Beginning this week, York's independent bookshop the Little Apple will be writing a weekly 'book of the week' recommendation in The Press. STEPHEN LEWIS spoke to the bookshop's owners, Philippa Morris and Tim Curtis

REGULAR customers often pop into the Little Apple - the York independent bookshop on High Petergate - to ask for suggestions on what to read.

"They'll ask 'what has Tim been reading?' or 'What has Philippa been reading?' says Tim Curtis, who runs the bookshop with Philippa Morris.

So popular have their recommendations proved that they are now regularly approached for suggestions by local book groups.

And beginning today Tim, Philippa and their staff will also be writing a regular 'book of the week' column in The Press.

Like the bookshop itself, the recommendations will be quirky and individual. They will include books by local authors and books about York, but also books by authors who are coming to York for events like the upcoming York Literature Festival. Then there will be suggestions that are particular favourites, or that Little Apple staff just think ought to be more widely read.

Means of Grace, their book of the week this week, is a classic example.

Written by octogenarian Eileen Goodrum under the pen name Helen Jackson, it is an account of the author's wartime years at York's Grey Coat School in Monkgate.

The book's cover, which shows a line of Grey Coat girls walking through York, has prompted lots of comment, Philippa says.

"I have had lots of customers tell me stories of remembering seeing these children being walked through the town in a line!" she writes in her first 'book of the week' recommendation (on this page).

There can't be many people in York who know more about the local book scene than Philippa and Tim.

They opened the bookstore in May 1997, having both worked for a few years in bookshops in London.

Both were in their twenties. And there were plenty of people ready to tell them they'd never survive as a business, Tim recalls.

They proved the naysayers wrong, outlasting both Blackwells and Borders in York, and witnessing the move of Waterstones from Ousegate to Coney Street.

One of the reasons that Little Apple has survived and thrived, of course, is its location on one of the prettiest streets in York.

The shop is quite small inside, and quirky in its layout. Books cram every inch of available wallspace, and in the children's section at the back - where the monthly book group holds its meetings - there is only room for 13 chairs.

But this quirkiness, this difference, is just what people come to York for, Philippa says. It is a bookish sort of city - and visitors too come here for shops that are a bit different. The Little Apple is certainly that. The bookshop's quirkiness - and the staff's readiness to make recommendations, or chat about books, or order difficult-to-find books - has seen it build up a loyal customer base down the years.

The bookstore has even managed to weather the arrival of e-readers such as Kindle.

Again, there were plenty of people ready to predict that e-books would kill off independent bookstores, Tim says. But they didn't.

All the signs are that e-book readership has plateaued. Yes, they're convenient, and they're great for travelling. But there's still nothing like picking up a proper book, Tim says.

If anything, the rise of e-books forced publishers to up their game, Philippa says. Many books now are works of art, with beautifully-designed jackets, and lavish maps and illustrations. "They just beg to be picked up," she says.

Surprisingly, there's evidence that younger people are more switched off e-books than the older generation. Maybe it is because they use so many gadgets that they like to have something different - something real and solid that they can hold. "But whatever the reason, it does seem that they would rather have a book," Philippa says.

In recent months, there has been another reason for popping into the Little Apple - old-fashioned curiosity. One of the shop's part-time assistants, Fiona Mozley, saw her debut novel Elmet shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It sparked a rash of media interest in the bookshop and its unassuming staff member. The BBC even paid a visit.

Fiona, who has been studying for a Ph.D in medieval studies at York University, still works part-time at the store. People sometimes come in and ask for 'that book' or 'the Elmet book' Tim says - and there have even been occasions when they bought it and walked out with their new purchase without even realising that it was the author herself who sold it to them.

Now that's what you call service...

Little Apple book of the week

Means of Grace by Helen Jackson (York Publishing paperback 7.99)

Eileen Goodrum, now 85, went to York’s Grey Coat School in Monkgate from 1940-46.

Under the pen-name Helen Jackson, she wrote Means of Grace about her wartime years at the school. For anyone who is curious as to what life was like for these institutionalised children, then this is the book for them.

I have had lots of customers tell me stories of remembering seeing these children being walked through the town in a line.

This is an insight into a world which was already anachronistic in 1946. The story follows Beryl and Eunice as their mother hands them over to the school.

From the scratchy clothes and second hand boots to the daily “collect” religious teachings, we see behind the doors of the school.

The girls’ daily routines are often dull and involve a lot of housework that was expected of them at the time, but their camaraderie and youthful exuberance comes through on each page.

They lead an intensely communal life and we see how hard and lonely it is for Eunice when she first starts grammar school: she is in awe of the other pupils whose daily life is so different and carefree.

York itself goes through dramatic events including air raids and a diphtheria outbreak.

The book is also an ode to growing up and contemplation of a world now only seen in history books but still in living memory. A real local gem.

Philippa Morris