Sunday, 15 July 2018

A community book room

When it comes to long descriptions of bookshop encounters, this week's isn't going to be near the top of the list. The bookshop was small and my time there brief, but what it lacks in big adventures it makes up for with big heart.

Cotswold Book Room in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, was destination two on my IBW2018 bookshop crawl, and the first thing to note on arrival is that this is actually three rooms. The name arises from its origins, which were in a room of a house many decades ago. The location and size of the bookshop may have changed, but the name has stuck, and I think it's a good one.

The three rooms are small and there wasn't a huge amount of stock during my visit, but my boyfriend and I found plenty of books to catch our attention and the reason for the occasional area of space on the shelves was happily explained by the ladies behind the counter. It was these ladies who made the bookshop such a joy.

Conversation flowed easily as they told me about their time running the bookshop, its history and its part in the community. The word community comes up time and again when writing about bookshops, and I make no apology for repeating it here. The two ladies of Cotswold Book Room clearly put a great deal of importance in their community, and hearing about visitors to the bookshop and their other experiences really emphasised the heart within this small, simple space.

Our visit may have been brief but it was filled with laughter and interesting stories, and the ladies happily offered advice as to where might be best to pose with the cape. I picked up M R Carey's The Boy on the Bridge, which may not be the most obvious choice to remind me of such a happy, local bookshop, but it is a book I've long wanted to read so I was pleased to find it among the fiction shelves here.

Cotswold Book Room may not be the most remarkable of destinations, but I really do believe its community is the richer for its presence.

Cotswold Book Room
26 Long Street, Wotton-Under-Edge,
Gloucestershire GL12 7BT
Tel: 01453 843140

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Putting personality before brand

For this week's blog I'm looking at contrasts and welcomes, and how two very different but related bookshops can be equally appealing, as we visit the two Yellow-Lighted Bookshops in Gloucestershire as part of my Independent Bookshop Week 2018 bookshop crawl.

But first, a small moment of insecurity from me. One of the reasons I write this blog is to show people that bookshops can be welcoming places for anyone, that they're not the scary, elitist places I feared they might be when I was a teenager. I can confirm they're definitely neither of those things (not even when they're in somewhere as well-to-do as the Cotswolds), but even with that knowledge I can still, on occasion, get nervous about visiting a bookshop.

Which was pretty much my state of mind as I arrived at The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury. It's daft really, because I'd been to this bookshop before. I knew it was a good quality, friendly place and I could even remember exactly where it is in the town and in relation to parking (very close). And yet, the nearer we got to our destination the more nervous I got. You see, this time I was expected. And I had a cape. Neither of which fall into my usual experience of visiting a bookshop. Obviously things went well, but I reckon it doesn't hurt to remind others that even the most confident of bookshoppers can still have an attack of the nerves.

Those nerves were swiftly banished by Hereward the bookshop owner, who greeted us and offered us coffee and a bun as soon as he saw us. I obviously can't have been in my right mind because I declined the bun, but the tea and coffee he bought my boyfriend and I from the independent cafe across the road were just what was needed to recover from a couple of hundred miles in a car.

Hereward's brief distraction getting the drinks also gave me a few minutes to regain some composure after the drive. I wandered around blindly for a few moments, reacquainted myself with the different sections, admired the choice of books and then collapsed in a heap on the comfy leather sofa in the snug children's area.

The bookshop was as good as I'd remembered and I soon lost my boyfriend to the bookshelves, which is his way of paying a bookshop a compliment. The selection met the approval of both of us, with warm wooden shelves and tasteful decoration perfectly pitched to make the browser comfortable without being a distraction.

I enjoyed looking at the books on offer, but once the bookseller returned I had a question to ask and the visit went from there. I knew the bookshop was named for a book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, but my question was why. I won't share the story here because I want you to visit the bookshop and find out for yourselves, but as someone who is fascinated by the reasons for names I was impressed by the answer. So impressed I bought the book as a reminder of my visit.

