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Balancing the Books: An Interview with Dennis Harrison from the Albion Beatnik

We take a break from our series on emerging foreign poets to pay our tribute to the Albion Beatnik book store, who are about to stage several poetry readings in Oxford. Judi Sutherland interviews their man-o’-the-moment Dennis Harrison. Any of you who happen to be in or around Oxfordshire these days, be sure to go and check them out!

Life is tough for booksellers these days, but one famous independent bookshop and cultural hub in Oxford is working extremely hard to boost sales and build its brand, with a programme of poetry readings throughout November. Judi Sutherland interviews Dennis Harrison from the Albion Beatnik, which sells a range of books, both new and second hand.

Dennis, why is bookselling so tough these days?

It isn’t only the rise of online book sales and e-book readers. I’ve been in the business thirty years now and I’d say that the book is no longer central to cultural life. Having said that, our poetry section is doing well.  Poetry books have remained tactile – those that sell well are also beautiful objects in their own right.

How do you choose the poetry you sell?

I don’t come from an academic standpoint. Some modern poetry I find difficult, and the best way to get to grips with is sometimes to learn it. My tastes are quite eclectic, I like Jamie McKendrick’s poems, and John Hegley’s rhymes are funny. I hope it isn’t old-fashioned to say I love John Fuller’s work for its form and construction. I buy in a lot of American poetry, and it flies off the shelves.  I’m not sure why that is (maybe the name of the shop? – JS), but it has something to do with the tactile quality I was talking about; American  books seem to be beautifully produced, and some British presses could learn from that.

The poetry scene is bewilderingly large.  I sell contemporary and local poets like Bernard O’Donoghue, Jamie McKendrick and Vahni Capildeo, plus all the 20th Century warhorses such as Eliot, Hughes, Heaney.  My choice might be rashly termed serendipitous.

In general, I think there is probably too much poetry being produced these days and the quality seems patchy. Some presses (who shall remain nameless) appear to publish anything they are sent… There’s probably not enough filtering by editors, but I suppose it is hard for publishers to know how to back a winner.

You put on a lot of readings in the shop.  How did that evolve?

It’s been a gradual process. To begin with, people came to me and asked if they could put on readings, but for our new series, ‘Sounds of Surprise’, I was quite pro-active, which allowed me to be more choosy; I’m aiming for consistency and high quality. This time I’ve done a lot of the asking. Not everything that reads well on the page sounds good out loud (fishes out ‘The Same Life Twice’ by Frank Kuppner) – this is fascinating, but I’m not sure how well it would go down as a reading!

The Albion Beatnik is a natural space for poetry; the wooden floors help with the acoustics. We can move back some of the free-standing shelves and put in benches, giving us an audience limit of about seventy people. I’ve always loved jazz, so we have some musical events too.

What are the highlights of ‘Sounds of Surprise’?

There’s a lot I’m looking forward to. We have something happening almost every night through into early December. Liz Berry and Isabel Dixon have both read here before.  I loved Liz’s work and I’m delighted that she will be reading here this time with Kevin Crossley-Holland. Not many people are familiar with Kevin Ireland, but he’s almost like the Larkin of New Zealand, and because Kevin knows Fleur Adcock, we will have the two of them reading together. David Herd and Simon Smith will be reading from their collaboration ROTE/THRU, with music from The-Quartet – that will be an exciting evening.

Will the readings boost your sales?

Not really. I don’t want to sound like a natural depressive, but putting on a poetry evening is a lot of effort to sell another five or six copies.  But it raises the shop’s profile, and it’s great fun to do.  People love reading here – it works.

And how does the future look to you?

The jury is out on independent bookshops.  People tell me that the future is dead but I don’t think that’s true – the book trade will adapt.  Shops will have to work harder at presenting themselves and fitting what they do into a commercial framework.  The world is always changing. And if the internet ever crashes – I’m quids in.

The Albion Beatnik Bookstore is at 34, Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford, OX1 3AA.

Details of the Sounds of Surprise programme can be found here.

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