The Story Museum

Curious and Curiouser… The Bookshop Band’s debut at Blackwell’s

Curious and curiouser

Things aren’t what they seem…

Last night on the 3rd July, Blackwell’s staff and customers were treated to an intimate but astonishing show from The Bookshop Band.

The Bookshop Band comprises the talents of Ben Please, Poppy Pitt and Beth Porter, who can take as little as a new book and one or two hours to create beautiful songs about books. Normally to be found in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, The Bookshop Band are currently on tour sponsored by Vintage. In order to prepare them for the evening, we gave Ben, Poppy and Beth two new books for inspiration – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as a pre-Alice’s Day celebration, and Blackwell’s favourite and bestseller New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani.

And I am afloat, on a great sea

In a boat, veiled from reality…

As the last week before the show came round, we realised that only four tickets had been sold… panic! How could we let people know how brilliant this band was? We spent the week creating posters, writing to newspapers and playing their CDs on repeat in Blackwell Music…

The Queen of Hearts is furious

This life is but a dream…

The hour drew closer and we were terribly excited to find out what the band had done with our favourite books – and still panicking that we’d have failed to provide them an audience… we need not have worried! Our lovely customers saved the day, and came streaming through the doors, filling the thirty seats we’d set out in our Norrington Room.

Playing the Norrington Room was particularly significant for Ben Please, as the room is in fact named after his grandfather – Sir Arthur Norrington… or as he was affectionately known in the family ‘Grandpa Eyebrows’.

The band’s first song ‘Curious and Curiouser’, based on Alice in Wonderland, was fast paced, frantic and exciting to listen to, conjuring up all the familiar images of smoking caterpillars and ‘Eat-Me’ cakes.

‘A Sea of Sound’, based on New Finnish Grammar, was slower and more gentle, but still full of intriguing images and capturing the confusion and difficulty of learning language.

Unknown sounds, echo emptily

In my mouth, But I cant repeat

A transitory feat, as they slip back down beneath

But I drag each word, back to the surface to be heard…

Once the new songs were finished, we were treated to a collection of The Bookshop Band’s earlier works, including songs based on The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. A music-hall tune based on The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack got the entire audience singing along to the chorus (which incidentally, I’ve had in my head all day)…

Smoke over London, looks jolly splendid, I’ve heard…

So, the evening was a complete success, and both staff and audience left not only with great music still ringing in their ears, but also with several new books on their ‘must read’ lists.

 “We felt really privileged to play in such a magnificent and famous room of books. The commissions were great choices too – Alice in Wonderland is a real treasure trove of images and ideas – we had lots of fun writing about that one, and just in time for the Alice celebrations in Oxford too. We’ll try and get the video up online in time! Hope to see everyone again for Christmas. Any Christmas book ideas?” – Ben Please

 If you’re currently kicking yourself for missing out on this amazing evening (and so you should be!) then never fear – The Bookshop Band are still touring the UK, and you can always find them at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. Here at Blackwell’s, we have a selection of books from the band’s reading lists, and we’ll be keeping CDs and band merchandise on sale – so come and have a listen!

We’d love to ask The Bookshop Band to come back again, so keep an eye on our events page for to see when they’ll pop up next…

Curious and curiouser

Things aren’t what they seem…

I am not (just) a bookseller any more…

I love working in bookselling and feel privileged to have spent most of my career working at Blackwell’s on The Broad. Each year since 1987, when I started working in the book trade, the ‘death of the book’ has been trumpeted loud and clear. Each year the book has survived – sometimes thriving, sometimes taking a flesh wound.

Throughout this time I have seen my primary role (and that of the shop) as selling books. However, this perception has changed over the past year or so. With a ‘perfect storm’ of threats – the rise of Amazon and their ‘selling new books as a marketing tool’ approach, the significant take-up of ebooks, the sharp rise in tuition fees and the general malaise on the Hight Street and a double-dip recession – just selling books is not enough any more.

