Thursday, 21 September 2017

A labyrinth of books

One of the things we loved about the first stop on our IBW2017 bookshop crawl was how unexpectedly big it was, with room after room opening up in front of us. That was nothing compared to the labyrinth my boyfriend and I found waiting for us later in the day.

The Haslemere Bookshop in Surrey looks like a typical welcoming indie from the doorway: compact, nicely stocked and beautiful. Had it been that, then we would've been happy. However, walk the length of the wall on the right and you find yourself in a large children's area. Turn a corner and there are cards and more new books. Turn another corner and there are stairs...

Going up a level you find room after room of secondhand books, some small, some large, some taking your round in a circle. More books are in a cupboard, and there's even a discounted area. We lost each other up here but neither of us really minded because of how much fun it was to make each new discovery.

I was taken with the vastness of the fiction, the secondhand area enabling a good offering of usual suspects so the new books could be equally accommodating but also much more diverse than I'd usually expect. Alternating between the two floors meant there were some real treats to be found. Once he'd returned from charity pig-spotting around the town, my boyfriend seemed equally impressed with the non-fiction.

From the very hungry caterpillar among the children's books, to a wall of letters from local schools, and a very handsome bear in a bowler hat behind the counter, this bookshop clearly reaches out to young readers too.

When it came to a purchase, despite the wide array of fiction that was calling out to me I had to buy Shop Cats of New York by Tamar Aslanian. Not a book I've seen before, it's a beautiful selection of photographs with brief explanations and made this Crazy Cat Lady want to hop on a plane immediately. Hopefully they'll still all be there in three years' time.

This book, our wonderful surroundings, and a question about the pigs scattered around the town*, prompted a very cheery conversation with the booksellers, further confirming my love for The Haslemere Bookshop. They had a natural enthusiasm for books and friendliness towards customers – the ones who wanted to say hello – that meant I'm sure anyone would feel welcome and at home here.

Not only did they share (humour?) my love of cats, they explained about the pigs and very generously increased my knowledge of the other bookshops in the not so near area. It's always a good sign when bookshops are friends with their neighbours, even if some of them are quite a distance away – who needs rivals when there's a wonderful booky community?


The Haslemere Bookshop
2 Causewayside, High Street,
Haslemere, Surrey, GU27 2JZ
Tel: 01428 652952
@HaslemereBooks

* Apparently the Haslemere Hogs were decorated by businesses and auctioned off to raise money for charity.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

No strangers here

Booksellers are remarkable people, as are bookshoppers. For this week's bookshop both are what caught my eye, or ear, as I listened into conversations and enjoyed hearing the bookseller kept on her toes.

The venue was The Cobham Bookshop in Surrey, which was stop 2A on my latest bookshop crawl, stop 2 having been closed for the day. Set in a paved area away from the road, I'd expected to find a small space. In reality the bookshop is huge, stretching back much further than anticipated and also somehow managing to be wider than it appears from the outside too.

The front half included a good selection of fiction and fiction recommends tables, and it was here that my eavesdropping began, as a young customer came in looking for a gift for her mum, who 'reads books'. When gently questioned by the bookseller, the customer managed to elaborate that the books are usually big and contain stories, so I was very impressed  by the bookseller both for her patience and determination. Perseverance and gentle questioning about mum in general eventually drew out enough information for the young girl to find a gift she was happy with, but how booksellers manage this every day is beyond me.

Having started being nosy, it's very hard to stop, so while I admired the variety of fiction, a long wall of travel, non-fiction and a cheery children's area at the back (it's worth the long walk), I also found myself caught up in the conversations around me. There were discussions about loved or hated titles, must-read authors and plenty of collections of orders.

The Cobham Bookshop is clearly popular with the locals. I even met one customer who was enjoying his surroundings so much he joined in with the book recommending while I was queuing at the till. The only explanation I can come up with is that the large but somehow still cosy room is somehow spacious enough to make people feel comfortable chatting with strangers – but is anyone who loves books and bookshops really a stranger?

I selected I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes to be my purchase, but I could have gone for any number of other titles thanks to all the conversations I overheard.


The Cobham Bookshop
12A Anyards Road, Cobham,
Surrey, KT11 2JZ
Tel: 01932 862903
@CobhamBookshop

Monday, 11 September 2017

A feast for book lovers

While I'd recommend a visit to any bookshop featured in this blog, there are certain destinations that have achieved – in my mind – legendary status.

The bookshop might have been especially nice to me; or was recommended by a higher than average number of bookshoppers; maybe it stocked a particular title I'd hunted high and low to find; hosts intimate music evenings; had an especially friendly pet; or in the case of this week's subject, was not especially straightforward to visit.

