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.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

All are welcome for late-night bookshopping

The weekend just gone saw me on a last-minute trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. Despite many years studying English, this was my first visit to the town and I was completely unprepared.

Other than a place to sleep we had nowhere to eat, no knowledge of what tourist attractions were on offer* and no idea about the town's bookshop status. As you can imagine, the latter was the most aggravating.

We arrived early on the Saturday evening, at exactly that moment when the town is starting to quieten down as theatre-goers take their seats and shoppers recover at home. It was a lovely time to begin exploring, but not a good time for randomly finding a nice restaurant with a table going spare. Instead we took the opportunity to wander and locate all the important destinations: bookshop, check x2; visitor centre, check; and eventually a very nice restaurant which offered us a late table.

But what does all this have to do with the bookshop blog? I hear you ask. Well quite a lot as it happens. Because although we found two bookshops, the discovery occurred long past closing time. Which meant the chances of me (legally) getting inside either were slim to none, especially given one, Chaucer Head Bookshop doesn't open on Sundays (I'll be back).

That left me with the friendly neighbourhood Waterstones. We've already established I like all bookshops, but by now I'm sure you've noticed my priority is to visit independents unless there's something really special going on. Well what could be more special than accidentally finding myself outside a bookshop that's open at 11pm on a Saturday night? Late night openings are not exactly a common occurrence, but for those of you who haven't realised what day it was: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child launched an hour later at midnight.

As I'm not a massive fan** I'd completely lost track of the launch date. I knew bookshops around the country would be opening especially to unite fans with the latest book but it hadn't occurred to me to find out more and go along because I'd felt like I'd be intruding on the Potter fans' excitement.

However, when I found myself outside an open bookshop late on a Saturday night I realised it was impossible for me to stay outside.

The bookshop was buzzing. It's not often I see this level of crowd – and especially not so many predominantly young readers – and it was a joy to see. Admittedly lots were simply wandering or sitting in groups, waiting for the clock to strike 12, but many more were browsing and buying. Which is exactly what we did.

We were on a mission to find a guide book to Florence, but making the most of two floors of bookshop and weaving in and out of the crowds it was only natural we explore all two floors. This weaving saw us stumble across the graphic novels, where he also picked up a striking adaptation of Marcel Proust's In search of lost time: Swann's Way.

I'm planning on (one day) borrowing it from him in a cheat's attempt to find out what all the fuss is about.

Books bought, it was time for the main event. We found a convenient spot out of the way of the queuing Harry Potters, Hermiones and more, and waited as the countdown began. Then all of a sudden a trolly of books in paper bags whizzed past and the books were being handed out. There were smiles and squeals of happiness as the young and not-so-young eagerly tore into their packages, with one girl even doing a little dance for joy.

It was really lovely to watch and although we weren't a part of the Harry Potter frenzy we were still involved in the atmosphere and general excitement of picking up a new book.

Next time a new book prompts a midnight opening I'll be there, and if you've any enthusiasm for the pleasure of book-buying I'd encourage you to come along too. The atmosphere was great, the novelty of late-night book-buying was fun and – obviously – everyone was welcome.

8-9 The High Street,
Warwickshire, CV37 6AU
Tel: 01789 414418

*Slight exaggeration, I'd heard of Anne Hathaway's cottage but I hadn't realised it was out of town and therefore not within walking distance on a lazy Sunday.
** Please don't lynch me. I like Harry Potter, but I'll wait to read the book once the hype's died down.

Friday, 29 July 2016

A new find in old territory

The area around London Bridge is somewhere I'm rather fond of. Thanks to a relative who used to live nearby, it's one of the first parts of the capital where I felt confident to wander around on my own. Meaning I have lots of happy memories from round about and know the streets with all their pubs, shops and tourist attractions pretty well. Or so I thought.

At the start of my Independent Bookshop Week bookshop crawl I found myself by London Bridge Station, searching for a bookshop I'd never visited. Given The Riverside Bookshop has been in situ for more than 25 years – and I was trying to impress my new boyfriend with my high level of bookshop knowledge – this was quite embarrassing.

We arrived outside Hay's Galleria on Tooley Street with me wondering how I was going to recover the situation and him looking forward to kicking off the bookshop crawl.

Thankfully, I spotted a map in the entrance which saved me from too many blushes. To save the rest of you from similar difficulties: head to the Tooley Street exit of London Bridge Station (the one where the London Dungeon is), turn right, cross the road and the bookshop is found on the street-side wall just past the entrance to the mall. Despite my wordy directions, it really is very close to the station.

Even more thankfully, while he was polite enough to not comment on my geographical ignorance, my boyfriend was very impressed by the bookshop we found. Needless to say, I was too.

A small, unassuming space from the outside – I'm ashamed to think of the number of times I must've walked past, head down, in a rush to get to the station – the bookshop opens up into a nice-sized room with a good selection of fiction and a cheery, colourful children's section. It's the kind of room you could happily visit and pick up a book if you find yourself with 20 minutes to wait for a train. Having said that, it's also possible to stay in the bookshop for much longer, especially because it's always a good idea to say hello to the bookseller too.

