Book Lover: Founder Of BookTastic Festival In The UK Says Bookshelves Should Reflect Real World

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There is a silver lining in almost every cloud. Lifelong reading addict Rachael Rogan was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2012 when she and some friends were planning a children’s book festival called BookTastic. Throughout her illness the community supported her and when she recovered, they helped her with the festival and she became known as the Book Lady.

Later Rachael Rogan opened up Rogan’s Books, an independent children’s bookshop in Bedford, United Kingdom where she lives.

She loves books, of course! When I asked her if the store bookshelves are stocked with her favorite books, I laughed at her response, because that’s the same with my bookshelf at home!

“I only stock titles that I love,” she said “Whenever someone comes to the counter and holds out their chosen title, my eyes light up and I squeal ‘I LOVE this one!!’ at which point someone in the shop rolls their eyes and says ‘She loves ALL of them’… And it’s true!” Read more of what she said below:

Question: What is the history behind the bookstore?

Answer: Back in 2012, myself and a couple of friends set up BookTastic as a small, free reading/book club for children. It was very popular, and we loved helping local children discover new books and see them come to life by creating arts and crafts based on the stories. As the group became more successful, we decided to plan our first ever book festival – until I discovered that I had Stage IV cancer...

And so when I recovered, and re-visited the idea of the book festival, the community was incredibly supportive. Year on year the festival grew in popularity, and I became known as The Book Lady… and when a local unit became available to rent, I started getting messages encouraging me to take it on and open a children’s book shop. Of course, with no literary OR retail industry experience, I told everyone to go away and leave me alone, but from that small acorn… And the rest is history! 5 years later, we’ve welcomed two Children’s Laureates (Cressida Cowell and Chris Riddell) and countless famous authors, including Nick Sharratt, Phillip Pullman, Phillip Reeve, Sarah McIntyre, David Litchfield, Robin Stevens, Kes Gray and Jonny Duddle, to name but a few!

Q: What are the best and worst parts about working in a bookstore?

A: For me, the very best part is meeting so many people. Every day someone comes in with a story – I would never have had the opportunity to meet so many fascinating people without the bookshop. I love stories, I love hearing about peoples’ lives, the things that are unique to them. The worst is the constant knowledge that we’re fighting a losing battle. My customers are wonderful, and so supportive, but every day we lose more and more business to Amazon, and keeping an independent bookshop afloat is such relentless, exhausting work. You certainly don’t go into it for the money! It is most definitely a labour of love.

Q. What are your favorite books?

A: If I had to REALLY pick, it would be my favourite from when I was a child. A Necklace of Raindrops is written by Joan Aitken and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, and it was out of print for many years – only returning to print JUST as I opened the shop, which I took to be a good sign. I’ve stocked it ever since, and pressed it into many, many hands.

Q. Do you think about diversity when you choose what books to display?

A. Diversity is particularly important to me in the choices I make regarding stock and display. My underlying mantra is that every child should come into the shop and see themselves there on the shelf. It’s one of the reasons I have struggled – there are all sorts of ‘best practise’ layouts for shops and shelving and display tables that maximise sales, and I don’t really follow them. I want a child who may be feeling overlooked, or unimportant, or bad about themselves in some way, to walk in and see themselves front and centre, and to have real proof right in front of them, that they are valuable. This means we only really have a small selection of what I would call ‘mainstream’ books – instead I look for titles that feature people of colour on the cover, main characters with some form of disability, positive representation of LGBTQ+, families of all types, strong female representation, non-stereotypical male representation. A bookshelf should reflect the real world, with the message that everyone is important.

Q. Why do you think reading is important in people’s lives?

A. Reading is the purest form of healthy escapism. No matter what your reality looks like, you can transport yourself across time and space and truly experience the world in someone else’s skin. It allows you to gain a perspective on the world that isn’t your own, and to see things through the eyes of someone very different to yourself. I think it is so important in building empathy for, and awareness of, people whose experiences are different to our own. 

Q: What books do you suggest for kids my age?

A: I LOVE The Restless Girls, written by Jessie Burton and illustrated by Angela Barrett, it’s a fairy tale but with a feminist twist. I adored it, it really transported me into a magical world, the writing is amazing and the illustrations are just magical. And for something a bit less fantastical but still totally feminist … Yvette Cooper’s She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices is a brilliant compendium of powerful speeches by women.

 Q. A lot of bookstores have closed in the U.S. Is it the same where you live?

A. It is, and sadly we are headed in that direction. As much as people recognise the importance of independent bookshops, companies like Amazon have made it just impossible for a bricks and mortar independent business to compete. I think it is sad, and I suspect it is dangerous, as there will come a time when they have the monopoly, which I believe will reduce publishing to mainstream titles that can be stacked high and sold fast, and sadly I believe this will lead to less diversity. 

Note from Elena Reads: Sadly, Rachael Rogan had to close Rogan’s Books on Aug. 3.

Q. Anything else you want to add?

A. I think now, more than ever, reading is hugely important. We’re going through a time when people are hugely divided, and there seems to be less empathy in the world than I’ve seen for a long time. By sharing our stories we become real, human, less a ‘group’ that someone chooses to hate and more a life with history and passion and love and hope. Connection is the opposite of division. Stories connect us, and the more stories we share, the more stories we read, the more connections we make.

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