Now my role is focussed on making you fall in love with us. Yes, our passion for books will be the centrpiece to this, but it has to become a given that we need to offer much more. 

I was very struck by a recent book by economist John Kay called Obliquity; the central premise being that you are sometimes more likely to achieve a goal by taking an indirect path. Hence my commitment to making as many people as possible fall in love with us rather than just trying to sell as many books as possible. This way salvation lies.

The Damascene moment for me was when we agreed to Creation Theatre staging Faustus in the Norrington Room just over a year ago. It was abundantly clear that there were many hurdles to overcome and the success of the venture was by no means guaranteed. But it was ambitious, boy was it ambitious. I loved that fact. I also loved what it did for the shop – the feedback from audience and customers was overwhelmingly positive and it was the start of a relationship with Creation Theatre that is deeply respectful, mutually beneficial and above all fun. From that moment on our ambitions for many of the things that we do in the shop were raised.

Our events programme is undoubtedly the jewel in our ‘more than a bookshop’ crown – the variety and frequency can seem at times mind-boggling, from a sold out Sheldonian for Steven Pinker to our Writers Group and all points in between. Unbeknownst to most of our customers we run a small campus bookshop at Buckingham New University for part of the year and the size and success of our book tent at the Oxford Literary Festival goes from strength to strength (by my calculation it was probably the third busiest bookshop in the country on those nine heady days in March!) Some of the events that we run are not expected to make any reasonable amount of book sales but we see that being an active part of the cultural scene in Oxford as a fundamental responsibility. Barely a day goes by when we do not have some sort of event – maybe a bookstall in a college, an author talk in the evening or a group of visiting librarians who want a tour of the shop.

If you visit the shop you will, no doubt, notice that we are branching out into selling things other than books. This has the potential to be a tricky path to navigate – we must remain recognisably a bookshop – after all it is what our customers know and love us for and what we want to be doing for years to come. However, we are sourcing a range of quality items to complement our book offer. Examples of this are the ‘It’s All Greek’ statuettes that furnish our Classics Dept, top quality leather satchels or our bookish T Shirts from Out of Print.

It never fails to hearten me when I speak to customers; the esteem in which we are held is inspiring. Of course this can be a double-edged sword as expectations are incredibly high which can lead to disappointment when we fall short. We wouldn’t have it any other way – it truly is the customers – you – that allow the shop to hit the high notes that it does. The fact that genuine friendships are made between booksellers and customers is a source of great pride. We love to hear about the books that you are reading and we love to share with you those books that are dear to our hearts. No algorithmic ‘if you loved x you’ll like y’ here. Our aim is to inspire, delight, amaze and excite each and every person that walks through our doors.

Our relationship with other Oxford institutions – the Bodleian, the Story Museum, BookFeast and the Oxford University Alumni Office to name just four are a fantastic source of support and encouragement. We want to have relationships with all sorts of organisations throughout Oxford and will be working ever harder on this over the coming year. And just imagine if Oxford wins the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 crown – I might just explode.

And not just Oxford institutions – thanks to all forms of Social Media we are building new and exciting relationships with authors, independent publishers, bookshops and book bloggers from around the world. I am seeking out the very best that is happening in the book world and working on bringing it to Oxford. But I am also keenly aware that the heritage and history that has been made inside our shop has been, to a large extent, hidden away from our customers – bringing that out, polishing it up and sharing it with the world is another part of my day job. One of my favourite phrases that we use here is about us being at ‘the cutting edge of tradition’ – we need to be a modern bookshop but we can best be guided in that by what we have achieved in the past 133 years.

I hope that I haven’t been too indulgent here – feel free to get down on bended knee and profess your love or come back to the shop and renew your vows. 

My final word is to quash the rumour that the job title on my business card says ‘Ambassador for Heritage, Tradition and Romance’ – maybe next year?