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The Bookkeeper Bookshop, St Leonards

The Bookkeeper Bookshop, 1a Kings Rd, St Leonards

Best Bookshops: The Bookkeeper Bookshop, St Leonards

Carol and Robert Dennard talk to Angela J. Phillip about how it all started and the fact that it’s not so much a bookshop, more a way of life. It’s in Kings Road, St Leonards. Books, books, books in the middle of a vibrant community with the sea just a couple of streets away.

How did it all start?

Well, it all started with my husband, Roger, who said years and years ago, “Wouldn’t a bookshop be nice?” And the dream was born. And then there was a mysterious cousin called Jack. We didn’t know him very well until near the end of his life but he was once a journalist and when he died he left us the contents of his house. And this was mainly  – books! And then we thought well, what a great way to honour Jack. We could use his books to start a bookshop.

“Literature had always been a big part of our lives,” Robert added, “and if the bookshop worked, it would be there for Dad when he retired.”

So the decision was made. The time was right for both Robert and myself and I didn’t want to get old wondering if life would have been better if I’d started a bookshop. Let’s try it for a year we thought, which became two years, then three…. I think that you have to take up opportunities as they present themselves, otherwise they fly away. 

Bookkeeper 1

Inside The Bookkeeper Bookshop

How did you choose the premises?

Once again the fates were looking favourably down on us.

On a quest with a friend to find buttered crumpets in Kings Road one bitter November day we happened upon a shop which was at that stage a secondhand furniture shop. I peered through the glass and commented that the double aspect windows, the brickwork and wooden floor made it an ideal candidate for a bookshop.  At that stage having a bookshop was only a vague thought but, with all its features and nestled between the bakers and a pub with access to the railway station, it had everything one could want.

Sometimes an idea takes over and whilst Robert was keeping his ear to the ground re local properties I felt compelled to make bold and enquire of an estate agent as to whether there were any properties to rent. He said there were and would take me to one. His adamant refusal to let me know where it was added to the excitement as we walked along Kings Road and when we reached number 1A, the very place where I had wistfully pressed my nose against the glass, I felt this pipe dream of a bookshop was meant to be.

Robert said it had everything – location and light!

Bookkeeper 4

Robert & Carol Dennard

I understand that the shop is a family affair. How does that work out?

Robert teases that we don’t argue as much as we used to do and I take that as a great compliment because we do have different ideas but we are always able to reach a compromise. We combine our knowledge and respect each other’s tastes and views on what we sell. We have come to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He takes on some tasks that I shy away from and vice versa so everything gets done even though it isn’t in the way that the other one would necessarily do it. Patience, tact and respect chivvy us along.

Who chose the name and why?

We were thinking of Jack and keeping his books and my husband, Roger, whose dream it was in the first place, is an accountant so there was a play on words. Books are shared and kept on trust for others.

What kind of books do you stock?

Basically, we sell second-hand books of a variety of genres and also some new books, mainly self-published, by local authors as well as, say, local history walks and we like maps when we can get hold of them.

We sell tickets for local cultural events such as Hastings Philharmonic concerts and Explore the Arch theatre events.

We have some books offered online but there is a reticence in that I feel we didn’t open a bookshop to sell books to real live customers only to find ourselves sitting behind a computer all day. There is a balance to be found.

Robert comments, “I personally gravitate toward esotericism, mysticism and the occult as it is an interest of mine.”

Glyn Carter Book Launch at The Bookkeeper

Glyn Carter Book Launch

I know that you run excellent literary events here. Could you tell us a little about them? How do you find the authors for book launches, for example?

We said from the outset that we wanted to put on events, to provide writers with an opportunity to present their work to local audiences because we appreciate how difficult it can be to put your heart and soul into writing and then need an outlet to reach others. The size and layout of the shop mean that if we have a seated event we have to move a lot of the books so we don’t put on weekly events because of the furniture shifting involved. However, we like to think that when we do hold events they become social gatherings, too, as we try our best to make the author feel comfortable. We welcome those who have come to listen as if they were guests in our home.

