On 30 April 2024, the Booksellers’ Association announced Fleur Sinclair of Sevenoaks Bookshop as its new president, having served since 2020 as one of two vice-presidents. When we heard the news, we wanted to ask Fleur for an insight in how she keeps and curates her own books…

Tell us about the bookshelves in your home.

There are piles of books everywhere in my house that I either don’t have room for, or they’re ‘active’, as in being read, checked out, considered for stocking or an event in my bookshop, etc. It does drive my husband mad, but my kids haven’t known our house any other way. Cosy and interesting, I kid myself, but in all honesty my house is very cluttered and messy.

Art books and illustrated books tend to be on the shelves in the lounge. Books I read long ago are mostly in my hallway or the study. I love cookbooks, and the ones that don’t fit on the shelves in the kitchen are either piled on my daughter’s chair beside the kitchen table (she’s moved out of home so her chair is fair game), or open on the kitchen table to remind myself to buy the ingredients for a new recipe I want to try. I’m not an especially great cook, but I love spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon listening to an audiobook and cooking something elaborate, new and tasty for my family.

I bought a new bookshelf to go beside my bed not long after I started at the bookshop, thinking it would take the books piled beside my bed. But the shelf is full and there’s always a pile on the floor as well. This is where new novels tend to go when I bring them home, and quite a few of the books on that shelf are signed copies from authors I’ve interviewed in the bookshop – proofs with many tabs sticking out of the tops, memories of special evenings.

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

I’ve just brought home Clare Chambers’ new novel Shy People. I loved her previous novel Small Pleasures so am really looking forward to starting this. I also have a new cookbook, Italian Coastal by Amber Guinness, in the kitchen. I‘ve made a few things from it, most recently a raspberry tiramisu – my mum would have licked the bowl if no one was looking – a definite winner!

A house full of books will always make me feel more relaxed, like the person who lives there is clearly someone interested in life and other people’s lives.”

Do you judge people by their bookshelves?

Yes – but not always in a bad way! A house full of books will always make me feel more relaxed, like the person who lives there is clearly someone interested in life and other people’s lives. I adore books (obviously) but reading isn’t for everyone. Some of my most creative friends – the makers, bike/furniture restorers, etc. – aren’t necessarily big readers. My beloved godmother reads the same classic fantasy books again and again, so her shelf is pretty tiny and her books are all very well-thumbed; but every rug in her house is handmade, the wool sometimes spun on her loom, the furniture upholstered by her… The most important bookshelves, I believe, are those that belong to children. To be read to every night, to have wonderful illustrations and characters feed your imagination, inspire play, perhaps even future hobbies or careers! Those are the most important in a house.

Which is your most treasured book?

This is impossible to answer! I have some books dedicated to me by authors I love – an advance copy of Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson is definitely one of the treasured ones. The book went on to win so many awards, and I just knew it was special from the first moment it was presented to me by my sales rep. Another bit of treasure is a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves with a cover illustration by my daughter when she was six years old. I went to the Port Eliot Festival (sadly no more) every year with my children when they were small. One year there was a stall by Penguin with lots of blank cover books that you could do the designs on yourself. A happy quiet time in a tent spent drawing with festival-weary children – now I have some completely original Modern Classic editions on my shelf! Another very special book is a big hardback copy of Roald Dahl’s The Witches with my name written inside in my dad’s beautiful elaborate handwriting. It’s very much treasured, particularly because my dad died many years ago now. I had a lot of books growing up but rarely any big new hardbacks. We were charity shop, jumble sale and village fete shoppers, big library users – I used to have to choose large print Doctor and Nurses romances on rotation for my great aunt who lived with us, at the same time as choosing new books for myself on a Saturday morning at our local library.

What do your bookshelves say about you?

That I have eclectic tastes and am a big dreamer! From manuals on keeping chickens and chicken breeds (a dream not yet realised but still very much hoped for), big wave surfer memoirs, sheep farmer memoirs, the biography of a trailblazing female Icelandic sea captain, art exhibition catalogues, stunning interior design books I wish I could live inside the pages of, graphic novels, many, many works of literary fiction by writers from all around the world – I imagine, like most people, my bookshelves make a nonsense of any kind of people-stereotyping!

What’s the oldest book on your shelf?

I have a very old book bought many years ago from a charity shop with the title Consult Me! It’s full of antiquated (and potentially dangerous) advice on health and household matters. It made me smile when I bought it!

Do you rearrange your bookshelves often – and where do your replaced books go?

Sadly no. I’m too busy/lazy for most basic levels of tidying and usually have to invite friends round to force myself to tidy up and clear piles of books from chairs to make sure people have somewhere to sit. If I’m going to visit someone, I’ll often have a scout around to see if I have any books lying about that they might like, so that’s the most common way books leave my house.

Do you have any books from your childhood on your shelf?

Yes. I have lots of books I read to my children that I want to keep forever, but there are many books categorised for children that are wise and beautiful and perfect for adults to enjoy too. On my shelves are all of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, and some newer books by Jakob Wegelius – The Murderer’s Ape and its sequel, The Legend of Sally Jones. These wonderful books are packed full of all the good stuff – adventure, emotion, good overcoming evil – I’ve recommended them to lots of adults who’ve loved them as much as I do. To read them is to reinhabit your child self and be reminded of all the reasons why you fell in love with reading in the first place, all those many moons ago.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?

Definitely a book giver. I’m in the incredibly fortunate position of having access to so many books – early copies, signed copies – so my friends are rarely surprised to receive books from me for birthdays, Christmas, etc. Being surrounded by books all the time, I like to think I know exactly what they’ll all love!

Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

Ooh – well, I’d love to know what’s on Dolly Parton’s bookshelves. She’s a big reading champion with her Imagination Library, so I’d love to know what she reads for pleasure. I think she’s quite small height-wise, so I wonder if she has an amazing library with a gold rail all around and a ladder to reach the high shelves… Are the shelves painted bubblegum-pink? I hope so! Then maybe a kidney-shaped velvet reading sofa with panoramic views of the Tennessee Mountains through the library window…

The Obamas – Barack does a list of his favourite books each year so I’d like to know what makes the cut and stays on his shelves forever – also, a long time ago I listened to him in conversation with the author Marilynne Robinson. It was gold. Conversations with writers give readers such a lot; hearing the thoughts and motivations of favourite writers enhance a reader’s reading experience so much – it’s why we put on so many events in the bookshop.

Introduced and compiled by Farhana Gani
Shelves by Fleur Sinclair

Fleur Sinclair trained in photography and worked in the fashion industry before turning her passion for books and reading into her career. She took over Sevenoaks Bookshop in 2015, the third female owner in a row since its inception in 1948. Under her leadership, the bookshop was named Best Independent for the UK and Ireland at the 2021 Bookseller Industry Awards, and the best national bookshop the 2022 Muddy Stilettoes Awards. She also sits on the board of Bookshop.org.