Much Ado Books
Much Ado Books is an independent bookshop in Afriston, run by Cate Olson and Nash Robbins, two Americans who decided to sell both new and old books in a medieval village in the heart of the Cuckmere Valley.
In addition to an extensive selection of hand-picked titles, they offer events and workshops throughout the year, often held in their beautiful renovated barn. A visit to the bookshop might include collecting antiquarian books, learning new crafts, making wreaths, binding books, creating collages, discovering facts about the Bloomsbury Group (Charleston is just a few miles away), greeting the bookshop’s chickens outside, sampling cake and Madeira while late-night shopping and, of course, many happy hours of browsing the shelves.
We’re delighted to count Much Ado among our partners: subscribers to Slightly Foxed receive a 10% discount on presenting their valid membership card when visiting. And we’ll be furthering this friendship on Saturday 16 September, when we hold our autumn launch party in the bookshop’s barn, to which all readers are welcome.
Between discussing stock of our latest publications and procuring wine for the party, we were very pleased to speak to Cate and Nash about life as a bookseller at Much Ado Books.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
Much Ado offers both new and old books. While we are slightly magpie-like and can’t resist interesting books across every field, we have to discipline ourselves and offer only books that seem particularly worthwhile. This means that our customers find books without wading through titles chosen by algorithms or by corporate bosses doing deals with big publishers.
Our shop is not just about books; we want people to feel comfortable and relaxed, so we have overstuffed chairs to sink into, and stools for perching. We have art on the walls and displays of old bookmarks. We offer old prints, old buttons and old paper for crafters to use. We try to make the shop a haven for avid collectors and general readers, bearing in mind that books can be played with as well as read.
Of course our location is part of the pleasure. We’re in a small medieval village, itself part of a national park. An unlikely place for a bookshop? Maybe – but what a wonderful spot to find a wonderful book.
We came to Alfriston almost 15 years ago, after selling our bookshop near Boston, Massachusetts. We enjoyed our 20 years there, specializing in old and antiquarian books. We still enjoy selling old and antiquarian books, but find the new books compelling as well. Even after all these years we’re still excited to unpack a carton from a publisher; it’s a bit like Christmas every day.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
As a very young child Cate played with her grandfather, a Shakespeare scholar with a lovely large library. He was her customer; she, the bookshop owner. So she was destined to open her own shop!
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
Some books just find you at the right moment, and Miss Mole by E. H. Young is one of them. We came across a second-hand copy on a buying trip to the UK. These trips were a regular part of our book life in America – we would stay in self-catering flats and use the train to visit various shops in towns and villages. Anglophiles? You bet! And somehow this slim, neatly-observed novel struck a chord.
Cate and I have been reading aloud now for something like 30 years, and Charles Dickens provides two long-time favourites. His prose rolls along sonorously – ideal for lulling us to sleep. But his complicated plots, well-drawn characters, social conscious and general goodwill put both Our Mutual Friend and A Christmas Carol at the top of our list. We read the latter annually, and with every reading find new elements to delight us. Humane, funny, and filled with joy, it is perfectly pitched for reading aloud.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
For a bookshop party, we’d want a collection of gossipy, charming, bookish people. So we’d naturally invite some of the Bloomsbury Group – Leonard Woolf sitting by Cate, with Roger Fry (an underappreciated innovator) on her other side. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell would have to be there, of course. And Ottoline Morrell, who gave such amazing parties (the Bloomsbury gang were a bit mean about her – but surely they’d keep their sharpest tongues in check while she was present?). We must include Sylvia Beach, who was at the centre of the Parisian expat book world, and William Targ, the American publisher responsible for the facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer. We should invite Dorothy Parker too – with Harold Ross, of course. And who wouldn’t want to share a drink with James Thurber and E. B. White? It’s rather a long list, and we have only just started. But let’s not forget the unsung heroes of the publishing world – the editors and PR people whose hard work and charm help fuel the industry. Could we fit them all in? Maybe not for a sit-down dinner . . .
Who has been your favourite customer/what is your favourite bookshop anecdote?
After more than 30 years selling book, you might think we’d seen it all. But last month we had a first: a customer asked permission to propose to his girlfriend! We arranged a sign in a special display of romantic titles upstairs. The pair came in during a quiet moment, and he told her he had arranged a birthday surprise. She was shocked and delighted to come across the sign (not that we watched on the CCTV – promise!). We opened a bottle of champagne for them.
What are your top picks for autumn 2017?
Selling new books, we get advance copies and sneak peaks of upcoming books. We’re especially liking the look of Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created. Despite its somewhat over-heated title, the book – edited by Laura Miller – looks completely beguiling, with illustrations from many different artists and contributions from a variety of authors.
We’re also entranced by the idea of My Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and Treasure. It is a punch-out treasure chest filled with everything from fairy tales to nature books to blank books to write yourself. There’s a bookshelf to assemble too, and it all comes in a box that transforms into a library scene. Charmingly illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, it’s fun for young and old readers alike and a brilliant look at how books are physically produced.
Artist Ed Kluz has produced an evocative, darkly fascinating masterpiece with The Lost House Revisited, a book of buildings that no longer exist recreated here in highly coloured collages. With text by Tim Knox and Olivia Horsfall Turner, it offers a blend of engaging social history, adept architectural analysis and nuanced art.
And fans of Slightly Foxed will celebrate the arrival of Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors, a collection of columns first seen in the Independent. We’re reading it aloud at the moment, and are revelling in the short, entertaining introductions to lost books and authors. What treasures there are to be found!
Much Ado Books
8 West Street
Alfriston, East Sussex
Tel: 01323 871222