Friday, 30 December 2016

Explore another level

When a bookseller tells you to go visit a nearby(ish) competitor you take them at their word, but in the case of this week's bookshop I have to admit I initially – briefly – found myself doubting the recommendee's wisdom.

I'd arrived at the destination but not found the massive room of diverse books promised, instead discovering a large room sparsely filled with art books. The art books were varied and interesting, but not the wealth of titles I'd anticipated. However the praise given to Salts Mill Bookshop, near Bradford, was so convincing I'd driven an hour or so out of my way as part of a seven-ish hour journey and I wasn't going to let my uncomfortable first impression deter me from finding out more.

I persevered with the art room, found a few unexpected gems (it is a very diverse offering) and didn't feel too out of my depth but resolved not to write about the bookshop because I didn't see how I could possibly encourage my readers to visit a place I wasn't able to fully appreciate myself.

Then, just as I was about to give up, I noticed a door to other floors. Whether through tiredness, blindness or a lack of good signage, I'd almost missed this portal to a whole other floor of books awaited me. And it's a really, really good floor.

As it's based in a former mill, the bookshop space is massive* with large windows and the occasional structural detail acting as a reminder of that past life. My first view was of long wavy bookcases which draw the eye in. Tables of book highlights are everywhere (The Chimes by Anna Smaill caught my eye), while gifts and cards also liberally sprinkled around the room.

Importantly, it should also be stressed that this is a proper bookshop. All the usual genres are there and carefully considered recommendations are found hand-written by the booksellers, things that could easily be overlooked if this was a gimmicky tourist destination.

I spent a long time slowly working my way down one side of the bookshop and up the other, wandering from fiction to non-fiction and taking in children's on the way, simply enjoying the buzz of people among the books. It's hard to say if it was the variety of books or people that made the experience so enjoyable as there's a lot to be said for being surrounded by other bookshoppers, but this room of books is definitely worth all the praise it can be given and makes me determined to return to the Bradford area whenever I get the chance.

From wandering around the rest of the building I discovered how much more there is to Salt's Mill, including a restaurant and art gallery, but the large space given over to the bookshop is what makes this conversion really worth a visit.

Salt's Mill Bookshop
Victoria Road, Saltaire,
West Yorkshire, BD18 3LA
Tel: 01274 531163

* Possibly bigger than a floor of Foyles, but I wouldn't like to state that as fact.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Be drawn in by the drama

When I was a teenager, my school tried to make us more cultured by arranging the occasional trip to the theatre. These were events I loathed. Hours of Shakespeare, where I'd quickly tire of the story, take issue with the actors and eventually pass the time looking into the wings or working out the technicalities of the set design.

It was generally a torturous way to spend a few hours and means even now I have a slightly difficult relationship with the Bard. Thankfully, one teacher saved the day by finally realising we might be better engaged with the theatre if we were taken to something more lively: The Importance of Being Earnest.

This particular performance had energy unlike anything I'd seen before and was followed-up with a class introduction to the cast. Years later I still have flashbacks to a brown mop of hair flying all over the place as one of the leads told us how many cucumber sandwiches he'd eaten during the course of the show. It's perhaps not the most intelligent, or even useful, piece of information to cling to but it's part of the reason I fell in love with the theatre, especially Oscar Wilde's play.

Which is why, when my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl took me to French's Theatre Bookshop, I knew I had to buy The Importance of Being Earnest. Discovering four different versions of the play to choose from simply made the purchase even more appealing.

I had no clue which was the appropriate copy for a person who's not willingly read a play before, so I enlisted the help of a friendly bookseller. He talked me through the publishers and explained there are actually two different edits of the play, which was a bit of a shock given how many times I've seen performances of this story.

But enough of my obsession with one play, you want to know about the bookshop itself. An A-Z of plays run around the room, with sections for everything else that might come in handy if you're an actor. I was fascinated by the shelves dealing with accents, but other offerings included audition material, education and a general bookcase on acting. Instead of the usual new releases in the doorways of most bookshops, French's offers a bookcase labelled "Now playing", which was an interesting way of finding out what's currently on stage, while biographies are replaced with "Theatre people". These were nice twists on the familiar and an extra reassurance I wouldn't get too lost when trying to decide where to look.

