Monday, 24 April 2017

Bookshop for sale, one previous owner

When I first moved to west Kent I looked up all the local bookshops with the plan of making the most of all the bookshopping opportunities available. I've gradually worked my way around most of them, but some have taken me longer to get to than others. This is one that took a little longer.

Tonbridge, like most towns, has much to recommend it and also to deter you from wanting to visit. In the case of the latter, bad traffic between there and my home town is the main reason for my not visiting, but when I make the effort I find it's generally worth it. One of my favourite places to buy soup in Kent is in this town, and there's a really lovely castle where I like to sit and read a book. There's a river with an historic bridge that I'm sure many take for granted. It's also a good place for a parkrun. But you're not here for tourist information, you're here for the bookshop.

And this week, not only can you read about the bookshop, you can buy it too.

You see the man behind Mr Books in Tonbridge is moving back home to the north, and as teleportation of business and building is yet to be a viable option he's having to leave the bookshop behind. Which means he's had to put the business up for sale.

There's not long left for someone to buy it and I have to admit I don't understand the ins and outs of the sale (and no, I haven't got what it takes to become a bookseller) but it would be remiss of me not to tell you.

Mr Books is a secondhand bookshop of the high end variety. It's found the perfect balance between being absolutely crammed full of books in a small area while also feeling remarkably spacious, clean and tidy. Which is no mean feat. In some cases the shelves are very close together, while in others two people may comfortably pass, so when browsing you need to remember your manners and not barge past.

That said, the shop was still big enough to comfortably house a bookseller (Mr Books himself), me and my boyfriend, a family and another browser or two, so maybe I'm over-exaggerating the small spaces. It's also split over two levels in one room, which adds to the feeling of roominess.

I stuck to the general fiction shelves, but in its current form the bookshop has quite a diverse children's and non-fiction area too. Then up a few steps to where the counter is you find the pricier books. It was tempting to shop here, but knowing how much I spend on books a year I forced myself to stay in the section I could afford – which offered more than enough choice to keep the two of us happy.

Fiction was impressively varied, with personal favourites from the 80s and 90s mixed in with bookshop staples and unexpected gems. I'd initially chosen a science fiction book from one of my favourite authors, but then Joanna Russ' The Female Man caught my attention and all thoughts of earlier books were forgotten as I lost myself in this unexpected find. My boyfriend was also pleased to find a Thames & Hudson World of Art book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

I want to end this post by encouraging you to visit for yourself, but unless someone buys the bookshop it won't be there for much longer. Who's in?


Mr Books
142 High Street, Tonbridge, Kent, TN9 1BB
Tel: 01732 363000
@TonbridgeBlog

Monday, 17 April 2017

Hart of the community

In my mind, Saffron Walden is an historic, rose-tinted town, full of beautiful buildings, sunlight, good manners and the idyllic image of a different time. I've never quite been sure when that time would be, but it's in the past and the women all carry parasols.

On the day of my visit, the reality was only marginally disappointing – I didn't see a single parasol. What I did get to enjoy included blue skies, a stunning library building and a very short walk to Hart's Books (this is obviously a town of readers). But I think I already knew this would be a place of beauty, because Hart's Books was the first bookshop Daunts opened outside of London.

The bookshop is found next door to the site of the original Hart's, so my first encounter was with the two signs next to each other, welcoming me in.* Stepping inside the next sight is of how big this bookshop is, with lots more space than you'd expect in a small town. There's a warmth and lightnes, with the general fiction stretching back to areas of non-fiction and children's books. And because this outlet is a local, community bookshop it follows its own layout, rather than taking on the continental (travel) organisation found in traditional Daunt bookshops.

The books themselves are varied, while also being as intelligent and well-chosen as you'd expect from a local indie bookshop, which meant both my boyfriend and I had plenty of titles to keep us busy. I particularly liked seeing the mix of lighthearted romance next to literary fiction next to all manner of genres, shelved simply by author and leaving the browser to decide what they feel like reading today.

While organisation by genre works, this simplicity of following only the alphabet in the fiction area has introduced me to a wealth of authors I would not previously have encountered and I'd hope opens other people's eyes to the potential of all genres too. So when I spotted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nicholas Sparks and Neal Stephenson within easy reach of each other I liked to imagine one day a browser would take home all three. My one book per shop rule meant I couldn't be that person, so I chose Stephenson's Cryptonomicon this time around. Having recently discovered his works it's a treat to be able to read another.

I also enjoyed simply walking around the beautiful space, which was crammed with attractive details, and we weren't the only people to be making the most of this bookshop, as a number of customers were also busy buying books. This was good for showing me how much the bookshop is enjoyed locally, but bad because my polite British manners meant I didn't feel I could keep the nice bookseller talking when a customer who was obviously in a hurry arrived at the counter. Still, if the existence of another customer is all I've got to complain about, things can't be bad, can they?