Conversation with Hereward was pleasant and relaxed in an understated, calm way. We covered a remarkable selection of topics that gave me a feel for the area, the bookshop, books and bookselling – after years of writing this blog I'm still amazed by how much I continue to learn about this enviable but tough career choice. It was a pleasant, informative conversation, punctuated by the odd customer query and accompanied by the gentle buzz of browsers in a busy bookshop. I'm certain we could've both happily stayed here all day.

Instead (after subtly posing for a photo with the cape) we continued with day one of our bookshop crawl, which included stop three: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth (we'll come back to stop two another day).

Where Tetbury was refined and calm, Nailsworth was bright and bubbly. Louise the bookseller greeted us like old friends and her energy and enthusiasm were evident for all to see. I've often thought booksellers – aka bookshop heroes – are the secret ingredient to making each bookshop unique, and it was never more obvious than in a comparison of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshops.

While both bear the same name and smart blue and gold signage outside, their ingredients differ. There were obviously some similarities in this younger bookshop, but these were more of a nod to the original than a copy. Personality – rather than brand – is the priority, enabling the two sister bookshops to have grown to suit their respective communities.

During our visit we saw a larger number of children in this second bookshop, and it was clear Louise has an enthusiasm for encouraging younger readers. She welcomed them as equals and the children's space was well-thought out with a sweet little hidey-hole for those who'd rather sit and read without distractions. She also embraced the crazy of the cloak, joining me for a photo and helping me realise there was no need to feel self-conscious about my not-so-secret superhero accessory. Louise is a true superhero.

When it came to buying, my attention was grabbed by pretty much all of the offerings on the recommends table, so I turned to Louise for help in whittling my selection down. This prompted further conversation about books and reading and I'm very pleased with my eventual choice of Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

Where the first Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury had been exactly the calm, relaxing influence I'd needed to recover from a tiring drive, Nailsworth's Yellow-Lighted Bookshop a few hours later was the perfect energetic boost to ensure our bookshop crawl took flight.

Which pretty much sums up the unique experience of visiting different independent bookshops: they put people first.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
21 Church St, Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8JG
Tel: 01666 500221 @YLBookshop

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
17 Fountain Street, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BL
Tel: 01453 832555 @YLBookshop

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Bookshops, home to real-life super heroes

This is a not very brief overview of my adventures in bookshopping. There's simply too much to say about each bookshop to post it all here. I'll share the full story of each bookshop experience in individual blogs. Or for a few photo highlights, scroll to the end.

This week is Independent Bookshop Week, and while I personally think every week is a good week to visit an indie, I do love having an extra excuse to go on a bookshop crawl.

The theme of this year's week is Bookshop Heroes, and as part of the celebrations the Bookseller's Association suggested I might want to take a trip to meet a few more of those heroes than usual by travelling around the Cotswolds. I packed my bags and my boyfriend into the car and set out on a three-day adventure.

Day one

Setting off from our Kent home, the first few hours of our Saturday were spent in remarkably clear traffic on the M25 and M4, giving us time to discuss the adventure to come and me time to psyche myself up for wearing a superhero cape in public. I may not be a bookseller but the BA was happy for me to join in with the heroic fun.

Even though I'd been there before, I was still nervous to be arriving at our first bookshop because I'm not used to being expected. It was therefore a relief to walk into The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury and be immediately welcomed with offers of coffee. This warm welcome and few minutes to pause and sit on the comfy bookshop sofa were exactly what I needed to recover from the long drive.

My familiarity with the bookshop meant I had more time to chat with the bookseller, leaving my boyfriend to browse and occasionally comment on how impressed he was with the choice of books on offer. The conversation included bookshops (including a recommendation of an additional destination while we were in the area), books, the Cotswolds and the reason behind the unusual name. This last part of the conversation was the reason I bought The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, but I could have easily left overloaded with other books.

Next up came Cotswold Book Room. Probably the smallest of the bookshops during our tour, the thing that made this place special was the two ladies in charge. Cheerful and friendly and obviously filled with love for their bookshop and community, we had a great conversation with them and really enjoyed the enthusiastic welcome from these unassuming bookshop heroes.

