Monday, 13 March 2017

Eight miles of books, and cake too

Given my love of all things bookshop, it may surprise you to read how slow I can be to visit certain key points on the book-buying map.

In the case of this week's bookshop it's a particularly big omission on my part because I have to confess I only visited Europe's largest bookshop for the first time last year, and then only because it was part of an organised bookshop crawl. This wasn't because of any kind of deliberate avoidance on my part, it's just that other bookshops had come to my attention and let's be honest, this one probably doesn't need any publicity to bring it to people's attention.

Waterstone Piccadilly proudly overlooks a busy shoppers' paradise in London, it's in a prime location, has entrances at two sides and is packed with so many eateries even non-booky people (do they exist?) must be tempted in to escape the crowds. Well, to escape the outdoor crowds, the bookshop is hardly the quietest of places.

I was there with the first ever London Bookshop Crawl, so we were a crowd in our own right, but the place is so full of people that we were no more noticeable as a group than any other shoppers. We also quickly dispersed throughout the bookshop's six floors. But I'm getting ahead of myself, first we had cake.

The agreement was to meet in the bookshop's cafe, making the most of the chance to give our feet a rest and re-fuel with tea and cake. An easy plan to execute in most bookshops, but not everyone made it because there's more than one cafe and a restaurant/bar – how do you know the right one to go to?

Which is any easy question to ask about the whole bookshop – with something like eight miles of bookshelves to browse how is it possible to work out where to start?

For many, I'd guess the answer is to stay on the ground floor, where the bestsellers and new releases are so plentiful a browser in a hurry may easily find a book or five to meet their needs. This is where my purchase came from before I'd begun looking at the shelves, when fellow bookshop crawler Katie insisted I – and several others – buy Becky Chambers' The long way to a small angry planet. She was so enthusiastic I couldn't question her recommendation, and having since read the book I can only repeat her encouragement.

Having my purchase in hand before exploring the bookshop possibly felt a little like cheating, but it did mean I was able to gently wander, taking in the atmosphere without looking too closely at the shelves and so saving myself from the danger of buying the equivalent of a small library in this one shop. The temptation is everywhere and with such a large number of books on display I imagine it's impossible to leave empty-handed.


The bookshop is well laid out, with large areas of comfy sofas on every floor and clearly marked sections and help desks for ease of navigation. The children's area was particularly colourful with baskets of cuddly toys I could've happily dived into (although perhaps parents won't appreciate quite such a large temptation for their young?).

I also loved seeing swathes of shelving dedicated to independent publishers, young adult and historical fiction, among others, as well as various stand out displays for favoured (by me) books that wouldn't often be seen promoted in your average smaller branch of Waterstones. This included a whole table of Masterworks sci-fi, I always enjoy spotting their yellow spines in bookshops and if I hadn't already found my purchase I'm pretty certain this table would've forced me to buy more than one of its offerings.

As an added point of interest, Waterstones Piccadilly is home to the Russian Bookshop. This takes up a large chunk of the fourth floor and is worth a visit even if you don't understand the language, simply for the experience. I may not have bumped into any oligarchs, but I like to think this is where they'd hang out when not busy managing their empires. The area was certainly classy enough, but still familiar enough to not scare off an inquisitive bookshopper.


Overall, Waterstones Piccadilly is a huge book store, with more titles than anyone could even dream of reading in a lifetime. It's a great place to explore, hunting down genres you might not usually encounter and I defy anyone to visit without finding at least one book they want to buy, however should the bookshop somehow fail you (unlikely), there's also cake.


Waterstones Piccadilly
203-206 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9HD
Tel: 020 7851 2400
@WaterstonesPicc

Monday, 6 March 2017

The internet can't help you here

If you plan on taking a walk along Albert and Highland roads in Southsea, Portsmouth, my advice is to take a good strong tote bag or two. And be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet.

The road is packed with independent shops of a varied and interesting nature, and many of them are bookshops.

I was there with Abbie Headon, who I've mentioned before, and time was late and limited so we weren't able to go in all the bookshops, but even peeking through the windows was enough to see shoppers are spoiled for choice.

We started our journey in Jade Mountain Bookshop, a lovely little secondhander that's entered through the same doorway as a cafe, should you need to fuel up before you start shopping.

