Being a bibliophile, I was just joyous when Books on the Hill opened its doors, and having interviewed Alistair for this feature, I am delighted to hear that his business goes from strength to strength.
I couldn’t quite believe that someone would open a bookshop in 2014! The crash that began in 1995, the same year that Amazon started, the closure of so many independent bookshops due to the inexorable rise of eBooks and the decrease in independent shops generally, surely spelt doom for Books on the Hill?
Happily, not so! In a nutshell, Books on the Hill is situated in a Business Improvement District on Hill Road in Clevedon, (Alistair’s home town) surrounded by other high quality, independent shops and businesses who have established themselves as a strong supportive community; he has created a dynamic, interactive space; he has embraced technology; he is inclusive, and to quote author Jim Swinton, he and his partner Chloe see themselves as ‘agents of culture rather than just instruments of commerce’. But more about that later on.
I knew that Alistair and his partner Chloe Smirk both shared a passion for books and had always dreamed of opening a bookshop, but I was very curious as to Alistair’s reading journey, given that he is dyslexic and had difficulty reading until he was thirteen; unlike Chloe who was a prodigious reader at the age of eight.
The first book Alistair read was a Harry Potter which was true for my own son who had little interest in reading for pleasure prior to this. However, the book that made the greatest impact on Alistair was David Eddings with the Belgariad series. It was the first real adult fantasy book he ever read and one he returns to for comfort reading if he is feeling down. It was this book that consolidated his reading skills and was a catalyst for continued reading of his favourite genre – fantasy.
Chloe shares Alistair’s taste for fantasy but prefers older fantasy such as that of Mercedes Lackey, whereas he prefers authors like David Gemmell.
Having said that, Alistair still struggles with reading, and his reading strategy is what he describes as academic skim reading which is a much more thorough sort of skim reading which enables him to digest 4/500 pages in a couple of days. This has been crucial in terms of his studies which are very impressive – his first degree was in archaeology and history, he then went straight into preparing his PhD thesis which involved looking at fictional narratives in archaeology.
Alistair’s academic journey can’t have been easy and I was curious to know who had been his greatest supporters aside from Chloe and his family. He spoke fondly of his History teacher, Mr Bottomley from Sidcot School who expressed supreme confidence in him and was a great influence but sadly died on holiday in Vienna before Alistair started his A levels.
Alistair’s PhD supervisor, Professor Raimund Karl, funnily enough an Austrian gentleman from Vienna, also made a great impact on him. Alistair was very appreciative of Professor Karl’s willingness to learn about and understand his needs as a dyslexic and the continual confidence he expressed in him. Professor Karl remains in touch with Alistair and reintroduced him to academia which he had not been involved in during the first three years of his opening the shop.
I wondered what support Alistair had accessed setting up the shop and whether or not he had a mentor. He explained that he models himself on two highly successful book sellers that he knows: Andy Rossiter from the fabulous Rossiters in Ross on Wye and Nick Bottomley from the innovative Mr B’s in Bath – two shops I am very well acquainted with.
Alistair spent invaluable time in the shop with Andy, discussing a whole range of issues and getting lots of sound advice. He shadowed Nick for half a day, and is still in touch with Nick who has created his own very successful publishing house Fox, Finch & Tepper.
Being inclusive is very important to Alistair and Chloe who really want to support and encourage everyone in their community, in their quest to enjoy reading. They recognise that there are now great books out there for children with dyslexia, with specialist publishers like Barrington Stokes and mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury doing their part. However, there are sadly few books for adults with dyslexia, a situation he intends to change through setting up a publishing arm of Books on the Hill.
Working with Chrissy Harrison, a local author and member of North Bristol Writers Group, they have already registered BOTH publishing with Nielson Book data and created a ten year draft plan which sees them launching the books on 20th June 2020 as part of the independent bookshop week.
Prior to the launch there is a kick-starter event to secure funds to publish eight initial books and to help fund a continuation of eight publications a year. This will pay for artwork, design work, editorial work and the printing of the books. Alistair has already attracted some award winning authors and has had some very positive feedback from novelist and journalist JoJo Moyes.
BOTH will be dedicated to bringing the very best stories to anyone who has difficulty reading, focusing on dyslexia friendly formatting: cream paper rather than white; a sans-serif font, or a special dyslexic friendly one; extended spaces between paragraphs, sentences or words. It will be most welcome.
With his PhD in archaeology and his return to academia with Academia Lunare, Alistair is a great role model for young people who feel they may not be able to enjoy reading or feel anxious that their dyslexia may be a barrier to success. Alistair is more than willing to talk to anyone with dyslexia, especially children or anyone who wants to know more about it for whatever reason. You won’t be surprised to learn that Books on the Hill stock a great range of books for children from the dyslexic friendly book Publisher Barringtons Stoke.
I asked Alistair about what I call ‘golden moments’ in his job and it was in fact interacting with a child who has dyslexia and was frightened of books that came to his mind first. Kneeling down with the child, looking through the books with him, discussing story lines and being able to empathise with his feelings about reading helped the child to relax and make his choices. There was then the added joy when the child came into the shop by himself to buy his next book.
