People’s History Museum

For February’s Bookshop of the Month, we headed up north to Manchester to visit the People’s History Museum Shop. With over two hundred years of social history to cover, this independent has a wonderful range of radical books and colourful gifts on offer. We spoke to the People’s History Museum Shop manager, Amber, about the origins of this radical shop and its plans for the future.

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1. When you first set up this shop, what was your bookselling vision? What do you hope the shop brings to the People’s History Museum experience?

The museum wanted to create an independent shop filled with books and unique gifts and from the beginning the idea was that we would operate as a shop with a museum attached and not the other way around. So the shop didn’t just have to be for museum visitors, people could come and visit us as an alternative to the high street.

We cover 200 years of social history in our collection and galleries, so the variety of titles reflects that; from books about the industrial revolution and universal suffrage to current struggles for equality. Because we focus on non-fiction titles only, we hope that the shop enhances the People’s History Museum (PHM) experience and builds on what people have learnt and enjoyed during their visit.

2. How do the exhibitions and collection displayed at the People’s History Museum inform your book buying for the shop?

The exhibitions, events and collection are a big part of the book buying process and we link the shop to the museum as closely as possible. Every year we have a new programme theme for exhibitions, events and learning sessions and I research the theme, looking at what’s coming up to tailor the shop to this. The programme for 2020 is on the theme migration so this will influence the books I buy this year and the new shop range will launch in March to mark the new community exhibition opening. As Sally from Yale will tell you, if we don’t cover it in the museum or it’s not related to the programme theme then I’m less likely to stock it, I can be quite strict!

3. What are your bestselling titles at the moment? Do they generally correlate with the museum’s featured exhibitions?

Our bestselling titles at the moment are essay collections and classic works such as Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and Why I Write by George Orwell – all radical thinkers featured in our main galleries.

We do see a link to the museum’s changing exhibitions reflected in bestsellers too. 2019 marked the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre and our changing exhibition was Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest (open until 23 February 2020) so we found that we sold lots of books on the two topics.

One of our bestselling books for 2019 was First in the Fight by Helen Antrobus and Andrew Simcock. It tells the story of 20 radical women of Manchester who were shortlisted in the campaign for the first female statue in the city since 1901. This book was quite a special one for us because of its links to the museum. It takes its name from a suffragette banner we acquired and displayed in 2018. The book launch was held here in November and it was a brilliant night.

4. How have you found running a bookshop as part of a larger museum?

I’ve been running this shop for almost three years and I absolutely love it. I recently graduated from a Museum Studies MA so I get to combine my love of books with helping to contribute to vital commercial income that supports the museum’s work (as we are a charity).

I really like that I get to use my knowledge to recommend specific titles to visitors but also getting the opportunity to work with different publishers, sales reps and local makers. The shop is a key part of the visitor experience and it’s great that everything is so intertwined with what we do at the museum.

5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop in the coming months that you’d like to share with us?

Next month marks 10 years since we reopened in our current building so we will be throwing a birthday party – where I will launch our new Radical Book Club! Every second Thursday on our Radical Late openings, where the museum, shop and cafe are all open until 8.00pm, we will be holding events and discussions about new releases and classic titles showcasing some of the best books PHM shop has to offer.