The bookshop is crammed with all manner of gems, ranging from a glossary of tap dancing terms and a guide to line dancing to the more standard offerings of general fiction – not forgetting Ladybird books and a good selection of orange Penguins. It's slightly untidy, but in an organised, loved kind of way that makes it charming, and a brief conversation with the bookseller left me certain he knew the location of every book in the room. In fact, I'd suggest a chat with this bookseller is an important part of any visit, as he talked about his love of the bookshop and the reason for its rather unusual name – which is based on the initials of the previous owners and has nothing to do with a Chinese takeaway.

We'd not needed help when browsing because we'd enjoyed diving into the bookcases and piles, searching for tempting titles and delighting in unexpected discoveries – I found Joseph Heller's Something Happened and a sweet little book about the Tea Ceremony. They were so reasonably priced it would've been rude not to buy both.

I loved Jade Mountain Bookshop and was sorry to leave, but other bookshops awaited and time was passing us by.

As it happened, time had already passed us by, and the lateness of the afternoon meant many of the bookshops (as we walked along Highland Road and it became Albert Road) were already closed for the day. Many also are not mentioned on Google, so all I can tell you is that there were lots, including a rather appealing graphic novel and comic shop that I did manage a quick look around.

Thankfully, not all the remaining bookshops were closed, and as we arrived at the opposite end of the street we found crime specialist Adelphi Books.

At first glance this is not a bookshop for the fainthearted, but go beyond your first impression and you'll see it's also somewhere special. The initial doubt is because the place really does look to be in a bit of a muddle, with some books apparently forgotten on the floor, but contain your browsing to the shelves and you see a wealth of secondhand titles unlike any standard high street crime section could offer. Which is a real treat.

Stock is for those who read further back than today's popular writers and I wouldn't be surprised if a few original prints of British Library Crime Classics could be found among these shelves. We were particularly taken by the Toff series by John Creasey and in the end The Toff and the Runaway Bride had to be my book of choice.

Exploring the bookshopping delights of Southsea was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, even if we were often limited to looking through windows.

Should you decide to take my advice and go for a wander, I'd encourage you to arrive early because the internet is little to no help here. Instead just take a chance – even if you only get to these two bookshops your efforts will not have been wasted.


Jade Mountain Bookshop
17 Highland Road, Southsea, Portsmouth, PO4 9DA
Tel: 02392 732951

Adelphi Books
1 Albert Road, Southsea, Portsmouth, PO5 2SE
Tel: 02392 618120

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Book and a brew

On first entering Chapter One Books, I'll be honest and say I was a little unsure if I'd come to the right place.

A counter of cakes and a hot drinks area line the first wall you see, meaning anyone could easily be mistaken and think they'd entered a cafe. But that's not an unusual find in a bookshop, and even now I'm not sure which label would be the most accurate for the subject of this week's blog. Either way, Chapter One Books turned out to be a worthy destination for a tea-hunting bookshopper.

I was in Manchester with my boyfriend and his big brother, and when I heard the former say "It'll be interesting to see what you buy from here" I wasn't entirely surprised, because this isn't a bookshop in the traditional sense of the word. There are no obvious genre divides and while I did see a sign for the secondhand shelves most of the books appear to be placed where they'll look good more than anything else. Thought had obviously gone into which books were on display, but it wasn't immediately clear how shelves were arranged.

Having passed the serving counter (and a stunning selection of cakes), we entered a large, open, space with floor to ceiling windows, and tables and chairs scattered everywhere. Shelves are gently filled with face-out books, most accompanied by a hand-written introduction, and a couple of picnic bench tables of books fill the centre of the room, but the book content of this bookshop is sparse.


I use the word sparse as an observation, not a complaint. Chapter One Books may not be a traditional bookshop and I'm not even sure if I saw a non-fiction area, but it is still a nicely stocked bookshop with an interesting selection of fiction.

This is more a place to meet friends for a cuppa and cake, rather than a dedicated browse, but I'd still advise arriving half an hour early or even allowing time after you've finished catching up to properly enjoy the books: with their covers looking out at you they cannot be ignored.

We took our time wandering around, enjoying the unusual layout of the shelves and eyeing up the other customers, trying to work out who would leave next so we could nab their table. This plan worked pretty well because the bookshop's currently running a #BookAndABrew promotion, where you get a free hot drink with every book purchased. It would've been rude not to make the most of this offer.