Of course, if you really did just want to buy a novel those were available too, but I defy anyone to enter French's Theatre Bookshop and not be drawn in by the drama.

French's Theatre Bookshop
52 Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury, London, W1T 5JR
Tel: 020 7255 4300

PS. It's completely irrelevant to what French's is like as a bookshop, but if you're on Twitter do give them a follow – the account is highly entertaining.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Familiarity at the festival

There's something about the South Bank in London that makes me feel as though I'm on holiday.

Even in the winter, the bright, colourful, noisy area by Royal Festival Hall seems so full of energy and fun it can't possibly be a part of the everyday world. To me it's as though even the passers-by are happier and more full of joy too, making me feel like I'm enjoying a festival atmosphere on even the most ordinary of days.

I think it's for this reason that until Independent Bookshops Week earlier this year I'd never set foot inside the South Bank branch of Foyles, because I'd somehow convinced myself that to do something as ordinary as buying a book would bring me back to reality and be too normal. As if.

I admit when walking around the area the big glass windows looking out to the river have always looked attractive, but that's as close as I'd previously got. Today it was time to look beyond those windows.

Having only previously visited the Charing Cross Road branch, the first thing I noticed was the welcoming sentence popular with Foyles fans: Welcome book lover, you are among friends. Even though I was looking for out of the ordinary, there was something startlingly comforting about seeing those words. And yes, I'm aware comforting may seem like an odd choice for such a bright, happy place, but no matter how lively they are all the best bookshops* are like putting on a favourite pair of slippers.

This moment of recognition set me up for the rest of the visit as we explored what I found myself thinking of as Mini Foyles, although mini's not really appropriate here. From outside the bookshop may not appear to be very big but behind that glass front is a space large enough to house at least three or four regular independent bookshops. It's also very bright, so even at the back of the bookshop it was as if I was feeling the effect of the large windows I was hardly able to see.

As I was there with my boyfriend, we lost each other while we browsed, each taking our own route through the maze of shelves. He's a regular of the bookshop so he knew where he was going, while I preferred to wander at random. It took me past a striking Tintin rocket, cuddly dinosaurs, a large children's section and the diverse, well-stocked fiction offering Foyles is known for. There obviously aren't as many books as in their flagship store, but walking around this bookshop it still felt like I might be able to find any title that could pop into my head.

This thought was backed up when I remembered a recommendation to read Neal Stevenson's Seveneves. A huge doorstop of a science fiction novel, I'm not sure how many bookshops would have the shelf space to house this one so was pleased to find it here. At least, I was pleased to find it until several hours (and book purchases) later, when my shoulder was aching from carrying it for so long.

Fortunately, at about the time I was about to break from being so overloaded, our walk home took us back past this very bookshop. Which meant I could pop back in to buy a second tote bag to divide** our purchases up. I'm sure all book lovers have a surfeit of totes, but this one was so sturdy and well made it's now become my designated laptop bag and is greatly loved.

Foyles on the South Bank may have been much more familiar than I'd wanted from a visit to Royal Festival Hall, but during the time of my visits I came to realise that's no bad thing. Yes, I love the carnival atmosphere by the river, but the excitement of buying books means the fun continues once you walk inside.

Southbank Centre,
Royal Festival Hall,
Belvedere Road, Lambeth,
London SE1 8XX
Tel: 020 7440 3212

*That's everyone featured on this blog.
**By divide, I mean split 20/80, with him carrying the heavier load. I knew having a boyfriend would come in handy.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Relaxing in the fifteenth century

If you live within reach of the south coast, a popular place to visit is Brighton and all the hustle and bustle and atmosphere it's famous for. If calm relaxation is more your thing I suggest cutting your journey short and instead stopping at Lewes.

Apart from the lure of all the bookshops named in a guest post I have to admit the town had largely passed me by before my visit, which may be a sign of my ignorance but could also highlight the genius of its understated appeal.

The visit took place on a warm Sunday when whole swathes of the town were closed, so that might also have skewed my experience somewhat, but the joy of the day was the relaxed, understated pleasure of gentle exploring. We wandered quiet streets, discovered ruins and enjoyed stunning views through gaps in the buildings. We also visited a bookshop that just happens to be an historic landmark.

