Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Emma Balch from Hay-on-Wye in Wales, owner of The Story of Books, a former bookshop that has turned into an incubator for a variety of book projects and productions United Kingdom :

Tell us about your career in the library. How did you start?

As a little girl, I helped my father set up his traveling bookstore. He had large, custom-made wooden crates that would sit on a table. I unclipped the clasps, opened the two parts – like giant books – and adjusted the display inside to make sure the covers and spines were straight. As a student I worked at the University Bookstore in Blackwell, then my first two jobs after college were in publishing. Both of these jobs involved presenting titles and campaigns to shoppers in bookstores, which is a key part of the bookstore “ecosystem”.

Tell us about the shop you opened in Hay on Wye and your specialty:

It was called The Story of Books, set in a quirky little building in the famous City of Books, in rural Wales. Full of character with wobbly walls, wobbly windows and wobbly plank floors. We sold books about books, as well as books with local ties and books related to our larger projects and storytelling. The floor was dedicated to books produced by private presses, mainly printed in typography.

Tell us about the workshops and exhibitions you hosted there:

We have a collection of traditional tools and equipment for papermaking and printing, so we have installed some of the smaller items in the shop and run small-scale workshops, for example making vegetable papyrus and learning the development of papermaking.

We had a great exhibition in conjunction with The Folio Society, which followed the making of a special edition of Edward Thomas’s poems with original illustrations by David Gentleman. We have displayed the progressives of printing the illustrations, as well as samples and dummy copies of the books and cases, tools and samples for production – foil blocks, end paper samples, partially bound copies, etc

We have organized several “wayzgoose” events in the region, with our friends from the letterpress printing community. Exciting collaborations have arisen from these events. Unfortunately we had to cancel our last wayzgoose in the shop as it coincided with the start of the first Covid lockdown in Wales. We hope to host another Hay Wayzgoose next year.

What do you like about the book business?

I love connecting, and book business is the ultimate way to connect – with other cultures, with characters, with communities, with moments in time. It is possible to connect with the book trade on many levels – whether your interest is in book production, stories, genre, theme or location. Take a look at the booksellers in Hay-on-Wye and you’ll have an eclectic collection of characters who love what they do. They are also serious experts in their trade, but quite discreet in terms of buying, organizing and selling day after day. Hundreds of thousands of books in a small town, with booksellers with deep knowledge and vast experience that could easily land them jobs as curators in some of the best libraries in the world.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) you’ve handled?

The history of the books produced a piece — Unicorns, almost — by Welsh playwright (and novelist, poet and screenwriter) Owen Sheers. This one-man show focused on the life and work of Keith Douglas, the top WWII poet who was killed three days after D-Day. In addition to live productions at the Hay Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, in Bristol Old Vic and in Normandy (France) our production was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. A bookseller in Bristol, John Sidwell of Dreadnought Books, became aware of the production and contacted me. He had purchased a collection of books including poetry and a biography of Keith Douglas. Inside those early editions he had found a letter written by Keith Douglas during World War II. After immersing myself in the world of Keith Douglas for a few years, it was very special to process a letter, written in his beautiful ink handwriting from his camp in the Western Desert, with the old seal. The books also included drawings and paintings by Keith Douglas that I had never seen before, even in his archive in the Special Collections of Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds.

After the store closed, we understood that you were ready to open a book museum. Could you tell us about it?

In fact, it was the opposite! Our plan was to open a working book museum and after six years of developing this project, it was disappointing that our joint venture with the venue failed. On the back of that we rented the store so we could have a presence on the high street in Hay-on-Wye. In the end, the space was too limited to encompass my initial vision, but we spent two wonderful years there. We are always looking for an alternative place to create a dynamic book museum “where stories are told and books are made”.

Please tell us about your The Story of Books umbrella project and all the great endeavors that go into it:

As part of the museum’s research and development, we have conducted several pilot projects. Although we were unable to establish the museum, we were able to complete some of these projects. Some of the highlights for me were power of history, hay cartons, #No words and blind bookworms (click on the links to see the photos and find out more). In everything we do at The Story of Books, we aim to creatively tell powerful stories to unexpected audiences. The last part is an acknowledgment of our approach of thinking first of those who are on the margins, who might think a project is not for them or who feel left out. Our priority is to find a way to include them.

What do you personally collect?

I am a supporter of a project in Porto called ‘hello to the world‘ (from the poem by Walt Whitman). Thanks to this, I started collecting contemporary photography books that celebrate diversity and otherness. Two of my favorites are The dew of little things by Carlos Lobo (Loco Editions) and The jungle Book by Yann Gross (Actes Sud). Each has a particular resonance for me. In the first case, my grandmother grew up in Beirut (after leaving Aleppo, where she was born as an Armenian refugee). In the second, I spent three months in the Amazon city of Manaus earlier this year while my husband, who is a journalist and writer, worked on a book about the region.

I also collect used books with interesting pink covers! I love spending a lazy afternoon in the bookshops of Hay-on-Wye looking for pink books that catch my eye. The fun thing about focusing on one color is that books can be of any genre and can be a cheap paperback or a delicious first edition. I also have a large number of books with yellow covers…

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love going on slightly crazy adventures with my two sons. We try to cover the whole coast of Portugal in stages. So far we have cycled from Valença in the far north to Figueira da Foz. We cycle between 50 and 100 km per day. We pack swimsuits, a picnic, books and our roll-up backgammon set, and enjoy the beaches along the way. On the next stretch, we will stop at Óbidos, the small Portuguese book village. This summer we were in Paris for a month and on a Saturday I cycled around the perimeter of the city, along the boulevards inside the famous Périphérique. I like challenges like this, with a clear beginning and end. I also write for two hours every morning. With a few strong black espressos, it’s pure escapism for me. I sit, sip and immerse myself in an invented world.

What other projects are in the works for you?

At the moment, with Covid restrictions making live events difficult, we are working on audio projects. BBC Radio 3 has commissioned a new radio play from us, which is very exciting. ‘Pessoa-Pessoa’ will be written by Owen Sheers and we will work with the same team (like Unicorns, almost) for this new drama about the life and work of the most famous Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. He is interesting because he wrote under many (150+) names. He called them “heteronyms” and created entire worlds and characters for them.

Other projects we are working on include a series of podcasts and a community project to build a wooden rolling press based on designs published in 1769 in Diderot and D’Alembert. Encyclopedia.