Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The restorative power of a bookshop

A week or two ago I found myself a couple of hours from home and feeling pretty grumpy. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was in a beautiful part of the world but it had been one of *those* days, a few people had let me down, a van had tried to ram me out of a parking space and, well, you know how it goes. Lots of little things compound into a very bad day.

The two hours of driving had been pretty much wasted which only added to my grumpiness, but as I sat there, scowling into my phone trying to work out whether to admit defeat and drive home I realised there was something that might just save the day. Google Maps: bookshop.

There it was, half a hour in the direction of home: a bookshop. More importantly, it was a bookshop I'd not previously heard of. Admittedly, I am still meeting and finding out about new-to-me bookshops all the time, but on such a bad day this was a particularly special treat. I set Google Maps to CM21 9AR and drove.

Sawbridge Words is a short detour off the M11, in the small town of Sawbridgeworth. The area looked nice enough, but other than drive to a side street to park I admit I only had eyes for one thing, although it must be noted there's a very nice looking cafe across the road.

The bookshop is easy to find because there are books displayed in a small open courtyard out the front, meaning it would be virtually impossible for your average bookworm to walk past without getting at least a little distracted.

There's something about entering a room full of bookshelves that automatically washes away a layer of stress, and my experience in Sawbridge Words was no exception.

From behind his desk the bookseller greeted me an asked if I needed help before leaving me to browse and enjoy the mix of new and secondhand books on offer. It was exactly what I needed. The books were new and secondhand and diverse, with a variety of previously unheard of names alongside the titles everyone wants to read. Prices were excellent and with a three for two offer running at the time of my visit it was particularly tough sticking to my one book per shop rule. My purchase was Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland for a mere £2.

Towards the back, a comfy seating area tempted me to stay for the rest of the afternoon and I believe this is where events, including a writers' club, must take place. I've also since discovered browsers are welcome to stop for a while to play Scrabble, chess or backgammon for £2. From the well-stocked shelves of games books I should have known there was something more on offer here.

When it came time to pay I eventually felt relaxed and revived enough to have a conversation with the bookseller and heard he's been in the town for a year now. It's the quiet end of town, so passing trade is slower than on a bustling high street, but given the activities, books and ability to order in should you not find what you're looking for I'd urge the people of Sawbridgeworth to take the short walk to find out more.

My tiredness after earlier stresses meant we didn't talk for long, and for that I'm sorry. The bookseller seemed a friendly, interesting gentleman who I felt I'd have liked to have known better. Instead I was grateful for my moment of calm and to be restored to near equilibrium by the surroundings of the bookshop.


Sawbridge Words
47 Bell Street, Sawbridgeworth,
Hertfordshire, CM21 9AR
Tel: 01279 248336

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On taking bookshops for granted

You know how every now and then you're lucky enough to meet someone really lovely? One of those extra special, kind people who will do anything for you, just because it's the right thing to do?

This week's bookseller is one of those people. She welcomed browsers and buyers with a friendly smile and a warm heart, offering just the right levels of kindness or information as each individual required. For some, she'd eagerly listen as they popped in for a chat and to share their ambitions for the future, for others it was a friendly hello and leave them alone to look. Then there were the customers asking about X book or where they could buy Y elsewhere, her smile and helpfulness were a marvel and added to the brightness of an already beautiful bookshop.

Her smile and helpfulness were also heartbreaking: my visit was on the last day of trading for independent children's bookshop The Book Nut in Billericay, Essex.

The Book Nut was a boutique children's bookshop found in Barleylands Farm and Craft Village, a complex of shops, workspaces and family activities that appeared to be particularly popular on the sunny Saturday of my visit. A confusing map at the entrance meant it took me a few minutes to locate the bookshop, but otherwise the area was interesting to explore and the bookshop's collection of children's books, carefully curated by a bookseller who's also a talented illustrator seemed the ideal addition to the site.

I enjoyed browsing the shelves but ended up buying a shop recommendation: There may be a castle by Piers Torday. From our conversation it sounded like the perfect combination of joy tinged with sadness, a mirror for my experience in the bookshop. I also came home with a beautifully illustrated The Book Nut mug.

On top of the standard offering of children's books for all ages – and a shelf for grown-ups not brave enough to read younger – the bookshop also ran book clubs and story times. Reading about these has been a poignant experience. It had even won a James Patterson grant.

The bookshop itself was beautiful, decorated with bunting and booky details and staffed by bookseller Hazel and Gizmo the bookshop dog. It was a gorgeous, cheery destination and Hazel's boundless energy meant it was somewhere I wanted to hang out all day, but had to leave for fear of breaking down and sobbing in the middle of the shop.

In the days leading up to the closure, Hazel had politely tweeted about her encounters with customers drawn in by the closing down sale signs. In any other situation this would probably come across as bitterness, but her sunny disposition and the matter of fact way in which the comments were shared instead made this a simple record of experience. They included lines such as: "I go past you all the time, this is my first time here. Isn't it lovely, why are you closing?" or "I haven't been here in two years, oh, you're closing down. Just couldn't make it work could you?"

Now these comments make me angry, but I'm ashamed to admit I can't be self righteous about them. You see, some years ago I was visiting a nearby bookshop when they told me I should take a detour to The Book Nut. Only I was in a hurry to complete a bookshop crawl and nervous I'd run out of time, I made a note of the address and determined to visit when I was next in the area.

As it was I did run out of time, but not for the bookshop crawl. Checking my diary, purely by chance I find I'd actually planned to visit The Book Nut exactly two years to the day since I received the recommendation – which would have been around two weeks after closing. Okay, so I'd made a plan to visit, and I'm not writing this blog to seek reassurance, I know it's not my fault alone that this beautiful bookshop has had to close. But I'm as much a part of the problem as that customer who hasn't visited in two years, as is every one of us who walks past a bookshop and thinks "next time I must pop in".

I'm not trying to guilt-trip readers into visiting bookshops, I'm just trying to encourage you to pause and think next time you're about to walk past one.

Another quote from Twitter: "We walk past all the time and take it for granted you're here, now you're closing we've come in."

Don't take independent bookshops for granted, next time you might be too late.


The Book Nut (RIP)
Studio 3, Barleylands Crafts Village, 59 Barleylands Rd, Billericay CM11 2UD
Tel: 01268 286219
@nutshellstudio1


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The place to meet

You can't get more heart of the community than a tiny little secondhand bookshop with a sofa and a range of random events.

Not that I knew about any of this when I turned up, boyfriend in tow, during a day of bookshop crawling. At the time we'd simply chosen to visit because Offside Books in north London sounded like an interesting place to explore. We walked through the door and realised 'explore' was possibly a bit of an optimistic word, because this bookshop really is rather snug, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in personality.

At the time of our visit the bookseller was very enthusiastically chatting to another couple, discussing bookshop activities they'd like to make the most of and generally giving nosy me the impression this bookshop is the place to be if you want to know what's going on in your community. The limited space meant it was impossible not to listen in to their conversation, but I don't think that mattered – this was the place to arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.

Even if you weren't interested in the extra-bookular activities, a table for two looked appealing for chess players and a comfy sofa dominated the centre of the shop, demanding to be relaxed on with a book. I think hot drinks were available too, so had we not been in the middle of an adventure I'm sure we could have comfortably wiled away the afternoon here, making friends and soaking in the atmosphere.

Instead we took to exploring the shelves, which covered two walls on opposite sides of the bookshop. the space was so limited I'd say a good 50 per cent of the stock could probably be reached from the sofa, but this simply added to the charm. A full fronted window also means the space didn't feel at all dark or cramped. Books were obviously limited, but there was still a nice variety and I had no trouble choosing a purchase: 10:04 by Ben Lerner.

The bookshop's popularity and our lack of time meant I didn't get the chance to make friends with the bookseller on this occasion, but from the experience of other visitors, and the atmosphere in general, I'd say the people of Kilburn are lucky to have such a friendly place to hang out in.


Offside Books
92 Willesden Lane, Kilburn, London, NW6 7TA
Tel: 020 7624 9340
@OffSideBooks

Saturday, 20 May 2017

My introduction to Terry Pratchett

My bookshop visits – like the bookshops themselves – can be inspired by all manner of reasons, but this week's possibly has one of my oddest reasons for visiting: I had a drink with a friend and she was wearing scythe earrings.*

I don't know much about Terry Pratchett, but what I do know is that one of his characters is Death, and Death carries a scythe. This one fact was enough for me to be the only person to have put two and two together and ask her about the earrings, it was also enough for her to convince me a visit to Discworld Emporium in Wincanton was in order. For those in the know, this is obviously a bookshop dedicated to the works of Terry Pratchett, but believe it or not, there are those of us who live in relative ignorance of the popular author's legacy.**

My childhood reading went from Ladybird books to Sweet Valley High to whatever I could find on my Gran's bookshelves and so, sometime in my teenage years, when all my friends suddenly started quoting lines from Pratchett at each other I had no idea what they were talking about. Initially, it felt like they'd joined some kind of cult, conversing in quoted sentences that meant absolutely nothing to me, but after a while it became frustrating, so when I did get the chance to read one of his books I rejected it, having been put off by not being part of the gang.

However despite this rejection I did grow to have a respect for the books and their author, and I was pleased by the number of people whose reading adventures had begun thanks to Terry Pratchett's writings. Not that this helped when I arrived at Discworld Emporium and realised how little I knew about his books and characters.

Arriving at the bookshop, the front is both understated and striking, as a sign for Ankh-Morpork swings above the door, which has an amusing blue plaque to one side, but what's really impressive is the inside.

To the left of the door is the main area of bookshop, which includes copies of every book Terry Pratchett contributed to as well as stationery, games, Discworld memorabilia and, obviously, a selection of jewellery. Then to the right is a slightly partitioned off area, where the staff were sat chatting while wrapping up parcels to be posted elsewhere.

None of this truly enables you to visualise the room. It's dark wood, with the look of a gentleman's library and an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. An orangutan presides over the books, and all about there are details which I'm sure all Pratchett fans will appreciate, I certainly did.

My ignorance of all things Pratchett meant I had no idea where to start with the books and so as the booksellers sounded so cheery I decided it would be best to own up and ask their advice. It felt a little wrong going to the counter and admitting I'd not read a single book by the author, but my ignorance wasn't held against me and the conversation felt a little like I was being welcomed into the fold.

Anecdotes were shared, books discussed and a friendly dose of rudeness in the context of the characters was also dispensed as I was introduced to the appeal of the Pratchett world. Wyrd Sisters was the eventual recommendation (and having since devoured it I can finally see why the books are so popular), while my boyfriend, who has previously read a little Pratchett, opted for Mort. Upon opening our bag later we also discovered a selection of mint humbugs and our receipts – from the Thieves' Guild.

Discworld Emporium may be a very focused specialist bookshop, but as a treat for fans and an inspirational destination to nurture young readers it must surely be considered a worthy destination. Only take care to choose the date of your visit wisely, like the whimsical nature of Pratchett's books the bookshop doesn't open to the usual hours.



Discworld Emporium
41 High Street, Wincanton,
Somerset, BA9 9JU
Tel: 01963 824686
@Discworldshoppe

*No, I'm not sharing a photo of the scythe earrings, if you want to find out what they look like you can jolly well go to the bookshop yourself to find out!
**Prior to this visit my knowledge stretched as far as Death, the play of Mort, Discworld, the tortoise and, obviously, the orangutan librarian.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Everyone's a winner

One bright, reasonably sunny day in May, a bookshop won an award. Not an official award with a trophy or a certificate (although there may have been an official certificate involved somewhere), but an award all the same. Because this bookshop blogger officially declared it to have the best Christmas bookshop window. Which obviously makes it true. Don't believe me? See here, it's all the evidence you need.

The fact it was a finalist in a competition I wasn't judging and there weren't any other bookshops in the shortlist of three is completely irrelevant. Gulliver's Bookshop in Wimborne, Dorset, was the highest placed bookshop window in The VM Christmas Awards (and was beaten by Hamleys toy shop) so I reckon it's a winner. Everyone please give them a big round of applause.

Having said that, now I've visited the bookshop I pretty much think the whole town of Wimbourne is a winner for having such a lovely destination at its heart.

My first impression of Gulliver's Bookshop was one of friendliness and welcome. I enjoyed the buzz of customers chatting to the bookseller and no one batted an eyelid when my boyfriend made me pose for a photograph with a book about Scrabble* found on the discount table. This table was located conveniently close to the door, luring browsers in with the offer of cheap books I'd have happily paid full price for, but I can't imagine Gulliver's needs to go to much effort to encourage people in. The stock is varied and plenty, and combined with the friendly atmosphere there's a lot here to appeal.

Non-fiction runs along one wall, and everything from a biography about setting up a space observatory to essays on the story of water caught my attention, with an equally diverse fiction offering opposite. It even – joy of joys – had a whole bookcase of science fiction, with titles by the likes of John Christopher and Brandon Sanderson (I bought The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker). While the other end of the fiction offered a good selection of the classics.

However towards the back is a bigger surprise, with a large mechanical Lego figure welcoming children to their area of the bookshop. Okay, so Lego doesn't make a reader, but I can't be the only one who thinks this is a great combination, I'd certainly have loved such a diverse children's area when I was younger (if I'm honest I still loved it today, I couldn't contain my excitement when the Lego man was actually switched on).

Gulliver's Bookshop is family-owned, and I was lucky enough to find out more about the various generations' dedication to the trade when I got chatting to the booksellers. They're a welcoming, knowledgeable family who obviously care deeply about books and the community, it was a pleasure talking to them.

Finally, Gulliver's also organises Wimborne Literary Festival, if you happen to be in the area in the middle of May.


Gulliver's Bookshop
47 High Street, Wimborne Minster,
Dorset, BH21 1HS
Tel: 01202 882677
@gulliversbks


*I suggested he might need the book if he's ever to have a hope of beating me. He took the joke quite well, probably better than he will when he realises I'm mocking him now.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Half a pair and a couple of pandas

Independent bookshops are the most special of bookshops for many reasons, but one of those reasons is their uniqueness.

Other than an assortment of books, shelves and a bookseller or two, there's no telling how they might be interpreted or what other random treats you might find. That surprise is a wonderful part of the appeal of the bookshop visit, but sometimes it can also be good to know what you're walking into.

Queens Park Books is one half of a pair of London bookshops, and as I'm already a fan of West End Lane Books I was reasonably optimistic about this destination as I dragged the other half along during a bookshop crawl. That said, I hadn't expected my first impression of the bookshop to be the sight of a giant cuddly panda climbing the tree outside the shop.* It was also a well concealed panda, leaving me wondering how many people actually notice it as they pass?

Moving inside, Queens Park Books is exactly as smart, stylish and well-stocked as I'd anticipated. It's smaller than its sister, but that in no way diminishes the browsing experience, and with two chatty booksellers on hand to answer all my questions (first up, why's there a panda outside? Oh, and I see you have another panda above the counter?) I soon found myself at home.

The smaller space (which is still generous in independent bookshop terms) means tables and book displays are slightly closer together, but the quality and range of books was as good as I'd anticipated and kept us both busy (when we weren't staring at pandas). This photograph also doesn't do justice to the way the bookshop is laid out, because even with all the choice and variety there's still a good-sized space at the back for a colourful (and equally well-stocked) children's section.


There was a lot to appeal to my reading tastes, but my purchase was Jenny Colgan's Resistance is Futile. A love story set in sci fi land, I'd struggled to find this one on other bookshop shelves so knew I had to make the most of it here. This slightly off the wall choice is partially indicative of the rest of the stock. No, it's not all sci fi romance, but it is a good mix of lighthearted fun and intelligent heavy hitters, with a liberal sprinkling of unexpected titles some smaller bookshops may not have the shelf space to hold.

As for the panda story. It's a randomly brilliant one, but if you want to hear it you'll have to go along to the bookshop and ask for yourself.


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

* The sister bookshop has a local Penguin who's made himself at home, so who am I to question the recreational choices of other cuddly toys too?

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