Thursday 31 October 2013

A ray of sunshine in the storm

Struggling to stand upright in 70mph winds, watching as the sea crashes against the Needles, spray flying, passers by losing their hats, and more fresh air than you could enjoy in a lifetime, I found myself glad I'd chosen to holiday on the Isle of Wight during the weekend of the latest 'super storm'.

Sitting at my computer at home a few days later, struggling to keep warm as the wind blows through the hole in my roof, my thoughts on the storm are less exhilarating - yes I'm glad I wasn't home to hear the almighty crash as the tiles were blown to the ground, but it would've been good to be a little further forward in the queue to bag a decent roofer.

Fortunately, thanks to a visit to an island bookshop or two (more to follow) I at least have a good selection of books to enjoy as I hunker down under my duvet in a bid to keep warm. Indeed, my visit to Books 2 Love in Newport was itself enough to banish the winter blues...

Holidaying anywhere in Britain at the end of October obviously isn't about sun, sea and sand, but my first thought on entering this secondhand bookshop was - and I hope the shop forgives the comparison, it's meant kindly - that it reminded me of a beach shop from my childhood. It really did feel as though I was stepping into the summer, with a bright and colourful shop filled with what felt like sunshine - it certainly didn't live up to any musty stereotype.

Directly in front of the door is a table with large plastic tubs of different genres of fiction, prefect for rummaging in, and reminiscent of the search for the perfect bucket and spade or other entertainment to fill my time on the beach. The contents of these tubs ranged from Mills and Boon to sci fi - including a random find of C S Lewis' third novel in the genre, I hadn't even realised he'd written one, never mind three - all perfect had I been heading to a beach, with various other sections and a wall of general fiction should you manage to drag yourself away from the tubs for something a little longer lasting.

Further treats await at the back of the bookshop, where tables and chairs invite you to sit and enjoy a cuppa and cake as you bask in the sunny atmosphere of your surroundings - had I been alone I'd have easily lost a couple of hours to this bookshop.

Instead I lost my friends upstairs in the children's section, with them only reappearing when the teen in our group discovered a Twilight spin off, meaning two books were picked up on this visit as I finally bagged a copy of The Bridges of Madison County - a heartbreaking film that I've often wondered about reading.

At the till I asked about a second independent shop in the town and was saddened to hear it had closed in the face of bigger competition, but the ray of sunshine that is Books 2 Love meant that, on this day at least, nothing could dampen my spirits.

Books 2 Love
53 Pile Street, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 1XB
Tel: 01893 533494

PS This blog is about bookshops, so I won't witter on about all the other wonderful attractions I visited during my stay, but I can't write about the Isle of Wight without at least mentioning the Owl and Monkey Haven, not far from Newport. Even bookshopping struggles to compete with the joy of having a bundle of monkeys curled up in the hood of your coat and running across your shoulders during feeding time: I loved their marmoset encounter.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

There's no place like home

A weekend at my parents’ house was supposed to be an easy one to satisfy my bookshopping needs as it would be the perfect opportunity to re-visit the town and indie bookshop of my teenage years.

However, as it’s been more than 15 years since I visited Wellingborough in Northamptonshire I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that W D Wharton had closed down. And so I had to face up to the fact that I suddenly had just one day to find myself a bookshop to visit in my parents’ home county. I turned to the internet.

We’ve already established that this isn't necessarily the most helpful of places to go bookshop hunting, but eventually at about 4.55pm on a Friday - and not long after I had almost printed out directions to a bookshop in Northampton, Massachusetts - I found myself on the phone to a friendly woman from The Old Hall Bookshop in Brackley.

I had no idea where the small town was and so, to ensure I didn’t end up driving to America, I’d decided the safest option was to call and ask for directions. The woman seemed a little surprised when I admitted where I was driving from, but when I explained I was visiting family (saying nothing of my bookshop stalking tendencies) she soon gave me simple directions and reassured me about parking in the Market Place, right outside the shop’s front door.

And The Old Hall Bookshop really is easy to find from the A43, about a ten minute drive from the M40 (near Banbury), or half an hour from the M1 near Northampton, Brackley is clearly signposted and you’d be hard-pressed not to stumble into the (free) car park even if you tried. The bookshop then takes pride of place in a beautiful Georgian building, set back from the road behind an equally lovely garden, and on the day of my visit this was filled with a rather tempting plant sale.

