Thursday, 20 October 2016

Escape the rain

One of my favourite places to hang out in during a rainstorm is a cozy pub with a roaring fire. Not the answer you were expecting on a bookshop blog? My other favourite place to escape the rain is a bookshop.

Not only did this week's bookshop offer me a cosy sanctuary from torrential rain, it also came with tea.

Found in Oswestry, on the Welsh border, it appeared Booka Bookshop must be used to welcoming damp or drenched customers, as I was greeted by a row of colourful umbrellas just inside the door. The pale shopfront had been a bright welcome on the drizzly day of my visit but I imagine even on sunny days this is a welcome place to visit, whether to browse for books or simply catch up with a friend in the cafe.

As the cafe area was full – and if I'm honest that wasn't my priority anyway – I began my visit among the books. Everywhere felt light and summery, even though it was a dull day outside, and the gentle buzz coming from the cafe and other browsers gave the whole room a very friendly atmosphere. Which is quite an achievement in a shop as large as this.

The comfy cafe area alone took up the space of your average medium-sized bookshop, with roughly another two thirds of room dedicated to books and gifts. My priority was the books but I also enjoyed the randomness of a shelf full of alarm clocks, and there was lots more to tempt should you for some reason want to buy things other than books. This bookshop is also packed with interesting details to catch the eye and make you smile – including these rather lovely Books are my bag tote cushions.

I dithered for some time over my choice of purchase as I made the most of the mix of all genres combined together under the one bracket of fiction. The way this enables and encourages browsers to leave their comfort zone and discover a wider range of fiction than they would perhaps ordinarily be used to is a big plus in my eyes. It also meant I was drawn to a title I'd not previously considered: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Having bought my book I checked the status of the weather – still raining – and returned to the cafe just as a table came free. Somehow able to resist the delicious array of cakes on display (I can't have been feely well that day), I settled down with my new book and a pot of tea.

The rain was still flowing when I finished my chapter and drank the last of my tea, but the warmth and friendliness of Booka Bookshop had set me up for the day.

Booka Bookshop
26-28 Church Street, Oswestry,
Shropshire, SY11 2SP
Tel: 01691 662244

PS. My apologies to Booka Bookshop, as they'll know from the window display, it's some time since this visit took place. No disrespect is meant by the delay in sharing this lovely bookshop, other events just got in the way.

PPS. Don't just take my word for it that Booka is great, here's a guest post about the bookshop.

Friday, 14 October 2016

National Bookshop Day 2016

***As usual, here's an introduction to my National Bookshop Day bookshop crawl. I'll write about individual destinations in more detail over the coming weeks***

If books are my bag, bookshops are my home, heaven, place of worship, and everything else that indicates a great place to hang out.

So you can probably imagine how excited I was to discover Saturday, 8th October, was named the first ever National Bookshop Day. Ignoring the fact I believe every day should be bookshop day, I knew it was important to celebrate this one in style. I couldn't just wander around the capital greedily collecting up as many bookshop experiences as possible. Instead I set about roughly planning a route, taking in a limited selection of destinations hosting events between my home in Kent and a bookshop birthday party being thrown in the north of the country.

The route wasn't particularly well plotted – it certainly wasn't as direct as a motorway – but it ensured the maximum amount of bookshop parties in relation to distance travelled.

Then I got a call from the BBC. A few months previously I'd emailed their Saturday Live show telling them how I spend my weekends visiting bookshops, and now they were inviting me to share the experience with other listeners.

If there's one thing I love more than visiting bookshops it's knowing other people are visiting bookshops. Even knowing there were a string of places I wanted to visit, there was no way I could pass up on this opportunity, especially on National Bookshop Day.

Of course, rather than doing the sensible thing and thinking about how I'd rearrange my plans, I then spent the next week in a state of over-excitement, bouncing off walls and failing to engage my brain. Which led to a hasty bit of planning the day before, trying to work out what and where my boyfriend and I could go to celebrate bookshop day.

