From Tumbleweed to Twitter Fairy – The Petersfield Bookshop one year on

A year after The Petersfield Bookshop’s viral “tumbleweed” tweet, bookseller Robert Sansom reflects on how retweets from Neil Gaiman and Gyles Brandreth among many others, changed life at the shop for good

MW: Robert, tell us why you sent out your famous “tumbleweed tweet” that went viral.

RS: It was a miserable day. Storm Brendan had just cruised in from the Atlantic – the rain was relentless. A few people came into the shop during the day but not a single one bought a book. I don’t blame them, they came in wet-through, probably just looking for a bit of shelter, and had other things on their minds. It wasn’t till the very end of the day that I realised there hadn’t been a single sale.

It can be very dispiriting working in a shop with barely any customers. There are only so many times you can tidy the shelves or check the emails.

So, by the end of the day I was very ready to go home. But I wouldn’t say that I was feeling desperate about it. I checked with colleagues and no one could remember another occasion when the shop had been open and we hadn’t sold a single book.

I took a few photos of the empty aisles as I was locking up and just tweeted them likening the place to an American ghost town by using the word tumbleweed.

We happened to be having a sale on our online site so, more in hope than expectation I pointed this out with a link at the bottom of the tweet.

MW: And what happened next?

RS: I went home. It’s a half-hour drive to home and by the time I got out of the car I thought there was something wrong with my phone. The thing wouldn’t shut up and it felt hot to the touch. There seemed to be something wrong with the twitter app, so I closed it and restarted the phone.

By the time I got into the house and the phone had restarted it just kept pinging again. Then I realised that the numbers under the tweet, the likes and retweets were going round in real time. I didn’t know that could happen.

Messages started coming in. People sympathised, of course. Then someone said, I’ve bought a book, and another and another. It was great to hear but I still didn’t properly understand what was going on. Then I noticed that Gyles Brandreth had retweeted us and I thought maybe that’s given the tweet some traction.

Then – Neil Gaiman. Now, Mr Gaiman has over 2 million followers. It’s probably true to say that most of those people like to read a book and feel affection for the very idea of bookshops. That was when it really took off.

Thousands of likes, then ten-thousand, fifteen… Messages just kept coming. I was answering as many as I could but by 2am I couldn’t keep going any more. It wasn’t till the next day when I got to work I discovered there had been over £1000 of books ordered overnight.

It wasn’t till the next day that I discovered it had been you who had put the tweet in front of Neil Gaiman that evening.

MW: And what about the following week?

RS: Honestly it still gives me chills to think about it. As the days unfolded it got bigger and bigger. The orders kept coming in. People all around the world heard the story and wanted to be involved. We had to organise volunteers on a Sunday to come and help pack books. We basically lived in the shop for two weeks.

I don’t know how it first got into the press but within a few hours we had phone calls coming in. John did all the television and I did the radio interviews. On one day alone there were 25 radio interviews. Local and national television news crews and The One Show were all falling over each other in the shop.

Every time you went to get a book from a cabinet to fulfil an order there was a camera pointing at you. Newspapers around the world and all the nationals here found a way to cover the story. It reached something of a climax in the shop on the Saturday afterwards when the customers, jammed almost shoulder to shoulder in the shop were moving around grinning madly and asking each other how far they had travelled: one couple came from Manchester.

There wasn’t a great deal of time to stop and think about it or process what was happening but every now and again during the weeks that followed you would stop and choke-up a little bit at just how amazing it was to be at the centre of such an outpouring of concern. We went from having a fairly ordinary 1,200 followers to about 22,000 in just a few days. We took 36 sacks of books to the Post Office.

The Petersfield Booshop front desk
Robert Sansom, bookseller, tweeting away, while shop owner John Westwood looks on.
MW: And since then? Did you keep your followers? And if so, what’s the secret to keeping them?

RS: Our following has stayed more or less steady on twitter ever since. It has been fascinating getting to know a group of people like that. Some very regularly interacting, others not, but one of the most interesting things about it has been that you get instant reaction. The social media paradigm of ‘likes’ means you get a very immediate sense of what people enjoy about your output and what doesn’t interest them.