Fifteenth Century Bookshop is named for the age of the building it's housed in, and even the most dedicated of internet shoppers would surely struggle to walk past without at least pausing to admire this structure.

Outside, the ground floor is lined with either bookcases or windows of books, while look up and ochre yellow walls are interlaced with wooden beams. I'm yet to see another building like it and left my boyfriend out there for some time as he put his camera to good use photographing interesting details.

The first thing I noticed is that the contents are quite a mix, with an initial assessment of it as a standard secondhand bookshop not being entirely accurate. Yes, the stock is secondhand but the majority of those books are collectable, with a selection of standard pre-loved books scattered in between. In their own words, they sell anything from: "From rare and collectable to recent and readable". The shop is also a well organised mix, with clearly arranged sections that occasionally verge ever so slightly on the untidy, inviting browsers to dive in and discover what treats are to be found.

The first room is dominated by the children's books. From standard, relatively modern paperbacks to beautifully bound hardbacks of yesteryear, this area contains all a young child's library could want and more. Prices vary from cheap to amounts you have to think about, but everything felt appropriately valued. Other genres are available in this room, or you can wander through a short corridor to a longer, more modern feeling room where the general fiction mostly lives.

Walkways are narrow and shelves are full, but even with other customers the space never felt cramped or uncomfortable – although you'll have to take my word for it as I forgot to take any photos inside.

As children's books are Fifteenth Century Bookshop's speciality, my purchase came from this section, albeit from among the standard paperbacks. I picked Noel Streatfeild's The Ballet Shoes, while my boyfriend enjoyed the variety of the foreign language offering and chose a French copy of Asterix in Spain. I'm ashamed to admit I could understand very little of his purchase.

We may not have chosen anything pricey or rare, but I can't help feeling these books are a good example of the interesting diversity of the bookshop's shelves. Importantly, the browsing experience was as relaxed and pleasant as the rest of our time in Lewes. Next time I'm looking for a quiet retreat I know where I'll be heading.

Fifteenth Century Bookshop
99-100 High Street, Lewes,
East Sussex, BN7 1XH
Tel: 01273 474160

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Three is the magic number

It was freezing in Cambridge this Sunday, so when accosted in the street by a student intent on selling us tickets for a punt trip the last thing I wanted to do was say yes.

Having bought the tickets and found ourselves with half an hour to spare, the next last thing I wanted to do was leave the sanctuary of the unexpected bookshop we'd stumbled into for shelter.

We arrived in Cambridge late on Saturday evening, having done no research and barely able to find our hastily-booked cheap hotel (which was accidentally/fortunately almost in the centre of the university district). We wandered around until we had the luck to find a (fortunately very good) restaurant with a table and then shivered our way home, still none the wiser as to where anything was.

Sunday started a little better as daylight meant we were better able to spot landmarks and enjoy the atmosphere of the city, with every corner revealing something new and interesting to discover. It may have been cold, but the beauty of our surroundings meant it was an enjoyable experience.

Then we booked the punt. And stumbled across Heffers. Which turns out to be massive. We were in and out in roughly ten minutes and if you've ever managed to prevent yourself from throwing a strop after such a brief encounter with a large bookshop then you'll appreciate the remarkable self-restraint I demonstrated. Admittedly, I had been promised a return after our journey along the water, but I was being taken out of the warmth of a bookshop to sit on a piece of wood on an icy river. I was not happy.

Fortunately I love both water and boats of all shapes and sizes, so once I'd got over the wobbles of climbing aboard and realised our low level and full punt meant we were relatively warm and sheltered from the wind I was able to relax and enjoy myself, but it was a close thing when a few spots of rain threatened us just before cast off. The boat trip was fun and – I'm happy to admit – a pleasant way to see and hear more about Cambridge than we'd ever have managed with our wanderings.

Also, once we returned to dry land we returned to Heffers Bookshop. The place is huge, with a central board games section overlooked by the upper levels of the bookshop. This was the area we'd explored during our brief earlier visit, when we'd scampered in through the back door and briefly viewed a gorgeously colourful children's section. As a wannabe board game geek, I loved this addition to the bookshop and made sure I returned for a second look and to appreciate the diversity of good quality games available.

