Sunday, 11 February 2018

Dilly-dally among the books

In my years of blogging I've met many amazing bookshops, each of which stands out for having something unique and special that makes me fall in love with it. This week's bookshop wins the prize for being possibly my oddest bookshop experience (in a good way).

The encounter was part of a bookshop crawl for Independent Bookshops Week, and the destination in question is The Petersfield Bookshop. During the planning stage of the day, I'd looked it up and spotted that it sells secondhand and antiquarian books, its website refers to 'other things to see', but it wasn't until we were fully inside the shop that we realised just what it meant.

From the street the bookshop looks interesting, standing out in its corner position, with flags and hanging baskets for added attraction. There's a light and airy covered entryway, crammed with cheap books and also a couple of plants and other quirks that might be overlooked but should also be seen as an indication of the character to be found within.

It's taken me a long time to write about this bookshop simply because ordinary words fail to do justice to the experience of a real visit. Seemingly endless rooms of floor to ceiling books are a delight to browse, with every genre imaginable to be found somewhere. To start with the obvious: the books are a delight and had me wandering from room to room admiring their variety and number. This was good both as a visual feast and for giving me lots to choose from. I picked up Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome, which was a nice addition to my slowly growing Swallows and Amazons collection.

But this is only part of the story. Within the rooms of books are all manner of knick-knacks, colourful characters and creations that I could easily imagine come to life after hours, getting up to their own mischief and moving from room to room so no two days look the same. From a slightly creepy life-sized mannequin to a fully-furnished dolls' house, a steampunk monkey or Paddington Bear on the ceiling, all kinds of creatures inhabit this bookshop, making it an adventure to explore each room even if (for some strange reason) you're not a book lover.

This is all topped off with the discovery of Dilly the bookshop parrot. He comes with a warning about keeping your fingers away, but what he doesn't have is a warning about talking to him, or yourself. I lost my boyfriend for quite some time, as he browsed Dilly's room, looking at the books and whistling in conversation with the parrot. Until he rounded a corner and realised another browser had been the other half of the conversation. I imagine Dilly enjoys listening to many similar 'chats', probably looking down on the antics of us human idiots.

This was a wonderful bookshop, with so much to choose from and admire, not forgetting the welcoming, helpful bookseller as well as the bookshop parrot. I'd say more, but I'm going to leave the talking to Dilly and my photographs – and once again encourage you to visit for yourself.

The Petersfield Bookshop
16 Chapel Street, Petersfield,
Hampshire, GU32 3DS
Tel: 01730 263438

Apologies, the book is currently hidden in a box of unpacked books since I moved house, but I will post a proper picture of the cover soon. Meantime, here's the steampunk monkey guarding a shelf:

And a few more, because I loved photographing all the randomness on display:

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Discovering the worlds between pages

I've been very disorganised recently. Which is probably a bit of an understatement, because by disorganised I mean "pretty much useless at regular blogging" and you can translate "recently" as for the entire of 2017, plus a bit either side. For 2018 I'm not making any resolutions (been there and done that), but I am attempting to make amends.

First on my list of amends is writing about a bookshop I officially visited way back in October 2016. Had I not been back since, I think this length of time between visit and blog would probably make the review null and void, but as I've returned to Gosh! Comics several times I can confirm it's still as appealing as it was during that first, fondly-remembered visit.

As mentioned very briefly in the write-up of the bookshop crawl this was a part of, there was a time when the word 'comic' would've had me outright rejecting this as a bookshop. Age and experience have helped me to know otherwise.

Despite this change of heart, I admit graphic novels are still a relatively new addition to my reading selection, so I'm probably at the level of novice when it comes to commenting on this bookshop's contents. I could see for myself it had a great atmosphere and was bright, colourful and appealingly cool, but I had to look to others to judge the quality of the books. A quick look around told me the customers believe Gosh! is getting things right.

The shop was packed with youngsters, teens, twentysomethings and older. Admittedly the numbers of those visitors dropped as age increased, but there was a wide variety of browsers, and all were enjoying their chosen area of bookshelf.

