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Bookshop of the Month: East Grinstead

By Liz Robinson on 16th July 2018

John Pye is the charismatic owner of The Bookshop in East Grinstead, he has the most wonderful knowledge of books and his book chat abilities are legendary. Find out more about him, his shop and why our local bookshops are so precious in our communities.

The shop is housed in the beautiful High Street in East Grinstead and I often visit, to spend an afternoon browsing, chatting, and also relaxing in the tea room. The Bookshop is in essence, an absolute treasure.

When was your bookshop born?

My bookshop was conceived in my mind, whilst I was a boy, long before I knew I would be a bookseller, and long before I found Tudor House, and made it, my reality, of the perfect bookshop. That was some twenty seven years ago now, so I guess it was born on 19th August 1991.

How did that come about?

Like many things in life, by chance. Upon graduating from Liverpool University, way back in 1984, I knew I didn`t want a proper job. I knew I wanted to start my own business, realised I knew little about the real world, but having read history for three years, the one thing I was very familiar with, was books. So a book seller was born.

Talk to me about the journey and the changes you have seen over the years.

I am so lucky, but as you look at my perfect bookshop, and speculate on my perfect job, just know this, that this is not the entry level.

Armed with the idea of being a bookseller, one thousand pounds from my grandfather, and my personal library of childhood books, I spent the summer of 1984 doing various boot fairs and sales, before graduating, in the autumn, to the local markets. After an apprenticeship of seven long years,out in all weathers, and with more than a passing familiarity with four thirty am get ups, I was able to buy the lease of Tudor House, and begin the process of creating the quintessential, English bookshop, full to the rafters of wonderful books, both new and secondhand.

As for the changes I have witnessed, they are legion. I have certainly lived in interesting book times. 

Many of the changes came about because of the end of a publisher accord, the Net Book Agreement, which had rescued the British book trade in 1900, when it was on the verge of collapse, by fixing book prices. In 1997 the NBA was abandonned, when it was deemed to no longer serve some publishers` best interests. Greed triumphed that day, and many good people and businesses were swept away in the whirlwind that followed.

In the aftermath of the demise of the NBA, eighty five percent of independent bookshops have now closed. Many chains have come and gone, Borders, Books Etc, Dillons, Hatchards, Methvens, Ottakers, Sussex Stationers to name but a few, so that we now only have one chain bookseller left, Waterstones. It also goes a long way to explaining the rise of the leviathan that is Amazon.

The publishing landscape too has changed, beyond recognition, with so many publishers going to the wall, so that now just five dominate virtually all British publishing. Publishers' reps are almost extinct, so many have lost their jobs.

Perhaps a couple things that have not changed are more noteworthy, than those that have: my fellow booksellers, they are as keen, creative and as ridiculously hardworking as they ever were; and, of course, the books, they are as exciting, intoxicating, life changing and magical, as they ever were.

Describe your shop in three words

Dream come true.

How have you upped your game to compete with the rise of digital retailers?

I have never really worried about the competition, digital or real, but rather I have always chosen to concentrate on what we can do, to be the best we can be. Always asking questions, always changing, always evolving. Nothing stays the same.

What is important in a great bookshop?

The books, the booksellers, the building and the customers are all important in a great bookshop, but perhaps what is most important is the recognition that our community is our life blood and we strive to be integral and essential to that community. The world does not owe us a living, we have to be relevant to our customers. The books must be at the heart of everything that we do, but they are not the only things we must do, All the events, activities and other things we sell, go to support the books, and make our lives. This is a vocation, the books are our lives, and we intend to live, and live well.

What sets you apart, what makes you so special?

Determination, a will not to just survive but thrive, and our wits, to overcome any challenges that come our way. And what makes us special ? I like to think it has something to do with our wit and our charm, and the great esteem that we are held in, and, of course, the love that people have for books and our very special building.

What are you reading right now?

Renegade by Robyn Young

What is your favourite book of 2018 so far?

As a book seller, and the key word there is seller, Sir Edward Lutyens: The Arts and Craft Houses by David Cole. It`s big, beautiful, and £65, and I`ve sold a surprising number of copies. But if you mean what is the the best book I have read in the last twelve months, that would have to be The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, powerful stuff.

Who is your favourite author? 

Nigel Tranter

What is your favourite genre?

Historical fiction.

Apart from yourselves, which other bookshop(s) do you love to spend time in?

I love all bookshops, but secondhand bookshops have a special place in my heart. Perhaps that`s because as a boy my father dragged me around hundreds of them. He would spend hours in them, and for me, it was a case of, get interested or get bored. Not surprisingly, I chose the former. Few towns now have secondhand bookshops, but any trip to Edinburgh, and its array of secondhand bookshops, always gets the mercury rising.

What else do our members need to know about you?

That I need their money. Orders accepted by phone, letter, email, facebook, twitter, instagram, whatsapp, carrier pigeon or in person. So please make us your favourite local bookshop, and buy some books from me.