Saturday, 20 May 2017

My introduction to Terry Pratchett

My bookshop visits – like the bookshops themselves – can be inspired by all manner of reasons, but this week's possibly has one of my oddest reasons for visiting: I had a drink with a friend and she was wearing scythe earrings.*

I don't know much about Terry Pratchett, but what I do know is that one of his characters is Death, and Death carries a scythe. This one fact was enough for me to be the only person to have put two and two together and ask her about the earrings, it was also enough for her to convince me a visit to Discworld Emporium in Wincanton was in order. For those in the know, this is obviously a bookshop dedicated to the works of Terry Pratchett, but believe it or not, there are those of us who live in relative ignorance of the popular author's legacy.**

My childhood reading went from Ladybird books to Sweet Valley High to whatever I could find on my Gran's bookshelves and so, sometime in my teenage years, when all my friends suddenly started quoting lines from Pratchett at each other I had no idea what they were talking about. Initially, it felt like they'd joined some kind of cult, conversing in quoted sentences that meant absolutely nothing to me, but after a while it became frustrating, so when I did get the chance to read one of his books I rejected it, having been put off by not being part of the gang.

However despite this rejection I did grow to have a respect for the books and their author, and I was pleased by the number of people whose reading adventures had begun thanks to Terry Pratchett's writings. Not that this helped when I arrived at Discworld Emporium and realised how little I knew about his books and characters.

Arriving at the bookshop, the front is both understated and striking, as a sign for Ankh-Morpork swings above the door, which has an amusing blue plaque to one side, but what's really impressive is the inside.

To the left of the door is the main area of bookshop, which includes copies of every book Terry Pratchett contributed to as well as stationery, games, Discworld memorabilia and, obviously, a selection of jewellery. Then to the right is a slightly partitioned off area, where the staff were sat chatting while wrapping up parcels to be posted elsewhere.

None of this truly enables you to visualise the room. It's dark wood, with the look of a gentleman's library and an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. An orangutan presides over the books, and all about there are details which I'm sure all Pratchett fans will appreciate, I certainly did.

My ignorance of all things Pratchett meant I had no idea where to start with the books and so as the booksellers sounded so cheery I decided it would be best to own up and ask their advice. It felt a little wrong going to the counter and admitting I'd not read a single book by the author, but my ignorance wasn't held against me and the conversation felt a little like I was being welcomed into the fold.

Anecdotes were shared, books discussed and a friendly dose of rudeness in the context of the characters was also dispensed as I was introduced to the appeal of the Pratchett world. Wyrd Sisters was the eventual recommendation (and having since devoured it I can finally see why the books are so popular), while my boyfriend, who has previously read Pratchett, opted for Mort. Upon opening our bag later we also discovered a selection of mint humbugs and our receipts – from the Thieves' Guild.

Discworld Emporium may be a very focused specialist bookshop, but as a treat for fans and an inspirational destination to nurture young readers it must surely be considered a worthy destination. Only take care to choose the date of your visit wisely, like the whimsical nature of Pratchett's books the bookshop doesn't open to the usual hours.



Discworld Emporium
41 High Street, Wincanton,
Somerset, BA9 9JU
Tel: 01963 824686
@Discworldshoppe

*No, I'm not sharing a photo of the scythe earrings, if you want to find out what they look like you can jolly well go to the bookshop yourself to find out!
**Prior to this visit my knowledge stretched as far as Death, the play of Mort, Discworld, the tortoise and, obviously, the orangutan librarian.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Everyone's a winner

One bright, reasonably sunny day in May, a bookshop won an award. Not an official award with a trophy or a certificate (although there may have been an official certificate involved somewhere), but an award all the same. Because this bookshop blogger officially declared it to have the best Christmas bookshop window. Which obviously makes it true. Don't believe me? See here, it's all the evidence you need.

The fact it was a finalist in a competition I wasn't judging and there weren't any other bookshops in the shortlist of three is completely irrelevant. Gulliver's Bookshop in Wimborne, Dorset, was the highest placed bookshop window in The VM Christmas Awards (and was beaten by Hamleys toy shop) so I reckon it's a winner. Everyone please give them a big round of applause.

Having said that, now I've visited the bookshop I pretty much think the whole town of Wimbourne is a winner for having such a lovely destination at its heart.

