Saturday 3 June 2017

The Bookshop That Taught Me How To Write

by Jo Wyton

This week, I was going to write something so light-hearted it was barely hearted at all, given that it's the general election next week and we're all exhausted. And then a process that has been ongoing for two years finally reached it's thrilling conclusion: two of my close friends sold their bookshop.

Nicki and Mark Thornton have owned Mostly Books in Abingdon for over a decade. Abingdon isn't a huge town, and yet for many years it has somehow, miraculously*, sustained two independent bookshops. 

*There is nothing miraculous about it: these guys work their butts off.

The Bookshop of Awesomeness. And a Gruffalo.

I imagine that many people reading this will have a connection to their local independent bookshop. I met Nicki first, at a Kate Harrison event back in 2008 (I think!). I was headed there with someone I'd met on a local writing course, and Nicki was busy doing what all successful independent bookshop owners do - EVERYTHING. 

I am convinced I haven't ever seen Nicki or Mark standing still in the near-decade I've known them. It's possible they're magic.

I joined a local writers group that had been set up by Nicki, and from there joined the SCBWI and a children's writing critique group (with Nicki). At some point, she advised me (read: told me) to drop the middle grade novel I'd been working on and write the YA novel that would follow on from an excerpt I'd read out that evening. I went on to be one of the winners of Undiscovered Voices 2012 with that very novel and haven't ever looked back.

Critique group fun in the sun (actually it's in the shade because we're all pallid writer types)

So Nicki has, you see, been integral to my entire writing journey so far.

But she's also done what a really fantastic bookshop owner will do: she's introduced me to some of my very favourite authors. I think the first book she ever bought me was August by Bernard Beckett, a little-known Australian YA author who writes the most brilliant and unexpected books. August remains  The Book I Would Love To Write.

And on top of all that, she and Mark have really let me get involved. Independent bookshops rely on volunteers to help (if you want experience of the book industry on your doorstep, pop down to your local indie and see if you can pitch in at some events). 

At a Cressida Cowell event in dragon trainer-appropriate attire.

I've sold books with them at schools, book awards and in the shop. I've heard a dozen authors speak to school kids, watched how they deal with book signings (Anthony Horowitz was a total pro, hanging around until every single kid had taken a picture and had a scribble in their book, never rushing one of them), figured out how to recommend books to kids and to parents buying for kids, learned what sells and what doesn't, what the gaps in the market are, how booksellers run their businesses, how they integrate themselves into the community, more like a local service than a shop. Kids have been terrified by the Gruffalo in that shop, been bewitched by Hugless Douglas, coloured in and done easter egg hunts and spent their world book day vouchers. They've scoured the shelves for the next Skulduggery Pleasant and for something completely new.

A cake from my first Oxfordshire Book Awards. The OBA is the most crazy event I've ever done. Imagine about 100 kids all racing at you at once looking for something to spend their pocket money on. The tables we stand behind gradually get shoved back until our backs are against the wall and we are terrified for our lives. 

In so many ways, Mostly Books, Nicki and Mark have shaped the kind of writer and reader I am. So instead of writing a silly post (which I am sure I will thrill you all with at a later date), I thought I would say thank you to those guys and to all the booksellers who become part of our lives. 

And despite no longer owning the shop, next year will be Nicki's biggest one in books yet: her own book will find its place on the shelves after she won the Chicken House/Times competition with The Firefly Cage. Now that is a book launch I absolutely can't wait for!


  1. So sad to hear this. Whenever a bookshop closes you can feel society taking several steps back. So sorry to hear this, Nicki and Mark! I know this makes the Chicken House/Times win somewhat bittersweet...but here's to new beginnings! May many new doors open to glorious things!

    1. I shall correct the blog post. It isn't closing - it's just changing hands. PHEW.

    2. Good to know! I wish Nicki and Mark many open doors!

  2. Oh,shame! But hooray for Nicki! Thanks for this, Jo. Seeing the Gruffalo outside there made me pine for my bookshop days when I dressed up as the BFG (yep - true) for the love of Dahl. (It also turned out to be quite traumatic because of heat and inability to get the mask off in time ...).

    1. We want to see that photo of you as the BFG!

  3. What a lovely tribute, Jo. We've only had our local shop for a couple of years but the owner of The Book Corner, Jenna Warren, is just as dedicated. It's a better town for having a bookshop.

  4. This is so sad, really sorry to hear this.

    1. No, it's happy! They've done it for a decade and it's time for new things. The shop is remaining open under new ownership.

  5. Hooray for Mark and Nicki - they've done a fabulous job for many years and richly deserve a new challenge (and hopefully will also get every Saturday off now!) As Mostly Books is very local to me, I'm delighted to hear that it's going to continue under new management.

  6. Thanks Jo, your help has always been invaluable and has seen us through some tough times so lovely to hear how it has been important to your writing journey. This is a lovely tribute. We are thrilled to have found someone who wants to take over and build on what we have put in place. Sarah Dennis took over this week and we can't wait to see what exciting plans she was to develop the shop. Knowing I will be able to welcome lots of new things into my life brings such an upsurge of energy . . . and with my first book coming out next year I feel the timing could not be better. The year ahead looks very exciting and for Sarah too, so things could not have had a happier outcome. And thanks for your support, too Nick. Believe me, running an independent bookshop needs a lot of support and we know all the goodwill we have had over the last ten years will carry on for the new owner.

  7. A lovely tribute for a lovely bookshop! And it's great to see you embarking on a whole new adventure, Nicki. I can't wait for The Firefly Cage!


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