Alistair believes that empathising with the customers is crucial to success but is particularly important when it’s a child with additional needs.
I think that links into what I was saying at the start when I described Alistair and Chloe as ‘agents of culture rather than just instruments of commerce’ – they are hugely knowledgeable about all things literary but they also really care about their customers. They are always so warm and welcoming, happy to engage, advise and chat about books; happy to let you take a closer look at the games and tell you which ones are most suitable; happy to tell you where to go on Hill Road for a nice cup of coffee or a spot of lunch.
I was also interested in the challenges that he and Chloe had faced and was quite surprised to hear that the major challenges were getting known and advertising. He will often have Clevedon people in the shop who will be very complimentary but say things like ‘I wish we’d known you were here earlier!’
We chatted about advertising which I hadn’t realised was so expensive. For a small business, the costs he told me about would represent a couple of days profit. It’s not surprising that Alistair along with other independent businesses make such effective use of social media and it was great to hear him speak so positively about the role of Discover Clevedon and Faces of Clevedon in terms of spreading the message, as well as building that sense of belonging and sense of community.
A fabulous range of fiction and non-fiction for all ages; a thriving Books Delivery Service: Books on the Hill — Send My Book; a special Gift Package which makes an ideal present for the book lovers in your life and culminates in the receiving of six carefully chosen, beautifully packaged books arriving through the post to the person of your choice; regular book signings; a book club; author events and workshops are on offer at Book on the Hill. It really is a very dynamic environment.
I was curious as to which author event Alistair had enjoyed most and he cited the evening with Nick Knowles organised in partnership with the Curzon Cinema & Arts. Nick, best known for building homes on DIY SOS, or testing general knowledge on Who Dares Win was a huge success attracting crowds of 250+, all of which helps increase the presence of Books on the Hill in the town and the wider area. Attracting such well known authors is a real coup but not easy for a book shop in relative infancy.
Alistair has had some great authors come and sign at the shop, including Stan Nicholls, Lucienne Boyce, Sophie Tallis, Fran Kempton, Joanne Hall, John Llewellyn Probert, and New York Times Bestseller, Robin Hobb, Alison Rattle.
One of my favourite workshops which I attended with a group of students was a Masterclass from the Beano illustrator Kev Sutherland who gave some great tips on comic book drawing. The young people involved still talk about it!
Alistair enjoys excellent relationships with a large number of schools in the area. The week following our meeting he had six school events in three days, with a similar pattern the following week and he’s just about to do a five day school fayre with the Downs School. Very few of these school events take place in Clevedon schools which is something he would like to address.
My first meeting with Alistair and Chloe was school related, when he attended the talk at Clevedon School given by professional British tree climber, cameraman and adventurer James Aldred who appeared as part of their ‘Celebration of Science’ week.
Alistair and Chloe will always go the extra mile for schools, being happy to order books and offer considerable discount on large orders. They have good links with publishers and are more than willing to arrange for authors to visit the schools or support the schools if they have arranged their own visit.
Working outside the shop is always a pleasure for Alistair and Chloe, who believe that it is very important for a bookshop has to reach out to its customers, going to schools and libraries with authors. They are also avid Convention attendees, and love selling books and tea at these events which include the BristolCon, NovaCon and FantasyCon They love the opportunity to meet authors and fellow enthusiasts. They are also big supporters of the Gemmell Awards which they see as the benchmark for British fantasy.
I wondered looking back, whether Alistair would do anything differently, and he thought that it would be more a case of doing things earlier rather than differently. He would probably have introduced games and jigsaws earlier. Alistair is a great board player himself and sees them as both entertaining and educational, developing a plethora of skills such as decision making, social interaction, and critical thinking. One of his favourites which he has in the shop is Photosynthesis and is a green strategy game, all about harnessing energy from the sun.
During the game players plant seeds, grow them into trees so they can capture the most sunlight, and then harvest them for victory points. The game is played over a series of rounds with two phases in each round. At the end of each round, the sun rotates one spot on the border of the board. The another round occurs and once the sun has circled the board three complete times, the game ends. It sounded delightful.
As is the tea! I almost forgot that as well as having a delightful range of quite unique book related gifts, games and jigsaws, Books on the Hill stock loose leaf tea! I can recommend the Jun Mei Lapsang Golden Eyebrow Tea which was bought for me as a present! I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I would have made such a purchase but I would now! It’s delicious!
The future is exciting for Alistair, he is really looking forward to establishing his publishing house, he is heavily involved in organising a Literary Festival next June, he is determined to extend his relationships with schools, particularly Clevedon schools and he would very much like to work out a means of encouraging customers to pre-order.
I loved talking to Alistair, this feature is just a snippet of what we discussed but if you haven’t yet visited Books on the Hill then I hope it will inspire you to do so. If you have visited, then perhaps it will re-ignite your commitment to buying local, it certainly has mine.
If you’d like to know more about Alistair and/or Books on the HIll then check out his website and on-line shop https://www.booksonthehill.co.uk/ or follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – all @booksonthehill. Better still, call in and say hello, you’ll be sure of a very warm welcome.