Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One shade of grey: how Nicola Beauman made an unlikely success of Persephone Books

When she founded Persephone Books to resurrect 'forgotten' novels and publish them in signature grey covers, Nicola Beauman had no inkling of the cult status it would achieve – nor that one of her titles would become a Hollywood movie
nicola beauman

A book’s tour: Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, arriving at Bishop’s Castle in a 1957 Morris Traveller Photograph: Harry Borden for the Observer

Bishop's Castle is a small market town in the Shropshire Marches. It is built on a hill and, being miles from anywhere, has a mood all of its own: hunkered, reticent and so amazingly unchanged that if a battalion of men suddenly marched down the high street on their way to the Somme, you'd hardly bat an eyelid. To visit is to be a kind of time traveller. Thanks to its tottering streets and its ancient hotel, it is unnervingly familiar. But only because you have read about places just like it in dusty novels and, quite possibly, the poems of AE Housman.

Perhaps, then, I shouldn't be surprised that in the town hall – built in 1760, it once housed the town's prison – quite a crowd awaits the arrival of Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, a publisher which for the past 13 years has determinedly dusted down and brought back to life the very kind of novels Bishop's Castle brings instantly to mind. But still, I can't get over it. Booksellers everywhere are in a state of doom and gloom. The town's population, moreover, is only the size of a large village. Yet I count about 40 heads: young and old, men and women, a crowd most big city bookshops would kill to gather on a cold weekday afternoon.

After a short wait Beauman, a small-boned woman in her late 60s with a girlish face, a singular energy and brogues the colour of conkers, gets up to speak. She has travelled here in a 1957 Morris Traveller, a vehicle she hired for the purposes of making a West Country tour, 470 miles in all, to mark the publication of the 100th Persephone book. So she talks about this, first: the car. For she's fallen in love with it. "If you want to take a look, it's in the car park of the Castle Hotel," she says. A rumble of laughter passes through the audience. Perhaps ancient Morris Travellers are not quite so rare here as they are in north London, where Beauman lives and works.
Persephone books

 Fans in Bishop's Castle listen as Nicola Beauman introduces Persephone's 100th book. Photograph: Harry Borden

Warmed up, she begins talking about Persephone. There are some logistics: she raised the cash for what she thought would only ever be a mail-order business with a small inheritance from her father, and its first office was in an old pleating workshop in Clerkenwell. But this stuff doesn't detain her long. It's the books she wants to talk about.
Full story here.

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