My first impression of Gulliver's Bookshop was one of friendliness and welcome. I enjoyed the buzz of customers chatting to the bookseller and no one batted an eyelid when my boyfriend made me pose for a photograph with a book about Scrabble* found on the discount table. This table was located conveniently close to the door, luring browsers in with the offer of cheap books I'd have happily paid full price for, but I can't imagine Gulliver's needs to go to much effort to encourage people in. The stock is varied and plenty, and combined with the friendly atmosphere there's a lot here to appeal.

Non-fiction runs along one wall, and everything from a biography about setting up a space observatory to essays on the story of water caught my attention, with an equally diverse fiction offering opposite. It even – joy of joys – had a whole bookcase of science fiction, with titles by the likes of John Christopher and Brandon Sanderson (I bought The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker). While the other end of the fiction offered a good selection of the classics.

However towards the back is a bigger surprise, with a large mechanical Lego figure welcoming children to their area of the bookshop. Okay, so Lego doesn't make a reader, but I can't be the only one who thinks this is a great combination, I'd certainly have loved such a diverse children's area when I was younger (if I'm honest I still loved it today, I couldn't contain my excitement when the Lego man was actually switched on).

Gulliver's Bookshop is family-owned, and I was lucky enough to find out more about the various generations' dedication to the trade when I got chatting to the booksellers. They're a welcoming, knowledgeable family who obviously care deeply about books and the community, it was a pleasure talking to them.

Finally, Gulliver's also organises Wimborne Literary Festival, if you happen to be in the area in the middle of May.


Gulliver's Bookshop
47 High Street, Wimborne Minster,
Dorset, BH21 1HS
Tel: 01202 882677
@gulliversbks


*I suggested he might need the book if he's ever to have a hope of beating me. He took the joke quite well, probably better than he will when he realises I'm mocking him now.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Half a pair and a couple of pandas

Independent bookshops are the most special of bookshops for many reasons, but one of those reasons is their uniqueness.

Other than an assortment of books, shelves and a bookseller or two, there's no telling how they might be interpreted or what other random treats you might find. That surprise is a wonderful part of the appeal of the bookshop visit, but sometimes it can also be good to know what you're walking into.

Queens Park Books is one half of a pair of London bookshops, and as I'm already a fan of West End Lane Books I was reasonably optimistic about this destination as I dragged the other half along during a bookshop crawl. That said, I hadn't expected my first impression of the bookshop to be the sight of a giant cuddly panda climbing the tree outside the shop.* It was also a well concealed panda, leaving me wondering how many people actually notice it as they pass?

Moving inside, Queens Park Books is exactly as smart, stylish and well-stocked as I'd anticipated. It's smaller than its sister, but that in no way diminishes the browsing experience, and with two chatty booksellers on hand to answer all my questions (first up, why's there a panda outside? Oh, and I see you have another panda above the counter?) I soon found myself at home.

The smaller space (which is still generous in independent bookshop terms) means tables and book displays are slightly closer together, but the quality and range of books was as good as I'd anticipated and kept us both busy (when we weren't staring at pandas). This photograph also doesn't do justice to the way the bookshop is laid out, because even with all the choice and variety there's still a good-sized space at the back for a colourful (and equally well-stocked) children's section.


There was a lot to appeal to my reading tastes, but my purchase was Jenny Colgan's Resistance is Futile. A love story set in sci fi land, I'd struggled to find this one on other bookshop shelves so knew I had to make the most of it here. This slightly off the wall choice is partially indicative of the rest of the stock. No, it's not all sci fi romance, but it is a good mix of lighthearted fun and intelligent heavy hitters, with a liberal sprinkling of unexpected titles some smaller bookshops may not have the shelf space to hold.

As for the panda story. It's a randomly brilliant one, but if you want to hear it you'll have to go along to the bookshop and ask for yourself.


Queens Park Books
87 Salusbury Road, Brent, London, NW6 6NH
Tel: 020 7625 1008
@QPBooks

* The sister bookshop has a local Penguin who's made himself at home, so who am I to question the recreational choices of other cuddly toys too?

Monday, 24 April 2017

Bookshop for sale, one previous owner

When I first moved to west Kent I looked up all the local bookshops with the plan of making the most of all the bookshopping opportunities available. I've gradually worked my way around most of them, but some have taken me longer to get to than others. This is one that took a little longer.

