As England’s official Book Town, Sedbergh is the North’s answer to Hay-on-Wye. Stephen McClarence pays a visit to a town that succesfully started a new chapter.
Evelyn Westwood has a few surprises up her sleeve when I ask what sort of secondhand books don’t sell well.
“Modern royals,” she says as we settle down to discuss the forthcoming Sedbergh Book Town Festival (and all things bookish). “Prince Charles, Prince William, even Diana. Or anything on coronations. They sell newspapers and maybe books first time round, but not second time round. Though every now and then, you get someone from New Zealand who wants something on the royals.”
Any other likely worst-sellers? “The latest footballer’s biography; people don’t want them once a player’s moment has passed. And cricket and gardening books – everybody gives them to everybody else for Christmas.”
Westwood Books, run by Evelyn and her husband Mark, is a big success story for Sedbergh, the sturdy little market town up in the top left hand corner of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s England’s official Book Town, following the much longer-established Book Town Hay-on-Wye – which is, handily for title-nabbing Sedbergh, in Wales.
Sedbergh got in on the Book Town act when its economy, based on out-and-about tourism, slumped after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak restricted access. Shopkeepers saw a new potential lure in a cluster of bookshops.
Not everyone was keen. One long-established Sedbergh bookshop (now closed) complained that crowds of page-turning bibliophiles would destroy “the very peace and quiet which attracts the more discerning and affluent visitor... Large numbers of tourists browsing our shelves on a daily basis would degrade our stock unacceptably by the constant handling.”
The Sedbergh Book Town website takes a less prim-up-North approach. “Anyone coming to Sedbergh expecting an ‘Oop North’ version of Hay-on-Wye, with a dish of tripe on the side, is going to be disappointed,” it says. “And not just because the local butcher doesn’t normally sell tripe.”
True enough. Sedbergh falls some way short of Hay’s proliferation of bookshops - 18 of them at the last count, but twice that number at one time. The Westwoods originally ran one of them and, when Sedbergh launched itself in 2006, they sensed another outlet. “We wanted to do more than run a medium-sized bookshop in Hay,” says Evelyn, “So we came up here one January day and discovered this building.”
They soon realised that the spacious former cinema where we’re sitting would give them room to expand the business, and duly bought it. “Originally, we were going to get someone to run it, but in the first six months of trading, the new shop did so much better than the one in Hay that we decided to up sticks and move here. There were too many bookshops in Hay; when people had been to half-a-dozen, they’d had enough.”
Stocking 70,000 books (both new and secondhand) and selling around 30,000 a year, they buck (book?) the trend by doing only about 20 per cent of their business on the internet – which, combined with the recession of the last decade, has killed off many small bookshops.
Their airy, smartly organised shop works in co-operation, rather than competition, with fellow Sedbergh booksellers. The town centre has half-a-dozen other outlets, but most are parts of existing businesses.
Sleepy Elephant’s books share space with walking boots and clothing (the shop’s name comes courtesy of Alfred Wainwright, the grumpy patron saint of rambling, who described the Howgills, the hills looming over the town, as looking like “sleeping elephants”).
Up the hill from the newly-opened Book Shelter (which we’ll come back to) is the Old School Bookshop at Farfield Clothing. It has a room of secondhand books alongside a showroom for the bright, exotic fleeces made on the premises.
“Some of the bookshops that were once here have closed,” says owner Jean Pearson, breaking off from a Japanese order for 5,000 fleeces. “People would come in and say: ‘We’ve come all the way from the Lakes for the books and there aren’t as many bookshops as we expected.’”
So she set up a book room. “While ladies are looking at jackets, the men can come in here and have a browse,” she says. “The problem is we don’t have the time to sort the books out so people have to search around. But they say they like the adventure of coming across books that they perhaps wouldn’t look at if they were arranged in categories.”
For categories, visit the helpful tourist information centre just down the road, past heavy-duty ramblers marching doggedly on. It houses discriminating displays by 18 dealers, arranged under sometimes whimsical headings. A clock ticks slowly.
There’s a shelf of “Bygone Children’s”, including such splendid imperialist-sounding titles as GA Henty’s Tales of Daring and Danger and Commander Attilio Gatti’s Saranga the Pygmy. Plus, prompting a twinge of nostalgia for anyone of a certain age, The Bobbsey Twins and Enid Blyton’s Hurrah for the Circus!
And if you’ve spent half a lifetime searching for the 1928 stock catalogue issued by NJ Barr Ltd, the Leeds iron and steel stockholders, look no further. The sections on rolled steel joists and broad flange beams are truly riveting. With a nice line in self-referencing, there’s also a book about Book Towns.
“Most people who come through the door say: ‘Wow! Look at the books!’” says Shelagh Cobb, chair of the TIC. “One lady woke her husband up in the car and made him come in.”
These outlets, together with Clutterbooks, an engaging charity bookshop, and Avril’s Books at nearby Farfield Mill, lure visitors from far and wide. Booksellers reckon that the town is within two hours’ driving distance of half the population of England and only ten minutes from the M6.
“A survey we did showed that 20 to 30 per cent of visitors came here because of the books,” says Andy Cobb, Shelagh’s husband and chair of the Chamber of Trade. “Walkers account for around 30 per cent and then there’s the nebulous area of ‘heritage’. We’re trying to sell the idea of ‘destination’.”
Sedbergh’s tourism potential has had a boost from the recent reopening of The Black Bull hotel after a £1.8 million refurbishment. There’s an excellent restaurant, and rooms are named after nearby fells – Randygill Top, Tarn Rigg, Docker Knott, Brigflatts Moss; they could be the names of manly heroes in Northern romantic novels.
Just along the road, which is criss-crossed by passageways and alleys, is the new Book Shelter, a former bus shelter now housing shelves of books to borrow – ranging from Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit – long enough for a Lake District downpour) to The Motor Racing Register 1965.
“The response to the shelter has been amazing; 2,000 people looked in it when it first opened and I’ve seen people of all ages in there,” says Heather Thomas, Sedbergh’s events organiser. She talks about the Book Town Festival – revived after a gap of several years and featuring Amanda Owen, ‘The Yorkshire Shepherdess’, as well as a writing competition and community writing projects.
Back at Westwood Books, Evelyn Westwood offers a sort of mission statement: “People can be very hesitant about going into bookshops. We don’t want them to come in and think it’s all scholarly books. We want them to come because they know they can buy things that will be a good read.”
So what sells well? Detective paperbacks, she says. Children’s books, PG Wodehouse, JB Priestley, maps. “And the Brontës and Dickens – books that people have always thought they’d read. And reminiscences of ordinary people – nurses, vicars, fish and chip shop owners.”
And then, out of the blue (or the red): “Marxism is going quite well now – you couldn’t sell it for love nor money a couple of years ago.
“But we also get lots of biographies of Margaret Thatcher. She’s actually selling quite well now.”
We live in politically complex times.
Sedbergh Book Town Festival: October 5 to 7. See www.sedbergh.org.uk.