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

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

*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.

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.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Second time lucky

Many, many years ago, I went on a day trip to Hay-on-Wye. For reasons that no longer matter, it was an awful day of rain and disappointments and left me with no interest in ever returning. And yes, I am aware of what a shock confession that must be coming from someone like me.

However despite all the doom and gloom of the trip, there was one redeeming thing about the day in the shape of a last-minute stop in a random bookshop. My travelling companion had spent many years searching for a particular book on mysticism but – knowing only that its cover was blue and somewhere within its pages was a reference to a person whose name they couldn't remember – they'd unsurprisingly not had much luck in finding it. Then we walked into the bookshop to avoid the rain and there the book was. I could no longer be grumpy with the person for being so clueless about books and their joy at finding the book made everything else okay.

This one moment of success is pretty much all I've kept with me of that first visit to Hay-on-Wye, and even then I had no idea of the name or location of the bookshop, all I could remember was a remarkable blue front room.

Which meant it was quite a surprise to recognise Addyman Books the moment I stepped inside when I finally agreed to return to the town a few weeks ago.

The visit was spur of the moment when I discovered the Welsh bookshop I'd planned to go to was closed for the day, which is probably a good thing because it meant there was no time to let my previous unhappy memories cloud my excitement at visiting the town of books.

So we (my boyfriend and I, not the travelling companion of yesteryear) arrived in Hay and began to wander. The unplanned nature of our visit meant we had no real idea of where we would go, with a guest blog post about the town the closest I'd got to any proper research.*

The wandering was fun, and introduced us to *lots* of lovely bookshops for me to tell you about in time, but that moment of recognition inside the blue room at Addyman Books really was quite a surprise.

A bad memory and a lot of time means I can't tell you if the bookshop is any different now to in years gone by, but the striking blue front room is certainly still the same. There's also much more to the bookshop than I remember, as it stretches back and up into a maze of rooms filled with everything from general fiction to sci-fi, women's books, old Penguins, a cubby dedicated to vampires and even that section on mysticism.

There are also all manner of details and nooks and crannies, as well as a selection of comfy chairs. Visitors could easily lose an afternoon to this bookshop, and that's before they remember all the other gems to be found in Hay – not forgetting a second branch of Addyman's a short walk away.

This second outlet, the Addyman Annexe on Castle Street, is smaller and more tidily organised but still occupies a ginormous space when compared to other independent bookshops. While stock in the two outlets is occasionally similar, there was definitely a difference as the brighter, larger rooms and what looked to be mostly new stock. We also loved the warmth in the voice of the gentleman bookseller who welcomed us in and politely answered my questions about the two branches.

Whatever your taste in bookshop both are worth a visit.

Our purchase came from the annexe: Mars, a new view of the red planet by Giles Sparrow. It's a massive picture book packed with information and at less than half price I felt it was particularly good value.

Our visit to Hay-on-Wye was only meant to be for an hour or so, but the excitement of this and other finds meant it was dark by the time we'd reached the annexe, and closing time before we escaped the town. More importantly, this visit reminded me how one bad incident should not be held against anyone or thing. I'm all about second chances and Hay-on-Wye has definitely won me round.

Addyman Books
39 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye,
Powys, HR3 5AA, Wales
Tel: 01497 821136
Addyman Annexe,
27 Castle Street, Hay-on-Wye,
Powys, HR3 5DF, Wales
Tel: 01497 821600

* Yes, I am aware letting someone else write a guest post hardly counts as a lot of research on my part but the blog is very good and it was very helpful in giving us somewhere to aim for.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Explore another level

When a bookseller tells you to go visit a nearby(ish) competitor you take them at their word, but in the case of this week's bookshop I have to admit I initially – briefly – found myself doubting the recommendee's wisdom.

I'd arrived at the destination but not found the massive room of diverse books promised, instead discovering a large room sparsely filled with art books. The art books were varied and interesting, but not the wealth of titles I'd anticipated. However the praise given to Salts Mill Bookshop, near Bradford, was so convincing I'd driven an hour or so out of my way as part of a seven-ish hour journey and I wasn't going to let my uncomfortable first impression deter me from finding out more.

I persevered with the art room, found a few unexpected gems (it is a very diverse offering) and didn't feel too out of my depth but resolved not to write about the bookshop because I didn't see how I could possibly encourage my readers to visit a place I wasn't able to fully appreciate myself.

Then, just as I was about to give up, I noticed a door to other floors. Whether through tiredness, blindness or a lack of good signage, I'd almost missed this portal to a whole other floor of books awaited me. And it's a really, really good floor.

As it's based in a former mill, the bookshop space is massive* with large windows and the occasional structural detail acting as a reminder of that past life. My first view was of long wavy bookcases which draw the eye in. Tables of book highlights are everywhere (The Chimes by Anna Smaill caught my eye), while gifts and cards also liberally sprinkled around the room.

Importantly, it should also be stressed that this is a proper bookshop. All the usual genres are there and carefully considered recommendations are found hand-written by the booksellers, things that could easily be overlooked if this was a gimmicky tourist destination.

I spent a long time slowly working my way down one side of the bookshop and up the other, wandering from fiction to non-fiction and taking in children's on the way, simply enjoying the buzz of people among the books. It's hard to say if it was the variety of books or people that made the experience so enjoyable as there's a lot to be said for being surrounded by other bookshoppers, but this room of books is definitely worth all the praise it can be given and makes me determined to return to the Bradford area whenever I get the chance.

From wandering around the rest of the building I discovered how much more there is to Salt's Mill, including a restaurant and art gallery, but the large space given over to the bookshop is what makes this conversion really worth a visit.

