Something really sad has happened.
By the time you read this post, my favourite bookshop will be entering its final days.
You might be tempted to tell me to pull myself together, but I can’t. If you knew this shop, you’d be feeling it too. It really is the best bookshop in the world. Even better than that, it has sat virtually on my doorstep for the last couple of decades, well within easy travelling distance. And I loved it.
You see, it was more than just a bookshop, it was the queen-pin of a whole book-loving community. In the very early weeks of my motherhood, it was also my salvation.
My first child was very seriously ill when she was born and nearly died (a few times in fact). When she bounced out of hospital about two weeks later, perfectly healthy by then, she then decided she wasn’t going to bother with sleep much (see my previous post). After all, she’d been put in an induced coma for several days so had clearly missed out on what was going on so needed to catch up. She was also going to give her lungs a good old test as well as she hadn’t been able to make much noise, what with all the tubes.
As the new mother of a shouty, sleepless baby – totally at sea with all this parenthood stuff – who was ferociously trying to pretend that all was now ABSOLUTELY FINE, I decided I needed to find a baby group that suited us both. I came across Friday Story Time at Wenlock Books. It appealed to me primarily because I thought it would be a nice activity for my 8 week old baby (as if she was interested in stories) but also because, secretly, I was searching for my tribe. If they came with babies attached then that would be great but, if they were interested in books, then even better.
Anna Dreda, the effortlessly wise and calm owner of the bookshop, welcomed me in, directed me to the back of the shop and told me not to mind when my baby started to cry yet again. I’d found a sanctuary where all comers were welcomed and accepted.
In the early days we were situated in the kids section at the back of the bookshop where we all crouched on tiny chairs or sat on the floor whilst the lovely Jane read some stone-cold classics to us (if you haven’t read The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Dupont yet then get a copy pronto). People joined and fell away but something about a Friday morning story or two appealed to me hugely and I stayed.
A few months later I met another lady-with-a-baby who quickly became a fabulous friend. Slowly, other friends from different baby groups joined the throng and Friday mornings evolved into something pretty wonderful. Eventually we moved upstairs in the shop to accommodate the growing numbers (including my second daughter) and eventually, a few years ago, Sue took over the important job of Friday morning story-telling.
Sue came with bags of props. She also came with bags of experience and the kind of calm firmness and loveliness that develops after decades of handling all sorts of children in all sorts of circumstances. The kids were entranced by her, so they were very well behaved. To be nominated as the Baker for the song ‘Five Currant Buns’ was a source of enormous pride.
Later, my eldest went to school, as did others, but I stayed for the sake of my youngest and because I (not so) secretly loved it too. The children made friends there and so did the mums, carers and grandparents. This gentle weekly balm was woven into my routine like a glint of beautiful metallic thread. There grew to be a band of Story Time regulars that tried never to be late for fear of missing out on the promised three stories and Sue’s selection of songs and rhymes.
And the children adored it.
The bookshop was eventually renamed ‘Shoop’s House’ by my lispy toddler who loved getting involved with the stories.
The Enormous Watermelon was always accompanied by an actual watermelon that Sue would encourage the children to hold and discuss. I’ll never forget their faces and the gasps of astonishment when the dull green stripy bomb was cut open to reveal the brightest pink. The Three Little Pigs had their own puppets and handmade houses. The variety of stuffed animals that Sue brought in must mean that she’s had to give over a whole room to their storage.
For the very last week, Sue set up a pirate themed Story Time. There were flying seagulls, hanging fishing nets, pirate stories and a treasure hunt that lead to the largest chocolate cake I’ve ever seen in the shape of a treasure chest with golden coins spilling out of its lid. Chapeau, Sue, chapeau. I’m sure you’ll never create another cake that vast or that deeply appreciated by its recipients!
Anna, as the owner and originator of the wonderful community that sprang up around the book shop also set other hares running. There was a whole poetry festival that ran for some years where I met amazing folks like Michael Rosen. Lemm Sissay and Wendy Cope walked the streets of Wenlock! Poetry Breakfasts still take place every month at The Cafe on the Square. My lovely group of friends (nominally named the reading group but laughably not one) originated at the shop. There was a Knitting Club where various topics and poems could be discussed. Reading Groups that then become touring reading groups started here. Every Christmas Eve lucky children were invited into the candle-lit bookshop where Anna would give two readings of The Night Before Christmas (the traditional version and Carol Ann Duffy’s). All proceeds would go to a tiny charity-run school in Africa (Conakry). Something that, Anna herself pointed out, Amazon is unlikely to do once she’s gone.
And there is the reason our bookshop has had to close. Anna and her partner were both diagnosed with cancer soon after Anna’s mum had died. Employing staff to replace her throughout the week, week in week out, was very costly and left no fat on the bones for a lean period like this. Business on the high street did not pick up after Christmas and left Anna with no choice other than to close. It’s a salutary lesson to cherish your local businesses on the high street as they have never had to face a threat to their livelihoods quite like this before.
We are now existing in a post-Story Time world which will shortly become a post-Wenlock Books world. What does a high street, a town, a local community do when a much-loved shop and community hub closes? We will have to find out, but a shop like Anna’s is the kind that sends out ripples that will not be settling any time soon.
The Poetry Breakfasts will continue. We’re hoping that perhaps Story Time, with a slightly different form and setting, will go on too. The wonderful, fulfilling friendships that began to bud at Wenlock Books will continue to mature. Moreover, like the very best of phoenixes, out of the flames comes something extraordinary…
One of Anna’s employees (and friend), Susie Stapleton, took over whilst Anna was away. Whilst she was also researching her first book. But this was not just any book. This was a book about a lady detective in 1920s London – who really existed.
Maud West ran her own detective agency in the early 20th century and would write up her cases, that dived deep into society’s underbelly, in incredibly entertaining style for the papers. Then, one day, she closed up her agency and vanished. Susie undertook a great deal of detective work of her own to unpick Maud’s history and her actions, revealing along the way a great deal of social history – and many of Maud’s own personal secrets.
It’s an utterly fantastic read and one that is currently being rightly feted by the UK’s literary scene. In my opinion it’s worth buying a copy for the genuinely brilliant series of disguises that Maud utilised on her quests around the capital and further afield. It’s also important to support a local author, all you Midlanders! You won’t be disappointed…
Anna’s last event at the bookshop was to launch this fabulous new story into the world. As an ending to a fabulous place and time, it could not have been bettered.
I’m certain that, in the future, all of us patrons will look back at these last few years and say that they were The Golden Years. It’s a rare chance for anyone to know that they’re living through an important part of local history as it is happening so I’m very proud, heart-broken and delighted that me and my two precious girls have known and witnessed these Golden Years.
Here’s to you, Anna, your wondrous shop of dreams and all who sailed in her. I have loved you all very much.