Boulevard books and Thai cafe in Hastings on the south coast used to be a full-time secondhand bookshop, but like many others around the country, it had to diversify to survive. Where some have opened cafes or launched innovative booky experiences, this one became a restaurant.

Yes, you did read that correctly. You go to the bookshop, sit among the shelves and partake in a delicious two or three-course Thai meal. You can also buy a book.

The catch is that this offering has proved to be incredibly popular. Meaning getting a table is not necessarily an easy thing to do: "we had a wonderful meal, booked a month in advance" is a statement I've heard a lot. I'd even tried booking myself, but general disorganisation (phoning the day before) meant I'd had no luck. I'd even walked past and jealously looked through the windows, wondering when my turn would be.

Then, during a spur of the moment trip to Hastings on the last Bank Holiday, we walked past and saw the door open and books laid out on tables in front of the shop. The inside was closed to visitors while the family enjoyed their lunch, but we were told there were tables free if we wanted to return after 6pm. We had a quick look at the books and went to kill time for five hours.*


I'm not sure when the bookshop made the transformation to restaurant, but it's certainly a successful one. We returned at 6.05pm to claim the second table and not long after our arrival the rest of the bookshop had filled up, with yet more diners making the most of the summer evening at tables in front of the shop (the evening was nice, but not nice enough to draw me away from the books).

Our table was next to a corner bookcase stocking the early alphabet fiction, and I was initially confused as to what appealed to me most – the bookshelves or the Thai menu in front of me. The menu temporarily won, while the waiting staff politely told us the restaurant is cash only and we're welcome to pop across the road to buy our own wine. Having been pre-warned neither was a problem, we'd loaded up on cash and were driving. What we hadn't expected to find was that we didn't need to bring nearly as much money as we'd expected: the menu has a set price of £15 for a starter and main course. Which was all we intended to have. Honest.

Prawn crackers started the meal while we browsed the shelves and – very briefly – waited for our starters. My Thai soup was beautifully fresh, while my boyfriend chose a very tasty vermicelli salad which the restaurant helpfully adapted to be vegetarian. For the mains I chose something combining chicken and coconut milk while he went for a beautifully displayed stir fry. Accompanied by boiled rice and cooked to a medium spice level (we resisted trying the Thai extra hot option), everything was delicious and fresh, with portions just the right size that we felt treated but not greedy.

But who cares about the food when there are books?

To avoid intruding on diners the bookshop is only open to those diners, and I made the most of my visit by exploring as many shelves as possible in between courses and tables being refilled. The back room is dedicated to non-fiction and the whole shop is carefully organised to allow every table a certain amount of privacy, but ignoring the tables Boulevard Books and Thai Cafe looks and feels like a secondhand bookshop. Old favourites sit along modern novels, classics, sci-fi, crime and everything else.

It's as though one day the tables and menus simply appeared in the middle of the bookshop and the booksellers transformed into waiting staff. It all fits together perfectly and makes for a marvellous experience.

We were nicely full after dinner but a glimpse of homemade desserts and the opportunity to browse a while longer saw us jump at the chance of another course. Chocolate and caramel tart and a lemon meringue pie may not be traditional Thai dishes but they were certainly as delicious as everything else we'd consumed.

I then rounded off the meal with the purchase of a rather well-loved copy Robert Harris' Enigma for a mere 30p. Which I might have read a page or two of while enjoying my meal...


Boulevard books and Thai cafe
32 George Street, Hastings,
East Sussex TN34 3EA
Tel: 01424 436521

*Not strictly true, the five hours were spent enjoying the rest of Hastings, with me being only slightly distracted by the promise of what was to come.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Portal to a different world

If books are journeys to different worlds, then bookshops are the portals to them. Crammed with book-shaped passports to foreign intrigues, magical adventures and lives more remarkable or inspiring than our own. This week's bookshop is definitely such a portal, opening a wormhole between Baker Street in London and the golden, spice-laden streets* of Egypt.

But first a confession, I discovered this bookshop a long time ago and visited it over a year ago, during a very busy bookshop crawl. Which means these words come to you very late indeed, but the best things come to those who wait, so back to those spice-laden streets.

The Egyptian Alef Bookstore may not have the scent of the country but it was definitely golden, with late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows and making the shelves glow as if made of the precious metal. In reality the shelves were filled with something more special than gold: books.

A combination of remarkable reads any bookshop would be proud to display and Arabic titles I have no idea the contents of, there was much to discover on those shelves. I enjoyed the balance of the stock I do have the ability to read, with novels I recognised placed alongside what appeared to be a good variety of Egyptian titles and a large section of non-fiction too.