Tonbridge, like most towns, has much to recommend it and also to deter you from wanting to visit. In the case of the latter, bad traffic between there and my home town is the main reason for my not visiting, but when I make the effort I find it's generally worth it. One of my favourite places to buy soup in Kent is in this town, and there's a really lovely castle where I like to sit and read a book. There's a river with an historic bridge that I'm sure many take for granted. It's also a good place for a parkrun. But you're not here for tourist information, you're here for the bookshop.

And this week, not only can you read about the bookshop, you can buy it too.

You see the man behind Mr Books in Tonbridge is moving back home to the north, and as teleportation of business and building is yet to be a viable option he's having to leave the bookshop behind. Which means he's had to put the business up for sale.

There's not long left for someone to buy it and I have to admit I don't understand the ins and outs of the sale (and no, I haven't got what it takes to become a bookseller) but it would be remiss of me not to tell you.

Mr Books is a secondhand bookshop of the high end variety. It's found the perfect balance between being absolutely crammed full of books in a small area while also feeling remarkably spacious, clean and tidy. Which is no mean feat. In some cases the shelves are very close together, while in others two people may comfortably pass, so when browsing you need to remember your manners and not barge past.

That said, the shop was still big enough to comfortably house a bookseller (Mr Books himself), me and my boyfriend, a family and another browser or two, so maybe I'm over-exaggerating the small spaces. It's also split over two levels in one room, which adds to the feeling of roominess.

I stuck to the general fiction shelves, but in its current form the bookshop has quite a diverse children's and non-fiction area too. Then up a few steps to where the counter is you find the pricier books. It was tempting to shop here, but knowing how much I spend on books a year I forced myself to stay in the section I could afford – which offered more than enough choice to keep the two of us happy.

Fiction was impressively varied, with personal favourites from the 80s and 90s mixed in with bookshop staples and unexpected gems. I'd initially chosen a science fiction book from one of my favourite authors, but then Joanna Russ' The Female Man caught my attention and all thoughts of earlier books were forgotten as I lost myself in this unexpected find. My boyfriend was also pleased to find a Thames & Hudson World of Art book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

I want to end this post by encouraging you to visit for yourself, but unless someone buys the bookshop it won't be there for much longer. Who's in?


Mr Books
142 High Street, Tonbridge, Kent, TN9 1BB
Tel: 01732 363000
@TonbridgeBlog

Monday, 17 April 2017

Hart of the community

In my mind, Saffron Walden is an historic, rose-tinted town, full of beautiful buildings, sunlight, good manners and the idyllic image of a different time. I've never quite been sure when that time would be, but it's in the past and the women all carry parasols.

On the day of my visit, the reality was only marginally disappointing – I didn't see a single parasol. What I did get to enjoy included blue skies, a stunning library building and a very short walk to Hart's Books (this is obviously a town of readers). But I think I already knew this would be a place of beauty, because Hart's Books was the first bookshop Daunts opened outside of London.

The bookshop is found next door to the site of the original Hart's, so my first encounter was with the two signs next to each other, welcoming me in.* Stepping inside the next sight is of how big this bookshop is, with lots more space than you'd expect in a small town. There's a warmth and lightnes, with the general fiction stretching back to areas of non-fiction and children's books. And because this outlet is a local, community bookshop it follows its own layout, rather than taking on the continental (travel) organisation found in traditional Daunt bookshops.

The books themselves are varied, while also being as intelligent and well-chosen as you'd expect from a local indie bookshop, which meant both my boyfriend and I had plenty of titles to keep us busy. I particularly liked seeing the mix of lighthearted romance next to literary fiction next to all manner of genres, shelved simply by author and leaving the browser to decide what they feel like reading today.

While organisation by genre works, this simplicity of following only the alphabet in the fiction area has introduced me to a wealth of authors I would not previously have encountered and I'd hope opens other people's eyes to the potential of all genres too. So when I spotted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nicholas Sparks and Neal Stephenson within easy reach of each other I liked to imagine one day a browser would take home all three. My one book per shop rule meant I couldn't be that person, so I chose Stephenson's Cryptonomicon this time around. Having recently discovered his works it's a treat to be able to read another.

I also enjoyed simply walking around the beautiful space, which was crammed with attractive details, and we weren't the only people to be making the most of this bookshop, as a number of customers were also busy buying books. This was good for showing me how much the bookshop is enjoyed locally, but bad because my polite British manners meant I didn't feel I could keep the nice bookseller talking when a customer who was obviously in a hurry arrived at the counter. Still, if the existence of another customer is all I've got to complain about, things can't be bad, can they?

