How has Ilkley Literature Festival changed the town?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 August 2018

Mike Sansbury, manager of the Grove Bookshop, Ilkley, West Yorkshire.

Mike Sansbury, manager of the Grove Bookshop, Ilkley, West Yorkshire.

Guzelian Ltd

Jo Haywood takes a look behind the scenes of of one the literary highlights of the year.

Mike Sansbury, manager of the Grove Bookshop, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this yearMike Sansbury, manager of the Grove Bookshop, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year

For 17 days every autumn, the population of Ilkley doubles. The streets are packed, the pubs are heaving, you can’t get a hotel room for love or money and the tills at The Grove Bookshop never stop ringing.

‘Ilkley Literature Festival started about five years before the bookshop opened,’ said Mike Sansbury, manager of The Grove, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. ‘There was no connection for a long time but that changed when the current owner took over in 2002. At the time, the festival probably had about 50 events. Now it has more like 250 and we attend about 130 of them.

‘We store the festival books in the basement prop store at Ilkley Playhouse, which they kindly rent out to us each year for four weeks. I reckon we get through between 10,000 and 20,000 books in the 17 days of the festival.’

Mr and Mrs Townson launched the bookshop in 1978 in premises that had previously been a bakery, a piano and bicycle repair shop, a wine and tobacco importer, and a men’s clothing store. They sold it on to Andrew Sharpe in 1987, who combined it with his antiquarian business at Bolton Abbey and developed its reputation for stocking a carefully curated selection of books.

Preparations are well underway at the bookshop for the Ilkley Literature FestivalPreparations are well underway at the bookshop for the Ilkley Literature Festival

It changed hands again in 2002, when Kevin Ramage took over and joined forces with Ilkley Literature Festival as its official bookseller.

Since then, work starts early in the summer for the bookshop team as they join the festival organisers to plot which events and venues they can stock, which books need to be ordered and how, logistically, the 17-day run is going to pan out. Using a mix of instinct, experience and ticket sales, they then have to carefully work out how many copies of each book they think they’ll need to ensure all the events are covered and all the 25,000 festival patrons leave with at least one book in each hand (and 17 more in their backpack).

‘It can be tricky,’ said Mike. ‘Sometimes a big-name author doesn’t go down well with an audience and we’re left with a lot of books while, at the other extreme, a lesser known writer can absolutely storm it and we don’t have enough books for the queue in front of us. Generally, though we get it about right.’ The bookshop has to be fully staffed at all times throughout the 17 days, not just to deal with customers but also to welcome and look after writers from around the world, from as far afield as Albania, Zimbabwe and, occasionally, Otley.

‘Our festival is on at the same time as Cheltenham, so some authors have difficult decisions to make,’ said Mike. ‘Many will opt for Cheltenham because it’s bigger and closer to London, but we get a lot who fall in love with this part of the world and choose to come back here again and again. I remember Matthew Parris (political writer and broadcaster) was blown away by the train journey from Leeds to Ilkley. He just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.

Brook Street: The festival is a great advert for IlkleyBrook Street: The festival is a great advert for Ilkley

‘And, once, we had a lady in the shop who wanted to know if the latest Louis de Bernieres (of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin fame) was in yet, but she couldn’t remember what it was called or when it was due to be published. Luckily, another chap browsing the shelves popped over to tell her – it was Louis de Bernieres.’

This year’s roster of big-name writers heading to Ilkley from September 28th to October 14th include queen of the Aga saga Joanne Trollope, legendary BBC correspondent John Simpson, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, twinkle-toed comedian Susan Calman and England cricket hero Moeen Ali.

As a cricket fan, Mike has already got his name down to man the book table at Moeen’s event. If you happen to pop in to the Playhouse though, it’ll be his 88-year-old colleague Barbara in charge of the till.

‘She takes up residence there for pretty much the whole festival,’ he said. ‘If she has a steady supply of tea, she’s happy.’

The Grove, IlkleyThe Grove, Ilkley

Two-hundred and fifty events over 17 packed days is a lot for any town to handle, but Ilkley is more than up to the test. By the end of it, everyone is exhausted – but not so exhausted that they can’t summon up the strength to count the money in the till, stare a little smugly at their lengthy list of repeat bookings and bask in the glory of a job well done.

‘Some people get a bit disgruntled when big events like the festival mean they can’t go about their daily business in town, but you really can’t grumble too much,’ said Mike. ‘The festival is a great advert for Ilkley. It’s stressful but it’s great. Personally, I get a real buzz out of it.

‘The festival is a great asset for the town. The streets are filled when it’s on, all the businesses do well and there’s a great atmosphere wherever you go.’

And is it really the end of the world if there are a few books leftover once Joanna Trollope, Susan Calman and Moeen Ali have done their bit and boarded the train back to the city?

Looking towards The Grove from the bottom of Wells WalkLooking towards The Grove from the bottom of Wells Walk

‘Not at all,’ said Mike. ‘We just get them to sign them so we’ve got lots of special Christmas stock for the shelves.’ And when do the Christmas books actually go on sale?’ Pretty much as soon as the festival finishes.’

And that’s how you remain in business for 40 years in a very competitive market – canny forward-planning, hard work, smart partnerships and making sure Christmas starts in October.

The full Ilkley Literature Programme is available at and tickets will go on sale at 9am on August 28th.

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