By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: A little girl grins as the man on the sidewalk wearing the wolf mask stops her and asks: “Have you been to a ‘monster supply shop’ before?” It’s not the sort of question you get asked every day, but it works and, looking a bit sheepish (never a good idea when a wolf is around), the girl and her mother enter what is arguably London’s most unusual, new literary institution: The Ministry of Stories.
Inside, it’s great fun. The store is in Hoxton, a poor neighborhood of north east London, away from the tourist map. It is laid out a bit like an old pharmacy or confectionery shop from yesteryear, with dark wood shelves and rows of tall, glass sweet jars and lots and lots of tins with the strangest labels: Escalating Panic, Mortal Fear, The Heebie Jeebies.
A customer smiles and takes down a tin of “Collywobbles.” Inside, she finds a piece of paper, folded rather like pharmaceutical instructions and tucked next to a bag of mints. Only the paper doesn’t contain medical instructions at all, but a short story by none other than Nick Hornby. In the other tins are tales from Zadie Smith and David Nicholls, while small jars are labeled Thickest Human Snot (lemon curd) and Brain Jam (raspberry preserve, etc). In decades to come, these “tinned” short stories will surely be collector’s items, displayed in rare book dealer’s windows, alongside early Kindles and other curios of these first years of the new century.
But back to our little girl. She’s made her way past the tins now and is greeted by a man wearing an apron at the far end, standing by a noticeboard. But it isn’t just a noticeboard –- it’s a secret door! “Do you know what’s behind here?” he asks. She shakes her head. “It’s the Ministry of Stories!” The girl looks puzzled. “We’re making up stories in there. The Chief needs thirty stories by four o’clock. Do you think you can help? You need a password to get in though. [whispered]: ‘Monsters’ usually does the trick.”
The girl says “Monsters” and in she goes. She finds herself in what looks like a regular school classroom. There are lots of children here already sitting down with numerous volunteer helpers, having wonderfully earnest discussions about what name to give a particular monster, what coloor to give its eyes, its hair. A blackboard is headed “What’s your favorite word?” Underneath the selection includes “squelch,” “gloopy,” “slugilate” and “janky.” This place is cool!
Helpers guide the children through the story making process and encourage them to let their imaginations run wild –- indeed the wilder the better. Then, the stories are taken in to see The Chief, whose office is over to the left. Phew, the Chief deems them up to standard and, here’s the best bit, since this is an organized school trip, the children get to leave with their own printed book with their name on the cover.
Hoxton Street Monster Supplies and the Ministry of Stories opened in November and takes its inspiration from Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia shop and story drop-in center in San Francisco (named after its address).
The Ministry’s co-founders are 31-year-old Lucy Macnab, who has a background in arts education, and 43-year-old theater writer Ben Payne. Macnab read about Eggers’ project some time ago and thought “someone should do that here -– it was wonderful that someone was taking imagination so seriously.” She met Payne on a training course and then in February this year went to a reading by Eggers in west London. “He did a ‘shout out’ about getting the project off the ground and various people came forward -– you know, ‘I’m an architect!’ ‘I can help you organize volunteers!’”
Seed funding came from the UK Arts Council and the JJ Charitable Trust, while through the writer Joe Dunthorne the pair were introduced to Nick Hornby, who embraced the project enthusiastically. Needless to say, having a celebrity name has helped enormously and the project has had a lot of publicity, perhaps because it ties in with UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s idea of the “big society” –- that is, more volunteering, more local initiatives (which paves the way for more government cuts, a cynic might say).
Such schemes are not entirely new to this part of the globe. In January 2009 the novelist Roddy Doyle opened Fighting Words in Dublin, directly inspired by 826 Valencia, while many UK libraries and bookshops already work very hard at hosting similar schemes in their local communities. Indeed, librarians might find it is ironic that Hornby, Macnab and Payne were all invited to Ten Downing Street late last year for a special reception hosted by the Prime Minister at the same time as his Government is introducing serious cuts to the library service.
“What bookshops and libraries and schools do is brilliant,” says Macnab, “and we’re not trying to replace them. It’s just that sometimes they are not able to offer the one-to-one support that we can offer. This is a different kind of space from school.”
Hornby says: “Working closely with local schools to support the fantastic work that teachers are already doing, the Ministry of Stories is a place to inspire young people and encourage them to engage with story-telling at every level.”
It seems to be working so far. “I had a wonderful time there,” said one child. “I wish that I can go there again so I can do more reading and writing.”
If you are a publisher and want to contact the center about book donations or an author visit, the address is: email@example.com, Tel: +44 (0)207 729 4159