There was a limited offering of books but it still covered all the important subjects and catered for the reading children and adults of Wootton. I was delighted to pick up The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey. Cotswold Book Room, named because it had started life as a room in a house, may be small but its heart is big and the experience was that of a small community bookshop – which seemed perfectly fitting for this destination.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop made another appearance for stop three, as we visited the sister shop in Nailsworth. I’d been expecting a slightly smaller carbon copy of the first, when in fact we were greeted by another unique bookshop, with small nods towards the style of its older sister. Both were perfect in their own way.

Louise the energetic and welcoming bookseller greeted us and all customers with a friendly smile, deftly responding to enquiries, recommending books and treating everyone like old friends. Where Tetbury had exuded reserved confidence, here the joy of books was pinned to the mast, further emphasising the different communities we were visiting. After some book discussion I selected Less by Andrew Sean Greer, because we both agreed it looked fun.

Stop four was actually an unplanned diversion because in all our conversations with the previous three places The Stroud Bookshop kept being recommended. Three out of three recommendations meant we had to investigate.

Found in what I assume must be a market town because there were market stalls everywhere, my first instinct was that this appeared to be the most functional bookshop we visited. That's an observation, rather than a criticism: decor is simple and shelves well-filled. We missed the owner, but conversation was lively as we got chatting with both booksellers and customers. Stroud is clearly a place where people are willing to talk to strangers, something other towns might benefit from considering! Here I chose Elizabeth Strout’s My name is Lucy Barton.

Finally, our first day of bookshop crawling ended with bookshop heroes for the younger generation, in Octavia’s Bookshop, Cirencester. “Flying” Moomins fill the window, and there’s a feeling of warmth and colour the moment you step through the door. A buzz of enthusiastic children filled the shop, which it was simply wonderful to hear.

I was particularly impressed to see the labelling of the bookselves, which are organised by age and fiction or reference, with an area towards the back – commonly the home of “children’s” – simply labeled “adult”. It was a nice reversal of the usual bookshop layout and obviously works well here. I got into the spirit of my surroundings by choosing Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike.

Five bookshops down, it was time to take a break, as we headed for The Angel at Burford in preparation for the next round of adventuring.

Day 2

Sunday was a much more gentle journey, beginning with a short walk from our hotel to The Madhatter Bookshop. Four people manage the stock here, and their various areas of expertise were clearly demonstrated with the excellent, often unexpected, range of titles on offer. This caused me quite a lot of difficulty in my attempts to limit my purchase to just the one book.

Throw in the selection of hats for men and women and this is a bookshop you could easily spend a whole morning enjoying. We resisted the hats in the end, with me choosing Money by Emile Zola, and my boyfriend picking up David Bellos’ The Novel of the Century (which was fortunately one of the books I'd been agonising over leaving behind).

Lunch was replaced with a generous serving of tea and cake at Jaffe and Neale in Stow-on-the-Wold. Being at the halfway point on our journey, this proved a welcome pause to sit and enjoy the bookshop surroundings from the comfort of two easy chairs. It turns out it's much less effort to investigate the bottom shelves of bookcases when you're already sitting comfortably!

Conversations with the bookseller and various browsers ensued and a fine time was had by all in what I think was the youngest bookshop of the weekend. I surprised myself by selecting Ann Patchett's This is the story of a happy marriage, while my boyfriend was again tempted into buying, this time choosing Landscape Photographer of the Year.

Meandering over to our third stop of the day, we found ourselves in the same town as Blenheim Palace. The glimpse we had through the gate looked stunning and could've made an excellent addition to our visit. That wasn't to be though because we simply had too much fun in the Woodstock Bookshop.

Two perfectly-filled rooms mean this was one of the smallest places we visited but it kept us the longest. This was partly because of conversations with the bookseller, partly because I was enjoying how much my boyfriend was enjoying the bookshop and got distracted from my own mission of buying a book. Stock includes a range of unexpected titles, small publishers and a good mix of translated fiction, so we ended up leaving with three books here. I chose The Infatuations by Javier Marais, while he picked Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.