As a random way to conclude this week's blog, Hart's Books is also home to a Walking Book Club, which I think sounds like a wonderful idea.


Hart's Books
26 King Street,
Saffron Walden,
Essex,
CB10 1ES
Tel: 01799 524552
@hartsbooks


*I make no apology for the bad photography, if the sun is going to choose to shine on us it can create as many awkward shadows as it pleases.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

In search of a good bookshop

One of the things that amazes me about independent bookshops is the places where I find them.

I'm not talking extreme locations such as mountain tops (although I wouldn't be surprised if there was one somewhere), but out of the way, or hidden, so only the most dedicated of bookshoppers can find them. Quinns Bookshop in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, is one such destination.

Ahead of my trip to the market town, I'd run an internet search and seen there might be an independent bookshop in the area, but related web activity was minimal so I was grateful when Twitter provided the same name as a recommendation. I noted its High Street address and set off.

Unfortunately, the Saturday of our visit coincided with a traditional English offering of wind and rain, which means I can't give you much of a description of the town itself because our priority was keeping warm and dry, but this – coupled with plans for later in the day meaning time was tight – meant we very nearly missed the bookshop.

You see, I'd written down the address as High Street, I even checked Google Maps on my phone, but when we got to the road in question there was no bookshop to be seen. We crossed the road and looked again. Still nothing. Then I happened to look into a narrow alleyway, and there it was, a sign pointing the way. Next time I'll take more notice of the first line of an address.

Walking down the alley between the shops, we soon came to small enclosed wilderness of a garden (I write this fondly), hidden within which were two stone rams and the door to the bookshop. It felt like finding the bookshop equivalent of The Secret Garden.

Inside, the bookshop is surprisingly spacious and spread out, so I first made a beeline to the left, where the main room of books is found. Here I enjoyed a well-stocked mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a few titles from the science section particularly appealing to me. For a small market town, there was a large and varied offering.

Carrying on around the shop, upstairs there's a gallery hosting (I believe) local artists, and younger visitors may be drawn to the corner dedicated to Games Workshop. Returning downstairs, further rooms offer more non-fiction, recommends, art materials and then a lovely, cheery children's room. There's easily something for the whole family here.

On my way back through these rooms I became distracted from my earlier purchase plans when I spotted Jorge Carrion's Bookshops, which looks like the ideal read to research even more bookshopping adventures.

Quinns Bookshop isn't somewhere visitors to the town are going to easily find, but if you do visit Market Harborough I urge you to go on your own mini adventure and search out this bookshop.


Quinns Bookshop
Three Crowns Yard,
High Street
Market Harborough,
Leicestershire,
LE16 7AF
Tel: 01858 432313

Monday, 27 March 2017

Keeping it in the family

My love of Wales has often crept into this blog, and this week reappears as we visit the north of the country, a breathtakingly beautiful area of the world.

I was there late last summer, travelling with friends, enjoying landscape and coastline, a selection of good pubs, good company and – of course – a bookshop.

Browsers Bookshop is found in the town of Porthmadog which, for those who don't know the area, is very close to Snowdonia National Park The town is also home to a steam train, which later took us through a good amount of that beautiful countryside as we continued with our travels. If you get the chance to incorporate the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway into your journey I urge you to take it.

Anyway, back to Browsers. The bookshop is deceptively large, with the warm red shop front taking you back through rooms of books until you reach a room of cards and art materials. The first room contains 'readioactive' material and bookcases are labelled according to their subject, including sections for Wales, the sea, and science. Classic novels are nicely displayed in alphabetical drawers and there are well-stocked audiobook and secondhand areas too. Children and young adults are also very well catered for.

Fiction at the front of the bookshop is plentiful and well signposted to suit different tastes, meaning browsers could easily pick a mood and contain their search to its respective area if they were in a hurry. As I was taking my time, I dawdled, enjoying the buzz of people before approaching the bookseller, who recommended The Dig, by John Preston.

Browsers Bookshop has been run by one family for more than 40 years and during the course of our conversation I had the pleasure of hearing more about a life in the bookshop and plans to pass the business on to the next generation.

If the future is even half as friendly and welcoming as the present this is very good news for town's readers.


Browsers Bookshop
73 High Street, Porthmadog, Gwynedd, LL49 9EU
Tel: 01766 512066

Monday, 13 March 2017

Eight miles of books, and cake too

Given my love of all things bookshop, it may surprise you to read how slow I can be to visit certain key points on the book-buying map.

In the case of this week's bookshop it's a particularly big omission on my part because I have to confess I only visited Europe's largest bookshop for the first time last year, and then only because it was part of an organised bookshop crawl. This wasn't because of any kind of deliberate avoidance on my part, it's just that other bookshops had come to my attention and let's be honest, this one probably doesn't need any publicity to bring it to people's attention.