The comics area downstairs was inevitably popular, but on the ground floor the graphic novel is king and that was where I felt most at home. Graphic novels are as familiar as books, and while I may not have known much about the authors and styles I decided to follow the lead of others, looking at what appeared to be most popular on the recommendations tables, or waiting to find a space near the busiest shelves. It seemed a good place to start and helped me to familiarise myself with the books and the sections.

It also paid off, because when I eventually did find my way to the front of the crowd near what happened to be the busiest shelves during that first visit I spotted a copy of Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. It had been recommended to me by a friend who I already knew to have excellent reading taste, so I like to think bookshop fate played its part in leading me to it – and more purchases since.

As a dedicated traditional book buyer, I admit graphic novels are a concept I'm getting used to in a slow burn sort of way. They'll never replace regular books for me but they are becoming a fine addition to my reading habit, and likewise I'd hope regular books will play a similar role for those who were encouraged into reading via the path of graphic novels.

Gosh! Comics must also have a valuable part to play in this journey, introducing even more readers to the endless possibilities of worlds between pages.

Gosh! Comics
1 Berwick Street, Soho, London W1F 0DR
Tel: 020 7636 1011

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Much ado about social enterprise

There are so many bookshops and so little time, so I tend to only write about each bookshop once. Unless it features in a bookshop crawl or undergoes some kind of transformation since the first visit.

In the case of Much Ado Books in Alfriston both boxes have been ticked: this visit was part of a bookshop crawl, the bookshop has been remodelled since my first visit, and another transformation is due any day now.

At the time of my original visit this bookshop was beautiful, and by this visit it continued to be so on a larger scale because a private area of the upstairs had been opened up to the public. This was a welcome addition to the shelf space and allowed for an even greater variety of secondhand books and beautiful things. However a chat with the booksellers and an invitation to a party they were holding involved a loud and proud announcement of their plans for the future.

As you can see from the date of my last blog, I've spent some time agonising about the best way to explain the future of Much Ado Books to you. So instead I've decided to share the bookshop's own words instead:

"We're dedicating Much Ado as a new Social Enterprise, hoping to encourage a love of books and reading and supporting people who currently cannot access all the pleasures books can provide.

"And we're launching a new, experimental space named Prospero's Project – part bookshop, part gallery, part social club, part workshop space... A place unlike anywhere else.

"Much Ado itself will move into our yard and barn – a new home with the same wonderful range of books." [Walk through this picture to reach both.] 

They continue to admit Prospero's Project will be: "a bit experimental, perhaps a bit surprising, and it will no doubt change over time". 

To explain in more detail: "You may already be aware that for decades we have raised funds for causes that support a love of reading. Our new social enterprise will build on this work.

"We have recently piloted a project providing high-quality new books for clients of local Trussell Trust foodbanks. The feedback has been very positive, and suggests the project might grow and bring books to many more people who need a little kindness.

"We are also exploring ways to support a local academy, which is working its way out of special measures. Recent improvements are more than heartening, but budgetary limitations continue to affect the school's library.

"Other projects will no doubt present themselves. We hope Prospero's Project will grow in unexpected ways, letting us share the love of reading that first led us into this business."

Having first met Cate and Nash many years ago I'm in no doubt that they'll put their hearts and souls into this project to make it a success. It sounds like something wonderful – how many of us are both willing and able to do as much as we'd like to help others? The Trussell Trust is an organisation I'm particularly supportive of so I do hope this part of the project can grow.

I'm not telling you much about the bookshop during my visit (when I came away with The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell and The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer) because in early 2018 it's due to temporarily close ready to make way for Prospero's Project, but if the new incarnation is anything like the current one, Much Ado Books is bound to live up to its hope: 

"We envision a wonderful book-lover's haven; a place to lose yourself and to discover something wonderful to read."

Much Ado Books
8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX
Tel: 01323 871222

PS. Another highlight of the party announcing this news, I accidentally met author Claire Fuller. This was my first proper, face-to-face conversation with a long-standing author, so it was a real treat that she's one who I respect and admire. What a relief to discover you're friendly, ordinary human beings like the rest of us.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Finding sanctuary in Battle

Life's been a bit busy recently, so I've a raft of bookshop visits to share with you and an even bigger pile of books to read, but the news of a newly opened bookshop was too good an opportunity for me to miss.

