One of my many nicknames – I’m eighty-one so there have been quite a few – is The Letter Writer. If you want something done, people say, ask Valerie. She’s The Letter Writer. I’ve always been proud of it. At school I was Vandy; at Reading University I was Sparrow. So somehow or other, I’ve kind of come up in the world. There’s a real art in writing a strong, pithy, convincing (often politely furious) letter that the right people are actually going to read and act on, rather than dump or shred.
I’ve often been successful. I’ve kept shops open, changed bus routes and halted planning permission for crazy building schemes by putting pen to paper and sending every envelope by special delivery to the top boss and then some. It took me four and half months of letter writing last year to persuade Waitrose to give me a slot for my groceries. Energy, patience, sheer determination – and if at the end of one’s tether, bloody-minded rudeness – and a refusal to shut up and go away are often the name of the game.
Sometimes, however, I’ve failed. For years in Woodstock I wrote on and off to Blackwells in Oxford.
“We need a bookshop,” I told them briskly. “We are ten miles from Oxford and we don’t all own cars. We can’t sit on buses every day. We desperately need a bookshop of our own.”
“No, you don’t,” came their reply. “Nobody in the home counties ever has time to read. We couldn’t possibly risk it. If you need a book, buy one with us.”
I did what I was told because I had no choice. Until, in May 2008, to my astonishment and delight, Rachel Phipps arrived. A useful but dilapidated electrical shop was transformed overnight into a Haven of Books.
It had long been Rachel’s ambition to have a bookshop of her own – and here it was, five minutes’ walk from my cottage and utterly miraculous. Small and compact – there are no dusty basements or attics, no slippery stairs to climb, no hidden ramblings around any street corners, and no coffee tables outside – it packs a massive, confident punch. Rachel knew from long experience as a bookseller exactly what she needed to do. An avid reader in her spare time, she keeps up with the tidal wave of new material and “gets a buzz” out of knowing what people might like and why.
But she not only sells books, stocks her shelves, knows where to order the books from, pays her invoices, talks to sales representatives and sits for hours on the phone when things go wrong – as if all that weren’t enough. She also tracks down the most out-of-the-way documents from anywhere in the world that make it possible for historical novelists, like me, to hold together the threads of an idea so that it works in practise. For Beatrice and Alexander, for example, Rachel tracked down for me a medical memoir published in the USA that became the backbone of the entire story. When I told her I couldn’t have written the novel without her, she didn’t believe me.
I hope she does now…
And that’s not all. Since May 2008 Rachel has organised book groups on poetry and fiction in the shop every month; set up and maintained an annual Poetry Festival; and run evening talks from more than 235 authors, some of them more than once.
The Woodstock Bookshop has grown to be a cultural hub both readers and writers have come to depend on and love as an essential part of their lives.
Here is my tribute:
Through thick and thin you battle
To keep The Word alive
Those boxes keep on coming
Deliveries arrive –
The cardboard and that wrapping!
The dates! The covers! Too
Those customers whose tramp of boots
Have stained your carpet blue.
Through thick and thin you sit there
In winter, heat and shine
In dazzle and at twilight
To publish – sometimes – mine:
But overall you know that
Behind the bookish deals
Stand people and their voices
Whose lives you’ve often sealed
By setting up those evenings
When they’ve arrived to talk,
To tell a listening audience
That yes! They more than walk:
They write within our England.
They thrive because of you
Our Booksellers United –
And all who battle through.