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Sara Bowers at The Steyning  Bookshop (©AAH/Alan Wright)

The Steyning Bookshop was founded by Sara and Robin Bowers in 1984, with this year marking the 40th anniversary of the independent retailer. AAH visited the shop in the run-up to World Book Day to meet Sara and her daughter Gudrun, who now helps manage the family business… 


Reading has been a lifetime passion for Sara Bowers. She was an avid reader of fiction before developing knowledge of children’s books while working as a primary school teacher. After taking a career break to raise a family, Sara would read to her three daughters and they in turn inherited their mother’s love of books. At that time, the family lived in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, where a friend had opened an independent bookshop. Sara would regularly buy new books and attend events at the shop, and dreamed about opening one of her own. This dream became reality when the family bought a house on Steyning High Street.

Sara recalls: ‘The house belonged to an elderly lady who was the companion of the renowned composer John Ireland. In later life, she had become something of a recluse, living with her cats while the house slowly degraded around her. When she died, the house was auctioned, and although it needed a huge amount of work and was really more than we could afford, we took the plunge. For several months, we lived with family and friends while my husband Robin and his brother re-roofed the property and improved every aspect of the interior. We finally opened the bookshop on 8 December 1984.’ 


Set back from the road within a 17th century farmhouse, visitors to Steyning could be forgiven for missing it and even locals go many years before discovering this hidden treasure. However, the bookshop has always had to find enterprising ways to attract customers, including building an extension to provide space for a specialist children’s books section.

The shop is also a great supporter of newly-published authors and has established relationships with many writers, agents and publishers to organise workshops, talks and book signing events. The list of celebrity authors hosted by the bookshop over the years is impressive. In November, TV presenter Clare Balding visited Steyning to promote her book, Isle of Dogs. This was shortly after a visit by best-selling novelist Sebastian Faulks, writer of Birdsong, while a highlight of the upcoming Steyning Festival includes a talk by acclaimed Irish novelist John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). Not that there haven’t been one or two who got away…

Sara said: ‘Many years ago, a friend told me about a fantastic book she had read by a debut novelist about a young magician. I read it too and was equally impressed, so I contacted Bloomsbury in the hope of inviting the author for a book signing. I was told that J.K Rowling was very shy and didn’t like to leave Edinburgh, so the invitation was politely declined. Over the years, we’ve seen fans queuing all the way down the High Street at midnight dressed as wizards when a new Harry Potter instalment was released! It was J. K. Rowling that changed perceptions of children’s books and altered the commercial landscape, and now there are more great books for children that ever before.’

Gudrun Bowers with some of Julia Donaldson’s  popular books (©AAH/Alan Wright)


While J.K Rowling’s books sparked the imagination of school-aged readers, Julia Donaldson was creating classic tales for even younger generations. In 1994, Julia published her first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, while living in Scotland. The book was adapted from lyrics to a song she had written years earlier for a BBC programme called Playboard and was illustrated by German artist Axel Scheffler. While the book was popular, it was their next collaboration, The Gruffalo, that would become a worldwide sensation. Many other wondrous stories would follow, including Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, Stick Man and Zog. Then in 2015, Julia (pictured left with Sara) moved to Steyning, significantly impacting the fortunes of the shop. 

Gudrun Bowers said: ‘Mum had established a relationship with Julia from the publication of her first book, five years before The Gruffalo was released. So, every time that Julia and her husband Malcolm visited friends in Sussex, we would try to organise a book signing in the shop. When Julia’s popularity reached stratospheric levels, they moved to Sussex permanently and chose Steyning as they knew the town well. Since then, she has continued to write wonderful books such as The Smeds and the Smoos, and most are launched at our shop.’ 

‘Julia also has a website where people can buy her books. It used to be the case that the only option customers had was to buy the books from Amazon. Julia wanted to give people the option of buying the book from her local bookshop too, and asked us if we would be interested. Naturally, we were over the moon! But there was one problem: we didn’t have a website! We had always used social media to promote events and our customers tended to phone us with book orders. So, we had to build a new website to cater to the demand for Julia’s books. As we can’t always compete with Amazon on price, Julia signs her books for us, so we are able to offer something different. We continue to sell signed copies of all her titles currently in print, and when new titles are published, Julia will usually add children’s names too.’ 


Steyning Bookshop organises workshops and signings with a wide range of other authors too. Some are held in the shop or in a marquee erected in the garden during the summer, while larger events take place at local community centres or schools. In March, author Kate Morgan presented a talk in the Methodist Church promoting her new book, The Walnut Tree: Women, Violence and the Law, A Hidden History. Other events have taken place at Steyning Grammar School, including many with best-selling thriller writer Peter James. 

Gudrun said: ‘Crime writer Elly Griffiths has made regular appearances at the shop, after we held a signing for her very first book. She is now a best-selling author, having written several series, with a huge fanbase for her Ruth Galloway books. We were thrilled to be mentioned in two of her latest novels! Jim Beckett is a Steyning author who writes very funny books, such as The Caravan at the Edge of Doom, and we love kids’ writer Vashti Hardy, who lives in Southwick and supported us with a school event on World Book Day.’ 

‘We regularly arrange for children’s authors to visit schools and have a network of teachers we liaise with, as it’s important to inspire young readers. The topic of children reading for pleasure is something that is talked about a lot in the media and Julia herself has spoken about it on Radio 4. There are some fabulous writers out there and more discussion about children’s books too, with bloggers, podcasts and Instagram sites all highlighting good reads.’ 

‘However, children from Year 6 onwards often turn away from books in favour of TV and phones. When I was 11, there was only an hour or two of children’s TV a day, so I read prolifically. Now, there are countless channels screening children’s shows throughout the day, so Pandora’s box has been well and truly opened. When they get their own phone too, then reading is even less likely. I would encourage parents to lead by example by reading their own books, and to allow time to read before bedtime. When children haven’t earned their reading wings, it can be difficult for them to enjoy reading. By reading aloud, even classic books like Treasure Island or The Hobbit, parents can bring stories to life.’

The shop has an imaginative children’s area (©AAH/Alan Wright)



The Steyning Bookshop has experienced challenges during four decades as an independent business. Perhaps the biggest came with the end of the Net Book Agreement, which ensured that all retailers sold books at a fixed price. When the agreement ended in the 1990s, large retailers, supermarkets and then later websites such as Amazon could gain an advantage over independents by selling books at a lower price. However, the Bowers’ have navigated through such storms. 

Sara said: ‘We have survived by being a community hub. We take an active role in events such as the Steyning Festival and the Country Fair by organising workshops and talks for children with writers and illustrators. Through our outreach programme, we take authors to local schools to inspire young people to read, and we even host book clubs, as we’re passionate about reading.’  

‘There are many groups and societies in and around Steyning that we promote too, acting as Box Office for the Steyning Festival as well as the local film society, choral groups and In Bloom committee. Steyning is a wonderful town with many independents and we all work together to create a supportive community. When you help others, they will help you in return and that has been key to our success.’ 

Further information:

Visit: Steyning Bookshop, 106 High Street, Steyning, BN44 3RD


Article first published in AAH (All About Horsham) Magazine on 1st April 2024.