CWA Bookshop of the Month: The Steyning Bookshop
Every month, as part of the new CWA Booksellers Champion initiative with bestselling author Elly Griffiths, we want to celebrate a bookshop because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive. Kicking this off is July’s CWA Bookshop of the Month, The Steyning Bookshop, West Sussex, opened in 1984 by Sara and Robin Bowers.
In the thirty-eight years since The Steyning Bookshop opened its doors, in a quiet market town nestling in a gap in the South Downs, it’s become central to the community, championing efforts to bring the high street alive. An example of how bookshops punch above their weight, it’s had a major impact on the small town. People like the best-selling children’s author, Julia Donaldson, moved to Steyning mainly because she’d visited its bookshop so often – and when the local Post Office closed, it was Donaldson who followed the bookshop’s example, by buying it to keep it open. Bookshops change places.
With her third child about to start school, Sara was facing the option of returning to her job as a school teacher. Instead, inspired by a friend who had opened The Forest Bookshop (now sadly defunct) in the Forest of Dean, she decided on opening bookshop herself, although neither had any experience of the book trade.
“This big old eighteenth century house, which was crumbling and falling apart, came up in the High Street. We bought it at auction and converted it into a bookshop and family house,” explains Sara. It was, she admits, a learning curve.
On their bookseller friend’s advice, they stocked the bookshop using what was then a newfangled idea – a book distributor. At the time, Gardners was largely pooh-poo-ed by other bookshops. “In those days, publishers thought they were doing you a favour by getting you a book in about three weeks. It took an eternity.” Instead, they used a system that was, back then, mostly used by newsagents, but which has since become the norm.
“At the beginning it was all ‘how-to’ books; gardening, DIY and Delia Smith,” remembers Sara, who still runs the shop with her husband and their daughter, Gudrun. Over years, they’ve built an audience for fiction, and crime fiction, by reviewing books in the local magazine and running their own book group and monthly newsletter. More recently, a major key to building their audience has been events. “Right up into the 90s, publishers thought we were too small to have important visitors,” says Sara, wryly.
A chance visit by the sister of Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, led to a bookshop visit, then a sold-out reading. From there, events took off. They’ve hosted major crime figures, including everyone from Robert Goddard, Peter May and Mark Billingham.
“One of our high spots was having Ian Rankin. We won him in a competition. We had to say what we’d do with him if we had him for a day and we said we’d take him to our local microbrewery and have an event there, then bring him back here for tea and cake, then have an evening event. I think we had him at the microbrewery,” says Sara.
Their most popular crime authors are Peter May and CWA Booksellers Champion Elly Griffiths, who’ve both done events for them. “People love reading crime writers who set books in their locale. People love working their way round a town, recognising a familiar landscape. You’d think it would be more unnerving!”
We ask her what her high point has been. “Every day,” Sara answers. “When it comes to writers, we’re still such groupies. It all seems such a treat.”
For advice to authors on approaching their local bookshop to sell their books, see the article in the Booksellers section of the CWA website here: https://thecwa.co.uk/booksellers
The Steyning Bookshop
106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3RD
Tel: 01903 812062
Mon – Sat: 10am – 5:30pm
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