I feel like the luckiest person alive... how an NI woman's love for books has seen her selling at street stalls, working at a top Paris store and opening her own shop in London
Belfast born bibliophile Aimee Madill went from reading under the covers with her little cat torch to working for Shakespeare & Co, considered the finest bookstore in the world. Lee Henry discovers why she's now opened her own bookshop in London
Out of all the myriad pastimes available to modern man, there are few greater pleasures in life, surely, than reading. "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me," said CS Lewis, one of Belfast's greatest literary sons, and few would argue with that.
Belfast-born bibliophile Aimee Madill would certainly agree with the sentiment. After all, the 29-year-old bookshop owner has made a career from books, from selling second-hand paperbacks in London's Chatsworth Road Market to bagging a position at Shakespeare & Co, the Parisian establishment generally considered the finest bookstore in the world.
"I can't remember not loving books," says Madill over the phone from her recently opened outlet, Phlox Books, in London's leafy Leyton.
"My childhood growing up in Belfast was pretty blissful. My dad moved house recently and we found all of our early books. They were so well-worn and loved."
Aimee grew up with her sister Sophie and brother Matthew under the care of their loving and liberal parents, father Jan, a design consultant, and late mother Annette, who also worked in the arts.
'We had a garden, dogs, cats and each other, so we spent a lot of time playing outside together," she recalls.
"Our extended family were also close and we spent a lot of time with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins."
Books were always a part of the furniture at home and Madill's love of all things literary continued to grow when she reached school age, a seminal period when she was introduced to a wealth of new authors, genres and titles.
"At primary school, we had a library bus that visited every few months. The problem was, I had read everything by the end of the first month, so the head teacher used to have to get a separate stack that she kept in her cupboard for me," Madill laughs.
"I used to save up for batteries for my little cat torch so that I could read under the covers long after I was meant to be asleep and I had to have my library card extended so that I could take out more books. I literally couldn't stop reading.
"I read anything I could get my hands on. I went through a phase of reading every title from the Irish O'Brien Press and I cried at Marita Conlon-McKenna's Under The Hawthorn Tree, breathless with excitement."
At Victoria College grammar school in south Belfast, Madill's favourite teacher, Mrs Dornan, had an "incredible influence" on her reading tastes.
"I'm not really sure how exactly," Madill says. "But she made me feel like it was totally valid that reading was my thing, that it was okay that I was all sorts of other things but that reading made up my core".
Having always been "really academic", Madill was accepted to study English Literature at the esteemed Trinity College in Dublin.
She remembers that most august of institutions with a sense of awe. The college produced literary heavyweights like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, and Madill was proud to walk the hallowed Trinity corridors and learn from the best.
"It was atmospheric and hardcore, from a learning perspective. The reading load was intense, the lecturers amazing and being in a class group of only 30 meant that there was nowhere to hide if you hadn't done the work. I graduated, tired but inspired," she says.
While immersed in books and studying for her finals at Trinity, Madill's mother sadly passed away. Aged 21 at the time, she found some semblance of solace in academia, and subsequently completed a Masters in European Culture at University College London. There followed an exciting period of travel and discovery.
"I went abroad after, travelling to New York, Toronto, South Africa, Mozambique and other places, working on a horse ranch, as a nanny, spells as a bookseller and a whole host of other jobs. I'm not sure I knew exactly where I was going, but I always had a book in my bag."
Madill met her future husband, Johnny, at University College London, having applied to teach English via his tuition company. "He promptly gave me the job, organised a fake end of year tutor party so that he could see me again and declared to his flatmate that he had fallen in love. The rest is history! Fast forward five years and we got married in Belfast, in the beautiful Minnowburn Rose Gardens."
Madill admits to having been frustrated by constant inquiries about whether she would be a teacher or writer. It was a question that was "always asked of me", she reveals, but the writing life, and the thought of teaching others about the art of writing, never truly appealed.
"I can honestly say that I never wanted anything else but to work in the direct link between literature and the general public. To me, it's the perfect mix of the creative arts and the skills necessary for business." With this in mind, Madill set out to learn as much as she could about the world of bookselling.
She found work in various independent establishments around Ireland and in London, and set her sights on the greatest of them all: Shakespeare & Co.
"It is the stuff of dreams," Madill beams. "Anyone with a deep interest in literature can't help but stumble upon it at some point. I knew, working with books, that it was going to be my future.
"What better place to hone the craft than in one of the most successful independent bookshops in the world?
"Being in Paris was also a serious plus, as I had always wanted to live there. When I finally got a job there, I was absolutely elated. I really couldn't believe my luck. I had been volunteering there for a month or two before and couldn't wait to join the family properly.
"For the first year, Johnny and I lived in Sentier, in central Paris, and then moved east to Menilmontant. I spent most of my free time with friends, picnicking in the parks and generally just enjoying the city. I loved being there, buying my groceries, having a laugh with the local bar owner, knowing the right place to buy the best summer dresses."
Madill helped to set up the Shakespeare & Co online shop, and remembers serving a "mixed bag" of patrons from all walks of life - "a lot of tourists, plenty of French regulars and a new generation of young people who had moved to the city in search of the Parisian dream".
Having only planned to stay in Paris for six months, Madill settled there for two busy and productive years. But with Johnny continuing to operate his London-based business from Paris, the decision was made to relocate back to the English capital. Madill began selling books from Chatsworth Road Market.
"It was hard work," she recalls. "I was working five days a week managing an East London bookshop, buying the secondhand books on day six and running the stall on the seventh. Honestly, though, I did love it.
"Choosing the editions I wanted, meeting the customers and chatting over the books, being a proper market trader and swapping a book for a toastie at lunch time, it was great.
"I made it up until I was about eight months' pregnant and then all the lugging boxes of books in and out of a Transit van just became too difficult.
"I think at this point I was already itching to move on to a bigger project, a bricks and mortar location."
Madill's daughter Juno arrived happy and healthy, and during her maternity leave, Madill began to put plans together to open her own bookshop proper. Phlox Books opened in May of this year on London's Francis Road.
"Books, booze and coffee is our motto," Madill adds. "Things are going great. Leyton is such a lovely area to work in. It's full of young families, creative freelancers and, most importantly, readers, so the shop always feels like it has something going on.
"Looking out through the windows on a sunny evening, with groups of people sitting outside sipping a drink, reading, chatting and just enjoying life, I feel like the luckiest person alive."
In her spare time, Madill continues to read three or four books every week, and admits that her tastes are varied.
"Sometimes it's a doomed romance like Pages for Her by Sylvis Brownrigg, sometimes it's short stories that shine a microscope on humanity."
Asked what book she would cling to, were she to find herself stranded on a desert island, Madill chews over the prospect for a few minutes before settling on Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.
"It's a mix of easy reading, suspense and mystery, intricately drawn characters and a little bit of love, minus the twee. I own a first edition of it and it's a seriously cherished possession."
And when a long, hard day of bookselling is over and Madill is tucking young Juno up in bed she has plenty of titles to choose from.
"The bookshop has a wide collection of picture books that have brilliant graphics and we are big on kick-ass female role models in our house, so we read a lot of books with strong depictions of women heroes. Pearl Power by Mel Elliot is a big favourite, or any of the Little People, Big Dreams series.
"In the future, I plan to keep developing and exploring where we can go with the bookshop, enjoy watching my daughter grow up, maybe have some more kids, and live my life in the little corner of happiness I have created for myself."