Throw in the national Saturday Sanctuary campaign run by Books Are My Bag and the official opening of said bookshop occurring on the same day – just an hour from where I live – and it was pretty much inevitable I'd be rearranging my priorities once again. We'll gloss over the fact I couldn't visit in time to actually see the ribbon being cut by the local MP, but my boyfriend didn't realise we missed the festivities proper so who am I to set him straight?

Even several hours after the ribbon cutting, Rother Books in Battle was still crammed with eager bookshoppers, so much so it took a long time for me to find the opportunity to photograph any bookshelves for fear of disturbing the browsers. It created a nice atmosphere and I'm sure is part of the reason the feeling of celebration had lasted so far into the day.

In the words of the bookseller, the bookshop is small, but to my eyes it's two well-stocked rooms behind beautiful period windows in an historic high street building. Were I to draw a sliding scale of bookshop sizes I'd put it at small to middling, but the window running along the length of the shop, combined with whitewashed walls and a spacious entrance meant even with a crowd it never felt cramped. I even noticed one young lad had found a corner to call his own, sat on the floor to the side of the history books – I couldn't see what he was reading but he looked engrossed.

Stock was welcomingly varied, with a mix of old favourites and unusual treats. Where smaller bookshops have to take care over the titles they hold I'm used to seeing interesting selections with books notable for both their absence and presence, here was the same and I was pleased to spot those inclusions and omissions. Importantly, Rother Books had taken the trouble to include my favourite book among its titles so even if the rest of the place had been a disaster (it wasn't) the bookshop would still win a big thumbs up from me.*

Our visit ended with a chat to the bookseller, during which (and before I introduced myself) I asked for advice for a Christmas gift – one of my nieces will soon be the proud owner of Robin Stevens' Arsenic for Tea – and for myself I picked up On the beach by Nevil Shute.

Rother Books is a lovely addition to Battle High Street, and near enough to my home that I look forward to being able to visit again and again – best of luck to this long-standing bookseller who's decided to go it alone.

Rother Books
59-60 High Street,
East Sussex,
TN33 0EN
Tel: 01424 834756

*It's my blog and I'll be biased if I want to.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

In search of wildlife in Costa Rica

You've driven for an hour, sat in a plane for 11 more and your body clock is absolutely shot to pieces, so what's the first thing you do upon arriving in your hotel, a little north of the equator?

Go wildlife hunting, obviously. Only in this instance it wasn't for a sloth or brightly coloured bird hiding in the rainforest, but for an English-speaking bookseller working somewhere in a (mini) urban jungle.

We'd arrived in Costa Rica for our holiday of a lifetime with one goal each.

Him: to see a sloth in the wild.
Me: to visit a bookshop.

We'd done our research.

Him: pictures, descriptions, locations, that sort of thing.
Me: googling "English language bookshop, San Jose".

The first entry in my search was Mora Books, and flicking through a few pictures on their Facebook page I knew it was the bookshop for me. As luck would have it, when we set out to explore we realised this bookshop was also a mere five-minute walk from our hotel. It was meant to be.

Found on a side street very near the main shopping street of San Jose, Mora Books is a small but perfectly formed secondhand bookshop.

From the road I admit a first glance might have put off the ignorant traveller if she'd not done her research and been determined to visit the bookshop no matter what: Painted bars line the building, and looking in from the bright outdoor sunlight all you can see is darkness, a couple of men chatting and a dog. Then you look again and realise the railings are decorated with a Bernie Sanders poster, the men are chatting and relaxed, and they're all surrounded by an indescribable amount of books. Even the most timid of travellers must surely want to step inside? We did.

A brief hello welcomed us to the bookshop and we dived into floor-to-ceiling piles and shelves. Where in some places books piled on the floor can be depressing, here it was welcoming, reassuring and a fascinating challenge to explore. Crime, fiction, science fiction and all the usual treats of my favourite British secondhand bookshops were to be found. The classics section was possibly better stocked than some I've visited, as I marvelled at the sight of Aristophanes, Burnett, Eliot, Gaskell, Ibsen, and so on through the alphabet, I even nostalgically flicked through a J M Synge play, remembering my A-level studies. The temptation to buy one, just to be able to say "I travelled almost to the equator and came home with a copy of this classic" was strong, but I had to keep exploring.

