We’re welcoming in the summer with a visit to the Suffolk coast and our June Bookshop of the Month. The Aldeburgh Bookshop has its fair share of stories to tell, from its star-studded customer base to its exciting events schedule. We spoke to owner, Mary, about her delightful bookshop and this year’s very special birthday…
1. 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of The Aldeburgh Bookshop. How are you celebrating this landmark year?
Celebrations started in March this year with the publication of a short history of the shop in the Aldeburgh Literary Festival brochure. The Red House (Britten’s house in Aldeburgh now a library and archive) unearthed some fascinating receipts kept by Benjamin Britten showing that he was a customer from the very beginning. In 1971, for instance, he bought a copy of Death in Venice, the subject of his subsequent opera, as well as E. M. Forster’s tale of homosexual love, Maurice.
We’ve been researching more of the shop’s history, which is closely tied in to that of the town. The son of Christopher Rowan Robinson, founder of the bookshop, is currently Mayor of Southwold, and we are asking him a lot of questions. We have a continuing programme of book launches throughout this year, ranging from a bestselling children’s book about a mouse in the Resistance, a history of the Labour party, ten tips to save the planet from environmental writer Edward Davey to an exciting new short story collection from Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
2. Benjamin Britten was one of the shop’s first customers in 1949, setting the trend for a future of luminary visitors. Tell us more about the stars who have visited your shop.
Ronald Blythe told us the best story about the bookshop: [Britten] came in with E. M. Forster who was hoping to buy some ink. The bookshop owner was in a hurry to close for the evening and threw them out of the shop. I always wonder what great work remained unwritten for lack of Quink.
Many authors live locally or visit the town, and we are lucky to have the support of Aldeburgh resident, Craig Brown and novelist and scriptwriter Jon Canter. One Christmas Eve we had Coriolanus, Dumbledore, the head of MI6 and Craig Brown in the shop almost all at once.
We were early readers of Alexander McCall Smith, so we were thrilled to be name-checked in one of his stories several years ago. And I think our most famous regular visitor is Emma Chichester Clark’s delightful dog, Plum, whose book published by Vintage is a perennial bestseller.
3. How do you choose the books for your monthly book club, and what are you reading for June?
We started the book club as a Guilt Free Book Club. So many customers come in looking stressed about the pressure of reading for their clubs. Anyone can come to ours, and you don’t have to come every month. Sometimes we have visits from authors—when Yale published the new Pevsner volumes on Suffolk, James Bettley very generously took us on a guided walking tour of Aldeburgh—it was so popular he had to do two tours in one day. One month we did a book on soup and all crowded into the kitchen of the fabulous local deli to be given a masterclass by the chef Peter Harrison. This month Lucy Hughes-Hallett is attending to discuss her rich and complex novel, Peculiar Ground. The choice is usually a consensus, but if there’s no clear selection then I will make the final decision. I am not quite sure what to choose for July, but I think I am going to suggest Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, which is partly set in Suffolk.
4. You organise the annual Aldeburgh Literary Festival, which has been running for eighteen years. What inspired you to set this up?
Aldeburgh is host to the famous Music Festival as well as having thriving Poetry and Documentary Festivals. When we arrived we felt that the sort of books that we were reading and our customers were buying—fiction, history and biography—were not represented, so we started planning the Literary Festival quite soon after we took over the shop in 2000. An acceptance from P. D. James encouraged us and we had a very strong line up from the very beginning. Just before going to print with the programme we heard that Alan Bennett wanted to attend. What a wonderful problem to have. We managed to fit him in… We give ourselves a few months off and then we will start planning the 19th Festival for March next year.
5. And finally, do you have any more exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
John and I will have run the shop for 20 years next year, so I think we will continue the birthday celebrations. We would like to have a party for all the fantastic staff who have worked at or been involved with the shop over the years, and the hardworking reps who take the trouble to visit us. Our close relationship with publishers via our reps help us keep the stock up-to-date and interesting.
The Aldeburgh Bookshop sells a range of different coloured tote bags featuring Ros Donaldson’s charming illustration of the shop. The bags are sustainably made by Re-Wrap with a co-operative working practice in India. Customers tell Mary and John where they have been with their bags and their travels are charted with pins on a world map. Take a look at the truly international scale of this little Suffolk shop…!