For February’s Bookshop of the month we explored Much Ado Books in Alfriston, East Sussex – a bookshop unlike any other, with a unique selection of favourite titles, secondhand books and a special selection of antiquarian treasures. They offer two floors of both new and old books in a former builder’s yard at the centre of the lovely Medieval village of Alfriston. We chatted with Nash, the shop’s manager, to learn more!
1. What’s it like running a bookshop in the Medieval village of Alfriston? Have you seen the area change over the past few years?
We feel extremely lucky to be in one of the most beautiful villages in one of the most beautiful areas in the UK. The ancient buildings here are wonderful, but of course it is the people that make the place. Alfriston has been a trading centre since before Medieval times, and the tradition of welcoming visitors continues.
Despite the ancient nature of the village, change is constant. In the past 20 years we have seen shops change hands, close, open and move. Maybe the consistent element is the quality of shops and hospitality – we’re fortunate to be part of a vibrant high street with interesting offers and great food and drink. The result attracts people from a wide catchment. And being one of the main villages in the South Downs National Park, the area attracts visitors from around the country – and the world.
2. I read with interest about the charming set up of your bookshop compound. Was there any special inspiration behind this this unique layout? Do you have a favourite part of the shop?
Our shop was a builders’ yard for decades – perhaps centuries; the barn at one end is an 18th-Century building on the footprint of something older. The layout includes a generous yard where we have installed a shepherds hut filled with books and a cabin in our covered entranceway with even more.
We like the idea of the bookshop as a kind of adventure for people, with corners to look around and views to entice. There are a number of challenges, such as tempting people to climb the stairs to our first floor. But we enjoy playing with the layout and experimenting, and regular customers are accustomed to an annual closing when we rearrange bookcases, walls, and doorways!
Because we sell both new and old books, ranging from antiquarian volumes to cheap-and-cheerful bargains, we have to balance the space we give to various sections as well as working out placement and so forth. So a moderately eccentric layout works to our advantage, giving us nooks and corners that in a sense naturally segregate some of the special interest sections, such as the books about the Bloomsbury Group (their Sussex home, the Charleston Farmhouse, is just a few minutes away).
The layout – with two main buildings and a couple of smaller ones – also lets us hide the messy back-office work. It gives us an area to develop as an exhibition space for our collection of bookarts. And it allows for a workshop and event space.
3. How do you go about choosing the books that line your shelves?
Our choice of new books is largely down to reviews and interviews and articles we read, both in trade journals and broadsheets. Staff offer their ideas, of course, and customers do as well. And we like working with trade reps who know the shop; we find their suggestions invaluable.
4. What made you want to go into bookselling? What is your favourite and least favourite part about it?
We love books, and love connecting people with books. Libraries are brilliant, but we don’t like the idea of books coming back! Instead, we’re engaged with the idea of ownership. Owning a book bestows opportunities to share, re-read and appreciate a book over time – as well as the option to mark it up, or loan it out, or give it away. We run a social enterprise, giving books to schools, hospitals, foodbanks and charities who pass them on to people. Not only reading but ownership can make some small difference in life.
The feeling of sharing a favourite book can’t be beat, and discovering new books we can introduce to people is a wonderful treat.
Worst part: paperwork.
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop in the coming months that you’d like to share with us?
We’re filled with plans, many of them fizzing out but some of them bursting into reality. Our new fiction room combines new backlist, vintage and second-hand books in one space, and we are looking forward to discovering if the experiment adds to customers’ enjoyment or challenges them too much. If it works, we may roll out the idea throughout the shop; we’re hoping to find ways of inspiring people who usually only buy new books to look at old books as well.
We have a number of events in development, including a talk with Costa award-winner Claire Fuller. Zoom has given us a way to reach people that aren’t able to come to the shop, and we hope to work out ways to incorporate it with live events.
And we’re already thinking about another shift of sections – and maybe bookcases. Thinking about what will go where is a constant challenge, driven by our customers – so there is always something brewing!