As mentioned, the bookshop is small, probably comparable to your average independent new bookshop in this country, but as well as the shelves of books there are piles: in front of shelves, in front of the counter, in front of other piles. There was also a sense of care to the piles, these books may not have been sorted as well as the bookseller would like (in his own words, if he's had time to tidy the bookshop, business isn't going well), but the books didn't feel dumped or neglected. Even the obviously most-read books in the worst condition* had still been looked after.

Rummaging was of a level of fun comparable to a new bookshop I remember in London, and we could have easily stayed here for the rest of the holiday, but there were sloths to see, and so I had to make my decision: The perks of being a wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I love the randomness of buying a book that's long been on my to-read list, from a bookshop in Costa Rica.

Before leaving we made sure we were introduced to the bookshop dog: Harvey was just the right level of happy but distantly friendly; we asked about the bookshop cat, asleep upstairs – cats keep their own hours; and had a chat with the bookseller – a wonderfully enthusiastic man, I only wish I'd been awake enough to properly join in the conversation. His love of bookselling and friendliness were clear to see but I'm ashamed to admit jetlag has stolen much of the conversation.

Costa Rica is a wonderful country and we were lucky enough to see many wildlife treats – including tree frogs, sloths and a sleeping bat – but first impressions count and this bookshop was the perfect start to our adventure.

Mora Books
calle 5 ave 5 y 7
San José, Costa Rica
Tel: +506 8383 8385

* I would love to know how bibliophiles in humid countries keep their books in good condition?


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Bookshop Day 2017

**The blog's going to have to take a brief pause, come back soon and I'll tell you more about each of these bookshops and the many others I've been visiting**

Life's a bit busy for me at the moment, with work, family, friends and cat all demanding urgent attention in such a way that the thought of five minutes to just sit and relax is unheard of. It's good to be busy, and I wouldn't be without any of it, but it means time's rushing by at unheard of speeds and I swear someone's sped up the second hand on my watch.

Which means it was probably inevitable that the evening before Bookshop Day would arrive and I'd have no idea where I was heading for my bookshop crawl. The decision had been playing on my mind, but none of the rough routes I came up with had quite worked out once put down on paper. I was panicking about it as I walked home from work, and what may have seemed like a jokey tweet was actually a genuine comment on the whimpering mental state I found myself in. Thankfully, a nearby-ish bookshop came to my aid and replied with the suggestion I visit them.

A long, long time ago* I first visited Much Ado Books in Alfriston and fell in love with its many details. Later I came to also love its booksellers for their friendly welcome and consistently spot on book recommendations, so it felt like I was taking my boyfriend to meet old friends.

Which was exactly the welcome we received.

It was a wonderful start to the day to be greeted by such a lovely couple, to talk bookshop plans, bookselling in general and catch up on news. It was also a treat to be able to give my boyfriend a tour of such a beautiful – and busy – bookshop and its barn event space. It was hard to leave when we had such a warm welcome, but The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell and The Roasting Tin cookbook by Rukmini Iyer came away with us.

Next we made a flying visit to Lewes, and the Bag of Books. It was unfortunate that our arrival coincided with a rather damp lunchtime, meaning this children's bookshop was rather quiet, but on the plus side we were able to enjoy the bright, colourful space uninterrupted and it wasn't hard to imagine a bunch of very happy children also enjoying it. Patrick Ness' The Rest Of Us Just Live here was my choice, having stuck in my mind since it was a finalist in the 2016 BAMB Readers Awards, I was pleased to find it.

Moving on, we overcame slow traffic to arrive at The Kemptown Bookshop, on the outskirts of Brighton. I've often heard good things about this place, so I was looking forward to this visit, but what I hadn't expected was the joy on my boyfriend's face as he explored. He's a fan of bookshops too, but in all our time together this is the first one where he's acted like a kid in a sweetshop.

