The Book Room, Leaping Hare Country Store
The Wyken Estate, just outside Bury St Edmunds, encompasses a vineyard, beautiful gardens, a restaurant, a café, a farmers’ market, an extensive country store and, notably, a bookshop. Carla Carlisle came to Wyken when she married her husband Kenneth in 1986. She set about diversifying the farm and it has thrived ever since.
Carla was raised in Mississippi, then lived in New York, Paris and London before she took to farm life in Suffolk, where she quickly went about converting the sixteenth-century barn into a restaurant and book room. Together with Charlotte, the Book Room manager, they carefully consider their book selection, focusing on small and specialist publishers. We’re delighted to have been stocked in this small but perfectly formed book room for many years, and visitors and readers frequently send us photos of the Slightly Foxed display table, which are always a joy to receive.
We recently have had the opportunity to speak to Carla and learn more about how the bookshop came to be.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
The Book Room is located in the old dairy section of a 400-year-old barn in the middle of a Suffolk farm. We specialize in small presses and books that are generally unlikely to make it to the supermarket shelves. Charlotte and I choose all the books with care and we take pride in never sending books back to the wholesalers or publishers. If we buy a book it is because we believe in it. Fortunately, we don’t have many shop-worn souvenirs of mistakes lying around.
I’m sure it helps that we have two armchairs in the Book Room and, at the end of the barn where the old seed dresser used to be, you can get a flat white or a glass of wine from the vineyard and have a quiet read.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
Until I was 17, the nearest bookshop was a hundred miles away and only sold religious books and a few others that snuck in. Readers were dependent on the local library or book racks in the bus station and the grocery store. Serious readers relied on the Book of the Month Club, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and a subscription called The Great Classics. When I ended up in Washington DC for my last year of school I discovered Brentano’s, a real bookshop, and I fell in love. I vowed never to live far from a bookshop again.
After university and a few years of intense political activism I moved to Paris where I spent hours in Shakespeare & Company and Librairie Galignani on the rue de Rivoli. Then one day, walking through the Palais Royal, I saw a small shop for rent. The gloomy antiquaire, a specialist in military medals, was retiring after thirty years. The shop was small, with French grey walls and a circular staircase that lead to an upstairs room, complete with a corner cuisine and a small loo.
My dream was to open an English bookshop called ‘Lives and Letters’, specializing in biography and memoirs. It would be a bookshop by day and at night I would pull the curtains and it would become my sitting-room. Only two problems: the lease firmly stated that the entreprise commerciale could not be a domicile. I could nap there after déjeuner but I could not crawl into my bed after dîner. As I was barely eking out a living as a teacher and freelance writer, ‘Lives and Letters’ was put on hold.
But the dream lingered. I came to London to write a television series on the nineteenth-century Romantics and lived a few blocks from John Sandoe Books. When John offered me an ‘account’ I felt like I had been given citizenship.
I came to Suffolk as a bride in 1986, bringing with me a dowry of 1,000 books, a Labrador and an apocalyptic vision of farming. I persuaded my husband to diversify the farm by planting a vineyard and converting an old barn into a restaurant and country store. It took a few more years for the old dairy attached to the barn to become the Book Room, a modest name because I was advised that bookshops were closing, not opening. But I can say with pride that it is now the most successful tier of our business, and my dream come true.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
I try to keep The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty in stock at all times. It is set in Mississippi which may make me sound biased but I think Welty is the American Chekov and this is her most perfect novel.
Thanks to Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life I had a year of discovering this writer. I’ve given away as many copies of The Bookshop as I have sold.
Two writers’ collections of columns have made me a devout reader of essays: E. B. White and Hal Crowther. I don’t know why English publishers don’t publish their books.
I need poetry the way I need coffee to keep me focused: Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin . . .
I try to always make the late Michael Mayne’s books available in the shop, in part because I live in fear of them going out of print. He covers the terrain between faith and life with a knowledge of poetry and science and human nature that few writers manage.
And Ronald Blythe. Every book of his is a treasure.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
This is tricky. As someone who runs a restaurant as well as a bookshop I’d want guests who love to eat, drink and read, as well as who like to talk and are great fun. Sybille Bedford (whose book A Legacy should have been on my list above) shared my love of wine but was an impossible dinner guest because everything fell short of her high standards. But Selina Hastings, who is writing Sybille’s biography, is a wonderful raconteur and a great asset to any gathering. So she’s high on my list.
Elizabeth Jane Howard (who Selina brought to Wyken) would be a joy to have at the party. She too loved good food and good books and knew a lot about both.
As I have now crossed the line between the living and the dead, I’d want Seamus Heaney who brought wit and warmth to all gatherings. For French flavour I would love to have Janet Flanner and Mavis Gallant. Back to the living: Diana Athill and Ronald Blythe please.
And not just writers! I want the band of small publishers, the wise and brave souls behind Eland Books, Little Toller, Persephone, Notting Hill, Everyman’s Library and of course Slightly Foxed. My bookshop and my party would be very dreary without them.
Who has been your favourite customer?
I love all the customers who tell me that the Book Room is their favourite place on earth. My favourite customers are those who tell me they loved the book I recommended and who recommend books to me.
A good customer: the woman I overheard telling her friend she likes our ‘hand-chosen books’. The best customer: the woman who watched a man studying the shelves and making his Amazon list. She snapped ‘You don’t deserve to be here!’ My feelings exactly.
What are your top book picks for summer 2017?
Like me, novelist Richard Ford was born in Mississippi. Like me, he has made his life far away from the South. He once wrote that ‘a memoir is a chance to tell the unthinkable’. And now he’s taken that chance in Between Them: Remembering My Parents. I can’t wait to read it and to sell it in the shop.
As our restaurant is called The Leaping Hare and is in the middle of a farm, The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel is an obvious choice. It just so happens that Lewis-Stempel is also one of the finest nature writers around – and a distinguished military historian.
I’m amazed that The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry is the first volume by this writer to appear in the UK. Berry is a brave and wise writer, a poet, novelist and essayist and one of the most admired writers on the rural landscape in America.
I loved The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham so it is with great pleasure that Terms & Conditions, her account of girls’ boarding schools, is now on the shelves – in a nice Plain Foxed edition!
And finally, a welcome new edition from Daunt Books: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher. This is a collection that makes you feel like you are a guest at a party for readers and eaters.
Leaping Hare Country Store
Wyken Vineyards, Wyken Road
Bury St Edmund, Suffolk
Tel: 01359 250262