Completing our day with a glimpse of the previously-mentioned palace, we drove to nearby Oxford to spend the night in a Fuller's pub which gave us 15 per cent off because we booked direct – further proof the internet isn't always the cheapest option.

Day 3

It was an early start on Monday, as I dropped my partner in bookshopping at the railway station so he could go to work, before setting out on the final day alone. Not that I ever really felt alone with all the bookshop hero booksellers to keep me company.

My day started at Jaffe and Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton, another place I'd previously experienced. Enjoying a second breakfast of tiffin and coffee, I chatted with the booksellers and found out more about their bookshop, other bookshops and books in general. This is a cheery, bright destination and I particularly enjoyed seeing their upstairs reading room, which another browser had already made herself comfortable in.

Hearing the bookseller talk about his love for his current favourite book, I found myself compelled to buy The Overstory by Richard Powers. That said, there was an understated conviction in his words about every book discussed, so I could easily have left with an entirely new library if I'd had the car space and money.

Stop two saw me return to Stow-on-the-Wold, to this time visit Borzoi Bookshop and meet furry bookshop hero Molie. The two human booksellers had much more to say about books and the bookshop than she did, but all three were a treat to meet as I explored this attractive rabbit warren.

I was given a quick tour and a coffee and let loose to wander, taking in a good selection of history and biographies and enjoying the variety of small publishers mixed in among the big names. After some discussion, I was again easily convinced to choose a book loved by the bookseller, this time buying Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Travelling north, my journey took me through some truly beautiful countryside to what must be the very top of the Cotswolds and Blandford Books in Broadway. Two shops linked together, visitors have the option of turning right for general books, left for children's, or continuing to the back for cards and gifts.

I explored the lot before settling next to the fiction, being tempted by each of the books highlighted by handwritten recommendations attached to the shelves. Most of these titles were unknown to me, meaning all were very tempting, with a conversation with the bookseller helping me to narrow it down to the one chosen book: Together by Julie Cohen.

This seemed like a lovely town to explore but at this point I was on a time-limit: I had to find a convenient, safe, place to pause for an interview live on air on BBC Radio Gloucestershire. It was a brief chat about the importance of supporting independent bookshops, with local bookshops being interviewed throughout the week. I'm always happy to help remind people of the value of these community gems and I do hope some of the listeners took note.

The media continued to call in my final bookshop of the trip, with a photographer from the local paper arriving at Cheltenham's Suffolk Anthology before me. It was a little embarrassing posing for photos when I'd barely said hello, but our surroundings were beautiful and it's nice to know my marathon bookshop crawl had caught people's attention, and hopefully inspired them.

Once the photographer had gone, we settled into chatting books, the community and the bookshop, while I also explored my surroundings and we posed for our own pictures with the capes. This was one of those rare bookshops where around 50 per cent of the fiction can already be found on my own bookshelves, so I decided to put my complete trust in the recommendations of the two women. I was confidently handed Girl waits with gun by Amy Stewart, and while I'd not previously heard of the author, there was no doubt about my decision to buy.

And with that my bookshop crawl came to an end. It was a really lovely three days of sunshine, bookshops and adventure. Where some people go on holiday and explore a foreign country, my long weekend combined all the elements of exploration (inspired by bookshops), memento-buying (of books), and meeting the locals (aka those wonderful bookshop heroes) without the expense and stress of an airport.

You don't have to visit 12 bookshops in three days, but letting bookshops inspire you to visit new places (in the real and imagined world) is definitely a recommended experience – and one that will make you a bookshop hero too.

