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Tom Rowley, Backstory
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Tom Rowley, Backstory

Tom Rowley opened Backstory in south London a couple of years ago, one of a wave of new, independent bookshops that have opened across the UK. He has recently launched a magazine of the same name.

The new magazine reflects Tom’s experience of opening his shop, covering books and bookshops with a creative zeal that reveals his journalistic background—before changing direction he was a feature writer and foreign correspondent at The Telegraph and later a staff writer at The Economist.


What are you doing this Monday morning?
Putting things in envelopes! My colleague Savannah and I are a two-person fulfilment centre. The magazine’s success has caught us a little unawares and my team of six is currently trying to run a busy bookshop (with in-store and online events, book clubs and music nights) while also dispatching magazines directly to subscribers and, via three distributors, to bookshops and magazine stores on four continents. Oh, and planning our next issue. It’s a very nice problem to have, of course, but it’s keeping us pretty busy.


One of the best things about Backstory is that I get to walk to and from work across Clapham Common. It only takes 20 minutes each way but it means commuting has gone from the worst bit of my day to the best. I listen to cheesy 80s pop or a podcast, if I’m swotting up for hosting one of our events. Instead of arriving at work drenched in sweat from the tube, I often come in fizzing with ideas.

As usual, I got in about 9.30 today to be met by Denise, the shop’s manager and marketing whizz, who is an early bird and always the first in. We spend the first half-hour planning the week ahead, but also catching each other up on any gossip. She and I share something that I miss from my newsroom days: gallows humour.


Describe your work environment
A window would be nice. In retail, you work out pretty quickly to give all the best space to the customers and make do with the rest. The shop floor is beautiful (electric blue bookshelves; comfy mid-century armchairs), but our back office, in the basement, could more accurately be described as functional.

There are desks in corridors and in the kitchen, the loo is oddly at the centre of the space rather than to one side, and piles of overstock books occupy every possible space, with more space somehow to be discovered in the run-up to Christmas.

I quite like the contrast between the polished front of house and the (somewhat) organised chaos behind the scenes. It reminds me of the occasional glimpses of the uncarpeted service stairs you get in posh hotels. And it’s a metaphor for the process of producing our mag: you have to start in a raw—exciting but overwhelming—jumble to find the ingredients to assemble the carefully curated finished product.


Which magazine do you first remember?
The Sunday Times Magazine. When I was seven or eight, I used to go to the garage every Sunday morning and spend my pocket money on The Sunday Times. Then I’d spread all the supplements out in my room and sell them—at a premium—to my parents. Looking back, I guess it’s pretty obvious that I would grow up to be either a journalist or a business person. Or, as it turns out, both.

I wanted to read it (or at least look at the pictures), too. In my early teens I used to devour Heat for celebrity gossip; later I moved on to Vanity Fair and Private Eye. The latter two are big inspirations for what I’m trying to do with Backstory: I love the mix of juicy gossip and serious reportage, light and shade, fizz and crunch.


Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
The Fence. I love it. I’m racing through the latest issue, gobbling down the serious and the salacious. Ed Cumming interviewing (another) Ed Cumming is classic. And the cover slogan perfectly captures the mischief within: “The UK’s only magazine”.

My favourite thing about editing my own magazine is that I now get to claim that time reading other people’s mags is ‘work’.

And which book?
Free and Equal: What Would A Fair Society Look Like?’ by Daniel Chandler. There are loads of fiction book clubs, but hardly any devoted to non-fiction. So we run one, every month on Zoom, where people get the book posted to them and then come together to discuss it with other members before asking their questions directly to the author.

It’s a fun way to cover big topics and I set the bar really high for authors: so far we’ve had Patrick Radden Keefe, Sathnam Sanghera, Katherine Rundell and Barbara Demick, among others. I love chairing these sessions, an ideal blend of my old job and my new one.