Waterstone Piccadilly proudly overlooks a busy shoppers' paradise in London, it's in a prime location, has entrances at two sides and is packed with so many eateries even non-booky people (do they exist?) must be tempted in to escape the crowds. Well, to escape the outdoor crowds, the bookshop is hardly the quietest of places.

I was there with the first ever London Bookshop Crawl, so we were a crowd in our own right, but the place is so full of people that we were no more noticeable as a group than any other shoppers. We also quickly dispersed throughout the bookshop's six floors. But I'm getting ahead of myself, first we had cake.

The agreement was to meet in the bookshop's cafe, making the most of the chance to give our feet a rest and re-fuel with tea and cake. An easy plan to execute in most bookshops, but not everyone made it because there's more than one cafe and a restaurant/bar – how do you know the right one to go to?

Which is any easy question to ask about the whole bookshop – with something like eight miles of bookshelves to browse how is it possible to work out where to start?

For many, I'd guess the answer is to stay on the ground floor, where the bestsellers and new releases are so plentiful a browser in a hurry may easily find a book or five to meet their needs. This is where my purchase came from before I'd begun looking at the shelves, when fellow bookshop crawler Katie insisted I – and several others – buy Becky Chambers' The long way to a small angry planet. She was so enthusiastic I couldn't question her recommendation, and having since read the book I can only repeat her encouragement.

Having my purchase in hand before exploring the bookshop possibly felt a little like cheating, but it did mean I was able to gently wander, taking in the atmosphere without looking too closely at the shelves and so saving myself from the danger of buying the equivalent of a small library in this one shop. The temptation is everywhere and with such a large number of books on display I imagine it's impossible to leave empty-handed.


The bookshop is well laid out, with large areas of comfy sofas on every floor and clearly marked sections and help desks for ease of navigation. The children's area was particularly colourful with baskets of cuddly toys I could've happily dived into (although perhaps parents won't appreciate quite such a large temptation for their young?).

I also loved seeing swathes of shelving dedicated to independent publishers, young adult and historical fiction, among others, as well as various stand out displays for favoured (by me) books that wouldn't often be seen promoted in your average smaller branch of Waterstones. This included a whole table of Masterworks sci-fi, I always enjoy spotting their yellow spines in bookshops and if I hadn't already found my purchase I'm pretty certain this table would've forced me to buy more than one of its offerings.

As an added point of interest, Waterstones Piccadilly is home to the Russian Bookshop. This takes up a large chunk of the fourth floor and is worth a visit even if you don't understand the language, simply for the experience. I may not have bumped into any oligarchs, but I like to think this is where they'd hang out when not busy managing their empires. The area was certainly classy enough, but still familiar enough to not scare off an inquisitive bookshopper.


Overall, Waterstones Piccadilly is a huge book store, with more titles than anyone could even dream of reading in a lifetime. It's a great place to explore, hunting down genres you might not usually encounter and I defy anyone to visit without finding at least one book they want to buy, however should the bookshop somehow fail you (unlikely), there's also cake.


Waterstones Piccadilly
203-206 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9HD
Tel: 020 7851 2400
@WaterstonesPicc

Monday, 6 March 2017

The internet can't help you here

If you plan on taking a walk along Albert and Highland roads in Southsea, Portsmouth, my advice is to take a good strong tote bag or two. And be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet.

The road is packed with independent shops of a varied and interesting nature, and many of them are bookshops.

I was there with Abbie Headon, who I've mentioned before, and time was late and limited so we weren't able to go in all the bookshops, but even peeking through the windows was enough to see shoppers are spoiled for choice.

We started our journey in Jade Mountain Bookshop, a lovely little secondhander that's entered through the same doorway as a cafe, should you need to fuel up before you start shopping.

The bookshop is crammed with all manner of gems, ranging from a glossary of tap dancing terms and a guide to line dancing to the more standard offerings of general fiction – not forgetting Ladybird books and a good selection of orange Penguins. It's slightly untidy, but in an organised, loved kind of way that makes it charming, and a brief conversation with the bookseller left me certain he knew the location of every book in the room. In fact, I'd suggest a chat with this bookseller is an important part of any visit, as he talked about his love of the bookshop and the reason for its rather unusual name – which is based on the initials of the previous owners and has nothing to do with a Chinese takeaway.

We'd not needed help when browsing because we'd enjoyed diving into the bookcases and piles, searching for tempting titles and delighting in unexpected discoveries – I found Joseph Heller's Something Happened and a sweet little book about the Tea Ceremony. They were so reasonably priced it would've been rude not to buy both.

I loved Jade Mountain Bookshop and was sorry to leave, but other bookshops awaited and time was passing us by.