I know now that our followers are big fans of natural history books, they go nuts for Folio Society books but they aren’t too moved by poetry. Pictures of books are often well-liked but people clearly respond really well to hearing the funny little goings on in the bookshop too.

MW: And what about the rest of what turned out to be a really tough year?

RS: It wasn’t very long after all this had finally begun to slow a little that Covid was suddenly upon us and we were told to close by the government. We had gone from Viral to Virus.

But now, we had 22,000 people to talk to. We don’t need to do a ‘hard sell’, I just wave a pretty book at people on twitter and usually within the hour someone enquires about how much it is: direct messages, paypal and email mean that they can often have bought it and the book is in the post within a couple of hours of me tweeting it.

Thinking about it, I honestly don’t know what we give our followers but I suppose I hope that they enjoy the books and feel some kind of connection to the shop, even if they are on the other side of the world. We have so very many new customers now and we know what they are after so we often contact them directly if something comes in that we think they will like, all because of an initial connection on Twitter.

I hope also they get some optimism. I think optimism is a really important quality right now. It is very easy to be pushed into reacting against things all the time and sometimes hard to turn and be ‘for’ things.

I believe passionately that books are not just an escape but a way of gaining a broader perspective and understanding that there are always things to be moving towards.

Robert Sansom, Petersfield Bookshop
MW: And how did “the Twitter Fairy” come into being?

RS: (Laughs) Oliver who runs the best bookshop twitter account in the world for Sotheran’s in London occasionally refers to himself as their Twitter Goblin, so the Twitter Fairy was a bit of a tongue in cheek homage really. We also have a Packing Troll (John) and I notice another bookshop now talks about its Social Gnome so clearly the whole thing is getting very out of control. There are some big challenges ahead still for sure. We still have just a skeleton staff and we had created a number of shop units some years ago from the huge footprint of the original shop and two of those have packed up and left this year so we have lost two significant rents. But the shop is now in a better spot financially than it has been for a long time.

And to celebrate a year on from that tweet, we had author Gyles Brandreth take over from the Twitter Fairy on Sunday 8th, giving wonderful readings from all sorts of books.

MW: And from what I see of your tweets, it’s not all about you?

RS: Right. We have been trying to give a little of it back or ‘pass it forward’ I think is what the young people say. Having a lot of people to talk to means it’s possible to ask them to give someone else, maybe another bookshop or a small publisher, a bit of a boost too. We are not talking to 2m people like Neil Gaiman but it seems to have made a difference sometimes when we do a ‘shout out’ to other people and ask our followers to take a look at them.

MW: Do you have any advice to other people struggling during this time, and to other traditional retailers who have struggled generally to keep their heads above water?

R.S. I wouldn’t presume to give advice. What happened to us was luck – lightning strike, one in a million kind of luck. I often reflect on how many things had to go right for it to have happened as it did. For example, you had to see the original tweet at the right time and think to yourself, in what I assume was no more than a casual moment at that point, to @ Neil Gaiman with it.

Then Neil Gaiman had to be online at the right time to both see that, and he had to decide to retweet it. I know as someone running a twitter account of tens of thousands how many messages and @s we get everyday, I can’t imagine how many he must get and so the decision to retweet or comment must have been a spur of the moment thing. Beyond that though, it didn’t have to take off. He could have retweeted it, and we could have had numerous messages of support and a few book orders and that could have been it. There was an indefinable something that made this one take off, not just online but in the real world of buying and selling books and it travelled around the world. I suppose if I was going to offer advice it can only be ‘ride your luck’, when something comes along, make the most of it you possibly can because …optimism.

And really, it was just extraordinary luck. The last time I looked, that tweet had been seen by 4.3million people!

Kind Words On A Stormy Day

Wow. That was totally unexpected.

Yesterday, I was looking through my tweets when I saw a message from some friends. It really moved me, because I’ve known them a long time and I hated to think things weren’t going so well for them. It was this one:

That feeling was painfully familiar. I worked for seven years as a rare bookdealer. There were times I sat in my office waiting for a sale to come in, not knowing what else to do, feeling lonely as hell – and getting desperate about whether I’d be able to pay the rent and heating. There was something else – sweet nostalgia. Because I’ve bought books at the Petersfield Bookshop since I was a kid.