We enjoyed taking our time over the recommendations table, while the wall of fiction is well-stocked and inviting. If you're not waiting for a train, I suggest you also head upstairs to the non-fiction and sci-fi. We found ourselves particularly taken in by the actual science section, which was intelligent enough for him to appreciate while accessible enough for me to get into. Next time I'm loitering at London Bridge Station, this is the shelf I'll be returning to.

For this visit we went back to the recommendations table, which was especially varied and served us both well. On the lighter side I selected a memoir, The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell (which I paid for with my personalised book token*), while he chose Svetlana Alexievich's Chernobyl Prayer. At the conclusion of our bookshop crawl, these were the books we turned to while in the train on our way home, which is pretty high praise given the amount of bookshopping we'd done that day.

Now I've been, I'm very sorry I missed The Riverside Bookshop when I first came to know the area all those years ago. More importantly, I'm looking forward to making up for lost time.

The Riverside Bookshop
15 Hay's Galleria,
57 Tooley Street,
Tel: 020 7378 1824

*Come back soon for more from me on this gem.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Relaxing in a reading spa

Last week, work and life got the better of me and for the first time in almost three years I missed a blog. To make it up to you, this week I’m combining two in one: a bookshop and a bookshop experience so good it had deserved a blog of its own.

Every now and then I tell you about how I’ve finally met one bookshop or another that’s been particularly high up my ‘must-visit’ list, and today I do the same. The bookshop in question is Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath, and its popularity means it’s among what I’ve affectionately come to think of as the rock stars of the indie bookshop world.

Mr B’s fame is already far-reaching and not just as a bookshop, because it’s also the home of the hugely popular Reading Spa.

Back when I wrote my first blog entry (and before I found out how many of you would read my witterings, for which I thank you) I’d naively planned to dedicate one early post to simply telling readers how great the Reading Spa sounds, and what a brilliant idea it is. Not forgetting hinting to all my family they might like to club together to buy me one for Christmas. Instead I got carried away visiting lots of lovely bookshops and the verbal hints to my family took years to sink in.

Then last Christmas I opened an envelope that made me squeal with excitement and actually shed a tear or two of joy. One of my sisters had very, very generously bought me a voucher for an Extravagant Reading Spa.

Unfortunately it turns out I’m not the only person with a generous relative, because my lack of organisation and Mr B’s popularity meant whenever I phoned up to arrange my spa they were always fully booked. Finally, for the start of July, I set a date for my trip to Bath.

The bookshop itself is found on a side street just above the main shopping centre and ever so slightly down the hill and around the corner from the Jane Austen Centre*, but as Bath’s so compact it shouldn’t take you long to locate.

Its three floors are bright and inviting, while the staff are particularly welcoming. I actually visited (I think/hope anonymously) once a day for four days during the course of my holiday and everyone I met was so friendly it felt like I was meeting up with old friends. They also have a bookshop dog, who’s apparently very infrequent in her trips to work but was in to say hello on the Wednesday afternoon of my final visit. Vlashka sits and surveys the browsers in the fiction section, quietly contemplating the variety of browsers' choices – I couldn’t help but wonder what she made of my haul.

And it was a very large haul. the Reading Spa comes in two flavours, Delightful and Extravagant. As I had the latter, my haul included £75 of books, a Mr B’s tote bag, bookmark and mug and a fully stamped-up loyalty card (worth £5) for my next visit. Best of all though is the conversation.

For the past six moths of me getting excited about this experience friends have been asking why, given my love of books, someone has to be paid to talk books with me. I can now confirm a Reading Spa is so much better than that.

When you make a regular visit to a bookshop, you say hi to the bookseller, ask for a recommendation and after a short while you come away with a book or two. Which is great and an experience I'll never tire of. In a Reading Spa, you sit down with a cup of tea and a piece of cake (I had a chocolate brownie) and enjoy around an hour of dedicated bookseller attention.

I think it probably helps if you go along with a request in mind, so mine was to be taken away from the books everyone has read. Possibly not the easiest or most obvious of requests to fulfill, but Naomi who was hosting my Reading Spa rose to the challenge. We talked books loved, favourite genres, recent reads and my ridiculously large TBR pile. I confessed a few dislikes and prejudices too. None of it phased Naomi.

She made a few notes, asked a few more specifics and then left me in the company of the eminently readable Letters of Note (the one about dam beavers is particularly joyous). A short time later Naomi returned with a pile of between 15 and 20 books, most of which I'd not seen before and only one of which I already owned. Given how many books I buy for this blog I was very impressed by her success rate.

Starting with The Circle by David Eggers, Naomi then talked me through each book she’d selected, telling me a little about it and explaining why she thought I might like it. I was increasingly impressed by the thought that had gone into the selection in front of me as throwaway snippets from our previous conversation caught my attention. It was brilliant.