As a random way to conclude this week's blog, Hart's Books is also home to a Walking Book Club, which I think sounds like a wonderful idea.


Hart's Books
26 King Street,
Saffron Walden,
Essex,
CB10 1ES
Tel: 01799 524552
@hartsbooks


*I make no apology for the bad photography, if the sun is going to choose to shine on us it can create as many awkward shadows as it pleases.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

In search of a good bookshop

One of the things that amazes me about independent bookshops is the places where I find them.

I'm not talking extreme locations such as mountain tops (although I wouldn't be surprised if there was one somewhere), but out of the way, or hidden, so only the most dedicated of bookshoppers can find them. Quinns Bookshop in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, is one such destination.

Ahead of my trip to the market town, I'd run an internet search and seen there might be an independent bookshop in the area, but related web activity was minimal so I was grateful when Twitter provided the same name as a recommendation. I noted its High Street address and set off.

Unfortunately, the Saturday of our visit coincided with a traditional English offering of wind and rain, which means I can't give you much of a description of the town itself because our priority was keeping warm and dry, but this – coupled with plans for later in the day meaning time was tight – meant we very nearly missed the bookshop.

You see, I'd written down the address as High Street, I even checked Google Maps on my phone, but when we got to the road in question there was no bookshop to be seen. We crossed the road and looked again. Still nothing. Then I happened to look into a narrow alleyway, and there it was, a sign pointing the way. Next time I'll take more notice of the first line of an address.

Walking down the alley between the shops, we soon came to small enclosed wilderness of a garden (I write this fondly), hidden within which were two stone rams and the door to the bookshop. It felt like finding the bookshop equivalent of The Secret Garden.

Inside, the bookshop is surprisingly spacious and spread out, so I first made a beeline to the left, where the main room of books is found. Here I enjoyed a well-stocked mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a few titles from the science section particularly appealing to me. For a small market town, there was a large and varied offering.

Carrying on around the shop, upstairs there's a gallery hosting (I believe) local artists, and younger visitors may be drawn to the corner dedicated to Games Workshop. Returning downstairs, further rooms offer more non-fiction, recommends, art materials and then a lovely, cheery children's room. There's easily something for the whole family here.

On my way back through these rooms I became distracted from my earlier purchase plans when I spotted Jorge Carrion's Bookshops, which looks like the ideal read to research even more bookshopping adventures.

Quinns Bookshop isn't somewhere visitors to the town are going to easily find, but if you do visit Market Harborough I urge you to go on your own mini adventure and search out this bookshop.


Quinns Bookshop
Three Crowns Yard,
High Street
Market Harborough,
Leicestershire,
LE16 7AF
Tel: 01858 432313

Monday, 27 March 2017

Keeping it in the family

My love of Wales has often crept into this blog, and this week reappears as we visit the north of the country, a breathtakingly beautiful area of the world.

I was there late last summer, travelling with friends, enjoying landscape and coastline, a selection of good pubs, good company and – of course – a bookshop.

Browsers Bookshop is found in the town of Porthmadog which, for those who don't know the area, is very close to Snowdonia National Park The town is also home to a steam train, which later took us through a good amount of that beautiful countryside as we continued with our travels. If you get the chance to incorporate the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway into your journey I urge you to take it.

Anyway, back to Browsers. The bookshop is deceptively large, with the warm red shop front taking you back through rooms of books until you reach a room of cards and art materials. The first room contains 'readioactive' material and bookcases are labelled according to their subject, including sections for Wales, the sea, and science. Classic novels are nicely displayed in alphabetical drawers and there are well-stocked audiobook and secondhand areas too. Children and young adults are also very well catered for.

Fiction at the front of the bookshop is plentiful and well signposted to suit different tastes, meaning browsers could easily pick a mood and contain their search to its respective area if they were in a hurry. As I was taking my time, I dawdled, enjoying the buzz of people before approaching the bookseller, who recommended The Dig, by John Preston.

Browsers Bookshop has been run by one family for more than 40 years and during the course of our conversation I had the pleasure of hearing more about a life in the bookshop and plans to pass the business on to the next generation.

If the future is even half as friendly and welcoming as the present this is very good news for town's readers.


Browsers Bookshop
73 High Street, Porthmadog, Gwynedd, LL49 9EU
Tel: 01766 512066