Day 1

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
21 Church St, Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8JG
Tel: 01666 500221 @YLBookshop

Cotswold Book Room
26 Long Street, Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire GL12 7BT
Tel: 01453 843140

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
17 Fountain Street, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BL
Tel: 01453 832555 @YLBookshop

Stroud Bookshop
23 High Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL5 1AJ
Tel: 01453 756646 @stroudbookshop

Octavia’s Bookshop
24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2AA
Tel: 01285 650677 @octaviabookshop

Day 2

Madhatter Bookshop
122 High Street, Burford, Oxfordshire OX18 4QJ
Tel: 01993 822539 @madhatterbook

Jaffe and Neale
8 Park Street, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire GL54 1AQ
Tel: 01451 832000 @jandnstow

The Woodstock Bookshop
23 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TH
Tel: 01993 812760 @WoodstockBooks

Day 3

Jaffe and Neale
1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5NH
Tel: 01608 641033 @Jaffeandneale

The Borzoi Bookshop
Church Street, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire GL54 1BB
Tel: 01451 830268 @BorzoiBookshop

Blandford Books
39 High street, Broadway, Worcestershire WR12 7DP
Tel: 01386 858588

The Suffolk Anthology
17 Suffolk Parade, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 2AE
Tel: 01242 361362 @CheltAnthology

Monday, 11 June 2018

Join me on a bookshop crawl

Okay, so the headline of this post might be ever so slightly misleading, I'm not suggesting you all drop everything and join me in my car, but it would be good if you all joined in with a bookshop crawl.

We are just a few days away from one of my favourite times of the year, Independent Bookshop Week, which runs from 16-23rd June. Launched in 2006, this is a week to highlight the important part indies play in their communities, including the excellent – some would say heroic – service they provide.

To mark the start of this celebration I'm going on a bookshop crawl. And not just any bookshop crawl. This one is going to last three days and cover I dread to think how many miles as I travel from town to town to meet 11 indies in the Cotswolds, all supported by Books are my Bag.

My bookshopping adventures begin next Saturday, 16th June, when I'll be heading over to Gloucestershire to visit four bookshops, then on Sunday I crisscross the border with Oxfordshire for three more, before completing my travels on Monday, with more border-hopping to include Worcestershire. If you'd like to see the full route take a look at the list at the bottom of this post or admire my superhero character in this lovely graphic:

Books are my Bag has drawn me as a superhero because the theme of this year's IBW is bookshop heroes. They're asking book lovers to shout about their favourite bookshops and bookselling heroes, while the bookshops themselves are also asked to share their own bookshop heroes, all using the hashtag #BookshopHeroes. I'm really looking forward to following these tweets to find out about bookshops I should be adding to my must-visit list – perhaps for my next bookshop crawl.

Join in

As I said, it's not physically possible for you to join me in my car (although it would be fun), so I'm instead inviting you to follow my adventures as they happen on Twitter; come back here and read about them afterwards; or – and these options aren't mutually-exclusive – set off on your own bookshop crawl and have your own adventure. Just make sure you remember to join in using the hashtags #IBW2018 and #BookshopCrawl.

The 'official' bookshop crawl day is 16th June, but mine will be taking place over three days and many bookshops will be holding special events and promotions throughout the week, so there's no limit to the possibilities of taking part.

In the past I've celebrated bookshop week by walking across London, driving around Essex, walking around London and driving around the south, so don't feel restricted if you only live in a one-bookshop town. Part of the fun of bookshop crawls is about getting out and 'meeting' places you perhaps wouldn't usually encounter. These are new beginnings that might just become a more regular part of your life.

I write from experience, because although I can't easily re-visit the hundreds of bookshops I've met through this blog, I have gained friends and favourite places in some unusual corners of the country.

While I don't pretend to say five minutes in an independent bookshop will change your life (it might), I do believe becoming a bookshopper, meeting booksellers and buying books in the real world has made my own life richer.

So join in the fun and see where a bookshopping adventure takes you. It could be the start of a new way of life, but even if it isn't, you'll still have a new book!

Erica's bookshop crawl


Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Tetbury
Cotswold Book Room, Wooton-under-Edge
Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Nailsworth
Octavia’s Bookshop, Cirencester


Madhatter’s Bookshop, Burford
Jaffe and Neale, Stow-on-the-Wold
Woodstock Bookshop, Woodstock


Jaffe and Neale, Chipping Norton
Borzoi Bookshop, Stow-on-the-Wold
Blandford Books, Broadway
Courtyard Books, Bishops Cleve
The Suffolk Anthology, Cheltenham

Thursday, 31 May 2018

What we found when we got lost

After a winter that seemed to cancel out most of the spring, with the appearance of the sun we’ve been lucky enough to do a little travelling around the country. For me, more travel means more bookshop visits.