In fact the only complaint I could make is that the recommendations were too good and it was almost impossible to decide which books to leave behind. Naomi and I talked for around an hour and a half as she helped me choose a few definite purchases, then when I was ready she left me to have a read and a think. I was so comfy in the upstairs bibliotherapy room – enjoying the books and bookshop atmosphere – that in total I spent more than two hours in heaven.

It took me a while to decide, but my eventual choice of purchases was: The Circle by David Eggers; Mr Penumbra's 24-hour boookstore by Robin Sloan; All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr; The city & the city by China Mieville; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer; We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson; The sweetness at the bottom of the pie by Alan Bradley; Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig; and A single swallow by Horatio Clare.

As you can probably imagine, I was thrilled to be taking such a full bag of books away with me, but when I look back at the day the bookshop itself was as important in my experience as was the excellently extravagant Reading Spa. From the striking booky furniture to the thoughtful decorative details (including the Chris Riddell toilet), the shop felt great to be in, but most important were the books. I particularly enjoyed their lists shelves, which ranged from individual recommendations by the booksellers to top fives from other bookshops and people of note – including one from Florence of And The Machine fame.

The prevalence of these recommendations, both on the shelves and in my Reading Spa, meant I really respected the bookshop's confidence in its ability to unite readers with the perfect book(s). Bold book recommendations are a vital bookselling skill, and the staff of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights have that talent in spades – which meant all I had to do was relax and enjoy my spa.

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights
14-15 John Street, Bath, Somerset, BA1 2JL
Tel: 01225 331155

*I try not to complain on the internet - there are already enough people doing that - but if you’re a fan of Jane Austen DO NOT visit this centre. I felt it was frustrating, misleading and a waste of my time and money. Instead, buy yourself a copy of Persuasion, sit in Queen’s Square and read it, then later relive the walk up Union Street and along the gravel drive to the Crescent. It’s a much more rewarding way to spend your time.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Talk to Harry

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that all booksellers are amazing people.

They love books, they're friendly and they have an excellent ability to bring those two things together to create wonderful, welcoming places for readers to indulge their own love of books.

However, as great as booksellers are, every now and then one comes along who still manages to take you by surprise and be even more wonderful. I try not to single people out too much, but today as I write (from a very comfy hotel room in Bath) I'm still overwhelmed by the wonderfully friendly generosity I experienced in this week's bookshop.

What's even more overwhelming about the experience is that the only reason I'd heard of this hidden gem is because of a friend from Twitter. When I made my arrangements to visit Bath Tamzin kindly offered to show me around, and the first stop on our itinerary was a place neither I nor (apparently) Google have heard of.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop is found slightly out of Bath, meaning even while randomly wandering I probably wouldn't have discovered it. It is also, from outside, fairly unremarkable in the world of shop fronts. I don't mean that rudely, it has a very smart front window and you can see lots of books inside, but none of this gives any hint of the joy I was to experience.

Split into two rooms, with the second the size of a large cupboard but definitely worth the effort – especially if you're interested in learning more about graphic novels – the bookshop is incredibly well stocked for the small space it inhabits. But this is an incidental bonus to the experience.

The first thing I spotted was two tables of books, one for recently reviewed and new books, the other for customer reviews and reading group books. I liked the way these two tables had been arranged, but also noticed a lack of bookshop recommendations and so I decided to ask for one. Harry the bookseller who I met (the bookshop is run as a partnership) nicely explained they don't put out specific recommendations because that would be too broad. Instead he asked what I've read recently. I glanced around the nearest table, pointed at two books and Harry began to talk.

So began one of my best bookshop experiences to date.

Harry needed mere seconds to leap from the book I'd indicated to recommend another along the same lines, which happened to be by one of my favourite authors. This meant I was automatically trusting of everything that was to follow, but even if he'd picked out a writer I'd loathed (unlikely) Harry had my attention.

His recommendations were generous, wide-ranging and informed, while also being perfectly suited to my taste – but those are the attributes of all good booksellers while Harry has something extra. I've sat here for a good hour or two trying to find the words to describe it, but nothing comes close to explaining the innocent joy to the way he talks about books. It's happy, infectious, informed, child-like, gleeful, polite and so many other things – his conversation really has to be experienced to be believed.

My purchase ended up being Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I could easily have bought all the titles Harry recommended but this one won my attention for being the book I felt least likely to have picked up if left to my own devices. Perhaps an odd way of coming to a decision, but such is the level of trust I have in Harry's enthusiasm.

I urge people to visit every bookshop I write about, and I always recommend talking to booksellers, but in the case of The Oldfield Park Bookshop I cannot speak highly enough of my conversation with Harry.

Whether you're local to Bath or on holiday, take a trip out of town to The Oldfield Park Bookshop and have a chat with Harry. It's a magical experience.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop
43 Moorland Road, Bath, Somerset, BA2 3PN
Tel: 01225 427722