All bookshops are great, but there's a lot to be said for taking the time to plan, as I discovered at the start of our bookshop crawl.

Destination number one (after recovering from all the Radio 4 excitement and navigating a spaghetti junction of tube stations) was up a hill, past Dick Whittington's cat in Highgate. The first thing that struck me was that this wasn't the bookshop I'd intended to visit. There was no orange bunting or balloons and everything was simply business as usual.

This could have been a let down but we all know bookshops are fab, and Highgate Bookshop proved that with its friendly atmosphere and extensive selection of books. My lack of organisation may mean I mixed its name up with somewhere else, but the experience was still one to enjoy, especially because it saw me go home with Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Next up was a bookshop I'd meant to get to as the final stop of last year's bookshop crawl, if I'd not become so engrossed in the east.

As the sister to one of my semi-regular haunts, Queens Park Books is somewhere I've long wanted to visit and was pleased to discover it felt familiar as soon as I walked inside. Small and stylish, I enjoyed my first splashes of Bookshop Day celebrations and it united me with a title that's long been on my must-buy list: Jenny Colgan's Resistance is Futile.

The bookshop is also notable for being attractive to pandas, but more on that in my proper write-up.

Wandering around the corner, we went secondhand with the Community Bookshop, or Offside Books as I know it on Twitter. A tiny space with big personality, the comfy sofa and chatty bookseller meant it didn't take long for us to appreciate the community aspect of this bookshop. I bought 10:08 by Ben Lerner.

Heading back into town, we took a brief break from bookshops to pop into independent record shop Sister Ray. It's usually hard to distract me from books, but as the lack of good music shops on the average high street is part of what made me so determined to tell people about bookshops, this diversion seemed appropriate. It's not pictured here, but I showed my support by purchasing Portishead by Portishead.

Next up came Gosh! Comics. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have even considered including anywhere with the word comic in a bookshop crawl. As my full write-up will explain, I'm glad I now know better.

There was a great buzz to this bookshop, which was crammed with readers of all ages browsing through a broad range of graphic novels and comics.

Thank's to a friend's recommendation, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson was my book of choice here.

Finally, I took my boyfriend for his first ever trip to the now not so new Foyles. How he's gone so long without visiting is beyond me, but it did give me the opportunity of re-living my first visit through his eyes. It was great watching his reaction to the wide range of titles on offer and gave me an excuse to buy one final book: Pushkin Press' Browse: The world in bookshops.

Highgate Bookshop
9 Highgate High Street, Highgate, London, N6 5JR
Tel: 020 8348 8202

Queens Park Books
87 Salusbury Road, Brent, London, NW6 6NH
Tel: 020 7625 1008 @QPBooks

The Community Bookshop/Offside Books
92 Willesden Lane, Kilburn, London, NW6 7TA
Tel: 020 3609 1150 @OffSideBooks

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

107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT
Tel: 020 7437 5660 @Foyles

Friday, 7 October 2016

The town with the difficult name

Wales has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from visits to relatives and long school holidays to eventually spending a few years living there myself. I love returning to the country as often as possible and I'm always surprised when I meet those rare poor souls who are yet to visit.

My favourite area of Wales is the west. Travelling north from Cardigan to Machynlleth I've explored a good proportion of the beaches, countryside, towns and villages and when visiting Aberystwyth it feels like I'm going home. Given it's more than a decade since I've lived there it's probably time I mentally moved on.

All this love means I'm a bit of a menace if you happen to be in the area with me. I'll try to drag you to all my favourite haunts, share hundreds of memories of visits and insist you come along to my favourite cafe or pub. In the past I'd also have dragged you into my favourite bookshop but nowadays lots of those places have closed so I can only talk about the gems people are missing out on. However, as times change new attractions are also opening.

Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop in Machynlleth didn't exist in my day, but had the bookshop been born it would certainly have been one of my reasons for visiting the town.