This month I’m getting ready to interview Chandler. His book is a fascinating attempt to apply John Rawls’s principles of the conditions of fairness we would agree to if we didn’t know our own status in life to the modern day. It’s going to make for a great discussion. 

Describe Backstory (the mag) in three words
Colourful. Playful. Surprising.

In your intro to the new mag, you describe leaving one dream job (journalism) for another (opening a bookshop). How do the two compare, is the bookshop a better dream?
In some obvious ways, they’re very different. I used to work in a big office, where I could call IT to fix my laptop and bounce ideas off hundreds of people. Now I’m the boss in a tiny shop and anything that goes wrong is ultimately (and very quickly) my problem, as I discovered when the coffee machine exploded last year. I still have an expense account, but it’s not so fun when you remember you’re the one paying the bills anyway.

In more important ways, they’re similar. To be good at either job, you need to love people and have an unusual tolerance for (delight in?) their quirks and foibles. And both jobs are about retailing stories. I realise that might sound glib, but I’m not sure it is. As a journalist, my job was to fish out good stories and work out how to tell them so a reader would be gripped enough to read on. As a bookseller, you have a medicine cabinet of stories at your disposal and you’re trying to find exactly the right one to prescribe to the reader right in front of you. The latter is more direct, but they both involve the same instincts.


The magazine is a delight, anybody expecting a sensible but slightly dull mag selling books will be surprised by its bold remit. Describe the process of developing it

Thank you very much! It is still so novel for us to see our mag out in the wild being read and enjoyed by actual readers, so it is lovely when we hear feedback.

It has grown out of two places: Fleet Street and the bookshop. I’ve co-opted some of the most talented people I worked with in newsrooms, or admired on rival publications, to write for us. On the design side, I knew who I wanted immediately. When I used to write for the Telegraph Magazine, I sat next to a supremely talented designer called Dario Verrengia. He has since moved back to Italy and gone freelance but we’ve kept in touch. He came up with the visual identity for the bookshop (including the logo) and is now the magazine’s art director. It’s really fun working with someone so creative in a different medium (my design skills are non-existent, except insofar as I know what looks great when I see it).

But what makes it unique is that the mag is firmly a product of the bookshop. Megan, another of my bookshop colleagues, is the deputy editor. Everyone on the bookshop team has written (and in some cases, illustrated) for the magazine, and we come up with ideas for stories and authors to commission at our monthly “Proofs and Pints” sessions at a pub near the bookshop.


How does the magazine relate to the bookshop?
The last two years have taught me how collaborative and welcoming the bookshop world is. So I hope that Backstory can be a good complement to bookshops in general, not just our own. After years of struggle, indie bookshops are growing in the UK: I’d love it if our magazine can trumpet and celebrate that renaissance. We have a common rival (you can guess what it’s called) and it isn’t other bricks-and-mortar shops.

Obviously it would be nice if some of the magazine’s readers came to our own bookshop or checked out our website but it features—and encourages visits to—bookshops of all kinds. The current issue profiles gorgeous and inspiring bookshops from Hawaii to Tokyo, Cape Town to Chicago.

Nor is it (just) designed to sell books. Each issue will include lots of articles by authors who have recently published interesting books, but the pieces have to be great in themselves, not plugs for their books. It should be a complementary reading experience, not a mail-order catalogue.  


Highlight one story from the current issue that sums up the magazine and its mission
This story is my favourite from the current issue. It’s by Yael van der Wouden, a Dutch writer whose debut novel, ‘The Safekeep’, is published later this month.

Yael writes candidly and amusingly about a topic that often has her fellow authors squirming: how to write sex. I like it for three reasons: it’s beautifully written; Dario has come up with a gorgeous layout; and it is somehow both insidery and approachable—the perfect blend for Backstory.

What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
Sitting down with Darby, our events manager, to plan which authors we want to host this summer. Excitingly, we’re going to start live streaming our in-store events exclusively for magazine subscribers, so that you can join author interviews in the bookshop from anywhere in the world. We just need to figure out the tech first!


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