Interview with Aimee Bea Ballinger from Burning House Books

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[Photography by Meg Auld @megauld]

[words by Graham Peacock (he/him)]

For me, there’s no better place to be than in a bookshop, and there’s no better bookshop in Glasgow than Burning House Books. Starting out in Cornwall, before travelling around various book fairs across Europe and the UK, Burning House Books has now settled into its physical space in Argyle Street’s Hidden Lane. Specialising in ‘art, experimental writing, counterculture and queer history’, BHB is a one-stop-shop if you’re looking for radical voices and recently-rediscovered classics.

Though government restrictions may have closed the BHB physical store for now, the online store remains packed with important and fascinating literature. There’s also the option to sign up to the BHB newsletter, written by owner Aimee Ballinger, as well as their monthly book club. 

With a reopening date in sight, and plans for expansion in the future, I chatted to Aimee about the importance of rediscovering radical voices from the past, her personal recommendations, and her dream literary dinner date. 

Perhaps quite a broad question to start out with, but how would you describe Burning House Books to someone who has never visited your store before?

Burning House Books is a place you come and buy a book that you didn’t know you were looking for. 

Our readers probably know Burning House Books best as a bookstore in Glasgow’s West End. I understand that when you first started, rather than having a store, you would travel around different book festivals in Europe. What was that like, and why did you settle in Glasgow?

Up until I opened the Burning House Books studio in Finnieston, I had always relied on full time and low wage work, and so Burning House Books had had to fit around those working confinements. I lived in Cornwall for a long time and because the shop never really took off there, I just found myself using up all of my holiday entitlement every year travelling to book fairs all over the UK and Europe. It wasn’t a great way to make money, but the community I met taking part was priceless in terms of expanding my knowledge and love of books. When I started out, I thought I knew it all, but I really didn’t. I settled in Glasgow because I felt I needed to be in a city and already had a few friends up here. Although I have the physical space in the West End now, I haven’t ruled out moving or expanding into a different one somewhere else (though probably still in Glasgow because it’s home for me now). I think because of those early years roaming around with a suitcase bursting with books, Burning House Books will always feel very peripatetic to me. 

Whether someone’s interested in literature that explores queerness, racial issues, anti-capitalism or gender, there’s something for all communities in your shop. Is this kind of intersectionality and diversity something you keep in mind when deciding what to stock? 

Although I’ve always been a big reader I didn’t grow up around books. My early cultural education was limited to TV, and I think because of this lack of guidance I became a naturally diverse reader. When I’m shopping for stock, I don’t necessarily have specific ‘communities’ in mind, I just kind of go for what I think is interesting. Still I’m constantly trying to push out of my comfort zone because that’s what I expect customers who come in to buy a book to do too. 

Many of us are looking to diversify our reading lists to become better allies. However, it can be often difficult to know where to start. What would your advice be for someone who’s looking to get into radical literature but doesn’t know where to start? 

My advice is to read history, and oral history books are often the best for this. Last year I read Still Black, Still Strong which is an oral history of the FBI Counter Intelligence Program that brought down the Black Panther Party. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. This information has been available to me the whole time and I only just got to it. There has also been a tidal wave of queer histories published the past few years which are amazing. Just go back as far as you can and search out the catalysts of big change. My only other advice is to not dismiss the work of writers or artists whose moral compass doesn’t align with your own. You can be an asshole and still produce work that is worthy of examination. Nobody is without flaws and reading is often a good opportunity to break out of the online echo chamber we all exist in now.

You stock everything from recent releases to recently rediscovered classics to iconic photo books. How do you curate your collection? 

I do a lot of research. I’m basically always looking for new stuff, so much so that I should probably find a way to turn it off sometimes so I can relax. In terms of ‘curating’ I try to find the classics that inspired/led to the newer stuff. There’s definitely a strata element to it; I’m layering I suppose. 

Whenever I visit Burning House Books either in store or online, I feel a sense of liberation through being surrounded by so many radical voices who have been silenced by the mainstream industry for so long. Is that something you hear a lot? 

People who shop in bookstores are normally very quiet and reserved so that’s amazing to hear. It’s exactly what I’m trying to create with Burning House Books.

I understand you also operate a newsletter and a book club. Can you tell me a little bit more about this, and what readers can expect if they join? 

I mentioned earlier that Burning House Books feels peripatetic to me and the newsletter and book club element were very much born out of that. Because BHB has never really felt like a purely retail or business venture to me (not to mention that for the first few years it probably lost me money) it has meant that I’ve put a lot of myself into it, almost like it’s an art practice. Despite its name the Newsletter contains zero news and is instead a monthly essay/prose piece which is supposed to be about a book from the BHB collection, but often veers away from that because I’m easily distracted. For example last month I wrote about Prince. The book club is a monthly subscription service that I set up last year – the plague year – in order to get a more stable income so that my shop would have a chance to survive. So far, it’s been working well. The discussion element is a series of online posts and is totally optional. People have been contributing some really interesting ideas though. It feels like a little community, all reading the same book together whilst the world falls apart around us. It’s given me some comfort and I hope others feel it too. 

If you were to recommend one book to our readers from your store, what would it be and why?

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. It was recommended to me by a tutor when I was at uni about ten years ago. Before that I was really falling out of love with reading and felt a bit directionless with my own work. David’s work is my biggest inspiration and the ‘Burning House’ in my name is stolen from his paintings. I saw a retrospective of his work in New York a couple of years ago, but I would’ve loved to hear him read his own work. His love and anger is transcendent. 

Whenever life becomes a bit more normal, do you have any plans for what you want Burning House Books to become in the future?

I’d like a bigger space to host readings, screenings and book launches in, and I’d also like to use the time that I spend in my shop to write a novel. I like the idea of writing and workshopping a novel in the walls of my own shop. 

Excuse the generic icebreaker of a question, but since you stock such interesting authors I’m really interested to know: if you could have dinner with any writer living or dead, who would it be? 

Cookie Mueller when she was living in New York and writing the advice column for the East Village Eye. Can you imagine the stories she’d tell?! We could smoke loads of cigarettes and go out dancing together afterwards. Heaven. 


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