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Far from the Madding Crowd, isn’t that just the most perfect name for a bookshop! Located in Linlithgow, Scotland, opening seven days a week, offering books, cards, gifts, literary lunches, a schools festival, and much much more, this is a bookshop that is going on my must-visit list. I adore their Scotland Room, where they offer travel guides and work from Scottish publishers. This is a really innovative, knowledgeable and friendly bookshop, and their events sound absolutely fabulous. Have they really had a bookshop bunny and guinea pigs... read on to find out!
When was your bookshop born and how did that come about?
My mum bought the Linlithgow Bookshop when the founder retired in 2004, the original site was a tiny 16th century National Trust property which was incredibly quaint, but also incredibly difficult to maintain! A larger, Georgian period building in the heart of Linlithgow’s historic High Street became available in 2012, so we moved in and Far From The Madding Crowd was born. I started working there with mum at that time and then in 2015 took over the day-to-day running of the business full time. Mum is still very involved however, especially when it comes to our many popular events – she is principal baker and people come from miles around for her coffee walnut cake!
Tell us about the journey and the changes you have seen over the years.
We have gone through several changes over the years – at first my mum ran the shop pretty much single handed, then she started to grow her team and at one point had two shops in Linlithgow, Little Owl’s being the children’s bookshop. Now we are happily settled into our current location, spread over two floors, specialising in children’s and Scottish titles, but packed with books from pretty much every genre. In the past we have stocked a lot of non-book items, including Seasalt clothing, jewellery and lots of giftware, but these days we mainly focus on books, quality stationery and educational toys such as Orchard.
We were awarded a James Patterson grant in 2014 and used it to transform an unloved storage space into a Book Bothy where we have held many fun storytelling sessions. We also cleaned up our tiny outside space at the back of the shop and installed our much-loved bookshop bunny BB and some guinea pigs to help out at storytime.
Probably the biggest change we’ve seen is in ordering stock. When mum started, she would do orders by post, or sometimes by telephone and books would take a week or two to arrive. Now we offer free next day delivery on all customer orders, as long as they are in stock at our preferred wholesaler Gardners, it really is amazing.
We do far more events nowadays they are a vital part of our business: people are increasingly looking for an experience and we absolutely love bringing authors to Linlithgow! We’ve been really lucky to host events with well-known and loved authors like Joanna Trollope, Ann Cleeves, Prue Leith and David Baldacci as well as some brilliant debut authors like Mary Paulson-Ellis and Gill Sims, it’s been fantastic to see their careers blossom. We also run large scale family events, Gruffalo’s Picnics for 500 people, or Harry Potter parties with real owls and Quidditch tournaments which are exhausting but as fun for us as they are for the families attending!
It’s obviously not an easy environment to be a high street retailer at the moment – we are constantly looking for ways to innovate and make sure we are offering somewhere that customers enjoy shopping. We are confident we do that well, but it can feel as though we are fighting a losing battle when the council and government are constantly throwing up new obstacles which are much harder for small businesses to overcome. We work closely with the other traders in Linlithgow to make sure our High Street remains vibrant, running seasonal late-night shopping events, or joining in national campaigns such as Totally Locally’s Fiver Fests.
We are a positive team: our shop motto is onwards and we very much hope we’ll be around for a long time to see what the future brings!
Describe your shop in three words.
Busy, welcoming, well-stocked
Has the rise of digital retailers affected your bookshop, what were your first thoughts about ebooks and do you feel the same now?
I think in the long run the real effect of digital retailers has been to make us independent booksellers be the best we can be. It forced us to adapt and innovate so that we continually offer something special to customers to ensure they enjoy their shopping experience with us and return again and again. People are always telling us how much they enjoy browsing in a physical space and of course, they appreciate the fact we are a skilled and experienced team who are on hand to recommend titles and help them find books they sometimes don’t even know they want!
Similarly, despite alarm bells ringing when ebooks first exploded onto the scene, we have found that people have largely returned to buying physical books. Certain genres – crime and psychological thrillers for example – have definitely dropped off in terms of physical sales, but we are enjoying a boom time in terms of quality writing and beautifully produced books that people want to own. I feel ebooks have their place: they are apparently useful when travelling (I’ve never read an ebook, don’t own a device and don’t enjoy spending any longer in front of a screen than necessary), but they are not the threat we once feared. Printed books have been around for a very long time and I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon.