It has always been the case that authors or organisers of local festivals and literary events have approached us and there has been a range from poetry, fiction, fantasy to autobiographical.

“They are always free,” Robert says, “and we often provide wine and nibbles. They are never too riotous of course, just a quiet evening enjoying the spoken word. The authors find us.”

Robert Dennard

Robert Dennard

What are the difficulties in running a bookshop like yours? And what makes it worthwhile?

The difficulties are having enough space to display and store the books, spreading the word that you exist and making sure that there is enough of a selection of books to cater for those who have found the shop so as to ensure their return. That becomes particularly relevant in the cold grey days of winter when the street sometimes appears devoid of humankind and you await a dust ball to come floating by and have to keep faith that you weren’t totally bonkers opening the shop in the first place.

Worthwhile? Being fortunate enough to have this as a family business with Robert and me as business partners and with Roger being fiercely protective of his Saturdays in the shop.  Obviously, the prime aim is to sell books but implicit in that comes the desire to please the customer, to feel that the customer is satisfied with their purchase and that coming into the shop has been a pleasant experience for them.

Being part of the community whether that is joining in with local events such as market days, A Town Explores a Book, Hastings Fringe, St Leonards Festival etc. Aside from that but equally important to me is the simple fact  that we have a window on the world, can hear the trains rumble in and out of the station and generally watching and being part of life on Kings Road, witness to the pains and pleasures of people, the ordinary and extraordinary the tragic and comic replicated inside in book form and outside in real lives .. And on an even simpler level it is being outside sweeping the doorway, Open All Hours Arkwright-style and saying hello to the other traders, customers and passers-by.

“One difficulty is the struggle people have to park their cars in Kings Road,” Robert says, ‘but it’s worthwhile when they finally make it.”

Carol Dennard

Carol Dennard

Are there any changes you might like to try? What would you like to achieve in the next five years?

Of course, as a business, we will constantly strive to seek ways to increase our turnoverWe will put more books online so as to reach a wider audience and aim to build up existing relationships with other booksellers in the town and wider afield so that we can promote independent shops and seek to provide the books that customers want.  

Hopefully, we shall also do more to encourage and help writers by promoting events and building up a network of contacts that we can put them in touch with (satisfying my need to problem-solve and to encourage people). Bigger premises would be great but that comes with a resultant increase in costs etc and we have become attached to where we are. We have to keep confident that there is a way to satisfy customers even if the book isn’t immediately on the shelf.

Make the shop more adaptable for events other than just spoken word or poetry,” Robert says. “What to achieve? To live in a small shack by the sea and smell the sweet salt air.”

In five years time, we would like to make sure that we are still here and are more widely known.

Robert’s sea shack is equally appealing …. So, ever the one to think that nothing is impossible, what about a book shack by the sea with visiting yachts moored by…..   !!!!!!!

Thank you. It has been a great pleasure to talk to both of you. Books, sea and sweet salt air will come to mind whenever I think of The Bookkeeper Bookshop and the marvellous service you offer to both customers and to writers.

For further information, please see:
The Bookkeeper Bookshop
For more pictures, please see The Bookkeeper Bookshop – little picture blog

Others in the Best Bookshops series:
Bookbuster, 39 Queen’s Rd, Hastings

In the News

Pigeon Thinking

Pigeon Thinking

Afropean not Brexitean
Labels are always dangerous. Not sure that I dare put my toe into this particular water but here goes. I was once married to a man from St Kitts, a teacher and a poet and he taught me what I should and shouldn’t say (and a lot more besides…). I mean, he (and his mother) taught me which labels I should and shouldn’t use. They explained why words I hadn’t thought about from their point of view could be offensive. And I learned, but the words which were acceptable then have changed e.g. he would have  described himself as West Indian in the 80s, but not now. If he’s anything, he’s black British or possibly just British. Definitely not BME (black and minority ethnic) or BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic). The labels are always changing and they’re drenched in emotion because it’s all about identity. Our words reflect our world but we do have the power of choice.

