The English Bookshop in Uppsala is one of the most popular bookstores in Sweden. Last year they were nominated as the world’s best. In Stockholm, store manager Tom Henley runs his own version of the winning concept. It’s as much a place for books as it is for the book lovers.
“We have a lot of regulars, I know them all, it’s a nice bunch.”
They recently celebrated their ten-year anniversary. Through the years they’ve relocated from Old Town and found a loyal circle of customers right in the heart of Södermalm in southern central Stockholm. The store has gotten bigger and the books have multiplied – stacked into piles and squeezed onto shelves where no room goes to waste.
“It’s a little messy here, but in a good way, I think,” says Tom.
Tom is from England, but when he greets me it is in fluent Swedish. He talks about the bookstore more as a profession, rather than a job. The fact that he got to do this comes down to good timing, according to him, but his CV conveys several years of bookselling at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. A dream job for most, but he chose to leave it behind.
“I love Shakespeare and Company, but in the end I longed for something smaller, where I could interact face to face with customers. Not just selling books as if it was your local grocery shop. That’s why I’m glad I moved here. I can talk to people here. I can ask them, hi, what do you like, you should read this. That’s the best thing about it.”
Why wasn’t it like that at Shakespeare and Company?
It’s so famous. When you go to Paris you visit Camps-Élysées, the Eiffel Tower and Shakespeare and Company. It’s top ten. In the end it felt like I just sold tote bags to tourists. I missed selling books and talking to regulars, like when I first started working there.
How does it feel when you work at The English Bookshop?
The bookshop is my home. I’m here five to six days a week. It sounds a little cheesy, but I can really talk to the people that visit. Before, we were just a bookstore, but now we’re an important destination to them. They come in and we chat. They give me their book recommendations and I give them mine. There are a lot of books I’ve added to our stock because a customer recommended it to me; it’s a two-way street.
”It makes me so happy to see children interested in books come in.”
You were located in Old Town before – why did you choose to relocate?
It’s much bigger here and we needed the space for all of our new books. It feels like the people who come in here now actually wants to buy books. There were a lot of tourists who just came in for a peruse on their way back from the ABBA-museum, if you know what I mean. Södermalm isn’t a tourist destination in the same way. Of course tourists do come in, but we’re more of a bookstore, and so people come in to buy or talk about books.
Do you think it’s better to be located in more of a residential area rather than a shopping district?
Absolutely. If I’ve understood correctly, a lot of people who come here live around here. It’s a big difference from Old Town as well, it actually feels like people live here. You go to the grocery store, and then you go to The English Bookshop on your way home.
What kind of customers do you have?
There’s a big variety of people coming into the store. We have a kid’s room. It makes me so happy to see children interested in books come in. We have ninety-year-olds coming in, asking strange questions about a book that we help them find online. A lot of people think that if you work in an English bookstore, the only customers will automatically be tourists and expats. But here, I’d say that 80-95 percent of the customers are Swedish.
Why are there so many Swedes?
Mainly because Swedish people are good with English. They want to read books in their original language.
Concurrently, a lot more books are translated into Swedish – is this something you’ve noticed?
What’s interesting about translation is that all of a sudden, a lot of Swedish-speaking customers come in and ask for the same book. For example, DN did a story on Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift when it was translated into Swedish. All of a sudden it became really popular again. Which is fun, of course. That people read DN and see that this is a Swedish translation of an English book, but they don’t go to a Swedish bookstore, but they come to us and ask for it in its original language.
You have over 13 000 books in here – how do they all fit?
We’re not like Akademibokhandeln or Pocket Shop where you get the top ten or follow a bestseller list. We try to order one or two of every title, if they’re popular we might order four or five. If you look closely you’ll see that there’s only one copy of each book next to each other. That’s our system. We do it like that because we want to be able to keep as many books in here as possible.
What is your reasoning when you stock your assortment?
We buy books from England and the US, but mostly England. We order them alongside the Uppsala-store, but I tell them what I want, and then we work together. We have meetings with people from publishing houses. They show us their catalogue and what’s coming the next season. They know what books sell well here and what books we can recommend to people.
Do you, as a bookseller, have any influence?
That’s a little stressful as well. I do of course have my favorite books. So when I got here, there were a lot of titles that weren’t available and I said, now we have to get them into our stock. Choosing our stock and the work is personal in that way.
Is the interior design personal as well?
Yeah, I do struggle a little with that sometimes. I want it to have new touches all the time. We have a lot of regulars, and I think it’s good to have them see some changes in the store. So we move things around quite a bit…
[He points towards a white shelf by the entrance.]
