I started working in an independent bookshop the day after the second national lockdown was lifted. The White House Bookshop is in Burnham Market, on the north Norfolk coast. It sits halfway around a large green, looking over to a coffee shop, the fishmonger, and an independent deli. It’s about as idyllic as you could imagine.
The bookshop is small but brightly lit, warm, and welcoming. It’s a single room with floor to ceiling bookshelves wrapping around the two side walls, and an island in the middle where we put the newly released hardbacks.
We get a steady stream of customers on most days. They’re looking for a variety of things, from Christmas cards, which have been so popular we’ve sold out of them, to books for grandchildren, books on the Maasai Mara, and books about motorcycling.
Every day is new, strange, and always exciting: it’s the best job in the world. Here are some of my favourite things about it.
- I get to talk to people, and learn about them, every day.
I spend a lot of my time just chatting to customers, asking about their day, or about something that interests them, sparked by the book they’ve chosen or are looking for. I adore these conversations; I get the privilege of insight into someone else’s life, and to engage with them on something they care about.
- There are always surprises.
Lady Anne Glenconner, famous for being one of Princess Margaret’s ladies in waiting, has written a new novel which has been incredibly popular with customers. She popped into the shop unexpectedly one afternoon and offered to sign copies of the book. I should probably note that I didn’t know who she was until she coughed “Glenconner” into her handkerchief. I went to go and grab our copies of her novel, only to realise we’d sold them all. We’d had at least 5 copies that morning, and now there were none. We didn’t even have any copies of her previous book. I was a bit (a lot) mortified. She took it well, but advised me to order more copies. (I ordered LOTS more copies).
- People need the bookshop as a space for peace and tranquillity.
It’s magical to watch harried customers’ shoulders drop with every passing minute they spend in the bookshop. They’ll be browsing the thriller shelves, pick out a book, and start reading the first page. The tension lifts from their faces. What does this say about how we’re living our lives?
- People have brilliant stories.
One of my favourite memories from working in the bookshop will always be talking to an old man who came in on my third or so day of working in the shop. He asked what I was studying – I said that I was trying to become a journalist. “That’s funny” he said, “I used to be a local reporter back in the ‘70s.” He’d worked at local outlets across the midlands and in Oxford, before turning to PR for Westminster. He told me just how much he’d enjoyed being a local reporter, and how important it was (and still is). He encouraged me to keep going, which was everything I needed at that moment. Bookshops encourage serendipity.
- People genuinely love independent bookshops, and will do as much as they can to support them.
We have one customer who has bought all his Christmas presents from us: they’re sitting in two large boxes in our back room, and must be worth over £200 all together. People call us to order a book from us, deliberately not buying it from Amazon.
What we offer, as an independent bookshop, isn’t necessarily the books: it’s the personal engagement, the individual recommendations, the discovering of something new.
Bookshops are so much more than bookshops: they provide connection, peace, and the magic of ideas. To be working in one is a privilege and a joy.
Words by Anna Willis
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