I was really excited to be going to Chelmsford in Essex yesterday to visit a place called Just Imagine. After reading their website and seeing the vast number of exciting things founder, Nikki Gamble and her team were doing with regards to children’s literature and the integration of teachers’ professional development, book fairs, author presentations in schools and a shop front too, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself and meet everyone.
This time the journey from the flat to the station was completely uneventful, on time and unexpectedly luxurious. I’m not sure if any words had been exchanged about the previous day’s dilemma but I was very surprised to be picked up by one of the VIP cars – an enormous Mercedes that a small family might have camped in the back of. The driver, Ian was charm personified. I asked him who the most famous VIP he’d driven was and he said, ‘my daughter would say it was Victoria Beckham’, who he reported was very sweet and friendly. Good to know the ice queen persona is reserved for the paps.
After arriving at Liverpool Street Station in style I quickly found Rachel Lawston, who is a designer at RH and works on Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose, doing a wonderful job with the covers. We headed for the train and within an hour arrived in drizzly conditions at Just Imagine in Chelmsford, Essex. The shop front is gorgeous and a hint of even more gorgeousness to come inside. Apologies for the terrible photo taken from the other side of the road but it’s the blue shopfront.
On Saturday’s the shop is open to the public. There’s a fabulous meeting room space upstairs and children’s area downstairs where they have events and parties – and go to an enormous amount of trouble to create beautiful themes. Halloween was just being packed up and The Polar Express was on it’s way in.
Nikki Gamble is one of the warmest people I’ve met in a long time. She’s so passionate about her work – it’s completely infectious and after meeting some of the team members we headed across the road for a bite of lunch and a chat. I think I found a kindred spirit. As a former teacher (I hate saying former, because I will be a teacher for all of my life – just in different guises to the regular classroom job), talking with Nikki, who is a professor who works with student teachers, among many other strings to her bow, was wonderful. We ranged over lots of things then headed back to the shop where Nikki turned on the voice recorder and we talked for another couple of hours. She was especially interested in the interconnections for me between teaching and writing and how one has informed the other. I couldn’t believe the time just sped by and we were then joined by a small group of teacher reviewers who work with Nikki to read and review the latest books and spread the word through their schools channels.
They were a great group – I really appreciated them coming along on a dreary night in the middle of the week. I got to tell some stories and introduce them to my characters and we talked about some of the amazing Australian authors and illustrators whose work is reaching children in the UK. I was thrilled to see Shaun Tan’s latest book sitting proudly on the shelf as I walked into the shop. They love Leigh Hobbs, Margaret Wild, Morris Gleitzman, Roland Harvey and lots more – and we love them too of course!
I cannot wait to work with Nikki and her team in the future – I think we can do some great things and I really loved meeting Sam, Kathleen, Georgia and Caroline too – what an inspiring bunch! It takes courage to set up something like this in a difficult marketplace with so much doom and gloom around the book industry. Nikki’s model is encompassing and her approach, incorporating all aspects of education from the grass roots of teacher training to professional development for experienced teachers, events, book fairs and so much more is fantastic – I suspect exhausting at times but so valuable. Essex is fortunate to have this place – but I don’t think its reach is limited to that county. I was so thrilled that I was able to visit – what a wonderful day. Thanks Nikki!