Warm, elegant and suffused in historic atmosphere (the premises have been occupied since c.1600), we’re delighted to present the family-run Books on the Hill as this month’s Bookshop of the Month.
Based in the beautiful Cathedral town of St Albans, the shop opened a mere four months before the first lockdown in March 2020 - tough conditions that the team adapted to remarkably swiftly, setting up an online sales platform and running a packed calendar of buzzy online author events.
If that wasn’t enough, this summer saw Books on the Hill pioneer a new Festival of Culture in St Albans, with author panels, illustrator demonstrations, discussions with translators, creative writing classes, and children’s events providing all ages with exciting ways to enjoy and celebrate literature. And in good news for locals (and Londoners too for that matter - St Albans is but a short train ride from St Pancras), a second festival is planned for 2022.
Over to Antonia (Social Media and Events Manager) to share Books on the Hill’s story, along with some rather fabulous reading recommendations.
Describe your shop in three words
Comfortable, approachable, exciting.
When was your bookshop born? How did it come about?
My mother (Clare) decided to open a bookshop after visiting a beautiful shop whilst away on holiday. I left my job and joined her to get the shop ready. The shop had previously been a furniture shop so needed lots of renovation before we could even think about getting stock, as bookcases needed to be built, new flooring put down and walls put up. We finally opened our doors on November 11th 2019 at 9am (an hour before we had planned due to the queue starting to form outside the shop, down Holywell Hill).
Tell us about your journey and the changes you’ve seen (and made) along the way.
Only having been open 4 months prior to the initial lockdown in March 2020 we had to adapt very quickly to the new world. Our events programme had only started in January 2020 so moving that to online was a new learning curve. However, we did this successfully and have received incredible feedback from regular attendees who have said that it proved a much-needed solace during stressful times.
We also had to create a website, something we had put off in the early months as we focused on getting the shop right. With our doors closed in March we began creating our website which launched in June 2020. As I, like many others in the UK, had to shield at home, creating an engaging online space for people to use was of the upmost importance and we continue to use our website as a place of inspiration (with regular blogs and reviews) and a place for those to purchase latest and classic titles from the comfort of their own home.
What’s important in a great bookshop? What sets you apart and makes you special?
A great bookshop needs to have a great stocklist, holding titles such as the classics but also new and exciting works of literature. We pride ourselves on having a fantastic team of booksellers who all bring an incredible array of knowledge with them. From everything to short stories or works in translation our booksellers ensure to keep up to date with the wide array of literature coming out each month. Our team is what sets us apart as they are all incredibly dedicated to the work and go above and beyond for our customers local and global.
What’s your all-time favourite… novel to recommend to adults?
Recently I have been recommending the Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford- this beautiful historical fiction book transports you to the beauty of the Scottish Island of St Kilda following three young characters during the 1920s and 1930s.
…non-fiction to recommend to adults?
A fantastic new book on the scene is the Unwell Women by Dr Elinor Cleghorn, this book covers the history of medicine for women throughout history starting in Ancient Greece through a series of case studies and research. Cleghorn’s style is incredible, as you read these stories you feel as if you are reading fiction as you become so absorbed in the stories of these women and how they have been treated by the world of medicine. Well researched and presented this book is perfect for those wanting to know more about the history of medicine from the female perspective.
…picture book recommendation?
Mum’s Jumper by Jayde Perkin. This beautiful heartfelt book is centred around losing a loved one - in this case a mum - and how, as a child, to carry on. With beautiful illustrations and moving words this book is a great choice for children who have loved a lost one or for parents who want to start conversations to help them understand the difficulty of losing a loved one and how to cope.
…children’s fiction recommendation?
For children aged 7+ wanting to try something exciting and a bit different Michael Morpurgo’s Beowulf is a fantastic adaptation of the middle English poem. The Anglo-Saxon legend follows Beowulf’s terrifying quest to destroy Grendel, the scary fire-breathing dragon. Parents can also read the adult translations by Maria Headley and Seamus Heaney for an exciting family afternoon.
Which books have you been recommending recently?
One I came to recently is The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo. This incredible book takes you back to the harsh world of Roman London following Zuleika a teenage Nubian girl who is married off to a man much older. Written in blank verse this book is perfect for writers who are testing out various styles of writing and people who enjoy reading fiction but would like to try something different.
What’s your favourite area of your bookshop?
My personal favourite area of our shop is our Vintage and Antiquarian section. I enjoy browsing the shelves and finding the hidden gems. The books make perfect gifts for friends and family, and the inscriptions left from previous owners adds a unique charm, making you feel a part of history.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of our team, who over the last year have come together to ensure that we can offer our online and instore communities the support they need for book advice, reading recommendations and gift ideas.
Tell us a secret about books.
It is okay to judge a book by its cover… as sometimes that decision can lead to incredible discoveries. One example is I chose to read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, before knowing anything about it, as I thought it was a piece of historical fiction. I was wrong but gladly so as this incredible book captivated me from the first page and I now highly recommend it to customers wanting a book that is filled with mystery and suspense.
Apart from your own shop, which other bookshop(s) do you love spending time in?
A bookshop that I love to spend time in is Golden Hare in Edinburgh. They have an incredible collection of books and are also dog friendly.
One bookshop who I have not yet visited but really hope to this summer is Margate Bookshop. The owner Francesca has been very kind to my Mum and I since we first opened our doors and has been very encouraging ever since, especially when both shops made it to the semi-finalists of the BA Independent Bookshop of the Year.
What else would you like to share with the Love Reading community?
We have just had our exciting brand-new festival which took place in August 2021. The Festival of Culture took place in St Albans, with an inspiring and eclectic range of events on offer, featuring author panels, demonstrations from illustrators, discussions with translators, creative writing classes, archaeology talks, and a selection of engaging children’s events (from talks to workshops). Next year our festival will be taking place in July 2022. To find out more about our festival, please see our website.
Stay up to date with Books on the Hill’s news and events:
And head here to read our other Bookshop of the Month profiles.