During our first visit we'd picked up Loot Letter, a mini Munchkin card game, so this time the priority was books.

We split up to better cover the ground, with me gradually making my way along the side of the bookshop dedicated to fiction. Raised above the rest of the shop, this long row of shelves arranged into cubbies was both small and intimate while also being open to view the rest of my surroundings. I'm yet to experience a bookshop like it but I definitely recommend this contrasting experience. It really enabled me to appreciate my surroundings and the efforts of the booksellers, with one man in particular standing out as somehow being everywhere and appearing to successfully answer the questions of pretty much every customer in the shop. I didn't catch his name but I feel certain the bookshop must know who he is.

Halfway around this level/layer/floor of bookshop (each word could be equally appropriate), somewhere between general fiction and sci fi, I paused to look out at my surroundings and spotted what became my main purchase of the day: Instructions to the young bookseller, a transcript of a 1933 speech made by Ernest Heffer. It's a wonderful read. However this hadn't been my intended book as I'd already found a copy of my favourite book, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. This was one of four different versions available – Heffers is very well stocked – and seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up another copy to share with an unsuspecting friend (I give this book as often as possible).

Then, once again, it was time to leave because we had a table booked for lunch. I hadn't seen all of the bookshop, but I'd at least managed to enjoy a good hour or so's browsing, which meant leaving was a little less painful this time. Fortunately, during our time of browsing apart my boyfriend had become so engrossed in the books he'd put his gloves down and forgotten them.

Returning to a bookshop a third time in one – short – day might seem a little excessive, but given there was still shelf space to be explored I wasn't about to complain. First of all though, a trip to the customer service desk where the all pervasive bookseller spotted earlier reunited us with the lost gloves.

This time we retreated beyond children's books (still welcoming and colourful), past a music section that even stocked a limited selection of instruments alongside its CDs and DVDs and into the basement. Here much of the non-fiction can be found, as well as a few unexpected treats. For example, as Heffers is now owned by Blackwells it stocks a random gift I've long heard about but not yet seen: cuddly germs. My excitement at this encounter led to my accidentally influencing the purchase of one student, who heard me gleefully exclaim "I've found syphilis" and went on to buy his own choice of microbe as a birthday present for a friend.

Finally, for a third time, we made our way to the exit. Only this time we were in less of a hurry and got caught by one of the various recommends stands. Before we knew it I'd found His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and my boyfriend had chosen a birthday present for his own friend (who I'm sure will be disappointed to discover he missed out on a cuddly microbe): Stephen King's The bazar of bad dreams. As these books were part of a three for two offer he also selected a title for himself: The price of inequality by Joseph E Stiglitz.

My one book per shop rule may have been spectacularly broken, but as I personally only ended up with one book per visit I'm not being too hard on myself. Especially because while everything about our encounter with Heffers Bookshop was accidental, there isn't a thing about it that I'd change.

The punts, the restaurants and all the history of Cambridge were impressive, but for me the highlight of the visit will always be Heffers.

Heffers Bookshop
20 Trinity Street, Cambridge,
Cambridgeshire, CB2 1TY
Tel: 01223 463200

Thursday, 24 November 2016

There's nothing like a good yarn

A few days ago at work we were talking about yarn bombing and it reminded me of a lovely spring day in Thirsk that I've not yet shared with you.

I was in North Yorkshire as part of what I affectionately called my Northern Bookshop Adventure, but by chance my arrival in Thirsk almost coincided with that of the Tour de Yorkshire and the community's way of celebrating it: by dressing up the town in yarn. And we're not just talking pompoms in trees. There were bollard covers, woolly-footed benches and all manner of bright and colourful creations adorning the main square of the town.

As a first experience of the place it was wonderful. I parked up and explored, enjoying not just my surroundings but also the reactions of the people around me. It was a very happy, friendly experience – and that was before I'd even made it to the bookshop.

White Rose Book Cafe has been on my list ever since the first Books are my bag day, when a chance Twitter conversation saw us chatting about washing tote bags and hanging them on the line (see the bookshop's Twitter avatar). Back then I was a naive new blogger and this bookshop was one of the first random strangers to talk to me. The memory stuck with me and I looked forward to finding out more. I only wish it hadn't taken me so long to visit.

