Wenlock's bookshop and poetry hub is forced to close
In 2016 the-then poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, led a readings tour to support independent bookshops. Her itinerary included Wenlock Books, in the small town of Much Wenlock, Shropshire, which is now being forced to close at the end of this month because it has been increasingly losing sales to online competitors such as Amazon.
The poetry world is mourning this imminent loss – because Wenlock Books is much more than “just” a bookshop. I found myself sitting next to its owner, Anna Dreda, at a Carol Ann Duffy reading in Ludlow in 2010, when she told me about Wenlock Books, and about the poetry festival she had launched earlier that year, at the suggestion of Carol Ann - a festival that quickly grew and attracted some of the biggest names in the poetry world.
Write Out Loud turned up at the Wenlock poetry festival in 2014 and 2015, and witnessed a vibrant community alive with poetry. Alas, the festival is no more, and now the bookshop is closing, too - a significant moment that has attracted the attention of national media such as the BBC and the Guardian. Anna Dreda kindly took time out from her shop’s hectic closing-down sale – and other media inquiries - to talk to Write Out Loud about Amazon, her memories, and her plans for the future:
Write Out Loud is very sorry to hear of the imminent closure of Wenlock Books, Anna. You have blamed the move largely on people switching to buying books on Amazon. Would you like to say anything more about that?
Yes, when Amazon first started up there was a very strong feeling of loyalty to the bookshop and people made a point of continuing to buy from me, in spite of the huge discounts online. Over the years, though, people began to lose their jobs, or to have to pay more for everything else, and as times got harder, and purse-strings tighter, it was inevitable that people had to find ways of paying less for their reading habits. Sadly, I did have to experience people coming to the shop to browse (even taking photographs of the books they liked) but then leaving without buying anything. One man, who had never been to the shop before, made a point of coming to the counter to tell me that my selection of books was ‘mouth-wateringly good’ - he browsed for a long time, then left empty-handed without even a goodbye.
The Kindle also made a difference and the book industry was way too late in getting into the market on that one - they did try, and we supported the scheme (I do like reading digitally myself when travelling, or late at night with the lights off!) and I was very keen to be able to offer that service to my customers. But by the time the Booksellers Association got eBooks up and running it was too late and people were already embedded into Amazon, Apple etc and the independent eBook side of book-buying failed. This was hugely frustrating, but might not have made much of a difference ultimately as Amazon really had the market so tied up.
We know that you have staged many special and regular literary events there, for adults and children, and how it has been at the heart of creativity in the town, which it is fair to say you put on the poetry map. Can you recall some of your happiest memories of running the bookshop?
Oh my goodness, so many happy memories! I suppose top of the list has been my Christmas Eve candlelit reading of The Night Before Christmas for children and their parents and grandparents. With candles all around us and the dark outside, the magic of Christmas used to fill the room and to read to those children, all sitting on the big red mat, wide-eyed and excited, was something I looked forward to every year. The thought that this was the point at which Christmas began for those families (and me!) was one of the most wonderful feelings I have ever had. The fact that Christmas Eve is my birthday made it even more special. All the ticket money for the event was donated to the Friends of Conakry Refugee School, a charity the shop has supported since it began. Friends would donate bottles of champagne, homemade mince pies, and local people (and for years, my mum-in-law) made us beautiful hand-made stockings, which other local friends stuffed with sweets and goodies for the children. It was glorious. I also love, and will be continuing, the Poetry Breakfasts in Much Wenlock (Tea on the Square) and Brampton Bryan (Aardvark Books) where we read poems to each other for an hour while enjoying coffee and croissants - such a lovely way to start the day. And I’ve many happy memories of Readers Retreats and Reader’s Tours of Venice, which I’ll continue, too.
You also set up – at Carol Ann Duffy’s suggestion – a poetry festival in Much Wenlock, and ran it very successfully for a number of years. Again, can you list some of the highlights of those times?
Oh, the poetry festival was so wonderful - and for me has led to lasting friendships with people like Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Jackie Kay and many others. Highlights? Michael Rosen giving his all to entertain 200 children, and staying for hours afterwards to sign books and talk to each child. Rebecca Goss, reading so movingly from her collection of poetry about the death of her baby daughter. The knitted poem - I’ll never forget the first time I saw it in all its glory on the church green. Children playing in the ‘Wild Wenlock’ wigwams outside the library. And so much more. Perhaps most of all though - sharing poetry with so many people, and enjoying the wonderful buzz of our town being full of poets and poetry lovers.
The festival – which Write Out Loud has attended and reported on in the past - came to a halt a few years ago. Are there any plans to revive it in the future?
I don’t think so, though children’s events are still happening in schools. And I’m curating a day of poetry on July 7 at Aardvark Books. The lineup is Gillian Clarke, Paul Henry, Jonathan Edwards, Pauline Prior Pitt, Thirza Clout, Deborah Alma, Jean Atkin and Jenny Swann - all lovely favourites from poetry festival days. Tickets from https://wenlockbooks.co.uk/poetry-in-the-barn/ or from Aardvark Books.
What are your own plans after you close the doors of Wenlock Books at the end of this month? Are you still planning to be involved in the literary community and events in some way?
I certainly am! I’ll still run the Poetry Breakfasts and some reading groups, also our Readers Retreat, which next year might be back in Wigtown and this year is at Ty Newydd, the National Writer’s Centre in Wales. I’m also being encouraged (!) to offer another Reader’s Tour of Venice. So lots to look forward to - and if your readers would like to know more - just go to the Wenlock Books website and sign up to the newsletter. I’m looking forward to doing one of the things I love so much, which is sharing my love of reading with others. I shall be sad not to be in my lovely bookshop any more, very sad - it’s been my ‘home’ for nearly 30 years, but so long as I can still talk to people about books, I’ll be ok!