The Crime Writers’ Association

CWA Featured Bookseller – Books on the Hill

Books On The Hill
1 Holywell Hill
St Albans

William Shaw speaks to owner Antonia Mason

St Alban’s bookshop Books On The Hill is a shop that looks as if it’s been in its location on Holywell Hill a long time and is very comfortable there, with its inviting armchairs, floor strewn with rugs and cushions, dog baskets under the tables and shelves full of leather-bound antiquarian books – alongside its packed shelves of crime fiction. The truth is, it was only founded in 2019 – by Antonia Mason and her mother.

It is a “bookish” looking bookshop!

‘Definitely! My mum was the designer,’ says Antonia. ‘She wanted it to feel like a living room, or someone’s library. She wanted the cosy feel. We always say to people, “Come in, sit down, read the first page and see if the book’s for you,” and people do.’

You opened it in 2019 – which was like walking straight into the eye of the storm!

‘My mother was in Cornwall in the spring of that year and she had the chance to buy the bookshop down there, in Fowey – in Daphne Du Maurier’s hometown. She really wanted to buy it and I was looking for something to do because I wasn’t happy in my previous employment – but I refused to move down there – my siblings didn’t want to either. So we started to look closer to home and we found this. It came together and three-and-a-bit years later, here we are. I had always had running a bookshop as my retirement dream – I just started a bit early!’

You have this quote painted in your window from Philip Pullman: ‘Independent bookshops – it’s not exaggerating to say that they are lantern-bearers of civilisation’

‘We wanted to get that balance of being a retail business and being a community hub, especially with lockdown. That really brought it to the forefront for us – the mental health aspect of being part of the community.’

‘There was one person who had moved to the area three days before lockdown – no family, no friends. He said our book club got him through. It was such a realisation. We have people coming in who tell us they struggled to read because of dyslexia – I’m a dyslexic myself – and it’s great to see them picking up books. At first the YA readers didn’t really come through our doors, maybe because they didn’t have the confidence. We started putting tags with the books – luggage tags on which we write to tell them a little about the book, why we’ve chosen it, or maybe just about the publisher if it’s one we admire. It’s the kind of information we’d give them if they spoke to us, but they might not want to. It’s great to see children picking up books.’

So this isn’t just traditional retail anymore?

‘I’ve worked in retail longer than I care to say and it was always push the sales and don’t worry about the customers. We definitely don’t have that! Every book is curated by the team. We all have different tastes but we believe in every book in the shop. We don’t always go for the most popular book out there – it’s what we think is appropriate – though of course we’ll order anything the customer asks for. I think people have realised that they want to get out more but also come back with something to discuss.

‘So we run three different book clubs. Two are non-set text – you can come along and talk about anything you’ve been reading. The other, we follow a set text and we follow a theme every month. February is “Love” and we’ve chosen Wide Sargasso Sea. We did one the other day and the youngest person was 16 and the oldest was 65. It’s a lovely way to socialise.’

And how about crime fiction?

We have a huge variety of crime, from cosy to psychological, from gory to not so gory. Our bookseller Katie devours crime and as a result I’m reading more crime than I’ve ever read. I blame Nadine Matheson too. I adored the The Jigsaw Man even though it was slightly gorier than I normally go for! And we have local writers like Rachael Blok, who is an incredible writer and an advocate for our shop. She’s just written a story about the shop for our book group, set in one of the tunnels below us. It’s quite harrowing! Last year we had Sam Holland (The Echo Man), Harriet Tyce and Rachael here in conversation, which was wonderful. We also sell a lot of the British Library crime series.


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