A yarn flower covered the door handle as I made my way in to the particularly spacious bookshop. From the front I'd known it would be wide, I hadn't realised quite how far back it would stretch – and the bookshop is on two floors.

If you're in a hurry, the front area is enough to satisfy your fiction needs, with alphabetised shelves as well as recommendations areas. However delving deeper to find offers, non-fiction and more is definitely recommended. After the main part of the bookshop you come to the cafe area, which at the time of my visit was around half-full and generating a happy buzz of conversation.

Alongside this is part of the children's section, or head upstairs to board games, young adult and more non-fiction. Up here there's also an activity room.

I enjoyed taking my time to explore, especially because the bookshop's open layout means you always feel a part of the activity, even if you're browsing alone. Not that I was alone for long as I soon headed back to the front of the shop for a chat with the bookseller.

Her recommendations were varied and excellent, but I have to confess for the first time ever I didn't follow them because, just as I was dithering over several of her highlighted titles, a book that's long been on my must-buy list caught my attention. Nick Hornby's Long Way Down is one of the favourite books (and, interestingly, films) of a friend's teenage daughter and her praise of it means I'm pleased to have finally added it to my bookshelves.

White Rose Book Cafe is every bit as friendly as I'd anticipated and is easily large enough to lose an afternoon – or longer – in. I may have taken several years to get there but the joy of exploring, coupled with this long-sought for book, means it was definitely worth the wait.

There was only one thing left to do: settle down for a coffee while I dived into my new yarn.

White Rose Book Cafe
79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 1ET
Tel: 01845 524353

Thursday, 17 November 2016

I believe in bookshops

This week we go to possibly the most out of my comfort zone bookshop I've ever visited. As bookshops go, this one was so far down my list of places to visit I'm not sure it was even on the list.

But it was Independent Bookshops Week and my boyfriend had heard about the place from a friend. My boyfriend was good enough to let me drag him around hundreds* of bookshops, the least I could do is let one of those bookshops be somewhere he'd suggested.

Which is how we ended up at a home of magic, esotericism and the occult, Treadwell's Books in Bloomsbury.

As we walked along Store Street, he admitted it wasn't his usual idea of a bookshop, but he also reassured me my reservations were unfounded: despite our complete lack of belief we'd still be made to feel welcome. I wasn't so sure but the least I could do was find out.

From the front the bookshop looks normal enough, which was some reassurance but not quite enough to make me feel at home. Yet.

Inside, the bookshop has its esoteric quirks but the thing that struck me the most was the walls of dark wooden shelves crammed with books. It's impossible to be uncomfortable when you find yourself in such a setting, especially one so well organised – the genres may have been different from what I'm used to but everything was very easy to find.

I'll admit, my own personal tastes and beliefs mean I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by some of the sections but I could still appreciate the range of subjects and diversity of books collected under each genre. None of them were books I wanted to buy, but they were certainly informative and made me think.

Then, towards the back of the shop, I found some shelves I recognised.

Split into centuries; life and letters; and other "ordinary" categories, these books served a good purpose in giving this skeptic a place to comfortably loiter while I took in my surroundings.

The bookshop is medium-sized, stretching quite a way behind its small front. The dark shelves are perfect for the atmosphere and comfy chairs give plenty of places for browers to relax. At the time of our arrival there appeared to be an event of some kind downstairs, so we were unable to explore the second floor of the bookshop, but this did mean there were occasionally people passing through. Not only were these people friendly and welcoming, but their appearances were also a welcome reminder of how diverse and interesting book lovers can be: even lost among the subjects I was still very much at home.

While enjoying my observations I even found a purchase for myself, Dava Sobel's book about Copernicus: A more perfect heaven.

There was no need for Treadwell's to cater for the likes of non-believers such as myself, but the shelves I gravited towards emphasise the inclusivity of this fascinatingly unusual bookshop and are a reminder we don't have to share the same beliefs to be made welcome. Which is a lesson we should all take note of in these troubled times.

Treadwell's Books
33 Store Street, Bloomsbury,
London, WC1E 7BS
Tel: 020 7419 8507

*possibly a slight exaggeration