As it happened, time had already passed us by, and the lateness of the afternoon meant many of the bookshops (as we walked along Highland Road and it became Albert Road) were already closed for the day. Many also are not mentioned on Google, so all I can tell you is that there were lots, including a rather appealing graphic novel and comic shop that I did manage a quick look around.

Thankfully, not all the remaining bookshops were closed, and as we arrived at the opposite end of the street we found crime specialist Adelphi Books.

At first glance this is not a bookshop for the fainthearted, but go beyond your first impression and you'll see it's also somewhere special. The initial doubt is because the place really does look to be in a bit of a muddle, with some books apparently forgotten on the floor, but contain your browsing to the shelves and you see a wealth of secondhand titles unlike any standard high street crime section could offer. Which is a real treat.

Stock is for those who read further back than today's popular writers and I wouldn't be surprised if a few original prints of British Library Crime Classics could be found among these shelves. We were particularly taken by the Toff series by John Creasey and in the end The Toff and the Runaway Bride had to be my book of choice.

Exploring the bookshopping delights of Southsea was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, even if we were often limited to looking through windows.

Should you decide to take my advice and go for a wander, I'd encourage you to arrive early because the internet is little to no help here. Instead just take a chance – even if you only get to these two bookshops your efforts will not have been wasted.


Jade Mountain Bookshop
17 Highland Road, Southsea, Portsmouth, PO4 9DA
Tel: 02392 732951

Adelphi Books
1 Albert Road, Southsea, Portsmouth, PO5 2SE
Tel: 02392 618120

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Book and a brew

On first entering Chapter One Books, I'll be honest and say I was a little unsure if I'd come to the right place.

A counter of cakes and a hot drinks area line the first wall you see, meaning anyone could easily be mistaken and think they'd entered a cafe. But that's not an unusual find in a bookshop, and even now I'm not sure which label would be the most accurate for the subject of this week's blog. Either way, Chapter One Books turned out to be a worthy destination for a tea-hunting bookshopper.

I was in Manchester with my boyfriend and his big brother, and when I heard the former say "It'll be interesting to see what you buy from here" I wasn't entirely surprised, because this isn't a bookshop in the traditional sense of the word. There are no obvious genre divides and while I did see a sign for the secondhand shelves most of the books appear to be placed where they'll look good more than anything else. Thought had obviously gone into which books were on display, but it wasn't immediately clear how shelves were arranged.

Having passed the serving counter (and a stunning selection of cakes), we entered a large, open, space with floor to ceiling windows, and tables and chairs scattered everywhere. Shelves are gently filled with face-out books, most accompanied by a hand-written introduction, and a couple of picnic bench tables of books fill the centre of the room, but the book content of this bookshop is sparse.


I use the word sparse as an observation, not a complaint. Chapter One Books may not be a traditional bookshop and I'm not even sure if I saw a non-fiction area, but it is still a nicely stocked bookshop with an interesting selection of fiction.

This is more a place to meet friends for a cuppa and cake, rather than a dedicated browse, but I'd still advise arriving half an hour early or even allowing time after you've finished catching up to properly enjoy the books: with their covers looking out at you they cannot be ignored.

We took our time wandering around, enjoying the unusual layout of the shelves and eyeing up the other customers, trying to work out who would leave next so we could nab their table. This plan worked pretty well because the bookshop's currently running a #BookAndABrew promotion, where you get a free hot drink with every book purchased. It would've been rude not to make the most of this offer.

Eventually realising there was an order to the layout of the stock, I found the science fiction section and chose the Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Children of Time by Adrain Tchaikovsky – and as you've probably guessed, any bookshop that finds space to stock a few science fiction titles wins extra brownie points from me.

The big brother kindly bought our various teas and my book, and we took a table by a window, in one of the nooks created by carefully placed bookshelves. Speed of service isn't this destination's strong point, but we had been warned there'd be a bit of a wait so I didn't mind the delay, instead enjoying the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. This was also a good opportunity to properly stop and chat as I'd been a little nervous about my first meeting with my boyfriend's family*. Tea in the welcoming atmosphere of Chapter One Books turned out to be the perfect place to do just that.

During this time I also noticed the other visitors: a couple playing Scrabble, another pair reading together, a group of teens simply hanging out, and others who'd come in to catch up and eventually got drawn into the books, picking up a title as they paused in conversation. These are all reasonable bookshop activities but seemed all the more noticeable because of their taking place at cafe tables, rather than among the shelves. It was also startling to realise many people there were.

This unusual bookshop cafe setting is obviously a recipe for success in Manchester city centre.


Chapter One Books
Chatsworth House, Lever Street, Manchester M1 1BY
Tel: 0161 298 2015
@chapter1uk

*The brother was lovely, and frustratingly kind and didn't share any embarrassing stories from my boyfriend's childhood.