Summer book recommendations & style inspiration from Fleur Sinclair (owner of Sevenoaks Bookshop)
On a sunny, midweek morning, Sevenoaks Bookshop is buzzing with customers, helpful friendly staff and a busy coffee shop. Like a miniature version of Parnassus Books, there’s even a bookshop dog, Tuppence (named after Agatha Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence). Could this be the perfect, local bookstore? – I wondered (aloud) when I arrived to interview the bookseller and owner Fleur Sinclair. We first met on International Women’s Day, when designer Yvonne from Kemi Telford was in conversation at Sevenoaks Bookshop – what a joy to meet two brilliant, creative women at once. And, as Fleur is both a book-lover and a style fan, obviously I had to invite her to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week, and share her summer book recommendations, with That’s Not My Age readers.
When Claire the photographer and I arrived in-store, Fleur quickly ran through the small selection of outfits we’d asked her to bring along for the shoot. We liked everything so much, we photographed Fleur wearing all three outfits. Here we talk about her career (it’s no surprise that she used to work in fashion) and how she became a bookseller – and Fleur shares her top five books for summer 2022:
TNMA: How did you become a bookseller?
FS: I studied photography when I was young, and realised after a bout of assisting that it wasn’t for me. So I decided to work as a photographers’ agent. That was my career for a bit, working with fashion, still life and beauty photographers and stylists. I did that up until I was 30. This is my second career. I grew up around here and once I had three kids I just couldn’t manage the commute and look after the kids, so I stopped. I’d worked at the bookshop for a year, when the opportunity came up, the owner approached me to ask if I’d like to buy it, because they wanted to retire.
The bookshop was first opened in 1948, so has been a fixture on the high street here ever since. My landlords are the children of the previous owners. It just felt like the sort of opportunity that if I didn’t at least try, I’d kick myself for, later on. I’ve always loved reading. I left school before I finished my A-levels, so never studied English or Literature at a higher level, but I don’t know if that helps in some way? That I never lost my love of reading, I never had to read in a very analytical way.
TNMA: The bookshop does have a genuine community feel…
FS: I took over the shop and the business, and we updated the cafe to add a decent coffee machine and developed an events program. We have a children’s review scheme, where children review early copies of new books and write reviews that we put on the website. I want customers to be able to come in and experience something new. There are academic books, then fun, fluffy things – I try to cover every base. We tried to make it more spacious and accessible, for people to visit the bookshop with ease.
TNMA: And how have you found the last few years?
FS: Running a business is hard. You feel incredibly responsible for your employees. You’re open all the time, so you’re always on show. There are so many opportunities. I’ve met loads of my favourite authors and we’ve just had a project with a lovely, local retirement home, curating a selection and doing a library for the residents. We do literary festivals. No two days are the same which is a real plus point. But like any business, the pandemic had an impact and it was such a slog. When we first locked down we didn’t have a transactional website so we had to learn how to do that in the blink of an eye, alongside the deliveries. It was full-on but we managed to survive it.
In 2021, we were named The Best Independent Bookshop, which was a magnificent achievement for us. It was so great for us as a team to have that recognition. Everyone was working their socks off during the pandemic. It was an amazing accolade for us. Our customers were so incredible and were so delighted for us.
TNMA: Who are the favourite authors?
FS: One of my favourites is Zadie Smith. She’s just extraordinary and her writing is exquisite. I’m always excited about what she publishes. I’m desperate to get her down here! We have a lot of grandparents who come to the shop with their grandchildren, so we had Philip Pullman here for our children’s festival day, which was wonderful.
TNMA: Are you doing anything special for Independent Bookshop Week?
FS: We’ve invited lots of local authors, artists and friends of the bookshop to come in. Just bringing everybody together. We have a ‘walking book club’, special promotions and talks. We’ve recently started the walking book club to try to encourage people to talk about books, in a different way. We have a circular one-hour walk, which ends up here for a coffee.
TNMA: You have great style, Fleur. Please can you talk me through your outfits?
FS: The shirt (in the final photo) was my dad’s. My mum bought it for him and I do treasure some of his old clothing. I’ve got some fabulous vintage flares and he was a fan of the silk shirt. He was a very stylish guy; he was from Trinidad. I love vintage clothes and charity shop-shopping. My mum was a great rummager, so I’ve done it all my life. I love finding unusual things.
My leopard trousers are old & Other Stories. I love the mix of African prints. I’m a big fan of Kemi Telford and tend to buy one or two pieces from her a year. The coffee bean print is my new favourite. She’s also a book lover! Which is why I invited her to be a guest speaker on International Women’s Day. She’s amazing. We met because when I placed my first order a few years ago, she phoned me up in person to discuss the details – I was so impressed. The floral printed dress in the first photo is an old Kemi Telford. My other dress (above) is from Pink City Prints. I love their stuff, it’s such a nice brand. I try really hard to find small, interesting designers.
Fleur’s top 5 book recommendations for summer 2022:
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: This is a classic. I read it when I was in Paris with my daughter for the weekend. It was the perfect book for the trip. It’s about a young woman who is skittish, in the 1950s. She wants to live a fun, Parisian life and find herself along the way. It’s just joyfully gorgeous. What’s really interesting is that I’d read a book about a costume designer called Tracey Tynan, and each chapter is based on an item of clothing. It suddenly occurred to me that Elaine Dundy was her mother, and that her mother was a total nightmare! She used to go to wild parties and leave her daughter to sleep under tables and that kind of thing. So the character in the book is quite the self-portrait…
Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: *Coming out in July. This book is about gaming and I know that doesn’t sound promising but as the mother of a teenage son who is into gaming, and I’m always telling him to stop, trust me when I say it’s not my area, normally! It’s about a boy and girl who meet, become friends and go on to become game developers. It’s partly set in Harvard, partly set in California and it’s about love, it’s about living a creative life and art; making compromises and managing success. It was just brutally brilliant. You’re there with the characters, totally immersed. I read it recently and I don’t know when I’m going to stop thinking about it…
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason: This is a current bestseller. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed after reading this. The characters are so true, the pain so real, the humour truly funny, the story so satisfying – it has delightful, shambolic creatives straight out of I Capture the Castle with the humour and sibling love of Fleabag. I finished it and immediately wanted to read it all over again
Open water by Caleb Azumah Nelson: *Coming out mid-June. A recent favourite that I just adored; it’s a short novel with so much packed into it. A perfectly told story of the beginnings of love between a young black couple, both artists, living in South East London. It’s the author’s debut novel and it’s just so beautiful. In publishing it feels overwhelmingly female-led, but this author is a young, black heterosexual male. He writes with such sensitivity and beauty; the book is a Costa prize-winner.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: So compelling and beautifully written, this incredible novel is so deserving of its Booker win. It repeatedly broke my heart but I don’t for a moment regret any of the time I spent in the company of the characters. The compassion found in the pages will stay with me for a very long time. The author spent many years working in the fashion industry, and he writes in incredible detail about the clothes the characters wear.
Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography Trilogy: Three amazing books. Intense, female power comes from Levy’s books, whether you’re young or old. The writing is sublime. She writes with such clarity and honesty, and manages to brilliantly set down in black and white so many unvocalised internal (and universal) truths, I know so many women will think, ‘Yes! That’s it! Exactly!’ I met someone at a party who said her friend left her husband after reading these books…I recently read the third book in the trilogy, Real Estate, and savoured every word.