Like this, for example, is my baby. I try to change the books in there to update it every week.
Is it a recommendations-shelf?
You could say it’s my shelf. When people come in, I can show them this shelf and what books I recommend. We have a lot of books coming in every week, so it’s quite a fast turnover with new titles.
Do you keep up with reading all the new titles?
We do read a lot. We have bookclubs as well, in sci-fi, modern and classics. I do both modern and classics. I read at least two books every week, plus the ones I want to read for myself. I always have four books going at the same time. I often read as much as I can, and try to think what customers would like the books.
”We’re quite a small bookstore, which is why I think it’s so cozy.”
Bookclubs, how fun! How do they work?
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. They are getting better and better. We’re quite few and we want to keep it that way so that everyone gets to share their thoughts. We try not to go over a ten-person limit. We have a lot of regulars, I know them all, they’re a nice bunch.
What do you usually discuss?
I share my thoughts and then we go around the room, there’s never a bad atmosphere and we choose really good books. I think the sessions turn out best when it’s 50/50 – if everyone loves the book there won’t be an interesting discussion. That’s never happened. There’s always at least one person who didn’t like the book. In the classics club we’ve covered both Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Nabokov’s works. In modern we recently did Rachel Cusk’s Transit. We try to cover a lot of debut novels as well, as much as we can.
Why are debuts so interesting?
I think it’s interesting to talk about everyone who comes here about it. If you compare a classic text to a debut for example. Everyone knows Shakespeare, but with a debut you’re not as biased. It’s a first novel, everything is new and it’s like a blank slate. There’s nobody thinking: this is going to be like her previous books.
You organize quite a lot of events – do tell!
We’re a pretty small bookstore, and that’s why I think it’s so cozy. We’re usually around 40-50 people. I started something that’s called Nordic Noir here. It’s Swedish crime writers who talk about their books in English. We had Jens Lapidus over one time, for example. That was very popular among the expats who don’t understand Swedish well enough to listen to him in his own language.
We do release parties as well, because we think it’s important that everyone get the opportunity to showcase their book. We hade a concert night when Bob Dylan received the Nobel-prize. People came and sang Dylan’s songs and we sold his books and texts. It was a success.
Are there going to be any more music events in the future?
I come from a background in music. I would love to keep hosting music events that has a connection to books, because the atmosphere was great here.
There’s a continuous debate about the future of bookstores – what do you think about your future?
We’re always going to be doing good. People will always want books. It’s going increasingly better for us here. Same goes for the Uppsala-store. I remember when eBooks came and everyone was so worried. But I knew that there is an importance to holding a book in your hand, or to come in and see it face to face. Smell books – you know what it’s like.
Do you think that this feeling is stronger than, say, free shipping?
I saw with my own eyes at Shakespeare and Company that people love books. There are people like me who love books. When we visited London Book Fair we saw 100 000 people who were there for books, and not for books online but in a bookstore. We won the prize for best bookstore of the year around that time, and I think that says a lot. People want to buy books.
Have you noticed a difference in the store since winning?
Absolutely. More people come in just to say congratulations. It’s of course the Uppsala-store that won, but it feels like we won too – we’re a family. More customers have found their way here because of the prize, and old customers have found their way back.
Why was the prize so important to you?
It’s nice, because Shakespeare and Company won the year before so it feels good to have worked for two of the best bookstores. But Shakespeare and Company has been Shakespeare and Company since 1920. What Sylvia Beach did in the 20s, Jan and Christer has done today, in Uppsala. They have worked so hard for so many years, and it feels good to get recognized in such a big way. I don’t think there were many people who were surprised to see them winning, they’ve really fought for it.
The English Bookshop recommends:
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
I would absolutely recommend this, it’s a great book about life, love, everything. I’ve never read anything like it before, it’s weird but excellent. There are so many great non-fiction authors right now who think about what life is, like Rebecca Solnit and Olivia Lang.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Read it in English, because I don’t know how they’re going to translate it – there are over 600 characters. It won the Man Booker-prize. This is his first ”novel”, whereas he earlier wrote short stories. It’s very experimental.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
We did Virginia Woolf in our classical bookclub recently. For me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. The first time I read it it felt like a punch in the face, especially because of how the turns in the second part. That’s how you write a book. It’s one of the best in English, too – I can read both Swedish and French, and of course you could translate Virginia Woolf, but it wouldn’t be the same. She was incredible with the English language.
Visit The English Bookshop Stockholm:
11623 Stockholm, Sweden
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 11.00-18.00, Saturday 11.00-16.00, Sunday 12.00-16.00
Social media: @EnglishBookshopStockholm