Labels can be comforting, insulting or aspirational and they pose a dilemma because they exclude as well as include. I can say I’m a South Derbyshire gel (comforting but limiting – it’s where I’m from but it doesn’t feel accurate) or I could say I’m now a Hastinger (aspirational because although I live here and love the place, I wasn’t born here) or I could go big and say I’m a European (which I often do because that’s what I feel I am).

So what are you? Are you English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish or are you British or European? Or  Polish, Hungarian, Finnish, German, French, Spanish etc. or European? Hopefully, you are more than one of these but if you had to choose, then what would it be? It’s not just about belonging, about which group is yours and which group is not. It’s about where you want to belong. It’s about making a group that you like. It’s about making a new world (Phew! but that is what I mean.)

And that’s what Johnny Pitts thinks. He has a vision. He wants to be “Afropean” and he’s written a book about it. Me, too, I think it sounds good. Read the book review in The Guardian and see what you think. Or buy it – Afropean: Notes from Black Europe – out on June 6, 2019

Umi Sinha wrote a novel called Belonging. It’s about love and loss, past and present and moving worlds from India to the UK. I read this book a few years ago and was enthralled.

Pigeons At Home

Pigeons At Home

I could go on. We were talking at lunch yesterday about homing pigeons and whether it’s an instinct that we all have. Apparently, it is. Even sparrows can do it. So what happens when we move house, move to another place or another country? Is it the land we are attached to or the people? Do we get so confused that we don’t know where we belong or is it good for us? Have your wings stretched wide? I think mine are flapping all over the place (but I like it).

Literary Shed Writing Sessions run by 
A. Vasudevan
Two-hour weekly writing sessions in safe, creative spaces in Hastings and St Leonards
Tuesday 4 June 10 – 12 am (free) at Sea Kale, St Leonards
Thursday 13 June 10 – 12 am (£6) Writer Exchange Session at The Blue Bee, Hastings Old Town
Thursday 20 June, 10–12 am (free) at Stooge Coffee Bar, Hi Store, Trinity, Hastings
Thursday 27 June, 10–12 am (free) at Hastings Central Library, 13 Claremont, 3rd floor, Hastings
On the first Thursday of each month, there is also a writing critique group in which members share work.
For further information, please, subject: WRITE-INS

Printed Matter Bookshop 185 Queens Rd, Hastings TN34 1RG
Mon 10 June, 6 pm Book launch of Fully Automated Luxury Communism with Aaron Bastini at St Mary’s in the Castle.
Mon 17 June, 6 pm Book talk with Justyn Barnes on Ikigai
Tues 25 June, 6 pm PM Book Club discussing Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough
Thurs, 4 July, 6 pm Book launch and Q and A with Richard King & Ben Thompson

The Bookkeeper Bookshop 1a Kings Rd, St Leonards
Sun 14 July, 7 pm Bronwen Griffiths & Steve Amos will be talking about their new short story/flash fiction collections based on their childhoods/parenting.

Bookbuster 39 Queens Rd, Hastings
Thurs 16 June, 6 – 8 pm £2 entry Sheer Poetry – an open mic poetry night

Really Independent Bookshop Week, Hastings and St Leonards
June 15 – 22, 2019 – support your local independent bookshops.

Writing and Blogging
5 Fabulous First Lines
‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’  (The Crow Road by Iain Banks)

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ (The Go-Between by L.P.Hartley)

‘All this happened, more or less.’  (Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut)

‘Every Summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.’ (Waiting by Ha Jin)

‘The moment one learns English, complications set in.’  (Chromos by Felipe Alfau)

That’s it for now. Don’t forget to have a look and post about what you’re reading/ writing/ thinking in the Facebook Group Hastings Bookchat.

Have a great week and see you next Tuesday.
Angela J. Phillip


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Posted 09:00 Tuesday, Jun 4, 2019 In: Hastings Bookchat

Also in: Hastings Bookchat

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