This month Anne Miller meets Leilah Skelton, a bookseller with a difference.
If you were to write down everything a 21st-century bookseller should be, you’d have just described Leilah Skelton. She crafts intricately handmade promotional campaigns for the books she loves, while embracing all the benefits of technology to find and share new titles, as well as arranging events to bring top-class authors to her Doncaster bookshop.
This year, The Bookseller named her one of their Rising Stars, saying: “Skelton has combined her love for books and crafting, and taken the art of hand-selling the former to a whole new level.” Her bespoke displays have included a motorised Peebo, the parakeet from Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which flew around the books. It earned her a mention in the Wall Street Journal.
There was a map at the end of the book showing his route, which Skelton scaled up and drew by hand to go in the bookshop’s window. She wrapped copies in old Ordnance Survey maps and made gift tags that looked like letters – in essence creating her own deluxe editions.
Skelton finds people have “only got so much to spend on something, and books aren’t the cheapest. I think pound for pound, a book is incredible value… given the amount of hours you get out of it. But it is difficult sometimes to convince people to take a chance on something.”
Her emphasis is on showing visually that a book is loved and worth trying before she has the chance to say so. Her Doncaster branch of Waterstones built such a buzz around Harold Fry that the shop ended up selling more copies than anywhere else in Europe. The gift-wrapping meant people could buy a present for themselves or for friends, with many multiple buys. Customers would come into the shop and recommend it to each other.
Skelton is a great believer in using places like Twitter and Periscope to share ideas about books – “When I share pictures, it’s not ‘look what I did’ but ‘look what we can do!’” Alongside the flying Peebo, Skelton also made tiny doll’s house sized books – so when you bought a copy of The Miniaturist it came with a miniature Miniaturist. This sense of fun runs through her work: when Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall came out in 2013 she made him a sock monster – The Sock of the Fall.
This year, the bookshop’s Christmas campaign is focused on A Boy Called Christmas – written by Matt Haig (The Humans and Reasons To Stay Alive) and illustrated by Chris Mould. Skelton recommends the book for everyone “from eight years old to old age” and describes it as “Christmas in book form… it is an origin story of Father Christmas – of how a poor, skinny, sallow 11-year-old called Nikolas became the jolly red fella with the sleigh full of gifts.
“The message is beautiful and timeless and the book has a lot of excitement and laughs and grossness to make it brilliantly engaging… every kid in my extended family is getting it.”
There will be a host of festivities around the title, including an event with the author/illustrator pair for local schools and the book will feature across the shop – with Mould given free rein to take over the shop’s window display.
He and Skelton are also doing a skill swap – he’s creating custom gift tags to accompany the wrapped editions while Skelton made him a miniature ray gun (Mould also writes about tiny Pocket Pirates). In the serendipitous way that Twitter often works, a nearby museum spotted it online and borrowed it to put in their steampunk display.
Whichever stage you’re at with Christmas preparations – making out your own wish list, working out what to buy for other people or drawing a blank for the office Secret Santa, follow Skelton’s recommendations and you won’t go wrong:
The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas
Skelton describes pop-up picture book The Colour Monster as the equivalent of the hit Pixar movie Inside Out. It features a monster confused by all his feelings, who then learns to compartmentalise them.
Each double-page spread features a different emotion and intricately constructed pop-ups: blue rain clouds rise out of the page, held on with tiny ropes, to explain sadness while a parade of yellow suns bursts out to represent happiness. A mass of big black trees spring out for fear: “If you’re scared, tell me why and we’ll walk through the forest together.”
This picture book is a delightful rhyming romp about a reindeer who eats too many sprouts then trumps his way around Santa’s delivery route. He’s incredibly embarrassed and polite about it, exclaiming, “Oh, excuse me” and “I really feel a twerp.” Skelton parcels it with little sacks of chocolate sprouts for an all-in-one Christmas gift.
Pocket Pirates: The Great Cheese Robbery by Chris Mould
Aimed at children aged five to eight, this book is about tiny pirates who live inside a junk shop’s ship in a bottle. “It’s marvellous,” Skelton says, “they’ve got a ship’s cat that is kidnapped by the skirting-board mice. And they demand cheese for ransom so they’ve got to go to the ’Place called Fridge’ and figure out how to get the cheese.”
Brock by Anthony McGowan
This tale of a boy determined to save a badger cub from the local gang is published by Barrington Stoke and is ‘dyslexia friendly’. Every aspect of the book has been considered to make it as accessible as possible – from word choice, to the length of the sentences and the colour of the pages. Skelton describes this novel as one that “packs an incredible emotional punch” and is for everyone as it is “Booker-grade writing” that “restores your faith in what a written piece can do.”
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
This is about the great granddaughters of the man who invented the poison gas used in Nazi concentration camps. The book is “basically a 400-page suicide note” but is “funny and life affirming” at the same time, Skelton says. “It’s a story of grown women who are intelligent and smart and witty and together. And they know what they want to do, and what they don’t want to do and they’ve made their decision. And their decision is that one of them has a terminal cancer and they’re just going to go out together.” Skelton says the book didn’t have “a lot of noise around it but it should have done.”
All Involved by Ryan Gattis
This novel is set in downtown LA during the 1992 LA riots. The action takes place over six consecutive days and if you look at the edge of the book, you can see lines dividing the book into six exactly equal sections. “It’s got this Shakespearean quality to it,” says Skelton, praising its “cast of characters that rotate through. So on day two, say, there’ll be a character that is just a mention – somebody sat on a bicycle or something – and then on day six you’re that person on the bicycle… Everything about this novel just blew me away.” HBO bought the TV rights earlier this year.
“I know lots of people think that giving tokens is rubbish, but I think a book token is an exception to this rule,” says Skelton. “A Secret Santa once gave me a couple of sachets of hot chocolate and a £5 book token as a ‘Perfect Night In Kit’, and it absolutely was.”
Alternatively you can make your money go further with the Waterstones Buy Books for Syria campaign. “It encompasses touchy-feely baby books right up to Booker-winning fiction, and includes some fantastic non-fiction too. It’s a mix of old classics and oh-I-keep-meaning-to-try-that-because-I-hear-great-things contemporaries like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.
Simply, if the book is £7.99, the full £7.99 you hand over at the till is going straight to Oxfam for their Syria relief efforts. As far as gifting goes, a Secret Santa pick from that display means that you’ve giving twice for the same spend.”3246 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne