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

Friday, 2 September 2016

Bookshop takes us on a world tour

Most of us are very particular when it comes to the shelving of our books. Alphabetical order is generally a given, as is shelving by genre, but not everyone does things the same way, with the one common thread being order of some kind.

For instance, all of my books are in order but a significant number of my shelves no longer follow the alphabet. When I started this blog the books got placed according to when the bookshop they were from got written about. It's a nice reminder of my journey and also a lot easier than shuffling along the entire bookcase every week. And I'm not alone.

I've met people who order books by colour, by date read or studied or simply by height. So long as there's an order of some kind my bookish OCD can cope and I'm able to resist the urge to re-shelve all their books by the alphabet.

Which means I'm okay when I find myself in a bookshop that doesn't immediately appear to follow the alphabet either.

Travelling Through... on Lower Marsh near Waterloo in London is one such bookshop. In its own words: "Whether it is fiction, non-fiction, travel writing, memoir or biography, we categorise our recommendations by continent, country and place rather than by genre. In this way, we hope to inspire cultural discovery across the world and across London."

The journey to the bookshop itself is one of discovery as you leave the mainline train station to head in the opposite direction to the way most people are heading. I'd not previously heard of Lower Marsh, but it's a varied and interesting street of shops and places to eat* if you're looking for an alternative London experience. My trip was as part of a bookshop crawl, so I didn't have time to fully investigate all that was on offer, but I could easily have loitered nearby (and in the bookshop) for longer.

The bookshop itself appears to be a small journey of discovery, and the main room is nicely compact. However that room is still very well-filled and leads on to other equally interesting rooms and even a large basement cafe (where secondhand books are available) which looked like the perfect opportunity to travel the world on a plate as well as a page.

Staying in the main part of the shop, there's a bookcase for travel guides, a wall to journey around the world and a selection of recommendations, which at the time of my visit comprised books linking to an exhibition being held further along the road.

It was the world wall with its continental shelving system and clocks indicating different timezones that made my visit memorable. Seeing the books by country really did take me on a cultural journey, making me think beyond the alphabet and appreciate how little books care for borders or ethnic differences: a good book is a good book no matter where it originates from.

It also made me think more about where my own reading choices are from and realise they're more international than I'd assumed. While browsing I expected to choose a title from some far-flung place in an attempt to broaden my horizons, but the other thing I was reminded of while visiting Travelling Through... was that you don't have to travel far to find interesting experiences.

My purchase, thanks to a bookseller recommendation, came from Ireland: Anne Enright's The Green Road. Not a distant country geographically, I was surprised by how few books I knew from there and pleased to have some of them picked out for me during our conversation.

Its proximity to Waterloo railway station means Travelling Through... is a surprisingly easy bookshop to visit when you are travelling through or simply exploring the area. Best of all, thanks to those well organised shelves, it's a journey around this wonderful world.

Travelling Through…
131 Lower Marsh, Waterloo,
London, SE1 7AE
Tel: 020 7633 9279

*I also recommend walking along the back of the street, where a giant model camel can be spotted on the roof of a restaurant. Obviously.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

A surprise by the sea

Last week I enjoyed a summer holiday of sorts, staycationing around the south east. It was an alternately relaxing and exhausting experience, showing me how many great places and activities there are a short journey from my home – and reminding me why it's as important to make the effort to explore this country.

A particular highlight of the week, and one that took me by surprise, was Hastings. I've heard a lot about this seaside town but as comments have ranged from good to terrible it wasn't somewhere I'd made much of an effort to visit. Indeed, as we left the railway station and walked through the town centre it wasn't hard to see why there had been so much criticism. Yes it's a practical shopping area, but it's hardly a destination high street.

Then we followed the seafront to the Old Town and all the praise made sense. Fishing huts and sea and quirky shops of all kinds, including a cliff top look out point so quiet it almost felt like we were the only two humans left in the world. Hastings is a place I've now fallen in love with and can't wait to return to.

