The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
So many independent bookshops have disappeared in Britain in recent years that it is heartening to see Cheltenham bucking the trend. The Suffolk Anthology opened for business in Cheltenham in February 2015, celebrating its first anniversary last week. You can find it just off Suffolk Square, a short distance south of the town centre, a few yards from the ticket office for Cheltenham Festivals.
I went along tyhere to meet Helene Hewitt, the brave woman who has launched this venture.
Edward: Independent bookshops are becoming an endangered species. What made you venture into this field?
Helene: I have always loved reading and books but followed an alternative career path initially. Once my children had grown up I decided to look to follow my dream and open a book shop. I attended a day run by The Booksellers Association several years ago which was a great encouragement, When I made the decision to leave work I considered other options but felt that running my own business in a new field would use my transferable skills but also I would learn new skills in a fascinating area.
Edward: What do you think independent bookshops have to offer that the chainstores cannot provide?
Helene: I think independent book stores reflect their owner’s personality and choice – this can obviously be a good or bad thing! They are really a curated space with selected books which hopefully introduce the reader to books that they might not otherwise encounter. Many shops also sell original cards, art works and stationary hence supporting independent artists. Independent booksellers can also act as a hub for local cultural events and writers to meet .
Edward: When did you decide to become a bookseller and what made you choose Cheltenham?
Helene: It was a process of thinking and then acquiring knowledge and new skills over several years. I looked at a number of locations in the Cotswolds for the shop but when a friend suggested looking in The Suffolks I fell in love with the area and was very fortunate to find my beautiful Grade 2 listed premises. The Suffolks has many independent shops, a thriving Traders Association which organises three very popular Street Fairs each year and good parking. It is also a short walk into the town centre, next to the Cheltenham Festivals Office and a great local community -perfect.
Edward: What do you find the greatest pleasures and the greatest headaches in running a bookshop?
Helene: The greatest pleasure is meeting customers, discussing books , finding new authors , holding events and workshops for local writers. As for headaches – getting known more widely to increase footfall, the accounts!
Edward: What advice would you give to anybody thinking of setting up a bookshop?
Helene: Get in touch with the Booksellers Association- try and attend one of their courses as this will enable you to meet other inspiring people. Visit lots of bookshops and pick up ideas -remember finances ..
Edward: What do you think about ebooks?
Helene: I don’t have a lot of experience as I have never used them. However’ our children have used a Kindle when back packing- unfortunately one stopped working half way round. So I think they have a place when travelling and weight is an issue but I don’t think they relax you in the way a paper book can.
Edward: What are your plans for the future?
Helene: To continue hosting events and workshops, to use the Patterson Grant I received to improve the space downstairs and host storytelling sessions which boost children’s imagination and to build on contacts with local schools. We have recently started a children’s book group and would like to expand this to other age groups. I also plan to continue my involvement with Cheltenham Poetry Festival and get to read more poetry and finally to become more widely known and gain more customers.