For September’s Bookshop of the Month, we headed up to Linlithgow in West Lothian, Scotland, to visit Far From The Madding Crowd. This award-winning bookshop has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with its varied events schedule and much-loved festivals. We spoke to Far From the Madding Crowd manager, Sally, about the origins of this fantastic shop and her plans for the future.
1. Tell us about the history of Far From The Madding Crowd. How did you come to run this celebrated bookshop in the heart of Linlithgow?
There has been a bookshop here since the mid-1970s, originally known as The Linlithgow Bookshop. My mum started as a bookseller there in the 1990s and when the original owner wanted to retire, she bought the business. In 2012, larger premises became available, so we moved in and changed the name of the shop. This was also when I took an active role in running the shop. We chose the name Far From The Madding Crowd because we both love Thomas Hardy and it encapsulated what we were trying to create here: a space where people can come to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and lose themselves in the joy of browsing a bookshop. Since then we’ve built upon our wonderfully loyal customer base and vastly increased our range of books and the number of titles we stock – we are constantly reorganising floorspace to fit just one more bookshelf in!
Mum stepped back from being involved in the day-to-day running of the shop in 2015 and is gradually moving into full retirement, so I’ve spent the last few years developing the business in different ways – we do a lot more author events these days, as well as two annual book festivals. I am always looking for ways in which we can strengthen our community ties, whether through school outreach work or partnering with other local businesses. There’s so much scope with a bookshop to engage people and promote literacy; it’s exhausting but the most satisfying job I’ve ever done!
2. Last year, you won an Independent Bookshop Innovation Award from Pan Macmillan. How have you benefitted from this?
We were absolutely thrilled to be awarded one of the Macmillan 175 Innovation grants: it has enabled us to secure the future of our schools festival for the next three years, as well as developing the digital strand. This is a project that means so much to everyone involved and I am so pleased that the team at Macmillan were able to recognise its importance to the local area and the potential it has for the future. It was a wonderfully thoughtful scheme offered to celebrate one of the very best publishers operating in the UK today – we have so much fun planning events with Pan Macmillan and this award was really the icing on the cake in a brilliant year.
The West Lothian Schools Festival is really close to our hearts; it’s so good to know that we’ve created something that has long-term benefits for the whole community. Over five years we have expanded the festival and now every June around 1800 children from ages 5-16 attend over three days in one very large tent! There is an author session for every primary year group, plus one combined session for secondary age students. We have worked incredibly hard to build a network of support that includes the local arts association, West Lothian Council and Scottish Book Trust. With help from the Pan MacMillan grant this year we introduced a digital strand of the festival for pupils and teachers to use a free classroom resource and next year our digital expert, Becka Wright, has offered to train older pupils in interview techniques and how the equipment works. Everyone involved in the project agrees it is incredibly rewarding and is invested in making it as sustainable for the future as possible.
3. Far From The Madding Crowd houses an exciting range of genres, as well as two specialist departments. Tells us more about Little Owl’s Room and the Scotland Room, and their importance in your vision for the shop.
We try to stock as wide a selection of books as possible and since we moved into larger premises it has been brilliant to be able to specialise in both Scottish titles and above all in children’s titles. We are firmly on the tourist trail during the summer months which means we sell a lot of historical guides, walking books and maps, but increasingly we find that Scottish titles sell all year round. Scotland has a vibrant publishing scene: companies like Birlinn, Sandstone, Canongate and Luath are producing high quality books, both fiction and non-fiction, and of course Tartan noir continues to have broad appeal. We are proud to stock so many Scottish authors and publishers to show locals and visitors alike the breadth of choice that’s available.
For us, the children’s department is the heart and soul of the shop. Located downstairs, it is absolutely packed with titles from first books to young adult. We have a huge selection of classics, the latest bestsellers and a large reference section. As well as books we stock The Puppet Company, Orchard Toys, craft kits, games and jigsaws; pocket money corner is always busy after school and at weekends. Every Saturday we offer free storytelling in The Bothy at the back of the shop and while we sadly recently lost BB, our world-famous storytelling rabbit, we’ve currently got a visiting guinea pig Pugwash, who’s helping out with cuddles.
At Far From The Madding Crowd we believe there’s a book that’s just right for everyone, whatever stage your reading is at, and we are pretty sure that we’ll be able to find it amongst our extensive stock! It’s really satisfying when a customer finds a book that fits the bill, especially if it’s one of our more niche titles. We feel that by offering a wide selection of mainstream and lesser known authors and genres together in one shop, we can be the general bookshop that a busy market town needs, while also offering something a little bit unusual if people are feeling adventurous!
4. This year, you have launched Linlithgow Literary Lunches. Can you tell us about this new venture and how it began?
This is just about my favourite new thing for 2019: authors + food = a winning combination! The idea came about following our first ever weekday lunchtime event, which was such a huge and surprising success we wanted to find a way to make it a regular thing, without it becoming too overwhelming for us booksellers. We are lucky in Linlithgow to have so many great independent cafes. Our personal favourite is The Granary; we approached the owner who happily was as excited as us about the idea and the rest is history! The series has proved incredibly popular so far with every single lunch selling out – guests are treated to a three-course set menu, followed by a chaired author talk and then a signing opportunity. We are looking forward to the autumn series, starting with Claire Askew in September, followed by Sandra Ireland and then James and Tom Morton in November who will be talking about their beautiful book, Shetland: we can’t wait!
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
This year we have moved away from a lot of the non-book products that we used to stock to focus more on our core business of selling brilliant books to people! We are delighted that the sector is showing such resilience and that people are coming back to bricks and mortar bookshops for recommendations and to find books that are slightly out of the ordinary. We are also expanding the range of events that we offer. In September we are looking forward to welcoming David Baldacci as our big autumn event, but we also have authors such as Philip Marsden, Mary Paulson-Ellis and Karen Campbell heading our way before Christmas. Then in January we’ll be straight into the Further From Festival: 2020 is shaping up to be a vintage programme already.
On a broader basis, I’m involved with our local High Street Traders Association which has recently joined up with Totally Locally – a nationwide grassroots collective that is fighting for town centre regeneration. It’s a really exciting movement to be a part of, shops and businesses all over the country sharing best practice and ideas on how to keep independent businesses thriving in the UK. We took part in the first ever national Fiver Fest earlier this year and we’re looking forward to the next one in October.
We are also looking at more collaborations with local businesses following the success of the Literary Lunches this year: an escape room has just opened next door to us for example, so we’re planning a joint event here in the bookshop with loads of puzzles and mysteries to solve.
As an industry we continue to be under a lot of pressure from internet giants, large chains and supermarkets, out of town retail centres and an out of touch business rates and rent system. However, for those shops that have shown they can adapt to the changing marketplace and offer not just books that are slightly out of the ordinary, but a shopping experience that customers enjoy, the future is looking pretty bright.