Whenever we go anywhere, I begin by researching the bookshops in the area – which ones do I already ‘know’ through Twitter and the like; where has been recommended; and what other treats are nearby? Then I move on to the surrounding area, is there another bookshop within half an hour of travel? Before finally planning the journey.

This last stage of travel preparation is the hardest because I try to balance the number of bookshops visited in relation to miles travelled, breaks, possible diversions, four or five random routes that might appeal to either of us at the time AND to consider what we might find after getting lost. Actually, it would all be a lot easier if we didn’t both have a knack for the last two.

For this week’s bookshop it was something along those lines that saw us accidentally end up in the right place at the wrong (or right) time, as we made our way from east to west across the south of England.

I’d picked out Archway Bookshop in Axminster as a possible stop off point on our long drive home from holiday, thinking it would be a good half-way point to stretch our legs and reinvigorate our minds. Instead, we ended up finding the bookshop by accident on the way to our holiday, when a random whim saw us follow a road sign thinking we were heading to the town famous for the Hovis advert. Which we later realised is actually miles away in Shaftesbury. Geography is not my strong point. In fact, we didn't even realise we were in the wrong place until we were walking around the town and Archway Bookshop came into view across the square.

The bookshop's blue sign just poked above the top of the raised area in front of us, bright enough to catch our eye, subtle enough to blend with the historic wall it's set within. The bookshop's name comes from its archway entrance, which is believed to have once been part of the walls of the abbey. In respect of the conservation area, the frontage is understated but that doesn't appear to matter in this market town. We soon discovered Archway Bookshop is popular with local readers.

Behind the subtle exterior is a wealth of books and bookshop knowledge. The first room opens into a second, larger and brighter area, where you have a choice of continuing back to the children's area or taking a striking metal staircase to the floor above. I'd never have imagined so many books could be found inside. I wandered between those first two rooms, where various fiction selections are housed, before exploring the non-fiction upstairs and soon realising I could get carried away during what was only meant to be a brief stopping point.

A recommends table with particularly unusual stock caught my attention for some time, before I eventually returned to the general fiction to pick up Matt Haig's How to stop time. Upon arrival at the counter the good sense of my choice was immediately confirmed when the bookseller commented how much he'd enjoyed this book. It's always nice when someone starts a conversation about the book I'm buying, and this was the introduction to a very pleasant chat.

We'd already been witness to many customers popping in for a browse, chat or to order/collect a specific title, so it was nice to be welcomed as warmly as if we'd been regulars. This gave me the confidence to perhaps be nosier than I'd usually be before explaining why I was there, but I don't think the bookseller minded as he introduced me to Archer the dog and happily chatted about the history of the bookshop. Our conversation even roamed to recommendations of other bookshops to visit nearby. The nature of our journey meant we couldn't follow these up at the time, but they have been noted.

Archer was a friendly addition to the bookshop and I was particularly grateful of our unplanned arrival because it happened to coincide with the start of his shift behind the counter. Tim the bookseller did admit sometimes the customers are more interested in talking to the dog than him, but I found both to be good company. As was a random customer who joined the conversation, singing the bookshop's praises when she overheard my questioning.

It was this friendliness, from staff and customers, that I took away with me as we left Archway Bookshop to continue our journey. To be welcomed as a friend by a whole group of people who you've only just met – and may never meet again – is a rare treat, I'm very glad about what we found.

Archway Bookshop
Church Street, Axminster,
Devon EX13 5AQ
Tel: 01297 33744

Sunday, 6 May 2018

A dream come true

Sometime around the age of ten I was given a book. There was nothing unusual about this choice of gift, except that rather than the usual paperback with a brightly coloured cover, this one was a hardback with a dust jacket. I looked at the cover and decided it must be boring, so I left it on my bookshelves and forgot about it.

