BLOG: Build a Bookshelf – Bert’s Books and Literary Citizenship

Literary Citizenship is often a phrase used in terms of authors, and how they can be good citizens alongside other writers. It’s an ideal based on the idea of cooperation, not competition – by buying and promoting the work of other writers, it makes for a richer literary landscape and also builds strong networks between authors.

I believe it is something which we can all aspire to, as readers and publishers too, building a community beyond just authors, and there are a few simple ways to do so. Try to buy from bookshops – and particularly independent bookshops if possible – as well as buying from Amazon (because realistically, we’re never going to stop buying from Amazon); try to buy from indie publishers too, try books you might not try ordinarily, read diverse authors and voices; talk about books you like – on social media, to your friends; try to leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, saying what you liked about a book, and don’t tag authors in negative reviews.

As it’s independent bookshop week this week, I want to talk about another nifty scheme which seems to me to embody literary citizenship. It’s run by Bert’s Books.

Bert’s Books is a very new indie bookshop. Entirely online, it started trading in March 2019. It was founded by Alex Call, the former head of books marketing for W.H. Smiths, and is currently a mostly one-man operation (although he is admirably storming it on twitter). He wanted to focus on diverse books, and whilst you can buy individual books from the shop, there are also subscription packages you can sign up for to get surprise books each month – such as the ‘Proud to be Different‘ bundle. On the theme of Pride Month, he has a whole section dedicated to LGBTQ+ literature, across a range of age categories. He also recently added a section called ‘Women Who Rock‘, and took advice from readers on twitter for authors he could feature. You can find details on the contents of previous bundles on the shop’s blog.

These are all of them excellent examples of literary citizenship, and buying from Bert’s Books also supports indie bookshops, which makes you a good literary citizen. If you want to be an even better literary citizen, you can participate in the Build a Bookshelf scheme that the shop runs. Every week, Alex produces a list from a charity, school, hospital, or other community organisation and asks them for a list of ten books they would like to have for their users to read. For just £5, users can buy  a book and know they are providing resources and treasured reading material to organisations which might otherwise be unable to afford them. By pricing them at £5, I would also suspect that Alex is covering only the cost of the books, and is making no profit off the sales, which is a strong ethical statement. You can also subscribe and for £5 a month you will be able to support charities and communities across the country.

The concept of ‘paying it forward’ in consumerism isn’t new – there are plenty of schemes in other areas of the world. The Suspended Coffee scheme was started in 2013, allowing people to pay in advance for coffees for people who would not otherwise be able to afford them, and earlier this week a tweet thread went viral when a man found a pay-what-you-can breakfast café in London. Taking this initiative into helping provide books seems like a logical step in a growing campaign of kindness and support given the current economic climate.

Currently there is no statutory requirement for UK schools to have a library, and those which do exist are often underfunded as they are funded solely by the schools themselves, with no ring fenced government assistance – so often money is spent elsewhere in the school first. Charities such as the Foyle Foundation can provide grants for this, but it can only do so much, whilst funding is being cut to public libraries across the country. Children’s authors have made calls for libraries to be protected, for the benefit of everyone.

Aside from literacy attainment levels in children, access to books can build confidence across all subjects and help them to build empathy and emotional intelligence – reading helps children to become better, kinder people. This doesn’t stop as we grow older. This makes Bert’s Books uniquely placed to help – by offering books, but also books which cover a wide range of voices and experiences. Bert’s is giving access to areas which need books, whilst making sure that the books they are receiving both fit their needs and are offering readers a chance to broaden their horizons.

There are other schemes as well – in Leeds, Little Free Libraries began to pop up in response to library closures and budget cuts, some funded by businesses, others by individual donors. Whilst apparently not directly associated with the worldwide initiative, you can find where your nearest library is through their website, and even donate or learn how to start your own. Currently only two are listed near London, however I know there are many more around the UK.

Also worth noting is the Give A Book charity, which works with schools, new mothers, and even in prisons to promote literacy and access to reading. You can see their projects and donate through their website. BookTrust runs a number of projects to reach children and families with reading, and conducts research into the importance of reading and literacy. The Publishers Association has also compiled a list of reading and literacy charities which can always use support. The Big Green Bookshop runs the #BuyAStrangerABook campaign, and this week announced it would gift a second copy of Proud for any that were bought to be gifted to schools.

If being a good literary citizen includes promoting books, encouraging authors, and helping build a richer, more diverse literary landscape, then helping provide access to reading across the country, particularly in places where it can be of the most value, surely is an important part of that citizenship. If you are unable to afford to buy a book, then there are ways you can help out for free. Give A Book is looking for volunteers, BookTrust have a number of different ways to contribute, or there are plenty of charities where you can send your old books for them to be rehomed – Book Aid International is one of these.

If you can afford it, however, £5 a month seems like a great way to help bring books to people who need them.

If you are a community or charitable organisation which would like to participate in the Build a Bookshelf scheme, email Alex at with details of the organisation and your wish-list! Build a Bookshelf runs weekly on Wednesdays, please check out the Bert’s Books twitter and instagram pages for details of each week’s list.


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