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An Interview with Peter Snell

Peter Snell, former owner of Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead, discusses his lifelong love for literature and his bookseller career.

Image supplied by Peter Snell

1. When did your passion for books and reading begin?

“I can’t remember learning to read. My earliest memory is reading the front page of The Times newspaper to my father. Reading has always been part of my life. I’m not exactly obsessed with books but as a child, I remember I always had my nose in a book. Here is my warning: be careful if you’re reading when coming down the stairs because it’s easy to trip!”

2. Which books have had the greatest influence on you throughout your lifetime?

“There was a children's book, Stripy to the Rescue, about little zebra who saves all the other animals in the circus. Apart from that, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Steinbeck – one of the short stories in particular, The Red PonyGone with the Wind, Canary Row. Those would be the books that really stick.

“The most important book throughout my life has been the shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the two-volume one. My father left school at fourteen but taught himself ten languages and was a Greek and Latin tutor. That dictionary was on the table at every mealtime, so we’d look up words and check meanings. Most sentences will include three or four languages. The OED is very important to me.”

3. What makes a good book in your opinion?

“Oh, it's very simple. A good author, a good editor and a good reader. There are some brilliant books around.”

4. When and why was Barton’s Bookshop founded?

“About thirty or thirty-five years ago, I was very ill. I was sleeping twenty-three hours a day and I could only walk about a hundred yards. I slowly did a little more each day. I went into a local bookshop and asked if I could do the odd hour here or there. I did and two years later I was running it. Ten or eleven years after that, the owners wanted to sell so my wife and I bought the business. We had to move premises but that was fun because we got all the customers to bring wheelbarrows and supermarket trolleys and take all the stock across the street.”

Image supplied by Peter Snell

5. What inspired the name?

“It was quite a dilemma, working out what to call the bookshop. It was on Bridge Street, so Bridge Books. In Mole Valley, Mole Books. Leatherhead Bookshop. They’re great names, but they’re not inspired. I realised that the most well-known bookshops are eponymous: Waterstones; Smiths; Blackwells. 'Great,' I thought, 'I’ll name it after me.' But Snell’s Bookshop doesn’t have a ring to it.

“My wife was putting up money towards it and she had her father, who died a few years ago, had thought of opening a bookshop so we decided to name it after her. Her maiden name was Barton. It’s lovely because you’ve got the two b’s – nice, fat, round letters for a logo. People of a certain age might remember Dick Barton: Special Agent – it’s sound, it's British, it's reliable.”

6. What do you think is the key to running a successful bookshop?

“Loving it. You’ve got to love it or it won't work, caring about books and people and authors. It’s making a magical space for people, that’s what it meant to me.

“Caring and bothering is also important. Being prepared to put in the time and the effort and understand what it is people want. If they want something specific then you’ve got to have a little bit of knowledge about their special area, just enough to stay with them for five minutes. I understood how computer systems and databases worked. Simply understanding the tools available to me and using them efficiently as possible was one thing.”

7. What were the main challenges of running a bookshop?

“Easiest job in the world. Starting certainly wasn’t a problem. The main challenge, once we’d sorted out how to do the bookkeeping, banking and insurance, was how to display the books. I'm not a great fan of genre. I do not understand what literary fiction is. I don't think there is such a thing. I used to keep travel guides, dictionaries, history books and a bit of science separate but all children’s fiction was put together and the same for adult fiction.

“It was difficult fighting people who said, ‘Where's your mystery section?' or 'Where's your thriller section?’ I deliberately chose to have new titles altogether in the order they came in, so not alphabetically by author, not spit up by subject. Someone who realised this once said, ‘Oh it makes you look doesn't it?’ And that's it. You have to look through the stock. Someone who is really interested in reading will do that.”

8. When did the ‘wearing red’ tradition begin and why?

“Many years ago, I discovered in a camphor chest, a Father Christmas outfit. It was my father's but it was a two-man costume, very lightweight but designed so someone can sit on somebody else's shoulders. In 1972, Christmas, I had very bad flu and I didn't shave for about two or three weeks. At the end of that had a beard and I never looked back.

"When I worked at Corbett’s, the Swan Centre came to me and said, ‘We need a Santa for Christmas, would you be prepared to do it?' From the end of September, I used to just let my beard grow. Then about ten years ago I said to my wife, ‘This is stupid, every year I grow my beard and then trim it back again. Why don’t I let it go and see what happens?’ I have to be careful at this time of year if I go out in red – children stop and look at me in the street!”

Image supplied by Peter Snell

9. Why are independent bookshops so important and what do you think the future will hold for them?

“Philip Pullman described independent bookshops as 'the lantern-bearers of civilization'. It’s because they’re not all the same. They’re independent; they go their own way so you can go to two different bookshops in the same town and they’ll have a completely different set of books and a different ethos. There’s always the chance of a serendipitous find of a new author.

“An independent bookseller's job is to discover the new and the different and bring that to the attention of the reading public. That’s what I saw as my brief. I haven’t seen anything yet that replaces that. There are online book blogs but they’re not the same as talking to somebody. That ability to bring people together and make connections is part of the indie bookshop world.”

10. What influenced your decision to close the shop after so many years?

“I was approaching seventy and the lease was coming up for renewal so I had to decide, Do I want to do this for another five to ten years? Would I be capable and would it be sensible commercially? Reluctantly, I decided it was time to stop. It was great going out on a high. I had a wonderful farewell party and it was like going to my own wake!”

11. What are your views on the publishing industry today? Do you think that it has changed for the better?

“In some ways, no, in some ways, yes. There are now not just traditional and self-published and vanity publishers but also hybrid. There are a lot more ways to get books out there. Getting books printed is better but pay within the industry isn’t great. There’s too much concentrated on the big five.

“Big publishers are run by bean counters and accountants. There are too many celebrity authors and new authors aren’t being nurtured and developed. That’s become the job of hybrid publishers and self-publishing. Publishing will survive but it’s getting very different. Some of the pricing is odd these days and Amazon has a little too much control.”

12. Who is the number one author you’d like to meet?

“I’d quite like to meet Edward Rutherfurd. Big meaty tones with a long longitudinal fictional study. He takes the theme of London and its growth and decline but follows a few families through. You recognise them because they’ve got big ears, or a nose, or a white blaze in their hair. Something so that you can track the generations. In the same way, I’d like to have met James Michener who wrote Centennial and Hawaii. Big books again. C. J. Sansom… so many!”


With many thanks to Peter Snell for this interview.

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