Of course, the fact there are three bookshops almost on the same street as each other also helps.

We were walking along the bright and boisterous George Street to take a look outside the Boulevard Bookshop and Thai Cafe*, which I knew to be a few doors down from the Albion Bookshop*, when I spotted an unobtrusive A-board by the side of the road. More accurately, I spotted the word bookshop within the text of the sign, which was all that was needed to have me running off down a wide alley/small pedestrian street to find out more.

My unknown destination appeared half a minute later as I turned left to see an unassuming shop front that didn't look particularly far removed from a remodelled private garage. Please don't let the odd location or simple shop front of Hare & Hawthorn Bindery & Bookshop put you off.

A small bookshop space awaits, but it's light and airy and beautifully filled. Half the room is dedicated to bookshop, the other half to work space, which I assume is where the bindery part comes in. The room itself is a work of art and although stock is limited, every single item counts.

From a Billy bookcase of expertly-selected fiction to another for children, with a wall of art books in between, everything catches the eye and the mind. Throw in (at the time of our visit) a display dedicated to Tove Jansson, another for Persephone, non-fiction treats and a table topped with beautiful stationery and Hare & Hawthorn is a true delight.

For our visit The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was the buy of the day, but I could happily have gone home with around 95 per cent of the bookshop had money and bag space allowed.

Nothing about Hastings was as I'd expected – especially this beautiful bookshop find – but everything about our visit made me fall in love with the town and become determined to return as often as possible. Which is exactly what I suggest you do if you find yourself at a loose end during this long weekend.

Hare & Hawthorn Bindery & Bookshop
31a West Street,
Hastings, East Sussex,
TN34 3AN
Tel: 01424 429909

*I decided to prioritise one bookshop this time to ensure I had another reason to return very soon.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Annual review #3: How bookshops have changed me

If three times is long enough to make a tradition, it's become mine to mark this blog's birthday with an annual review.

In the first, I wrote about how amazed I was that all you readers had decided to join me on my bookshopping adventure, spurring me on to try harder and make this blog more of a success than I could ever have imagined. While in the second I set about explaining how natural a part of my life this bookshopping hobby is. This time I'm going to write about me. (Be patient, it's not going to be arrogant. I hope.)

The whole aim of this blog is to encourage readers to visit their local bookshop and, in my own small way, to try to make a difference to the fortunes and futures of bookshops everywhere. However what I didn't count on when I started this journey was the difference this blog would make to me. And I don't mean in terms of overcrowded bookshelves.

Three years of purchases

Before I began The bookshop around the corner, I was unsure if I could even write. My experience of putting pen to paper involved a job correcting other people's work, which is a very different role to finding the words yourself. It was a job I enjoyed, but now I look back perhaps not one I loved. While satisfying in itself, the work wasn't taking me anywhere or pushing my abilities, which pretty much sums up how my life was at that time too.

Then I started writing and – more importantly – setting off on adventures around the country to meet total strangers. They had no idea who I was or why I was so excited to be meeting them. This blog adventure took me out of my daily routine and tested not just my writing, but also my confidence, ability to talk to strangers and more: it brought me back to life. It also challenged my map-reading skills (still terrible – I gave in and bought a sat nav).

Within three months, I was telling you I had a new job. Within a year, I'd moved to a new town. Three years saw me acquire some company on my journey. What probably seems like slow progress to many of you has been a massive change to this girl who'd got used to her comfort zone.

Particular moments of bravery have included travelling hundreds of miles to stay with internet strangers* and overcoming my fear of travelling to France. But looking back, the changes have really been all about the little things. From struggling to speak to someone or realising I'm not completely ignorant, to overcoming the intimidation of cool or even beating my own prejudice, each of these encounters has added up and – I hope – made me a better person. They've also been a heck of a lot of fun, even if I'm still not worldly wise enough to know how to deliberately haggle.

This blog got me out into the world and introduced me to some amazing people and places – ones I'd never have dreamed of meeting in the small life I was previously living.

