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Q&A // Hay Festival puts questions to Emma Balch

Posted by Emma Balch on

Sum up being a bookseller in one sentence…

Sharing stories told in creative ways to an eclectic audience.

How long have you been a bookseller for?

Bookselling is in my family in different forms so, in a way, I guess I’ve always been one. I have memories from my first year of school, surrounded by a group of classmates, with me recommending books to them. Later, I worked at Blackwell’s bookshop when I was a student, which was brilliant for learning the nuts and bolts of bookselling. We opened a small bookshop in Hay two years ago.

How did you become a bookseller? 

I worked in publishing after university and then lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for eight years. The city has more bookshops per capita than any other in the world, and they each ooze individual character. Oliver and I moved to Hay-on-Wye in 2011 and began developing The Story of Books, with a big vision of telling the ongoing story of books through a dynamic working museum. Unfortunately, the venue we had been working on fell through, but a little shop on Castle Street came up for rent so we took it on as a bookshop and our HQ for the project. We’ve had two fantastic years there - and have really seen the benefits of being on the high street in the Town of Books. We are now looking for a larger space where we can have a bookshop, as well as telling stories and making books. For now you can buy from us at www.thestoryofbooks.com and on Instagram. 

What's the most prized item in your inventory?

A book by World War Two poet, Keith Douglas. The book had an original letter by him tucked inside. We produced Unicorns, Almost – a play by local writer Owen Sheers – about Keith Douglas, so we were delighted by this discovery! (A quick plug: you can listen to the audiobook of the play, produced by The Story of Books, on BBC Radio 3 on 10th May, 7.30pm). 

What's the most interesting book you’ve come across?

Well, the one I am most interested in at the moment is a very special book from St James Press. It tells the story of the first book produced in Antarctica. It was written, printed (on an Albion press), illustrated, and bound during one of Shackleton’s expeditions. The book is called An Albion in the Antarctic. It is a limited edition, letterpress printed book. We are planning an exhibition during Hay Festival Winter Weekend to tell the story of how it was made. It is a fascinating, stunningly beautiful book. 

What would be your tip to customers for bagging a bargain?

Have a niche interest! I learned this from my Dad, who scours secondhand bookshops and has built up unusual collections by taking this approach. He’s a Yorkshireman - enough said!

What's the most treasured bookselling memory?

Definitely witnessing the utter delight of blind and visually impaired young people in our bookshop. Through our Blind Bookworms Book Club project, I have come to appreciate bookshops in a richer way – the smells, sounds, textures, lines, structures. It was a joy to share with them different forms of physical books that they know and love through audio or Braille editions. 

What's your best Hay Festival memory?

Meeting Vikram Seth. We went to one of his events with our two young sons and, afterwards, we stood in a long queue to have our copy of Summer Requiem signed. When we reached the front of the queue, we told him that our eldest son was called Seth. Ignoring us completely, he chatted with Seth, and then turned to his brother, Bo. He asked his name and then, after talking together for a while, he dipped his finger in his glass of wine and, on the title page of the book, he pressed on the ‘Seth’ of his own name, and the ‘Bo’ in A Suitable Boy on the facing page. 

What's your favourite book?

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I could read it over and over. The main character obsessively collects objects that chronicle a failed romance and creates a museum. In a similar way, Orhan Pamuk also gathered together objects as he wrote the novel and afterwards opened ‘The Museum of Innocence’ in Istanbul. I love the obsession of both the fictional character and the writer. I also love how the book exists in a different form beyond the pages. His book The Innocence of Objects is a catalogue of sorts. In it, there’s a Manifesto for Museums, which I have adopted as my own for The Story of Books. 

What's your top "quarantine read"?

My kids spotted ‘Coronavirus’ in Asterix and the Chariot Race, so that has to be my top choice! 

Of course, quarantine is a perfect opportunity to get stuck into a long novel, but books take all forms. For me, I’ve been enjoying laughing out loud while idly reading Calvin and Hobbs.

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Thank you Hay Festival for your support x

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