Salt's Mill Bookshop
Victoria Road, Saltaire,
West Yorkshire, BD18 3LA
Tel: 01274 531163

* Possibly bigger than a floor of Foyles, but I wouldn't like to state that as fact.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Be drawn in by the drama

When I was a teenager, my school tried to make us more cultured by arranging the occasional trip to the theatre. These were events I loathed. Hours of Shakespeare, where I'd quickly tire of the story, take issue with the actors and eventually pass the time looking into the wings or working out the technicalities of the set design.

It was generally a torturous way to spend a few hours and means even now I have a slightly difficult relationship with the Bard. Thankfully, one teacher saved the day by finally realising we might be better engaged with the theatre if we were taken to something more lively: The Importance of Being Earnest.

This particular performance had energy unlike anything I'd seen before and was followed-up with a class introduction to the cast. Years later I still have flashbacks to a brown mop of hair flying all over the place as one of the leads told us how many cucumber sandwiches he'd eaten during the course of the show. It's perhaps not the most intelligent, or even useful, piece of information to cling to but it's part of the reason I fell in love with the theatre, especially Oscar Wilde's play.

Which is why, when my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl took me to French's Theatre Bookshop, I knew I had to buy The Importance of Being Earnest. Discovering four different versions of the play to choose from simply made the purchase even more appealing.

I had no clue which was the appropriate copy for a person who's not willingly read a play before, so I enlisted the help of a friendly bookseller. He talked me through the publishers and explained there are actually two different edits of the play, which was a bit of a shock given how many times I've seen performances of this story.

But enough of my obsession with one play, you want to know about the bookshop itself. An A-Z of plays run around the room, with sections for everything else that might come in handy if you're an actor. I was fascinated by the shelves dealing with accents, but other offerings included audition material, education and a general bookcase on acting. Instead of the usual new releases in the doorways of most bookshops, French's offers a bookcase labelled "Now playing", which was an interesting way of finding out what's currently on stage, while biographies are replaced with "Theatre people". These were nice twists on the familiar and an extra reassurance I wouldn't get too lost when trying to decide where to look.

Of course, if you really did just want to buy a novel those were available too, but I defy anyone to enter French's Theatre Bookshop and not be drawn in by the drama.

French's Theatre Bookshop
52 Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury, London, W1T 5JR
Tel: 020 7255 4300

PS. It's completely irrelevant to what French's is like as a bookshop, but if you're on Twitter do give them a follow – the account is highly entertaining.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Familiarity at the festival

There's something about the South Bank in London that makes me feel as though I'm on holiday.

Even in the winter, the bright, colourful, noisy area by Royal Festival Hall seems so full of energy and fun it can't possibly be a part of the everyday world. To me it's as though even the passers-by are happier and more full of joy too, making me feel like I'm enjoying a festival atmosphere on even the most ordinary of days.

I think it's for this reason that until Independent Bookshops Week earlier this year I'd never set foot inside the South Bank branch of Foyles, because I'd somehow convinced myself that to do something as ordinary as buying a book would bring me back to reality and be too normal. As if.

I admit when walking around the area the big glass windows looking out to the river have always looked attractive, but that's as close as I'd previously got. Today it was time to look beyond those windows.

Having only previously visited the Charing Cross Road branch, the first thing I noticed was the welcoming sentence popular with Foyles fans: Welcome book lover, you are among friends. Even though I was looking for out of the ordinary, there was something startlingly comforting about seeing those words. And yes, I'm aware comforting may seem like an odd choice for such a bright, happy place, but no matter how lively they are all the best bookshops* are like putting on a favourite pair of slippers.

This moment of recognition set me up for the rest of the visit as we explored what I found myself thinking of as Mini Foyles, although mini's not really appropriate here. From outside the bookshop may not appear to be very big but behind that glass front is a space large enough to house at least three or four regular independent bookshops. It's also very bright, so even at the back of the bookshop it was as if I was feeling the effect of the large windows I was hardly able to see.

As I was there with my boyfriend, we lost each other while we browsed, each taking our own route through the maze of shelves. He's a regular of the bookshop so he knew where he was going, while I preferred to wander at random. It took me past a striking Tintin rocket, cuddly dinosaurs, a large children's section and the diverse, well-stocked fiction offering Foyles is known for. There obviously aren't as many books as in their flagship store, but walking around this bookshop it still felt like I might be able to find any title that could pop into my head.

This thought was backed up when I remembered a recommendation to read Neal Stevenson's Seveneves. A huge doorstop of a science fiction novel, I'm not sure how many bookshops would have the shelf space to house this one so was pleased to find it here. At least, I was pleased to find it until several hours (and book purchases) later, when my shoulder was aching from carrying it for so long.

Fortunately, at about the time I was about to break from being so overloaded, our walk home took us back past this very bookshop. Which meant I could pop back in to buy a second tote bag to divide** our purchases up. I'm sure all book lovers have a surfeit of totes, but this one was so sturdy and well made it's now become my designated laptop bag and is greatly loved.

Foyles on the South Bank may have been much more familiar than I'd wanted from a visit to Royal Festival Hall, but during the time of my visits I came to realise that's no bad thing. Yes, I love the carnival atmosphere by the river, but the excitement of buying books means the fun continues once you walk inside.

Southbank Centre,
Royal Festival Hall,
Belvedere Road, Lambeth,
London SE1 8XX
Tel: 020 7440 3212

*That's everyone featured on this blog.
**By divide, I mean split 20/80, with him carrying the heavier load. I knew having a boyfriend would come in handy.