock something rather than having missed it and will not tell you when they can’t find what they are looking for, which means that it is harder to improve our range.
Who is your favourite customer?
We have a wonderful customer (in a characterful as well as financial sense!) who is now almost completely blind. She buys more books than anyone else and has several people who read to her on a daily basis. Every Monday we get the pho
ne call ‘I have been listening to the radio…’ which keeps us very much on our toes.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the shop?
Marlborough has been very calm in comparison to central London I’m afraid, where I had to deal with royal bodyguards, film stars, rock stars, paparazzi and misleading tabloid reporters.
What’s your best/first memory of visiting a bookshop?
When I was a child in Edinburgh it was visiting James Thin’s to look at Tintin and Asterix books, that I remember most; hoping that I would be able to add to my collection.
What would you like your customers to do differently?
Following on from a previous answer, I would like my customers to be more critical (much as I like praise!). It is the best way to improve.
What would you like authors or publishers to do differently?
Don’t get me started on this one.
What’s been the biggest surprise of running a bookshop?
As with most things in life it always surprises me how difficult it is to learn from one’s mistakes, to cover every angle and not to worry too much!
What fairly unknown book do you think more people should know about?
The Sea on Fire by my dear friend Howard Cunnell. The works of Kent Haruf, who died last year, will soon get the recognition they deserve, I hope, with the paperback publication in May of Our Souls at Night, quite possibly the most perfect piece of fiction I have ever read.
What book are you currently recommending / hand-selling?
Shooting Stars by Stefan Zweig. A collection of ten short pieces
on moments in history –some well known, some not – which highlight what it is to be human. Elegant, romantic, heartfelt and beautiful. We have some seventy books recommended at the front of the shop and on our website should you want more!
How can people visit / get in touch with you?
* Sorry Angus – no condescension implied by my title to this series of interviews!