I may have been the one who made the decision to leave the sofa and start adventuring, but it's the wonderful welcome each bookshop has given me – and the different experiences their various collected shelves and people have had to offer – that have ensured this blog has had such a positive effect on my life.

So thank you to every bookshop I've met so far and to every one of you I'll meet in the future. I'm not sure how much of a difference I'm making to your lives, but mine will never be the same again.

Finally, please remember how much more fun it is to visit a bookshop** and enjoy all its collective experiences instead of clicking on a website.

Happy bookshopping,
Erica x

*Don't do this yourself. Or if you do, please make sure you have taken all the appropriate safety precautions.
**When you do pop into your local (or any other) bookshop, feel free to share the joy with a guest post.

Friday, 12 August 2016

A pause on the way from A to B

My love of Wales and various connections with the country mean I've spent much of my life shuttling back and forth between here and there, but this post isn't about Wales, it's about the bit in between. It's a journey I know like the back of my hand and one I've come to enjoy much more now I've got into the habit of taking interesting bookshopping diversions.

I made one of those diversions at the start of the year (sorry for the delay in writing) when I took a detour through a county I've long wondered about: Gloucestershire. I have friends from the area and know its reputation for beautiful countryside and delicious cream teas, but until this week's bookshop I had no first-hand experience.

Tetbury is an attractive small town north of the M4 and the diversion from the motorway gave me lots of time to appreciate the scenery and the smartness of the Cotswold stone buildings. It's a very beautiful part of the world and my drive was a good reminder of why journeys should be appreciated for what they are, rather than suffered for getting in between A and B.

On this occasion, the main thing between my A to B was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which is a surprisingly large place for the size of the town it serves. Fiction welcomes you through the door and guides you around a corner into the shop proper, which was welcomingly warm on that bright but chilly winter day. I gently defrosted while taking in the atmosphere. Despite, or perhaps because of, the time of year, browsers appeared to be a mix of visitors to the area and locals, and I was particularly pleased to see how many of us out-of-towners were there appreciating the bookshop as part of Tetbury's many charms.

The friendliness of the place was obviously an important part of this, but the bookshop itself is worthy of destination status. The smart wooden shelves give the books a look of importance and had me wishing I could model my own library on my surroundings, while a squidgy, comfy sofa halfway down the long room (on the way to non-fiction) reminded me this is very much a place to relax and feel at home. It was here that I sat and admired the various collections of Swallows and Amazons on offer. One of these almost came home with me – until I returned to the general fiction shelves and became even more engrossed.

As with all good bookshops, the stock is a mix of titles everywhere should offer alongside the individual choices of the bookseller. Here I found a really varied selection, with lots I'd not seen before so I soon found myself with a long list of potential purchases to whittle down. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published by Persephone, held my attention the longest as I read what must have been the entire first chapter while stood in the bookshop. I was drawn to this for the distance (geographically and socially) separating the story's two settings and now I've finished reading I can tell you it's a brilliantly observed page-turner. I also picked up Julian Barnes' A Life with Books.

Books chosen, I said hello to the friendly bookseller before heading out to explore the rest of the town. It's an attractive place with some interesting buildings, nice places to eat and – at least at the time of my visit – its own model Shaun the Sheep. All of which mean Tetbury is well worth a visit, if you're able to tear yourself away from the bookshop.

Finally – because I can't be the only one wondering – I have no idea why The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is named as it is. I deliberately didn’t ask because they have a second shop in Nailsworth which I'd like to visit soon and I'm saving the question for there.*

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
21 Church Street,
Tel: 01666 500221

*I had planned to visit that second shop before publishing this post, hence the delay in writing, but life got in the way so I'm having to wait a little longer. Should curiosity get the better of any of you, please do visit either branch of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop and ask the question for me. You'd be welcome to share the answer (and the rest of your bookshopping fun) to appease readers' curiosity until my next trip to Gloucestershire.