Eventually realising there was an order to the layout of the stock, I found the science fiction section and chose the Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Children of Time by Adrain Tchaikovsky – and as you've probably guessed, any bookshop that finds space to stock a few science fiction titles wins extra brownie points from me.

The big brother kindly bought our various teas and my book, and we took a table by a window, in one of the nooks created by carefully placed bookshelves. Speed of service isn't this destination's strong point, but we had been warned there'd be a bit of a wait so I didn't mind the delay, instead enjoying the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. This was also a good opportunity to properly stop and chat as I'd been a little nervous about my first meeting with my boyfriend's family*. Tea in the welcoming atmosphere of Chapter One Books turned out to be the perfect place to do just that.

During this time I also noticed the other visitors: a couple playing Scrabble, another pair reading together, a group of teens simply hanging out, and others who'd come in to catch up and eventually got drawn into the books, picking up a title as they paused in conversation. These are all reasonable bookshop activities but seemed all the more noticeable because of their taking place at cafe tables, rather than among the shelves. It was also startling to realise many people there were.

This unusual bookshop cafe setting is obviously a recipe for success in Manchester city centre.


Chapter One Books
Chatsworth House, Lever Street, Manchester M1 1BY
Tel: 0161 298 2015
@chapter1uk

*The brother was lovely, and frustratingly kind and didn't share any embarrassing stories from my boyfriend's childhood.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Hide and seek

Bookshops are sensible places, where people go to buy books and be quiet and learn. Aren't they?

Well, to a certain extent yes they are. Some can be sensible, while others can be quiet, and all do provide us with wonderful books to read, enjoy and learn. Whereas some bookshops – even when they're not necessarily trying to be – are all about running around and having fun.

Okay, so we didn't actually run around this week's bookshop, but we did play...

Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye may not be the world's largest bookshop, but during our visit it certainly felt like it was. Set within a converted building, rows and rows of shelves spread across several rooms and two floors, with the only nod to its former life being in the layout of the front till area, which reminded me of the reception area of a Welsh cinema I used to visit in a different time.

Having been greeted at the door, we made our way into the bookshop proper and giddiness overtook us. It began with the simple delight at finding so many rows and rows of bookcases of secondhand books, the sight of which being enough to spark joy in the heart of any reader. Then we started exploring and losing each other in the stacks and the playfulness really began. One of us would pause to look at a section or book, losing the other as they continued exploring and before I knew it we were lost in a bookshop game of hide and seek.*

I admit this is not the most mature way to spend time in a bookshop, but it was a lot of fun and ensured we covered every aisle of the space – which really did feel huge. It meant I saw everything from fiction to individual shelves about authors, history (masses of it), sciences, natural history, remainders and large areas of overflow because there were more books than could quickly be given appropriate homes. We found a row of books about Thomas Mann and another that somehow managed to include all the difficult classics I've wanted to read but not quite worked up the courage to try, and we found shelves and shelves of glorious books.

There's not much more I can say about this bookshop, other than repeating the fact it was a joy to explore. Our purchase (he bought for me) was Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game – from among the titles I keep wimping out of – and as we chatted at the till we were told the bookshop is linked with Quinto Bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road, which happens to be another regular haunt of mine (I'll add a write up here soon).

Hay Cinema Bookshop is a massive, book lover's paradise of a space and while I'm not suggesting you visit to go running around, I defy anyone to not be tempted to hide and seek your companions (human and printed) among the shelves.


Hay Cinema Bookshop
Castle Street, Hay-on-Wye,
via Hereford HR3 5DF, Wales
Tel: 01497 820071


*Technically, I think my boyfriend won.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Time for tea

Being traditionally British, I can be far too polite. I queue in all the right places, I apologise for everything and I don't like to put people out.

Which means I see the signs in bookshops saying "help yourself to tea and coffee" but never like to be cheeky enough to actually do so. If a bookseller offers tea I won't turn it down – I am British after all – but the thought of asking for a cup brings me out in a cold sweat.

Which is exactly the situation I was in during my visit to Toppings & Company in Bath when I finally plucked up the courage and asked for some tea.


You see, this was my third visit in as many days and I'd seen other people drinking out of beautifully matching blue and white spotted cups and saucers and I knew I had to do the same. Only I couldn't quite pluck up the courage to ask.