Time passed and one day the 1970s film adaptation of the book appeared on TV. I have a feeling I only watched it to please the relative who'd given me the book, but the moment the 90ish minutes were over I raced upstairs and started reading.

Swallows and Amazons became one of the most-read books of my tweenage (and later) years and is still a book I regularly turn to today. It's the reason I learnt to sail as a teenager, and since that first reading I've dreamed of sailing a small dinghy in the Lake District.*

I'm yet to sail there but, finally, around 25 years after that first reading, I can now say I have visited the area. We were only there for a few days, and it being April there was a fair bit of rain, but my excitement and joy at being in such a beautiful area of the country, one that is so important to me, meant I wouldn't have cared if it snowed. I was in the Lake District with my boyfriend and I was happy.

Our hotel had a view of Windermere, a short walk from Ambleside, which is conveniently where the Coffin Trail begins, an easy walk taking novice explorers to Grasmere. Having been tortured with Wordsworth's poems as a student, I couldn't care two hoots for him, his sister or his various homes, but I was very keen to visit the town for other reasons: Grasmere is the home of Sam Read Bookseller.

The walk was pleasant, included the odd gentle climb, some lovely views and – most importantly of all – the option to visit more than one tea room during its less than two-hour duration. We passed two/both of Wordsworth's former homes and some lovely little cottages, arriving at Grasmere in time for lunch. Choosing what was possibly a mostly vegetarian cafe, Green's, we realised we were the only visitors without a dog and so quickly befriended the woman at the table next to us. It was a lovely half-hour and the food and drink were delicious before we walked to the end of the (very short) road to explore the bookshop.

Sam Read Bookseller appears traditional and unassuming from the outside, blending perfectly into the historic countryside feel of the area. The windows could be those of a house and it could easily be missed if visitors taking the same walk didn't continue to the other side of town. That would be a crying shame because this bookshop proved to be a wonderful discovery.

Its three rooms make the bookshop larger inside than the front implies, and for an indie in a small northern village the quality and variety of stock is incomparable.

I have to admit, given the nature of the area I'd expected a raft of Wordsworths, a few Beatrix Potters and Arthur Ransomes, maps and general holiday reads. Instead the first thing I noticed was a highly intelligent recommends table in front of a bookcase of science, philosophy, biography and all manner of books to encourage people to think about the world around them. Between here and the Faber carousel next to it my boyfriend was pretty much engrossed, so this is where I lost him.

The next wall along was filled with fiction, so Sam Read Bookseller isn't a place to feel daunted if you are simply after a relaxing holiday read. The usual genres are there, with a mix of bookshop musts, bestsellers and unexpected gems to reflect the bookseller's preferences. There's even a shelf for science fiction, making this browser's smile grow even wider.

Through to the next room I was pleased to see a large selection of audio books (my new go-to entertainment in the car), as well as more non-fiction, which included a good few books on running (Parkrun is slowly turning me into a runner), and again a wide variety of subjects and titles I've not seen before.

Heading to the third room, the first thing I spotted was a row of Arthur Ransomes (see low on the shelves in this picture). Turn a corner and this takes you to a cute children's area with picture books and colour and a chair for young visitors to get comfy. It's a small space but still very well-stocked. Although how anyone would manage to look any further than the Swallows and Amazons series is beyond me.

I was in Swallows and Amazons country and the next book on my way to collecting the series was the only option for me. My only regret with that choice was how many other excellent reads I had to leave behind – if only I'd brought a bigger suitcase. Contrarily, the next book I needed isn't set in the Lake District,* but Coot Club is still a part of the series and gets me a step closer to my aim to collect and read the whole series in order. My boyfriend's browsing also paid off, with him choosing Intuition Pumps by Daniel C Dennett.

We'd not yet been in the area a full 24-hours, but one thing that had already caught my attention was the lack of Swallows and Amazons references, so this was one of the things I asked about when talking to the bookseller (a fellow blogger) about books, the bookshop and anything else that crossed our minds.

