Su Hall has taught scuba diving in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, worked as a yoga instructor in India, a conservationist in the jungles of Malaysia and West Africa, and sailed a 90-foot schooner across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean. “That was rather scary. We got into a storm after we left the Azores.”
But now she has her dream job, and it involves, mainly, sitting behind the counter of a tiny shop in the Lake District. Not any old shop, of course. This is Fred’s Bookshop in Ambleside, an iconic place of pilgrimage for book-lovers since the middle of the last century, and Su is only its third manager. Fred Holdsworth first opened its doors in 1956. Since then the tiny shop, truly a literary Aladdin’s cave, has been visited by Arthur Ransome, Alfred Wainwright, Melvyn Bragg, Victoria Wood – and Sir Anthony Hopkins, who asked if he could use the toilet. The poet Norman Nicholson, a great fan of Peter Maxwell Davies’ music, bought all the Symphonies on LP in the days of the music department. Ken Russell, the film director, was a regular customer as was his then wife, Vivien who was an author and photographer. Other famous visitors included Patricia Routledge, Dora Bryan, Robert Powell, Rosemary Leach, Ronald Fraser, Joe Brown and Mike Harding.
Fred had previously worked as a trainee librarian at Radcliffe Library in Manchester and then ran the book department at W.H. Smiths in Windermere. Starting with minimal stock and maximum enthusiasm, Fred slowly built up the business, and as the local college (Charlotte Mason in those days, now the University of Cumbria) grew bigger, education books formed a large part of the turnover, though walkers and general readers continued to monopolise the business. An assortment of interesting staff added much to enhance the shop’s reputation for good service and expert knowledge.
Su has taken over from Steve Baskerville-Muscott who himself took over from Fred in 2000. Fred, in his 90s now, lives at Ings on the way to Kendal and is a regular visitor. Su has worked at Fred’s for some ten years, her dream occupation after the sort of career that encompassed many a notion of “dream job”. She’s originally from the Wirral, and with a slight hint of a Merseyside accent still, but says she always gravitated towards the Lakes whenever she was back in the UK. “It’s the only place that’s ever felt like home.”
This adventurer, runner, wild swimmer, sailor, kayaker is now surrounded by books, all day, every day. But try to pin her down for a favourite, one to choose for Desert Island Discs, and she’s stuck. “I read 120 books last year. How can I pick one? There are books for different moods, for different times in your life, for different rooms in the house.” But she does gravitate towards her favourite shelves, the ones full of adventure, especially women having adventures, the outdoors, nature “and how we interact with it.”
She knows her regulars, and is best placed to help visitors. “I know how the place works, I’m invested in the local community. It’s a fantastic opportunity.” The range sold here is remarkable given the restrictions of space and Su makes sure that her knowledge is up to date. “It has to be very well curated in a small space like this, that’s a skill.” She enjoys especially the detective work. “There are people who come in and say they’re looking for a book with a green cover, that’s something to do with a crow. It’s like being a detective, trying to figure out what they are after, and that’s really enjoyable in itself. It’s amazing how often I can find exactly what they’re looking for.”
“We’re often complimented on our diverse range of books and although we can’t stock every title available, we take pride in stocking one of nearly everything rather than a 20-strong pile of the latest bestseller. Anything that we don’t have in can usually be ordered in for the next day.” The shop’s strengths lie in a fantastically comprehensive range of local maps, guides and books, an excellent range of classic and contemporary adult fiction and a superb children’s/teenage book section. “We keep up to date with all the new releases and try to mix our selection with a few quirky titles along the way.”
Her own reading taste is varied and eclectic, from the re-telling of ancient myths and legends that have stood the test of time, to modern psychology and politics, “anything that expands my mind. It’s wonderful here being exposed to concepts and stories and books I wouldn’t have come across otherwise. And I try to keep up with new titles so that I can recommend them with some authority.” So when we met, she was reading The Island of Missing Trees, by the Booker-shortlisted novelist, Elif Shafak, and David Eagleman’s Livewired, the inside story of the ever-changing brain and theories that revolutionise how we think about the senses.
Su has seen a very real conscious shift towards support for local independent shops since the pandemic. “It’s obvious now that people would rather buy from us than online, and they come in to tell us that. They come in and sniff the air, and say how they love the smell of a bookshop.” Students at the local campus of the University of Cumbria are still among their many regular customers. “It’s as if a new generation appreciates real shops rather than buying online.”
Her mission now is to engage more with the local community, to organise events, and be part of events that others organise. And Su will continue with her very successful role on social media, where Fred’s Bookshop has a distinctive and well-loved presence, thanks to her understanding of making connections online, and a sharp sense of humour. “This is where authors are really appreciating independent shops and we’re very conscious of their efforts to support us. When Richard Osman (author and TV presenter) re-tweeted something of ours, it went viral. The same happened with the Rev Richard Coles. Social media really helps to get people to know that we are here.”
The adventuring continues, of course. Su has entered the entire series of Lakeland Trail races for the year ahead, and is known to take a plunge in a lake after a parkrun. So if you’re a runner or a hiker, or want to chat about psychology or the latest novel, call in for a chat, and enjoy a browse in one of the Lake District’s most revered shops.
Header Image: Su, Steve and Fred