Maybe you can create a space, a place, a venue. I know you can build a building and I know you can run events but I’ve said before that you can’t just decide that this place will be special, that you can’t predict what venues will start to have a life of their own. But I could be wrong there because there’s a spot that has done this and not by accident. Last night I was at Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham and realised that it has genuinely become an arts venue.
This is mostly great but that thought last evening came in tandem with one that isn’t so good. This bookshop now has the same life and impact, it has become the same kind of hub for my working and social life, that the Library of Birmingham used to be. It knifes me saying that: I was so in love with that Library and it was so instantaneously important to the city, but then they halved its opening hours, cut its staff, immolated the place.
I had thought it remarkable that within weeks of it opening, so very many things I do revolved around the Library of Birmingham. I’ve spoken there, researched there, eaten there, had very many coffee meetings, it went from nothing to surely having always been there.
And now I pass it often and I regularly see tourists pulling on the door, perplexed why they can’t get in.
Across the city, there is this branch of Waterstone’s and over the years I’m sure I’ve bought many books there but to me it’s always just been where the old Times Furnishing building used to be. I can’t conceive how long ago that store closed and I refuse to look into it for fear of how old I’ll feel, but I walk into Waterstone’s and somehow I can still see the old store. The bookshop is all light and welcoming and I remember the furniture shop being dark, but the walls are where they were, the distinctive steps up to each floor are where they were.
This Waterstone’s was refurbished and reopened last November and earlier this year I went to pitch a vague event idea to the manager, Stuart Bartholomew. By the time it became less vague, by the time it became a poetry and prose event I performed at and co-produced with Charlie Jordan, it became a fair miracle that we could even be fitted in. This store runs events constantly. Take a look at the current schedule on its official website.
I can speak as someone who’s run one of these events: it buzzed, it was a success, there was great wine and chocolate. There was also Grace, who manages the events and didn’t criticise my shoving aside anyone who stood between me and that chocolate, yet whose surname I clearly didn’t bother to learn. Well.
But I can more speak as an attendee. I’ve been to talks there, I’ve been to see authors talking about their new books and last night I was at the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival. The event is in October but the programme was revealed last night and you can now buy tickets. Perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of its events will be at Waterstone’s and I know very many will be at the Library of Birmingham. But Waterstone’s is running pop-up bookstalls at the Festival and last night it hosted the launch.
I am doing bits in the Festival but last night I was watching so many happy people near chocolate. I had to skip out early, I’m in London today running a workshop, and do you know it felt wrong leaving? Going from the verve and life of this event to a deeply long and boring train ride and a midnight slump into a Travelodge. Just wrong.
This bookshop is an important part of Birmingham’s literature, writing, arts and poetry scene. It’s become so in less than a year. I think it’s obvious that this is a direct result of the effort of Stuart, Grace and the rest of the staff but this is becoming an advert so I’ll just say that really it’s down to the chocolate.