Admittedly, the first visit had taken place with a friend, so we'd mostly been chatting about the books and enjoying the beauty of this very elegant bookshop at what I came to think of as the top of the town. But on the second visit I was completely on my own (and kicking myself for not asking for a cuppa when I'd previously had moral support). I'd even seen other people asking for their own drinks. Maybe I suffer a little from anxiety – although I think of it more as excessive politeness – but I just couldn't do it.

Finally, on my third trip to the bookshop, having already been browsing for a good half an hour and chosen a potential purchase in the first five minutes, I approached a bookseller and asked about a cup of tea. He replied with a friendly smile, said something like "no problem" and went to get brewing. I continued browsing.

Toppings is a long bookshop, thin at the front then gradually opening out into a relatively large and inviting space, with an extra room at the back just in case you've not found enough books to buy already. I'd started at the front, where non-fiction lines the walls and recommends tables called to me. Rows of smart wooden ladders were the extra detail and this became another bookshop where I found myself wishing I could have a room such as this to use as my own personal library.

The recommends tables kept me for some time, and I found myself often returning to Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography.

Fiction takes up a large area in the back of the main part of the bookshop, with the cheerful children's section to one side so parents can happily browse while their youngsters are safely tucked away and entertained in their own right.

When my tea tray was delivered – and even more beautiful than I'd anticipated because it was mine to enjoy – I made myself comfortable at one of the tables with a pile of novels from the fiction recommends table (and the previously mentioned title) and began my dithering process. The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie kept drawing me in, but whether it was for the name, the cover or the promise of the actual content I couldn't say, and so I again accosted a friendly bookseller.

I'd seen a chalk board listing the staff's current reads so I knew McKenzie's book was being read by someone, it was an easy start to the conversation. Typically that particular bookseller was on their day off but it didn't stop us from having a good chat anyway. Which lead to more dithering on my part – should I buy the Veblen or return to the geography? No prizes for guessing how that question was resolved.

Topping & Company in Bath is a delightful place to while away a few hours, and given the lateness of its hours (9am-8pm) if I lived nearby I'd happily conclude my working day with a spot of bookshopping – I might even ask for another cup of tea.


Topping & Company
The Paragon, 7 Bladud Buildings, Bath,
Somerset, BA1 5LS
Tel: 01225 428111
@ToppingsBath

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Books, tea, wine and an Italian welcome

There's something particularly wonderful about walking into a bookshop, beginning to look around and then having an enthusiastic bookseller come rushing over because he wants to have a chat. The fact the bookseller in question happened to be a handsome young Italian man was an added bonus.

He'd spotted the tote bag I was carrying* and wanted to know where he could get some to sell in his bookshop. It was a question I couldn't answer, but thanks to the joys of Twitter I did my best to put him in touch with someone who might have been able to help.

So anyway, I guess you're wondering where this Italian bookseller can be found and how you get to meet him? Well you have to travel to Florence. Todo Modo bookshop is a stone's throw away from Ponte alla Carraia and a must-visit destination in the city. In fact, it's such a good destination this bookshop (which I believe is still relatively new) is already listed in the Lonely Planet guide to Florence and Tuscany.

From the street, you could almost be forgiven for missing Todo Modo, which is marked only by a small archway housing the window and door. Look inside and it's a lovely looking space with globes hanging from the ceiling and dark wooden dressers with books displayed in opened drawers, but there isn't a lot to appreciate if you're not a native speaker.

Fortunately, the friendly bookseller also told me where I'd be able to find the English language books – walk to the back of the bookshop's front room and a long corridor opens your eyes to the realisation the shop's frontage is no indication of how big it is.

Not only are there two more rooms of books, there's also a large cafe bar area (with an extensive offering of tea and wine, we had both) and a large stepped area that appears to double up as seating should there be any entertainment.
These rooms are all hidden behind the other shops on the street, but the resulting absence of windows only caught my attention when looking through my photos afterwards because it meant more space for bookshelves. A large skylight and clever lighting mean it's still bright and welcoming, and a scattering of chairs were being enjoyed by relaxed looking browsers. More people were sat at the tables, adding to the gentle buzz of people enjoying this friendly, modern bookshop.

We made our way to the English language section, which is obviously out of the way, at the top of the stepped wall and therefore enjoying a vantage point over the rest of the bookshop. There was a surprisingly large selection of English books and I could've easily chosen any number of titles from their selection, but – having seen it in its native Italian at the front of the bookshop – my obvious purchase had to be Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child.