As good as the books I recognised were (the popular science section particularly appealed), it was the Egyptian titles that appealed to me the most – and the promise of being transported to a different world.


I had no idea where to start with the various recommendations, so instead I did what I do best and approached the booksellers for help. The man who stepped forward had the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen, and while I was mesmerised he politely listened to my plea for help and discussed what I was looking for before selecting his favourite book for me to try: Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali.

Which brings me to the other reason this blog is so delayed. In order to give a full picture of my experience I wanted to read the book before I wrote about the bookshop. Only I buy so many books and pick my next actual read so randomly (according to whichever unread title is in front of me at the time) that this one kept missing that rare golden moment of opportunity. Which is a crying shame because once I did finally reach that time I could not put the book down. I laughed, I cried, I swore, I related and I disagreed. All in just 224 pages. It was a remarkable read and even when scenes occurred in Britain it succeeded in transporting me to that different world and opening my eyes to how different our personal experiences can be.

In a world of increasing divisions and suspicions it's more important than ever to learn about our fellow humans who are both the same and different to ourselves. Egypt may be one country among many, but I figure it's as good a place as any to start. After all, as I said at the beginning, bookshops start us on journeys to different worlds – why shouldn't those worlds be close to our own?


Alef Bookstore
219 Baker Street, London, NW1 6XE
Tel: 020 7935 4311
@Alef_UK


*It may be around a decade since I visited the country but – thanks to a few days in Aswan – that is how I'll always remember it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Annual review #4: An apology and a promise

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of the bookshop blog, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting to wish it a happy birthday.

Look down the list of blogs posted and you'll see I've not written about a bookshop for almost a month, and that on more than one occasion this year I've failed to stick to my one bookshop per week promise. For that I apologise.

There's been no deliberate snub and this blog is definitely not finished, but since I sat down to write my manifesto so many years ago, my life has changed – in no small part as a result of this bookshopping hobby – and recently other commitments have had to, temporarily, take priority.

One key thing is that I've moved house, which means although the bookshop blog books were the first thing unpacked, my life still looks a lot like this:


and I can't easily post my annual photograph of how the book collection has progressed. Hopefully I'll remedy that in the near future.

Meantime, some highlights from my past year of bookshop blogging have to be mentioned. There's the obvious one of my appearance on BBC Radio 4, but when it comes to bookshops, it's the less obvious moments that tend to be the most special.

A game of hide and seek had me feeling like a child, while a tour around Portsmouth provided a variety of unexpected gems. I got to meet the second half of a pair of London bookshops, find out what all the fuss is when it comes to Terry Pratchett, and I had a beautiful surprise by the sea.

There was also sadness, when I finally met a bookshop on its last day in business, two years after I'd first tried to visit. I can't tell you the tears I shed after that visit.

Bookshops continue to be an important part of my life, places filled with wonder and welcome that even after all these years often appear in front of me at unexpected moments just when I need them most. I may not have written as frequently as I'd like these last few months, but my bookshopping has continued, and I'm just as excited to tell you about my recent visits as I was in the early days. Life is still slightly chaotic, but I promise normal (or relatively normal) service will resume.

Thank you for your patience and for continuing to keep me company on this bookshopping adventure – and don't forget, if I'm quiet one week you're welcome to share your own stories too.

Happy bookshopping,
Erica x

PS. I may still be living out of boxes, but Dolly is very happy in her new home. Here she is guarding what's visible of the bookshop blog shelves, while having a chat with a purchase from another much-missed gem.


Friday, 21 July 2017

Brief encounter

When you're in the middle of packing up all your possessions to move in with your boyfriend for the first time in your life, things can be a bit stressful.

There are boxes to find; books to pack; books to cull; books to hide*; bookshelves to move; CDs and DVDs to pack; at some point there'll be clothes to fold; bedding and towels to merge; kitchen equipment to squeeze into a smaller room; kettles to argue over; a cat to move as stresslessly as possible**... and in between all that there's work, eating, sleeping, breathing, dieting, socialising, exercising, and helping to organise an annual awards ceremony. If you don't get the image of a Very Busy Time then I have no idea how you cope with your life.

Which is why, when it came round to a random weekday booked off for a day trip to Brighton we arrived in the town with absolutely no idea where to find a bookshop***. And no brainpower to work out how to find one either. It was an opportunity to relax, switch off and forget about all the stresses of day-to-day life. The internet was off, and we hurried to nothing. We wandered around, ate doughnuts on the pier, bought mementoes from arty boutiques and generally fell in love with our bright, quirky, and wonderfully chilled surroundings. It was exactly what I needed, if only we could stumble across a bookshop.

