Wenlock Books has been the beating heart of the high street in the ancient market town of Much Wenlock since 1987. Loved by locals and visitors alike, customers include regulars from South Africa, France, the USA and New Zealand, as well as UK customers from Manchester, Birmingham, London and Edinburgh. Some visit every year, some pop in two or three times a week: the bookshop has a large family! At the head of this family is shop owner and bookseller Anna Dreda, and we happily quizzed her on life at Wenlock Books.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
It’s impossible to talk about Wenlock Books without mentioning the beautiful building we’re lucky enough to be at home in. Back in 1990, the previous owner bought a falling down shell and lovingly restored it over a period of three years. Now full of fifteenth-century beams, wattle and daub walls and lovely old oak, all carefully preserved and protected, the fabric of the building exudes peace and calm. Add to that the modern (i.e. Victorian!) front window with its panes of old glass, the cross-beam frontage and the familiar shiny red front door, and Wenlock Books is an iconic bookshop.
Our new stock is on the ground floor of the shop, where the computer is discreetly placed – like most bookshops today we utilise the very latest in technology to provide super-efficient service and fast (usually next day) order fulfilment. The first floor is famous for our quality second-hand books, comfy chairs in cosy nooks, and even a kettle, cafetieres and teapots so browsers can make themselves at home. There is a big round table where reading groups are held, where people can write their Christmas cards, or just enjoy a cup of tea with a friend. Every Friday the table is rolled away and the space is given over to our Story Time session for Mums and little ones: we’re very proud that the group is friendly and welcoming, supportive and reassuring – and they all have a good time with our resident early years expert.
Apart from our carefully curated stock, what makes Wenlock Books extra special is the friendly atmosphere and our place in local community. As one of our regular customers said, ‘Every time I enter the beautiful old building, it feels like I’m popping in to see friends who just happen to have the most excellent taste in books.’ We are driven not by commercialism but by a deep and enduring love of books, readers and bookshops! The Wenlock Poetry Festival was founded by the bookshop and has swiftly become a nationally acclaimed and much-loved festival. Our many reading groups – Poetry Breakfast, Knitting and Poetry, Children’s Book Club, Random Reading Group and more – give our local customers something they can belong to, and for those who don’t read, knit or enjoy poetry we have craft sessions where beautiful things are made from the pages of old books, and even a session where people are read to, with pots of tea, biscuits and the chance to chat always on offer. All in all, if we see a need, or feel a passion for something, we do it – regardless of whether it brings an immediately obvious financial reward. Thirty years on the high street and still going strong, I’d say our philosophy works!
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
When I was very young, 10-12 years old, I read a delightful book called City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge. In it, a young man has come home injured from war, and decides to open a bookshop in the cathedral town he grew up in. The process of setting up and then running the bookshop is described – oak beams and floorboards, books on the shelves, customers to chat to, and the feeling of being surrounded by wise friends (i.e. the authors!). I had one of those light bulb moments and knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would be a bookseller.
I worked in two bookshops from the age of 32, finally becoming the owner of my beloved Wenlock Books in 2003. Although by then I had been working in the shop for over 20 years, I can still remember vividly the feeling of joy and pride I felt when I turned the key on the lock of ‘my’ door! Amazingly, that feeling has never gone away and I feel so lucky and so privileged to have spent the last thirty odd years doing the thing I love.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
I have, over the years, honed my Desert Island list of books – occasionally something comes along, like John Williams’ Stoner that simply insists on being added to my top ten, but these are the three books that I always go back to:
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – and everything she’s ever written, whether essays, poetry, short stories or journalism . I just love her writing and always feel better for reading her. No matter how many times I return and reread, I always find something new to understand and enjoy. I can’t read the first page of The Poisonwood Bible without needing to read the whole thing over again.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – this is a love story, a coming-of-age story, a political treatise on racism and so much more. The language is rich, full of poetry and multi-layered, the setting exotic (to me) and the story heart-breaking and life affirming. Written in 1937, it fell into obscurity – and Zora Neale Hurston into poverty – until Alice Walker made it her mission to reintroduce it to the black American canon.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is a book to read slowly, to savour every sentence, and to inhabit the watery, unreal and wayward world of Ruthie and Lucille as they struggle to find out who they are. Fingerbone, the lake, the train, the aunt – these characters remain with you long after the book is finally put aside, and the final paragraph is perfection.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, for the sass! Barbara Kingsolver and George Eliot, because the conversation would be intelligent, illuminating and I think they would enjoy meeting each other. And Val McDermid and Sara Paretsky to liven it up! What a party that would be!
Who has been your favourite customer?
I have so many favourite anecdotes and much-loved customers, but I think the most special one is from when Jacky Fleming, the feminist cartoonist, had just brought out Demented and came to the bookshop to do a signing. The shop was full to bursting with women my age and their daughters, keen to meet this wonderful feminist. But there was one elderly woman who struggled up the stairs to gathering on the first floor. She told us that her daughter had died of cancer at the age of thirty, and that she had kept a post card of Jacky’s iconic card, Never Give Up, on her dressing table. She shared this story with Jacky, who immediately promised to make her a gift of the original of the drawing. She did (complete with coffee stains) and handing this over to Joan – with many tears – was one of the proudest, humblest, gladdest moments of my life.
What are your top book picks for summer 2016?
Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place is fabulous, don’t miss it! Maggie never disappoints, and this is pure class.
Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait is a gritty story full of integrity; she’s definitely one to watch.
All Passion Spent and The Edwardians, both by Vita Sackville-West are novels that I enjoyed thirty years ago and have now been reissued in gorgeous new editions by Vintage.
Sadly, How to Measure a Cow will be the last novel from Margaret Forster. I’ve loved her novels for as long as I can remember, and would often lend them to my daughters and my Mum – a sign of a great writer.
Sadly Wenlock Books, formerly of 12 High Street, Much Wenlock, closed in June 2019. If you were a customer of Wenlock Books, please do add your comments below.