The Aldeburgh Bookshop
Situated in the seaside town of Aldeburgh, this handsome red bookshop looks out over the North Sea and welcomes book-seeking locals and visiting tourists all year round. It may be small and independent, but it is at the centre of all manner of literary activity. Since taking on the bookshop more than seventeen years ago, husband-and-wife team Mary and John James have started their own thriving literary festival, organized many varied bookclubs, hosted hundreds of events and even produced a handful of bookshop publications. We were delighted to sit down with Mary for a quiet five minutes to discover more about life in the Aldeburgh Bookshop.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
When we bought the Aldeburgh Bookshop in 2000 it was already a much loved part of the High Street and has been for nearly seventy years – we are just the latest in a long line of owners. One of the reasons it is so special is that we are completely independent, which means we can respond to our customers’ requests and interests, as well as promoting the books we care so strongly about. Our bestsellers are often wildly different from the published lists. And we learn a great deal from well-read and discerning customers.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
The shop inspired us. I had spent all my working life with books as an antiquarian bookseller, but it was a new world for John, who was working as a chartered surveyor in commercial property. The bookshop gave us the opportunity to move our young family to the countryside and both of us were keen readers so it didn’t seem like a hardship to spend all day discussing books. It has been very hard work, but we haven’t regretted it for a single moment. Working together has its challenges, but we are in our eighteenth year now, so we must be over the worst bit.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
It is very difficult to answer this question, but I suppose we could pick a few favourites. One of my all-time top books is This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, an extraordinary historical novel about Captain Fitzroy of HMS Beagle fame. John is on a mission to make everyone read The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy. The first one is called They Were Counted and I am relieved to say that Arcadia books have just republished it with a beautiful new cover. Otherwise we would have had to ring up and remonstrate if they let it go out of print again. I read some fabulous books last year: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead were among my top favourites.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
We are very fortunate in that every year we get to invite our dream party guests to come and talk at our Aldeburgh Literary Festival. If we admire a writer, we ask them to come and speak and as a result we have the best three-day-long parties in March every year. This year we had Ian McEwan coming for the second time, talking about his dazzling new novel Nutshell. I have also loved Christopher de Hamel’s book on medieval manuscripts. And Nick Davies’s unputdownable book about the cuckoo is science writing at its best.
Who has been your favourite customer?
We couldn’t single out a favourite customer, but I love any customer who returns and says ‘That book you recommended was . . . wonderful’. In our first year, one customer ordered The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and came back to tell us how good it was. Intrigued, we read it and spread the word: that was the very early days of Alexander McCall Smith when he was still published by Polygon and you could only buy his books in New York and Aldeburgh. London hadn’t discovered him yet. We’ve met him since and even been mentioned in one of his books.
Ronald Blythe told me one of my favourite stories about the shop: he came in with E. M. Forster in the 50s. Forster wanted to buy some ink, but the then owner was in a hurry to close early to catch the train to London and threw them both out. Imagine, chucking both E. M. Forster and Ronald Blythe out of your bookshop.
What are your top book picks for spring 2017?
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, biographer and prize-winning author of The Pike, has written her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which will be published in May. It is a beautifully written historical novel with many themes, one of which examines walls as objects of exclusion as well as protection. A returning aristocrat ruffles feathers in Restoration Oxfordshire when he encloses his parkland by raising a wall; 300 years later Europe is shaken as the Berlin Wall is dismantled. This is highly recommended, and timely.
The Aldeburgh Bookshop
42 High Street, Aldeburgh
Tel: 01728 452389