Interview: Jane Streeter

Interview: James Walker
Sunday 25 July 2010
reading time: min, words

"I hoped someone would open a bookshop so that I could get a part-time job. That someone turned out to be me"


Jane Streeter runs The Bookcase in Lowdham, an independent bookshop formed in 1996. She also helps run the Lowdham Book Festival. Her tireless quest to offer an alternative to bland commercial retailers and support local writers was recently recognised when she was appointed President of the Booksellers Association. She was also a pen friend of a certain Alan SIllitoe...

Tell us how you got to run an independent bookshop...
I worked in bookselling in London after leaving Uni – it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I moved back to Nottingham in 1987 and had a career break to have my three children. We bought a house in Lowdham and then a small shop came up for lease in 1996 and I hoped someone would open a bookshop so that I could get a part-time job. That someone turned out to be me, and the job turned out to be a bit more than part-time.
What can an independent bookshop offer that a chain can’t?
We never try to compete on discount, but we hope we compete on service. 
I have a great team of seven dedicated booksellers and we all share the same high standards of what we want for our customers. We never say no and we go the extra mile in our approach. Plus we serve delicious free coffee!
Does size matter?
Because the shop is small we offer a well chosen eclectic selection of titles which you may not find in a bigger shop. We use wholesalers who deliver daily so most orders can be fulfilled in 24 hours - which still amazes people.
Basically we want to be a one-stop shop and to encourage people to shop locally. We are so lucky to have fantastically loyal customers who understand the importance of independent local shops. We also take part in all book trade activities and I’m really honoured at the moment as I’ve taken up the role of President of the Booksellers Association of Great Britain – the first time a small independent bookseller has done it. I hope it proves that being independent doesn’t mean you can’t have a voice.
You do a lot of book launches - how can authors get involved?
Just give me a call and we will provide the wine and the venue. We’ve held several now, including some self-published, and they have been really happy occasions. It gives the author a chance to celebrate their books and it gives us the opportunity to support them.
What can we look forward to at the Lowdham Book Festival this year?
This is the eleventh year and it’s been an amazing adventure. From very small beginnings when Ross Bradshaw and I started running events together it has grown out of all recognition.  This year we have a really interesting mix of events including David Almond on writing for young adults, Simon Hughes at Caythorpe Cricket Club and John Harvey and Jon McGregor on the books which have shaped their lives. And of course the final Saturday is always free.
How do you fund it?
We have had incredibly generous funding for the past ten years from NCC, the Arts Council and others. This has given us the opportunity to establish the festival in the Nottinghamshire literary calendar, and this year we are enjoying the challenge of being largely self-sustaining. We've got really good partnerships with local businesses, including Gonalston Farm Shop and Mainline Travel, and we also really appreciate the support of Writing East Midlands and our publisher partners. Let’s not forget all of our volunteers who work really hard with us to make the festival happen. That’s one of the main joys – sharing the adventure with people who really want it to work.
What’s your fondest memory of the book festival…
My fondest memory has to be of the very first event back in 2000. We opened with an interview with Alan Sillitoe in the Village Hall. We sold out and I remember sitting at the back, looking round at all the people and feeling an incredible sense of pride in this community. It was a moment I will never forget. We soon became good friends and I think we shared a Nottingham sense of humour. I was really delighted when he agreed that our small publishing arm, Bookcase Editions, should reissue one of his out of print titles, Leading the Blind.
How did your friendship with him develop?
I wrote to Alan to thank him for appearing at the festival and he replied. It was as simple as that. We wrote regularly, probably once a month, for several years. The letters were always hand-written and I enjoyed seeing his writing on the envelopes when a letter arrived. He sent postcards from his trips abroad too, always with a funny anecdote or some elaborate story which he liked to entertain me with.

He was always telling stories, the more fanciful the better and he had an incredible imagination. We had serious discussions too, about his childhood, his beliefs, his love of books and which ones had shaped his life. Also about his early years as a writer and how he got to where he was. I was fascinated and honoured to hear his story in his own words, so personally.
How would you describe him as a person?
He was cheeky, there was usually a glint in his eye and most conversations and letters would end on a note of frivolity - sometimes followed by a cigar together. I think he had a zest for life and for people – but in an unassuming way. I don’t think he would have been easily swayed on anything, he was a man of strong views and with a real sense of staying true to his roots.

He was very close to his family and would often bring Brian, his brother, to the bookshop. Customers were amazed. It’s hard to sum him up, but I feel really lucky to have been his friend and I will always remember his kind support for the shop and his wonderful charming wit. He remained a humble man despite his huge success.
Why is he important to Nottingham?
That’s a big question. He is important in reminding us of our city’s heritage, the industrial backdrop and the culture of youth.  There was an energy and passion in Alan which I think came from the backstreets of his childhood. He always loved the Radford pubs, unless they played music, and stayed quietly loyal to his family. His writing has placed Nottingham firmly in the literary landscape of our generation and he is known internationally as a writer with a deep understanding of the times he lived in.
How would you like to see him remembered?
With as many physical reminders as possible - a statue, a literary trail and a permanent exhibition somewhere prominent. I wonder what he would have liked – he’d probably be very amused at the idea of a statue. But we need to keep him with us – not sentimentally, but as a symbol of what is possible in life. He came from a home without books to becoming one of the great literary men of our time, and we must try very hard to find an appropriate way to celebrate that achievement.
Lowdham Book Festival runs from 18 -26 June 2010. 

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