‘An enchanting and perfectly formed local bookshop. Honestly, we thought we had died and gone to book heaven!’
Gail Pirkis & Hazel Wood, Slightly Foxed Editors
Harris & Harris Books opened in the summer of 2011 and quickly became a well-loved feature of the picturesque wool town of Clare, Suffolk. This charming independent bookshop is very much at the heart of its community and, with new and second-hand books on two floors, handmade ceramics by a local potter and delightful personal decorations from owner/manager Kate, it attracts book lovers from near and far. Catering to all tastes and ages, the bookshop is backed by an encyclopaedic knowledge, passion and an intuition that has become relied upon by many local readers.
We were lucky enough to hold our Slightly Foxed Summer launch party at Harris & Harris last night. The event was a wonderful opportunity to browse this cornucopia of a bookshop, meet local subscribers, and enjoy an illuminating bookish chat with our bookseller of the quarter, Kate Harris.
Read on for an interview with Kate and for more photos of this enchanting shop.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
It is a (very) small independent bookshop, snugly situated between two rather scrumptious gift shops on Clare High Street. I offer new and ‘previously loved’ books on all subjects on two floors, with a collection of my mum’s handmade pottery upstairs and a mahoosive collection of my dad’s motoring books downstairs. I hand-pick all the books that come into the shop, so it has to have some interest to me. (A customer once said, as she was rootling through the books, that it was like taking a mooch about inside my head – true, but a little scary).
I opened Harris & Harris in late August 4 years ago and it quickly became a sociable meeting place. New friends formed, lots of new customers met. It was a fluke that H&H started really, it was just a couple of months after losing my dad, and only 5 months after moving to Suffolk, when my mother came to visit from Norfolk for the day. We drove into Clare and parked outside a small antique shop and I just happened to see a Staffordshire figure of Shakespeare in the corner of the window. Going in for a closer look, the shop owner overheard my mum saying that she would buy it for me and that I ‘would HAVE to open a bookshop now’ (a plan, one day, in the future…when I grew up). Robin, the owner said did I know there might be a small shop coming available on the High Street? So after popping Shakespeare in the car, off I skipped to see the possible shop. ‘No, sorry, it’s already gone’ I was told. ‘Didn’t even have to advertise it, it went straight away’. But a few days later, this all changed and I signed up and the pain and torture of fitting out a shop started. The rest, as they say, is history. A fluke encounter? Fate? Who knows?
And what makes it special? Well, that’s tricky. After a career in hotel and restaurant management, I started again as a bookseller in Hammicks in Horsham back in 1999 and worked my way up with Hammicks, Ottakars and Waterstones and then with Cate and Nash and the wonderful Much Ado Books in Alfriston, East Sussex, where I experienced selling old books with new. That and helping my father with his online speciality motor books business, meant that along the way I picked up a lot of ideas for my own shop.
I try and always welcome customers cheerily, and Eddie (my trusted assistant) and I are passionate about books and matching the right book to the customer. I often buy in books with a particular customer in mind already. If I don’t have it, we can get orders in store usually by the next day and we offer free gift wrapping all year round. I change the window displays often; people seem to like them and look where Jok the stuffed cat is. He has been somewhere in the window since the very first day and I don’t plan to change that.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
Crumbs, well, my love of books started with library visits with my sister when I was little and memories of my mother reading to us as children. When I came to buy my own books as an adult, I remember being rather intimidated by some booksellers, so I guess by then I knew I would do it differently if I had my own bookshop.
After leaving the hotel industry, I took a few weeks off, moved to Surrey and had a think about what to do next. There was a branch of Hammicks in town and I became pals with someone who worked there, so it was just a matter of time before I started working there.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
Books that stick in my head from childhood are Professor Branestawm (I was obsessed with his numerous pairs of glasses), My Naughty Little Sister and Milly Molly Mandy (which started my love of books with maps). Later on, Pride and Prejudice, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Birdsong, Jude The Obscure, Dracula (fantastic – men were men and women swooned, and it had me totally gripped from the start), Zamyatin’s We (apparently inspired Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World).
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
May I have a few? I would like to just waft through bookish chat from the likes of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Margery Allingham, Bill Bryson, Georges Simenon, Josephine Tey, Dornford Yates, Guy Boothby, with a dash of Oscar Wilde, J.G. Ballard, Yevgeny Zamyatin and a soupçon of Nigella Lawson and Elizabeth David. Maybe Stephen King could pop in for a hoot.
Who has been your favourite customer? What is your favourite bookshop anecdote?
But I have so many – please don’t make me choose. Narrowing it down a little, well, David Dimbleby is a bit of a peach and Sarah Waters is lovely. One of my local favourites is a lady who love love loves books. She reads voraciously about all sorts of subjects. She is in pretty much every week and she never wants a bag as she likes walking home with armfuls of books. This reminded me of me coming home from the library when I was little.
A favourite anecdote has to be a few years ago when I worked in a large chain bookshop and a flustered and hurried lady swooshed in demanding that red book with David in the title. She was most insistent that she was correct and getting cross with me for questioning her. Definitely red. Definitely David. As we didn’t have a section with just red books in it, I hesitantly offered up a blue book called We Need To Talk About Kevin. Yup. That was it. *sigh*
What are your top book picks for summer?
Ok, the latest William Boyd, Sweet Caress, has to be on the list, with the new Louis de Bernieres and Kate Atkinson. I am loving pretty much anything by Gallic Press at the moment, and top favourites from them are The Foundling Boy by Michel Deon, Elegance Of A Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary, and the charming series of books by Claude Izner (two sisters) who write about a Parisian bookseller who solves mysteries. Bliss. On my teetering must-read-next pile, there is a book called The Book Of Gold Leaves – a ‘beautifully told story of love, art and conflict in Kashmir’ – with a stunning jacket, and another is a reissue of Dodie Smith’s A Tale Of Two Families. Oh, and I imagine Go Set A Watchman will be rather popular too.
If you’re a customer at Harris and Harris, please do add your comments below, and if you’re not, we urge you to visit – it’s well worth the trip.
Harris & Harris Books
7B High Street