Graham Young emerges himself in Dickens and Proust at the West Midlands' largest second hand bookshop.
It is said that you should never judge a book by its cover – but keen readers Vivienne Mills and Sarah Exley have learned that the same applies to people, too.
Whenever customers walk into their Warwickshire shop the pair can never second-guess them.
“It’s always interesting to see the mix of stuff that people buy,” says Vivienne. “I’ll think: ‘I would never have chosen that for him.
‘Or you’ll find that the scruffiest person will buy the dearest book and the well-heeled won’t. And some people will be buying books by Proust when you’d look at them and think they wouldn’t even be able to read.”
What makes their job even more exciting is that they own what is joyously called Astley Book Farm. And on that farm are 75,000 books in 4,000 sq ft of enjoyably maze-like corridors, complete with children’s hayloft and ‘‘ten bob barn’’.
By their reckoning, this makes them the owners of the Midlands’ largest second hand book store.
With room to expand and new customers seeking out their seven-year-old treasure trove all the time, who knows how far their literary adventures will take them?
But the nice thing about Astley Book Farm is that it’s a genuine heritage business.
As well as incorporating their business and Vivienne’s farmhouse accommodation, the wider 6,000-acre estate was also the 1819 birthplace of Victorian author George Eliot.
So when the women applied for planning permission to convert some old cow sheds into a book shop the change of use was quickly rubber stamped.
Today, its specialist collectors’ stocks include first edition copies by timeless authors including Eliot and Charles Dickens – but no Mills & Boon despite Vivienne’s surname.
“We’re not that far from anywhere,” she says. “But we have to sell good stuff because people make a special effort to get here.
Although you can already buy biscuits and teas and coffees on site already, a new coffee shop will open in time for Easter ready to sell provisions from a 130-year-old bakery in nearby Bedworth.
This will be a good reason for more customers to travel further and to stay longer, to meet like-minded people and even, perhaps, to attend special events as the store’s reputation spreads.
The book farm even hosted a panto earlier this month and the May and August bank holiday weekends will again feature discount sales in a marquee.
Vivienne says: “We have had some celebrity visitors, too, including Jeremy Beadle, who came a few times before he died.”
Because the counter is at the front door, every customer is greeted with a friendly welcome and expert advice.
Polesworth-based Sarah’s accountancy skills manage the business in every sense. She’s also the main buyer and in each year around a third of the farm’s 75,000 stock is likely to be sold.
The women recently took delivery of 15,000 books from a bereaved family, but stocks are usually sourced in small numbers to maintain quality and diversity and to ensure that none are ever sent to landfill.
Vivienne left school after her A levels and eventually became a deputy store manager for Sainsbury’s. Son Adam, 24, is a PE teacher.
With husband Stephen looking after the book farm’s constant odd job needs, the thriving business has solid foundations despite the shifting nature of retailing and the book market in particular.
Helping to ensure that every need can be met, expert book binder Judith Sherwood is also on site repairing valuable family heirlooms or treasured reads.
Vivienne bemoans the lack of specialised bookshops in Birmingham, but it’s one reason why Astley Book Farm has flowered when many of the pair’s friends questioned their original plans.
“Some said we were mad,” admits Vivienne.
A double Godiva Award winner for best new business (2005) and best shop in Coventry and Warkwickshire (2007), Astley Book Farm also trades on various internet sites including Amazon and eBay.
Vivienne admits the human element of book selling can be hugely rewarding.
“You generally find the people who come here are in quite a good mood,” she smiles.
“They might come to escape the World Cup, or this year, something like the Royal Wedding.
‘‘Some want to look at our railway or military books and not be interested in anything else.
“The coffee shop will be handy because a wife might have found what she wants and she’ll be saying to her husband: ‘How much longer are you going to be? She will be able to have a drink with her book while he keeps looking.”
* Astley Book Farm, Astley Lane, Bedworth. www.astleybookfarm.com