Shrew Books Fowey

We chat with Kate Longman, owner of Shrew Books in Fowey

Kate Longman has had a fascinating career in the book industry, including as the book buyer for the Royal Museums Greenwich. A Cornwall native, she longed to return to a more relaxed pace of life and bought Fowey’s beloved Bookends shop and reopened as Shrew Books in 2020. We caught up with Kate to find out more about her story…

Kate, tell us a little about your journey to opening Shrew Books.

I’ve worked in many different areas of the book trade, but most recently in the little London office of a big New York literary agency, Janklow & Nesbit. I’ve wanted to return to my bookselling roots for a while, but opening my own shop was a bit of a scary prospect. Just at the moment I was feeling ready to leave behind my job and my life in London, the shop became a more realistic opportunity. The long process of buying the business took months – from the business paperwork, to creating a new brand for the shop, to building a book range and then later redecorating the shop interior. I’ll be forever grateful for the help my friends and family gave me as I was hunkered down, planning and preparing myself, and then for the huge physical labour it took to prepare the space. Launching the shop under my own name was absolutely terrifying, and I quickly worked out that I basically had a third of the stock I’d actually need to keep the thing going from day to day, but… it was working! After a couple of weeks of trading on my own steam, I could see how much the shop was needed and loved by the community, and it felt sort of blissful.

What was the spark that ignited your love for literature?

I’d love to say that it was one specific book that I read as a child, but really, when I was growing up, books were just always around, on every surface and shelf there was something to read. I love feeling lost in a book, caught in new words and poetic language as much as the story, and studying literature at Goldsmiths only fed that. I usually can’t wait to unpick the book I’ve just read – I think I most often find that spark in sharing what I’ve enjoyed, whether it’s a fascinating character or a well-crafted paragraph.

How did Shrew Books get its name?

I named the shop after the eponymous ‘shrew’ in Taming of the Shrew, a fellow literary Kate. I love any act of reclaiming the pejorative, so I did this in the trail of feminist organisations like Virago Press, or the 1970s magazine Spare Rib because, really, there’s nothing wrong with being shrewish. While Shrew Books isn’t an exclusively feminist bookshop, I wanted it to stand for progress and acceptance, as well as great writing.

What influenced your decision to come back to Cornwall?

I’d loved the idea of taking on Bookends for a long time, so when it was put on the market I kept a close eye on how things were progressing. My life changed a lot in a short space of time while I was living in London – my marriage broke down, and my position at the literary agency was becoming increasingly stressful, while life in London was also becoming increasingly crowded and expensive, so as my priorities shifted and Bookends remained on the market I couldn’t let it go – it started to feel as though it was calling my name. I was beginning to resent London as I was one of the many people getting priced out, and I’d been pretty consistently missing Cornwall for almost a decade and wanted to be closer to my parents, so it all just felt like the perfect time to take on this challenge and escape the city.

Kate Longman Shrew Books
Shrew Books recommends

What’s your favourite thing about running a bookshop in Fowey?

The people! It’s a fun place to be, sat in the centre of a small community of such distinctive characters. Every person here has a unique and fascinating history, and I honestly can’t get enough of chatting to all of my Fowey friends and neighbours. Spending so much time talking to people about the books that they love brings a really special sort of intimacy to many of our conversations, since the stories you’re drawn to can serve as bottled expressions of your own character and what drives you.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

There’s nothing like finding a child the perfect book, and seeing children excitedly bound through the door gives me such a buzz – there’s a real purity to the enjoyment you get out of a book as a child, and it’s beautiful to watch. Though it’s really a total joy to find anyone something that they end up loving. You’re never going to get it right every time, but it warms my heart when someone pokes their head round the door a few days after I’ve recommended something to them to tell me how much they enjoyed it. It’s a simultaneous sense of spreading the love and a job well done.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Staying on top of the never-ending pile of tasks, as I run the shop largely on my own! It’s fairly broad, as challenges go, but the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes can be really overwhelming. Whether it’s the accounting or ordering books or fielding the fairly constant stream of queries from customers and publishing reps and self-published authors, I never seem to have enough time!

How do you decide which titles to sell in the shop?

It’s really driven by my own tastes – the best thing about running an independent bookshop is the licence you have to stock whatever you like, to support the authors you love without having to pander to big nationwide marketing initiatives. There are naturally titles here that I stock because of their undeniable popularity – I take a big lead from trade publications that flag potentially exciting titles coming out across the year, and I get sent huge amounts of info by publishers. I also love to see what other booksellers are promoting, both as a member of the bookselling community and a keen reader!

Tell us about your adorable shop assistant, Bea the cat.

Bea has rapidly become my best pal! She often spends the day with me in the shop, prowling about and sitting in the window to survey her territory. She was a stray, found roaming fields and carrying a big litter of kittens, so she had a pretty bumpy beginning, but is now indulged by locals and visitors alike while she’s sitting amongst the books.

How do you normally spend a day off in and around Fowey?

I love to walk in the local area – long, bracing rambles along the coast to get a bit of wind in my hair. I often walk a loop that takes me past Readymoney Cove, through the little woodland patches on the edge of the town, down to Polridmouth and back over fields, so you get to see a bit of everything. I do love to get out of Fowey now and again to explore some of my favourite places like the Roseland Peninsula or Bodmin Moor, and then back again to while away an evening in one of the many lovely pubs in Fowey, The Safe Harbour being one of my favourites, or even grab a negroni and some beautiful food at The Dwelling House (just a few paces away from the shop!)

Shrew Books Fowey

What are you reading right now?

I’ve always got a few on the go, so right now I’m reading Crow Court by Andy Charman, which I’ve chosen as the inaugural Shrew Books Book Club title, a book of essays by Mary Gaitskill called Oppositions, and bedtime reading is All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West.

What’s on your reading list?

My to-be-read pile is teetering, but I can’t wait to read This One Sky Day by Leone Ross, Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser, and Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

What is your all-time favourite book?

I always think that’s an impossible question to answer – what mood am I in? Where am I? Is it morning or evening? Summer or winter? But I’d say that probably, the one I return to the most often for answers and passion and wisdom is Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir.

What’s your favourite film or TV adaptation of a book?

It has to be Far from the Madding Crowd – the most recent adaptation directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It’s one of my favourite books, and he handled it so, so well. He kept in my favourite speech by Bathsheba, which won me over, and it doesn’t hurt that Matthias Schoenaerts is a bit of a dish, too.

If you were to write a book, would you use a pseudonym or your real name?

Hard to tell?! Maybe if I wrote something non-fictional, and very personal… I can understand the conflicting need to express something while also feeling shy of the attention that might bring you. We’ll see – if I ever write anything worth printing!

What’s your go-to coffee/drink order?

Always a black Americano, strong, with a spoon of sugar to take the edge off.

Random question: Who – in your opinion – is the best member of the Spice Girls?

Haha, I think I remember liking Sporty? Loads of sass, best singing voice (I could live without the trackies, though).

Looking for your next read? Visit Shrew Books at 4 South Street Fowey or give Kate a follow over on Instagram: @shrewbooksfowey