I discovered this bookshop, which has actually been around for many years, during a recent tour of the area as part of my annual Rail Ale Trail. The visit was late in the day, but lots of train travel and my decision to skip a pub to visit mean sobriety was not an issue here. It also gave my friends a few minutes of peace from an over-enthusiastic me telling them how much I like the town's clock tower/pub/hippie shop/famous residents.

The bookshop is a series of small rooms, with smart shelves of new and secondhand books in English and Welsh sitting side-by-side. Above these at the time of my visit, a striking black and white photography display contrasted with all the colourful spines and lived up to the gallery part of the bookshop's name. And as I entered the bookshop this was all perfectly illuminated by sunshine streaming through the window, and the smile of the friendly bookseller.

She welcomed me in, gave a brief but helpful explanation of the layout of the bookshop and then left me to enjoy my surroundings. It was a welcome moment of calm in between the excitement of my travels and I enjoyed familiarising myself with the selections and working out the not-quite-straightforward-but-actually-very-sensible arrangement of different combinations of fiction – if you're wondering what I'm on about you'll have to travel over for a visit, I can't give everything away in this blog. My purchase was Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, not the most obvious choice in such a calming place but for me it's a good reminder of the diversity of Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop's stock.

Machynlleth's not somewhere many people can pronounce* and as far as I'm aware – beyond the Centre for Alternative Technology and miles of beautiful but slightly rainy countryside – it doesn't have a big tourist industry so I'm guessing visitors are few and far between. But in my eyes these are perfect reasons to visit, especially when that train line makes access so easy.

Then, once you arrive in the town but want a rest from all the fresh air and countryside, pop along to Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop and find a book to curl up with, preferably in one of the local pubs.

Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop
Heol Pen'rallt, Machynlleth,
Powys SY20 8AJ
Tel: 01654 700559

*Try mak-un-cleth, although many of us get around the risk of ruining the name by simply calling it Mach.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Books and friendship

One of the things that makes bookshops great is the people. The majority of the time those people are obviously the booksellers, but the customers are always pretty great too, especially when they're a new-found friend.

This week's blog is as much about one of those people as it is about the bookshop they introduced me to.

I've previously mentioned Tamzin, so you know she was kind enough to show me around Bath, what I didn't mention before is how pleased I was to be able to meet up with a random Twitter friend and realise I'd made a real-life friend too. Which I can assure you is not guaranteed when you've only 140 characters and can be a bit shy about meeting new people.

Fortunately, bookshops are great ice breakers and it was in Bookbarn International – hidden away on an industrial estate somewhere between Bath and Bristol – where our friendship was properly formed in the real world.

The bookshop is ginormous. Which is great when you're wandering around with a new friend because it gave us plenty of time and space to chatter away uninterrupted, while exploring what felt like hundreds of rows of secondhand books. It's also got a large cafe, meaning we were able to relax over soup and a drink while we carried on talking. Had there been time, I reckon we could've happily spent the whole day in this bookshop.

As it was we had other places to be, so we couldn't dawdle too long as we wandered up and down all those bookshelves, shopping basket in hand to fill with all the stumbled-upon books you knew you'd always wanted.

The whole place is a treasure trove, with everything from old yellow Penguins to rare books and other fascinating sections including a bookcase dedicated to cats (oh, how I could've spent a small fortune there). However I was so busy enjoying the good company and great atmosphere, I failed to find a book to buy. Even when I went to the children's section, certain such a large place must have the particular book in a series I'm slowly hunting down, I found myself empty-handed.

Fortunately, Tamzin pointed out the obvious: in Bookbarn International what you see isn't all you get. Extra to the rows and rows of bookcases there are whole other rooms, hidden from view, where the majority of the million books in stock are stored. It was a tiny bit disappointing to realised I wouldn't get to see those books but it's probably a good thing they're hidden away: There's plenty to keep browsers happy on the shop floor and too many books to choose from (even for book-addicts like me) could potentially be overwhelming.