I'd known Coniston Water was home to Wild Cat Island, but the gem of information provided by the bookseller was the Ruskin Museum. Not somewhere I'd expected to be directed to for Ransome, but I'm very glad I took her advice.

The next day we drove across to Coniston to explore the museum, which was worth the entry fee and more for one single exhibit. The Ruskin Museum is home to Amazon, previously Mavis and one of the two original boats which inspired the series. I'm not ashamed to admit I was brought to tears by this encounter with one of the two boats I've long wondered about. To be in her presence and to imagine sailing her myself was surprisingly moving. The Ruskin Museum may not be a bookshop, but I couldn't leave this experience unrecorded so I bought Pigeon Post from the gift shop.

The main reason for our journey on day one of this particular blog was to visit Sam Read Bookseller, but thanks to the kindness of the bookseller the experience became so much more than that and I hope my words have helped to give some indication of how happy all of this made me.

Sam Read Bookseller
Broadgate House, Grasmere,
Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 9SY
Tel: 01539 435374

*The series is also the reason I'd love to visit the Norfolk Broads, but that's an experience for another day.

Monday, 9 April 2018

In which the boy falls in love with a bookshop

When it comes to bookshops I'm a bit like a puppy. I see the word 'bookshop' and I get all excitable, race off towards the door and mentally run around the shop trying to enjoy as much of my surroundings as possible all in one go. In contrast, the boy sees a bookshop and is a lot more reserved. He'll point the place out and will generally enjoy exploring and seeing what treats he can find, but instances of full-blown excitement are few and far between.

Kemptown Bookshop is one of those instances. I pretty much lost him to the books, as he first explored every inch of the ground floor before progressing upstairs and down to make the most of everything on display. From popular science to art, poetry and a wealth of high quality fiction, I don't believe there was an area of the bookshop he wasn't engrossed by and even though we were on a bookshop crawl there was no way I could possibly consider rushing him out of a bookshop he was so obviously enjoying. When someone's as happy that, it should be considered illegal to disturb them.

Walking in to the bookshop, you discover a good-sized, square-ish ground floor of floor-to-ceiling fiction. Colours are muted, leaving the smartly shelved books to do the talking, and talk they do. From an aesthetic point of view they look perfect, all the same height on pale grey shelves reminiscent of the beauty of Persephone, while the content is varied, intelligent and packed with books we both love, own or want to read.

Everywhere I looked was something I've long had on my to-buy list, accompanied by others I regularly recommend. More unusually, everything my boyfriend looks out for was also on a shelf somewhere in this room of fiction. There was no way we were only buying one book here, and that was just looking at the bookcases along the walls. Cast your eye across the recommendations – including a book first aid kit – and tables of miscellany and there's even more to appeal.

Upstairs we find art and travel, with stationery bits and bobs and a selection of discounted books (the only hint of disarray in this immaculate bookshop), while downstairs is children's and more non-fiction. The stairs themselves are also variously graced with art and tasteful children's toys, meaning something for everyone without offending anyone's sensibilities. All levels continue the general feeling of lightness in look tempered by intelligence in stock, and I felt certain I was likely to find any book that might come to mind, so well-filled were all the shelves. They even have signs advertising free coffee for browsers. Kemptown Bookshop is obviously a very civilised place to visit.

We eventually had to think about leaving, so I chose Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson as my purchase. This author's massive books aren't often found on the shelves of indie bookshops so I was pleased to see not one but two of his titles here (I already owned the other or I might have broken my one book per shop rule). As for my boyfriend, he has no such limits and picked up Ted Hughes' The Crow, Steffen Kverneland's Munch and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was the latter that saw him delay us longer, as the boy and the bookseller ended up deep in conversation about Mann and other much-loved books. As it's usually me who holds us up I wasn't really complaining.

Kemptown Bookshop
91 St George’s Road, Brighton, West Sussex, BN2 1EE
Tel: 01273 682110

Want a second (third after the boy) opinion? Here's a Your Bookshops guest post.