Taking up three floors, I was more than happy with the diverse, high quality fiction offering, but throw in the popular science, poetry and art and my boyfriend was in his element. He bought Ted Hughes' The Crow, Steffen Kverneland's Munch and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, making my choice of Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson seem rather limited by comparison. While paying the bookseller and my boyfriend enjoyed an animated conversation about books and their love of Thomas Mann and it was a pleasure to see such pleasure in literature.

The final stop of the day was the Steyning Bookshop. Opened when the booksellers converted house almost 35 years ago, this had the added bonus of free tea and cake in honour of Bookshop Day. There's something particularly soothing about wandering around a bookshop with a cup of tea in your hand.

We enjoyed browsing a diverse selection of fiction and I lost my boyfriend to the chair by popular science for quite some time – leaving me to discover a steam engine made of bookcases in the children's area and a good mix of fiction. I was thrilled to finally find a title from my must-buy list: Ted Chiang's collection of short stories, Arrival, containing the story that prompted the film of that name, while my boyfriend bought The Periodic Table, by Paul Parsons and Gail Dixon.

This took our total for the day to one tote bag, four bookshops and nine books, which isn't bad going for a girl who has a one book per shop rule...

Much Ado Books
8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX
Tel: 01323 871222

Bag of Books
1 South Street, Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 2BT
Tel: 01273 479320

The Kemptown Bookshop
91 St George’s Road, Brighton, West Sussex, BN2 1EE
Tel: 01273 682110

Steyning Bookshop
106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex, BN44 3RD
Tel: 01903 812062

*Okay, not in general, but two and a half years is a long time in the life of this bookshop blog.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

It's time to refuel

There comes a point in everyone's life when nothing else matters except the pursuit of a good lunch. During our Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl, that point arrived mid afternoon, somewhere between Haslemere and Petersfield.

We went from being fun, happy-go-lucky bookshoppers to ravenous beasts, the desperate need for food pushing even the excitement of books out of our minds. Fortunately, the next stop on our crawl had been recommended to us not only as a bookshop, but as a cafe. Which meant we were on a mission to find One Tree Books, marching through the Hampshire town at top speed to find food. We weren't disappointed.

The bookshop has a large street presence, but inside it's even bigger, covering two floors, with half the ground level given over to Madeleine's Kitchen at the back. At first glance this may disappoint the casual bookshop visitor, but anyone with enough hunger pains (or even just a sprinkling of sense) could tell you the balance between the two halves is spot on.

We chose a table to the side of the room, which meant we were perfectly placed to observe areas of the bookshop while relaxing in the welcoming atmosphere of the cafe. The staff were friendly and the food was divine: naughty and healthy at the same time, accompanied by delicious smoothies and rounded off with tea and cake. It was a leisurely lunch that was too good to rush and is the reason we ran out of time to visit all the bookshops on our itinerary.

Refuelled and refreshed, we had the energy to return to the task of the day: bookshopping.

While in the cafe, we'd enjoyed the sight of the bookshelves, which looked as though they were ready to cross the border into the cafe at any moment. Bookcases and tables fill the front half of the shop, crowding it with bookish treats without being too crammed in – One Tree Books really does have a luxury of space.

Fiction is on the ground floor, with a good sprinkling of non-fiction, children's and recommends, and games too, meaning many browsers may not feel the need to venture upstairs, where more treats of books, games and jigsaws (I love jigsaws) can be found.

Tempted as I was by a jigsaw, I dragged myself back downstairs empty-handed. Instead I opted for a non-fiction read, because I've heard lots of interesting comments about Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and by now we'd realised exactly how long we'd loitered over lunch.

I was sorry to rush off, because it meant I didn't get the chance to ask why the name One Tree Books was chosen, but we'd enjoyed more than our fair share of time browsing the bookcases and devouring our lunch, so I can't really have any complaint.

One Tree Books in Petersfield was the perfect balance of bookshop and cafe, feeding mind and body, and the next time I find myself hungry in Hampshire, I know where I'll be going.

One Tree Books
7 Lavant Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3EL
Tel: 01730 261199