I remember going in and seeing the (now long-departed) grand patriarch Frank Westwood sitting in state at his desk, surrounded by piles of books like an aged magician with all the tools to hand to cast the spell of words. He seemed terribly fierce when I was a kid, but as I grew older and I got to know him well, I realised what an amazing font of knowledge he was.

It was Frank who sold me two beautiful first editions – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – in my early days as a bookdealer, knocking £400 of the price and bringing them down to £1200 to “give me a chance to sell them”. I loved the old boy and would go in and sit and chat with him for hours about books, about the book trade, auctions and much more besides.

Then, after he died, his son John Westwood took over – just as the market in rare books began to change beyond all recognition. I was an entirely online solitary bookdealer, but John had to cope with wages, rates, members of the public, keeping the shop presentable, and much more besides as the retail business and the sale of books metamorphosed. I watched John fight to keep the business going during the credit crunch when no-one had any money. I watched the general public’s habit of getting out to physical shops decline – and I saw everyone in the business at Petersfield Bookshop keep at it, as the shop changed, responded and moved with the times to keep up with the market, all the while creating an environment visitors will love to visit.

There is plenty to love! The shop has a wonderful cosiness to it, and John (who is himself a true eccentric in the nicest possible way) has moulded it to fit his personality. It has unexpected manikins on the walls and ceilings, little figures peering out, and, sitting at its heart, a church organ that doubles as a bookshelf. Perhaps most aptly, considering how much is crammed in this shop, there is even a bookcase shaped like the Tardis. That police call box is filled with crime novels – and the whole shop is stuffed with treasure!

John Westwood’s personal stamp is everywhere!

So, when I saw that tweet, I was pretty sad. It seemed so forlorn. And I knew that to keep the shop going in a rough patch, John had sold his flat and was sleeping on a camp bed above the shop. What to do?

It was then I remembered someone I deeply respect online for his kindness and willingness to help others – and a man whom, I admit, I’ve got a bit of an obsession about because he was born in my home town of Portsmouth (and I am a nut about Portsmouth writers). So, I sent Neil Gaiman this:

A little later I got a message from the boys at the bookshop saying: “We owe you a drink.” I checked in with them to see what was happening, and found this:

Amazing. Of course, they didn’t owe me a drink, but they did owe Neil one, as I pointed out to them. I tweeted this to Neil again – because, hey, why not? And Neil responded kindly to that, too, with encouraging words – just a simple “I’m so glad”. Yet those few words will make an extraordinary difference.

Today, with the weather calmed and a bright sunny day shining down on a very wet and battered Hampshire recovering from a violent storm, I went in to see them. Overnight, they had received 300 messages and enquiries, and made a pile of sales. Even better, BBC Radio 4 news had featured them in a 5 minute interview on World At One, and they appeared in an article in The Guardian. Big, brilliant eccentric John came in, walked over to me, gave me a hug, and said: “Matt, we’re in the middle of a twitterstorm – in a good way!”

That’s me in the middle with The Petersfield Bookshop Crew – John Westwood on the left, and Robert Sansom on the right!

Here’s the thing. The Petersfield Bookshop has been around for over 100 years, and has been in the same family for 60 of them. For me, it’s a home from home. I love that shop. I love the smell of the old books, the sheen of the leather, the engravings and pictures on the wall. It’s precious. I hope, when you go there – you’ll love it just as much as me!

We live in a strange world. It’s the weirdest thing to think that a kind man whom I’ve never met on the other side of the world can make a huge difference to someone who has been down on their luck – just with a simple tweet. Let’s hold on to that thought amidst all the terrible news we keep reading and being told. We’re lucky to have people in the world who recognise that the fame they enjoy also has powerful influence – and with that power comes a responsibility to use it – not only wisely and ethically – but also kindly.

Neil Gaiman’s kind words through the ether on a rain-lashed night are exactly what it means to pay the love forwards. What a great start to 2020! Let’s hope it’s a good one for the guys at The Petersfield Bookshop and for everyone.

And generally, let’s have more kindness in the world. Why not? 🙂

For an update a year on from this lovely event, read From Tumbleweed to Twitter Fairy – The Petersfield Bookshop One Year On.