There has obviously been a hugely adverse effect on our business in terms of the deep discounting offered by online retailers which we simply cannot compete with, but this also happens in supermarkets and large chains – more frustrating for us is the tax situation. We don’t begrudge paying tax, what we are campaigning for is a level playing field. The current business rate system is simply not fit for purpose and despite repeated calls for reform and encouraging noises and promises from various governments and politicians, we are yet to see any real change.
What is important in a great bookshop, tell us what sets you apart and makes you special.
The most important thing is customer service. People know they’re going to get quality service from us, whether that’s a recommendation from our highly experienced and skilled team, or next day delivery on a customer order. We are incredibly lucky to have a loyal customer base and we love being in Linlithgow, so we try to give back as much as we can.
In 2015 we started the Further From Festival, currently the only book festival here in West Lothian. It’s become a fixture on the Linlithgow arts scene and this year we look forward to welcoming an eclectic blend of writers, musicians, poets and storytellers to what will be a brilliant weekend. Also in 2015, I started the West Lothian Schools Festival, and it is the single most satisfying aspect of my job. I’ve worked hard to create a network of support from bodies such as The Scottish Book Trust and liaise closely with publishers and authors so that now every pupil in West Lothian has the opportunity to attend a book festival on their doorstep absolutely free of charge. In 2018 we were awarded a MacMillan Innovation grant for our work on the festival which has enabled us to develop a digital strand.
In addition, we do a lot of work with schools in the area throughout the year – it can be a transformative experience to introduce a writer to a child and we feel it’s important to keep the link going.
We offer free storytelling in the shop every Saturday morning and in the past we have had shop guinea pigs and a rabbit, a hit with all our customers. We sadly lost our rabbit back in the summer, but we’ll get another furry friend in the spring.
We sell tickets for local groups and societies when they put on events and I run the High Street Traders group. We are at the heart of our community and that is exactly where we want to be.
Tell us about the books you love to recommend.
Anything by Tove Jansson, for adults or children. My personal favourite is The True Deceiver, but it’s great to start people off on their Moomin creator journey with The Great Flood for wee ones and The Summer Book for adults. Nan Shepherd was lightyears ahead of the current nature writing trend with her beautiful musings on the Cairngorms and Jim Crumley is among the finest nature writers we have today – his prose is so measured and thoughtful, he is exactly who I’d like out on a walk with me in any weather. Cookery is another passion of mine and while I adore Yotam Ottolenghi, Diana Henry, Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, I often return to Elizabeth David for inspiration and love to recommend An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, it’s so much more than a collection of recipes – although they are all excellent.
For children, Morag Hood’s wacky and affectionate characters always do the trick for pre-schoolers, Pamela Butchart works for reluctant readers, Jessica Townsend has created a world we all want to live in with Neverwhere and Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series is the perfect way to wean readers off Alex Rider!
Finally, we have been stockists of offline publisher Analog Sea since they began producing their beautifully curated reviews and journals. We were lucky enough to host founding editor and author Jonathan Simons for a thought-provoking event before Christmas and I love to recommend either the Analog Sea Review or Jonathan’s poetry if people are looking for something a bit special, or a bit different.
What is your favourite part of your bookshop?
Our cosy children’s department downstairs is what I call the heart of the shop. We’ve designed it so that many of the books are at child level to give them ownership when picking out their next title. We’ve made sure the space is welcoming and our policy is that it’s very much OK to handle the books, read the stories and have a proper rummage before they decide. It is so satisfying to see customers find that perfect book and that feeling only grows when it’s a child, or a gift for a child.
Tell us a secret about books.
However you are feeling, whether you’re looking for something challenging or pure escapism, there is a book just waiting for you to dive in. Books will transport you to wherever you want to go, and the best bit is that they’ll always be there waiting for you, like old friends.
Apart from yourselves, which other bookshop(s) do you love to spend time in?
We are lucky to have so many great independent bookshops thriving here in Scotland: Golden Hare, Lighthouse, Edinburgh Bookshop, Atkinson Pryce and Mainstreet Trading are all places I love to visit and just over the border in Corbridge, Forum Books is a treat for a daytrip; my favourite bookshops for a browse however are in Lisbon, the oldest in the world is the Livraria Bertrand – it’s a warren you can happily lose yourself in - and Ler Devager in the uber cool LX Factory site always turns up some real gems (my husband is Portuguese, so I get to visit often!)
What else do our members need to know about you?
I am a huge fan of The Archers, so if you aren’t, it’s probably best to steer clear of our twitter feed during the Sunday omnibus tweetalong!
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