“In terms of literary fiction, we tend to celebrate male authors more than female authors”, says Rachel Wood, 33, owner of Rare Birds Book Club. “I think the shift is that women are now finally and seriously breaking through. People like Bernardine Everisto and Margaret Atwood are winning prizes, and Sally Rooney has been massive the last couple of years. We’re starting to take women’s writing much more seriously”.
Over the last four years, Wood has been running her online business, Rare Birds Book Club.
This involves members choosing from her monthly selection of two newly published paperbacks, written by female authors. The titles are kept secret, but synopses are sent to members, who choose their favourite, which they then receive in the post. She now has 2500 enthusiastic subscribers (not all women) from 23 countries.
Now, she’s going traditional bricks and mortar, with a new shop (opening August 6) in the former Raeburn Place premises of a Stockbridge charity shop.
“Our staff is all local, so it was a no-brainer for us when we found the spot we’re in now, it was like the stars aligned”, says Wood, who is on schedule to open, despite dealing with the fallout of lockdown, not to mention the un-seasonal flood that badly affected Stockbridge.
The shop, Rare Birds Books, will be a showcase of Wood’s favourite new writers - all women, of course, but there will be some non-fiction in the mix too. She hopes to redress the balance, when it comes to promoting female writers.
“Coming up through the education system, my reading was always dominated by male authors. I felt like the world view was really male”, says Wood. “I was really curious about what would happen if that was the other way around. What would we see if the world view was mainly female? So we started from there”.
Among other things, they’re planning to offer authors readings, shopping evenings and writing workshops. You can buy books individually, or in bundles of three, including a set that’s been created in collaboration with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, available throughout August and with proceeds going to support performers. There will even be merch, including their own candles and totes.
“We’d dreamed of having this space where we could run the subscription and online book club from the back and, at the front, have a space that was social where we could do events,“ says Wood, who is originally from Toronto but moved to the Scottish capital 12 years ago to do an MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. “From there we were like, let’s make it a bookstore. Our mission has been all about celebrating and promoting female authors and it’d be such a cool and fun thing to have it devoted to women’s writing”.
A few years ago, it seemed like book shops, along with libraries, were on the way out permanently.
However, if there’s anything positive to be said about lockdown, it’s that its re-invigorated our love of reading, as well as made us pine for the social experience of shopping. Edinburgh has seen the recent success of independents including The Portobello Bookshop, Golden Hare Books (also in Stockbridge), The Edinburgh Bookshop and the two-storey Topping & Company at the top of Leith.
“I think it was really challenging for bookstores for a few years, particularly as people started to shift to shop online”, says Wood. “Customers really understand the value of a book store now. The internet isn’t the most personal experience in the world. It’s easy to go online and find a book if you know what you’re looking for, but if you want to connect with someone or you want a recommendation, you need a shop and that experience of coming in to browse, mooch around and chat”.
This bookseller doesn’t have any truck with a Kindle either.
“I don’t think it matters what medium you read in”, she says. “My sense is that if you pick up an e-reader or read audio books, it pushes you to read more in general. Someone who uses a Kindle is also likely to pick up a paperback. They all complement each other in that sense”.
Wood, who grew up in Canada, but has family in Scotland and sees Edinburgh as her permanent home, has had a few favourite summer reads.
As far as Scottish writers go, she’s enjoyed Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes - “she’s such an interesting and exciting writer, I love watching an author evolve” - and Mhairi McFarlane. Other successes that have gone down well with her subscribers recently have included Curtis Sittenfeld’s American alternative history novel, Rodham, and Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by South Korean author Cho Nam-joo, which “really resonated with our customers”.
In the book club, there haven’t been any real clangers so far.
There have been books that have been more challenging, like My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell - a story of an abusive relationship that split the members, but gave them plenty to discuss at the live online book club that’s part of the subscribers’ experience.
“It’s such a serious subject matter, some people said they loved it and couldn’t put it down, others said they couldn’t stomach it, as it was too real”, says Wood.
Generally, the ethos of Rare Birds Book Club is that reading should be fun. There are some books that are more high-brow than others, no snobbery allowed.
Putting your choices in the hands of Wood means that you’ll most likely end up reading something you wouldn’t have automatically chosen.
“What you’re picking to read should be no different from how you watch TV - sometimes you’re in the mood for a harrowing documentary, or an Oscar-winning film, other times you want to watch Love Island. We all need balance”.
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