My lack of language skills meant it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the books surrounding me, but as a bar and a book-filled venue I can definitely recommend Todo Modo and its exuberantly welcoming bookseller. It's a bookshop I'd love to have the opportunity to return to and who knows, next time I might see Penguin tote bags on sale among the Italian paperbacks.


Todo Modo
Via dei Fossi, 15/R, 50123 Firenze, Italy
Tel: +39 055 239 9110
@todomodolibri


*You know the ones, they're drawn in the style of traditional orange Penguin covers. This one was D H Lawrence's The Lost Girl

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Hidden paradise

Cast your minds back to last summer and you may remember I took my then unsuspecting new boyfriend on his first ever bookshop crawl.

It was a brilliant – if exhausting – day that saw us go home with a mountain of books, three of which were purchased at this week's bookshop: Daunt in Marylebone.

As a way of easing him into the bookshop crawling madness, I'd given my boyfriend a certain amount of control over the route, letting him name bookshops or areas he knew and would like to visit and this was one of the places he named. In all my bookshop blogging days the Daunt flagship shop has been a place I knew I needed to visit so I eagerly accepted his suggestion.

Photos of the main room look like somewhere from another time and the hushed tones in which this hallowed bookshop is talked about make it seem like the indie royalty of London's bookshop community. Which made me a little surprised when I was led to a busy street and an unassuming shop front. As much as I trust my boyfriend, I couldn't help wondering if the lack of flags and fanfare meant he'd got his bookshops muddled up. Even so it was still a bookshop – and one I'd not been to before – we went inside.


First impressions were of a smart, modern room with a heck of a lot of customers. Pale walls and dark wooden shelves lend the entrance an air of sophistication while all those bookshoppers provided a welcoming buzz. Which was all very well, but where was the huge, two storey room I'd seen in all the photographs? Just as I was about to get huffy, stamp my foot and say we were in the wrong (admittedly lovely) bookshop, the crowds parted and I was given a view of how far back the bookshop stretches.

 Daunt is massive, and that wonderful old-fashioned room with its great big window draws browsers back, taking you away from the crowds and into the world of (and in) books.

True to Daunt style as a travel bookshop, fiction and non-fiction are arranged by country, with the ground floor of the striking, famous room the main event for Europe. We made our way around the continent, enjoying the surprise of geographical affiliations and suddenly back tracking when we remembered an author from X or Y and wanting to find out more. It's not your traditional bookshop format but does succeed in forcing you out of your comfort zone, making you pay more attention to the countries you read.

Of course, it's also a stunning room to be in. In some ways it made me think of the traditional gentleman's study from history with the dark wood, scattered chairs and green light fittings, but the large skylight above and the bright colours of the books bring the period features into the modern world and make me want the room for my own personal library. The size of the room also meant it felt much less crowded than what I came to think of as the foyer, meaning browsing was calmer and more relaxed.

I particularly enjoyed climbing the stairs to one side and exploring the second floor balcony. Arching around three sides of the room, this helps with the illusion of tall bookcases and further scatters browsers. In all, it's a wonderful space. And that's before you even go downstairs to the continents beginning with A.

Daunt is a massive world tour and somewhere I could happily lose myself in for hours, however if time is short you could still simply pop into the front of the bookshop, where the children's section and some standard fiction and non-fiction areas can be found. Admittedly, these are small in comparison to the rest of the bookshop but they are still very well stocked and varied enough to appeal to most reading tastes.

Having spent a while exploring, our purchases came from Europe. My boyfriend found himself in Germany – buying Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann – while I made a beeline for Portugal and the works of Jose Saramago*, where I picked up Skylight. I then also spotted the London Bookshop Book** and had no choice but to break my one book per shop rule.

From its ordinary shop front I can easily believe many would arrive at Daunt without realising the size and beauty of what's to be found inside – I certainly never suspected and I'd seen the photos – but don't be deceived, paradise awaits.


Daunt
83-84 Marylebone High Street,
Marylebone, London, W1U 4QW
Tel: 020 7224 2295 @Dauntbooks


*If you've not encountered him before then I urge you to go and buy Blindness at the first opportunity.
**I'm still working my way through this book to see how many of these I've visited. It's a great inspiration but also occasionally quite sad to see how the landscape has changed in the few years since it was published.