ACHUKA Special Feature

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& their amazing
bookshop by the sea

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With the radio tuned in alternately to Radio 1’s Ibiza weekend and the Ashes cricket commentary, I found myself Berlingo-ing along on a sunny day in the middle of August, enjoying the four hour drive to Lyme Regis for a visit to Laurence and Catherine Anholt, specifically to visit their new shop - Chimp and Zee, Bookshop by the Sea – which they opened at the beginning of July.

The Anholts live and work in Uplyme, in an old farmhouse with substantial grounds and spectacular views over Lyme Regis. They are not easy to find, even with the aid of a sketchmap emailed to me by Laurence. Eventually, after two phonecalls and patiently repeated directions, I found the two gateposts and cattle grid on the righthand side of a narrow lane high above Lyme, and drove up to the house.

The welcome was warm and immediate. After tea and a ‘biscuit’ (which proved to be a luxuriously large soft cookie) by the pool, I was shown Laurence’s studio and took photos of him and Catherine. Laurence had brought inside, from the table by the pool, a hardback copy of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse, to protect it from the mid-day heat, and he took from his pocket a small flipbook, a gift from his son, and showed me the miniflickmovie of a boy watching the great painter at work. Laurence is on a mission to identify that boy, because Matisse is to be the subject of the next title in the Artists series which he both writes and illustrates for Frances Lincoln.

Later in the day he and Catherine tell me the story behind their discovery of the young model who sat for Picasso, and the subject of PICASSO AND THE GIRL WITH A PONYTAIL A Story About Pablo Picasso (an earlier book in the artists series, published by Frances Lincoln, a company tha Anholts speak particularly warmly of).

Laurence is hoping for some similar serendipitous discovery in the case of Matisse.

While still outside by the pool I asked whose idea the shop had been. Catherine laughed, and said, smiling, ‘Who do you think?’ On their website, Laurence describes himself as having a butterfly mind and being happiest working on several diverse projects at once, but it is only by spending a few hours in his company that you come to fully appreciate the manner in which he thrives on having multiple tasks on the go at the same time. He currently has no fewer than nine ‘open’ writing and illustrating projects, a workload which he views as perfectly manageable, but acknowledges to be the result of having, in effect, taken a year off as a writer and illustrator in order to set up the shop.

From acquiring the property at 51 Broad Street in the centre of Lyme (in an auction) to actually opening for business has taken the best part of two years, with Laurence being fully committed to the project in a hands-on regard for the greater part of that time.

Since it opened some six weeks ago the Anholts’ older daughter had been running the shop, but she is now travelling abroad and they have recently appointed a part-time team to man the counter during the day. On the day of my visit, their younger daughter was holding fort. Her twin brother has taken his turn too, as has Catherine. Now the family is looking forward to being able to step back from day-to-day management. At least, that is the plan, though they acknowledge that there is more to ‘retail’ than they anticipated.

The small two-floor property has been fully gutted and renovated. Laurence once worked as a ‘chippy’ installing kitchens and enjoys working with his hands. So he had the necessary skills, although the renovation and restyling of the interior involved far more than putting up the usual bookshop fittings.

In the upper floor, he took out the plaster and lath ceiling (to get deluged in ancient dust and dead rats) and then had to work on the roof beams. One night while the street was quiet a whole tree was carefully squeezed inside the shop and now forms a centrepiece running from the shop counter up through the stairwell towards those renovated roofbeams.

At every turn there is another fascinating detail for the eye, including a fully anamatronic window display, a giant book which young children can climb inside to find a reading corner, a 'Seriously Silly Stories' mural by Arthur Robins and the oak tree which 'grows' through the counter right up into the roofspace in the gallery upstairs. Indeed, the attention to detail that has gone into this enterprise, the dedication and the determination to achieve a highly professional and artistic result – these are mindboggling and can only be fully appreciated by a personal visit.

The photos give the merest flavour of the shop’s impact, which begins with the colourful shop frontage and window display. In the course of developing the shop, Laurence made contact with many skilled local craftsmen and artisans, and he pointed out, as an example, the moving letters of Chimp and Zee, made for the shop by one such contact. In the short time that I was in Lyme I saw several family groups stopping outside to watch Chimp ride round and round on his bicycle.

Laurence tells me later, after we have returned to the house for lunch, that one of his inspirations was a shop that he remembers from his childhood, much of which he spent growing up in Holland. There he would occasionally be taken to a tiny shop that sold only toothbrushes, and this shop enticed customers inside with an ingenious window display.
Their new shop is a showcase for the Anholts’ work. The books – most of their 70-odd titles remain in print – are displayed downstairs, with each title or series given a specially designed display case. Laurence is grateful to publishers for their support in supplying stock at discount levels that make the enterprise viable. His one regret is that the picturebook he wrote about the fossil collector Mary Anning is, exceptionally, no longer in print. There is a rueful irony about that, as this particular title would have had immense local interest value. Indeed, the two hundred copies which Anholt managed to get hold of are already sold out.

The upper floor of the shop is, in effect, a mini-gallery, where both prints and original artwork are for sale. Laurence and Catherine plan to use the upstairs gallery for rotating exhibitions of their artwork and limited edition prints and are also keen to utilise this space for special events such as storytelling sessions.

Now that he has the shop, Laurence tells me that he would consider self-publishing if a title were one that would have specific appeal to the shop’s clientele.

The Anholts’ books do particularly well in foreign editions, and Catherine’s illustrations seem to be especially favoured by the Japanese market, where the Chimp and Zee books are doing extremely well. In Chimp and Zee, the Anholts have created characters with immediate appeal for young pre-school children, and Catherine’s illustrations are particularly well attuned to this audience, a fact appreciated by Booktrust when they included the Anholts in their recent list of recommendations for babies and toddlers. ACHUKA tended to agree with Dina Rabinovitch’s trenchant objections to the list as a whole but asking, “Why include Chimp and Zee, two monkeys without a life, when Anthony Browne's simian tales parallel childhood experience on every page?” provokes the repsonse that Chimp and Zee certainly do have a life, and one that artfully mirrors the rhythms of typical toddler experience, and that Anthony Browne’s picture books are perhaps best saved for 4+.

Catherine apparently exploits a different drawing style in the personal illustrated diary which she keeps, and she and Laurence are in the early stages of developing characters and a storyline based on this style. A display case in the shop includes some macquettes that form part of this project.

In addition to Laurence’s nine deadlines (these include four new Silly Stories to be illustrated by Arthur Robins) he has the long-term aim of completing a graphic novel for teenagers, telling us, "The central character is called Lorenzo and his gloomy companion is Unwin. The nature-girl character is Catrina. I have written two stories so far but the visual side will take some time to develop."

The Anholts, who prefer to work without an agent, astutely stipulate in their contracts that each book published by them has to include the address of their website. This has ensured that it is regularly visited. The current site will shortly be redesigned with a view to its becoming an internet adjunct to the bookshop by the sea, with the facility to make online purchases of books, prints and original artwork.


The shop’s opening times are 10-5.30 Monday-Saturday.

Happy Birthday, Chimp And Zee published Sep 2005.


© ACHUKA 2005