Also, those hidden books are still available to browse. Tamzin took me to a collection of computers in the cafe area and helped me to understand how their stock check system works. I'll admit, when she first explained, I was a little unhappy about looking up a book on a computer – how could that be a proper bookshop experience? But once I'd typed the words "Peter Duck" into the machine, written the book's code down and then – at last – handed my slip to a physical bookseller everything was okay again.

We continued browsing while my real-world human bookseller went behind the scenes to dig out my request, the third book in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series*. Even better, when the bookseller returned she had several copies so I could choose the one I wanted according to condition, price, smell and any other criteria I wanted to use. The novelty of having a selection of books delivered to you within the bookshop setting is certainly appealing and definitely meets my criteria of sales being made face-to-face.

The extra time loitering was also well-spent, as I picked out some origami bunting and Tamzin added a little book art to her purchases.

Bookbarn International is a huge place in the middle of nowhere. While I know I'd have one day found it with the help of sat nav and a map, and would probably have eventually worked out what I was doing with the computers** the whole of this experience was made possible because a random person on Twitter was kind enough to help me out and become my friend.

I loved the size and variety of Bookbarn International and I definitely recommend you take a visit for an unusual bookshop experience, but for me the thing that makes it special is that it's where I got to know my new friend.

Bookbarn International
Unit 1, Hallatrow Business Park,
Wells Road, Bristol, Somerset,
BS39 6EX
Tel: 01761 451333

*It feels wrong to buy a series of books out of order. I already owned the first book before this blog began and I bought the second book here.

**Probably not, technology confuses me so I'd have most likely ended up doing my usual trick of hunting down an unsuspecting bookseller.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Florence exchange

You already know how nervous I can get about failing to speak the right language when visiting a foreign country, but have I mentioned how I can occasionally struggle with international bookshops?

Don't get me wrong, I love visiting them and walking around spotting covers I recognise in languages I don't, but I also find them very frustrating. I want to be able to open the books and read and understand the words, but my ignorance won't let me. Instead I wander around enjoying the view but frustrated by my inability to understand: it's like taking a child into a sweetshop but making them watch all the other children enjoy the stock.

Thankfully, every now and then, a bookshop comes along to help me out. It either has an English language section or – in the case of this week's bookstore – is all in my native tongue.

Paperback Exchange has been located near the Duomo in Florence, Italy, since 1979, when it was established as an Anglo-American family business, and a welcome quiet haven in the centre of Florence. These are words stolen from their own website that exactly sum up how I felt when walking into the air-conditioned cool one hot, sunny afternoon during my holiday.

It's a good-sized space, with two rooms, lots of bookshelves and a couple of seats scattered around for browsers to relax in. Books are fiction and non-fiction, with areas for local interest and a row of bookcases dedicated to Italian fiction that particularly attracted me. Stock is a mix of new and secondhand.

Starting life as a secondhand bookstore where customers could exchange old for new-to-you (as the name would suggest), it gradually evolved to also offer properly new books as the years passed. These are all shelved next to each other, giving browsers the chance, for example, to browse several copies of the Decameron in varying stages of life. I was particularly attracted to a slightly battered book with just the right level of notes in the margin to enhance your reading pleasure. The hefty tome would have come home with me were I not worried about baggage weight restrictions imposed by a particularly strict airline.

Instead I opted for the third book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, Those who leave and those who stay. I'm a little late to the party with these books and it seemed only right to continue my reading of Italian novels thanks to a purchase in an Italian bookstore. My only complaint is that of the four books in the series this was the only one to not be available as a secondhand copy and I refuse to buy a series out of order – how I'd have loved to stumble across someone else's notes in the margins while I read* – but I'm sure many of you will agree that's no reason to complain.

Paperback Exchange, and Florence as a whole, were wonderful, friendly places to visit (whether English or Italian-speaking) and I encourage every one of you to add this friendly family bookstore to your itinerary should you be holidaying nearby.