I'd pretty much given up on that hope until we turned down a road in the North Laine. Pausing outside a lively pub, we spotted a man bending down to take in the doormat just as Brighton Books was closing up. I was pleased to have found what I now know to be one of many independent bookshops in the town, but also sad we were only there in time to see the door closed. I took a photo of the shop front for posterity and prepared to keep walking. Meanwhile my boyfriend had gone inside and asked the bookseller if we could just look in quickly. I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to keep the bookshop open longer than needed – booksellers have homes to go to too – but we were told we could have a couple of minutes.

I loved the colour and bustle of Brighton, but entering the cool, slightly darkened bookshop and finding myself surrounded by floor to ceiling secondhand books and a general sense of calm was the icing on the cake. I liked it even more when contrasted with the general Brighton buzz drifting through the open door. I quickly located the fiction taking up a good space at the back and took note of diversity and quality (good and good). It hadn't occurred to me that I'd manage to buy a book and so be able to feature the bookshop on this blog as the result of such a short visit, but as I turned to leave a slim volume caught my eye.

Edith Wharton is my all-time favourite author and so to be able to add her novella Ethan Frome to my collection without even trying felt like it was meant to be. Not only that, but my boyfriend also found a book: Turner, a life, by James Hamilton.

There's not much more I can tell you. There's a comfy looking chair and the bookshop has a downstairs but it had been closed when we arrived. The bookseller seemed friendly enough, but anxious not to delay him further, I kept my chatter to the absolute minimum. It was a brief encounter but a happy one, and yet another reason for us to return to Brighton.

Books were reasonably priced, so the bookseller didn't make much money out of allowing us those few minutes in his shop, but he did make us very happy.


Brighton Books  
18 Kensington Gardens, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 4AL
Tel: 01273 693845


*he really doesn't need to know about my Sweet Valley High collection
**impossible
***slight exaggeration, I did know of one but it was out of range at this time. I fell head over Irregular Choice heels for Brighton though, we'll be back again soon


UPDATE: 28th July 2017: I've just received a very lovely email from this bookshop, sharing all the local bookshops in Brighton. Independent bookshops are lovely.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Appearances can be deceiving, sometimes

Things aren't always what they seem, whether we're talking the answer to life, the universe and everything or simply looking at a good bookshop and its books.

In the case of this week's blog, I'll stick to the latter two subjects (although surely the answer to the first is liberal doses of bookshops and books), and tell you how constantly surprising The Bookshop in East Grinstead turned out to be.


From the front The Bookshop looks massive, with large modern windows set in an otherwise historic building. These windows are packed with books inviting passers-by in to what appears to be a large space, but the moment you're through the door you're instead transported into a small, cosy, period bookshop that wouldn't look amiss in a costume drama.

Look again and you realise the series of snug areas (including what appeared to be a very popular small cafe) squeezed in between beams and walls are actually filled with new books – this is far from the musty secondhand bookshop you'd expect from such an arrangement. The books are modern and the staff welcoming, and for me a wonderful reminder of what I'm missing out on with no immediately local indie nearby.

For Independent Bookshop Week, the booksellers had wrapped a variety of books in brown paper, with each identified by just four words that saw us almost completely unable to guess the reality from the clues. The idea was to inspire readers to look beyond the cover and genre and try something new and we certainly had fun taking part. This was also part of their The Art of Giving campaign, with donations of books being given to local charities later in the week. As I'm always keen to encourage and support other people's reading habits, we chose one mystery book for us and one to be a donation.

The books we chose were Australia, war, affair, Man Booker for us – because when we asked the bookseller we were again surprised to find things were not what they seemed and it wasn't A Town Called Alice – and Books, promises, romance, small town as our gift. Can you guess which books they are? Read on to find out.

Moving upstairs painted with the spines of books is where you come to the really fun part of the physical space, with a maze of small rooms (stocking the secondhand books) leading to a comfy event area and inspiring a lot of exploration and delight. The upstairs isn't massive, but the layout and content meant we could've been entertained for hours were we not on a bookshop crawl.

We completed our visit with a chat to the booksellers, who were as friendly, smiley and enthusiastic as you'd hope for, telling us more about events, books and the bookshop as a whole. It was a good start to the day and showed that in one way, at least, appearances aren't deceiving: as you'd expect from any good indie, The Bookshop is as welcoming and worth a visit as you could hope for.


The Bookshop
22 High Street, East Grinstead,
West Sussex, RH19 3AW
Tel: 01342 322669
@JohnPye7


Our purchases were The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The Little Bookshop of Promises by Debbie Macomber.