Paperback Exchange
Via delle Oche, 4Red
50122 Firenze, Italy
Tel: +39.055.293460

*I'm a big fan of (within reason) allowing books to become changed: battered in handbags, corners folded and words underlined. All help to tell the story of the book's journey and I'm sure I'll write a miscellaneous post on the subject one day to try and win one or two more of you around.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Simple pleasures

This blog often sees bookshops described as destinations, highlighting their many differences and explaining why each one is uniquely appealing. Perhaps it stocks otherwise out of print titles, has a mascot, is a cool place to hang out or is a great place to hear live music.

These are all wonderful, important details and great ways to remind people why they should be spending a little more time appreciating their local bookshop.

Sometimes the reason the place is special is simply because it is a bookshop.

The Guisborough Bookshop in North Yorkshire is surprisingly large for a market town*, but its unusual details are limited. Fortunately, while I'm a fan of all those special, unusual details, I'm also a fan of simple things. Like books.

From full-priced to discount, fiction to non, and a well allocated children's area, the large space means browsers have a lot of books to choose from. Which means there were lots of browsers at the time of my arrival – mid Northern Bookshop Adventure – and lots of people means lots of atmosphere.

The bookshop was exactly the right level of busy to generate a buzz from conversation without being too jostled and while it meant I waited a long time to take photographs that didn't include people that's hardly a thing to complain about. I enjoyed the mix of shoppers (and their random conversations) across the whole bookshop, but the thing I found particularly special was seeing the parents introducing their young children to books. The shelved-off children's area made me think this was a particularly safe space for little ones to gather in as they develop their love of books.

Extra to this, a large area for cards and other bits and pieces at the back (think independent Clintons) means there were even more people popping in for a birthday card and finding themselves distracted by the appeal of the books. It's a clever layout and filled me with joy at the thought of all those accidental readers and book gifts accompanying the cards.

My gift to myself was Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, followed by a bit of a wander around Guisborough. I'm becoming quite a fan of market towns.

The Guisborough Bookshop
4 Chaloner Street, Guisborough,
Cleveland, North Yorkshire, TS14 6QD
Tel: 01287 610179

*I have a feeling I'm often surprised by the large size of market town bookshops, maybe I need to move to one of these places so I can make the most of the phenomenon.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Making every corner count

Good things come in small packages, and never has this been more apparent than in this week's bookshop.

Book Corner in Saltburn-by-the-Sea was the final destination on day one of my Northern Bookshop Adventure and it is tiny.

It's so small I possibly have more bookcases in my own living room, but none of my books are for sale (and you probably wouldn't want to buy most of them if they were). Book Corner may not have a lot of stock but what there is is excellently displayed and very well selected. There's also room for bags of personality and a very friendly welcome.

My visit coincided with Shakespeare's birthday, so I had the option to try on period costume and take part in activities – which was a pretty impressive offering given the small floor space available – but instead I opted to enjoy the bookshop itself. I also made friends with the bookseller, who obviously cares a great deal for her work and knows a great deal about books, meaning we had a good chat about all she's achieved over the past few years. Some of those achievements are visible within the bookshop itself, including a selection of recommendations from regular customers and good community support, but the rest are simply evidenced in the success of the bookshop.

For instance, the diminutive size of Book Corner obviously doesn't put customers off. During my visit a cute puppy popped in for a browse with her human family, proving the bookshop can comfortably hold a good number of people if you're willing to be polite and alternate which shelves you look at. This requirement isn't a problem because every corner of the bookshop is worth appreciating. I certainly had no trouble finding a purchase (Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller) and the other customers looked just as happy as me.

Found opposite the railway station, Book Corner is an easy place to visit if you're taking a trip to Saltburn-by-the-Sea and definitely worth a few minutes of your time on the way to the blustery seafront. Which is where I headed next, after a day dedicated to book-buying it was only right I reward myself with an ice cream.

Book Corner
Unit 1, The Regency Buildings,
Station Square, Saltburn-by-the-Sea,
North Yorkshire, TS12 1AG
Tel: 01287 348010