The front door opens into the entry hall of what can only be described as a home for books, and I immediately new I was ruined as their entire recommended display called out to me. Telling myself at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting for something to buy (like that’s ever happened), I began my exploration.

Essentially, the ground floor of the house is filled with bookshop, each room furnished with bookcases and offering a different delight, all centred on the main hall where the till is nestled under the large staircase. From a room for children (which I thought of as the playroom), to a varied secondhand selection (in my head the workroom or maybe kitchen, pictured) and even what must have been a large cupboard converted to display some quite special older books, there was a room for every taste. My favourite was what felt like the living room, which was alive with colour and new books, and I soon found myself ‘lost’ behind a bookcase, engrossed in another must-read as one of the factual books leapt from the shelves and into my greedy hands.

In an attempt to stick to my one book per bookshop rule I found myself happily passing in and out of rooms and shelves, pausing to read and forcing myself to be harsh as I whittled down the pile of six I’d accumulated, eventually settling on American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld because it felt like the biggest departure from my recent reading choices. (And which also currently has me so engrossed that I'm running out of time to sleep.)

Slowly making my way to the till, I once again weaved between the shelves, enjoying the bright and welcoming atmosphere and appreciating the finer details, including the ABC of Scrabble mugs above the new fiction (if anyone wants to buy me a gift then I’d love an E please).

Saying hello as I paid, the conversation naturally turned to bookshops and Brackley as I needed somewhere to go for lunch (ask for directions to The Courtyard Café, the food there is delicious), and before I knew it my planned half-hour pitstop on the way to my parents had happily more than doubled in length.

Don't be mistaken, I'll always regret the loss of my teenage haunt, but everyone has to move out of their childhood home eventually, and I certainly felt at home here.

The Old Hall Bookshop
32 Market Place, Brackley, Northamptonshire, NN13 7DP
Tel: 01208 704146

Monday 14 October 2013

The internet is a fickle beast

The world wide web is somewhere I both love and hate when it comes to its role in the world of bookshops.

It's vital for publicity and as a signpost to help people find the way, but it's also the home of their biggest rival.

For the former the internet can also be very misleading, with out of date or confusing listings or maps, broken links and any number of technological stumbling blocks to scare away customers or even just overlook the bookshop's existence. A fact that was highlighted when I took a recent visit to Westerham in west Kent.

A last minute work trip, I knew I'd have a lot of free time to go bookshopping, but only had one evening to do my research and see what treats might be available. And so I turned to the internet, typed bookshop into a popular search engine, and began trawling the results.

And I hit the jackpot. Barely Read Books, just off the green, had countless results, inviting me to visit and snap up a secondhand book. It was too late to phone the shop to find out more but - as I'm teaching myself to be more internet savvy - I turned to the map facility and took a look at the shop front and surrounding roads. Easy.

However, as I was on a roll I thought why stop at one bookshop? There might be more nearby. It would be rude to drive all that way and ignore them. I zoomed out a bit on the map and three more bookshops jumped out at me. Perfect, I thought, as I set out on my road trip along the A25 the following morning.

Crossing the border into Surrey, first up was The Secondhand Bookshop on Station Road West in Oxted. Crammed with so many books the shelves are stacked two-deep, I was particularly fascinated by the large collection of old Penguins displayed in colourful groupings of orange or green.

A man I assume to be the proprietor was reading by the door, and so I followed his lead and soon found myself in one of my favourite places - sat on the floor scouring the shelves of fiction, pulling out the books and piling them up around me. You know you're in a good bookshop when no one bats an eyelid at book fortress building.

My joy grew as my delving uncovered a large selection by Emile Zola, a favourite from my thoughtful teenage years whose Rougon-Macquart novels I've always wanted to finish working my way through. The Earth was mine as I reluctantly left the shop.

Crossing the neighbouring train station I made my way down Station Road East to Paydens.

A relatively large shop, the front half is dedicated to new books and the back to stationery and art supplies. I admit I initially found myself wondering about the bookshop status of what felt like an independent WHSmith, however, given that I was surrounded by shelves of tempting reads my doubt didn't last long. I was then further reassured as I heard the ladies at the counter talking books with a customer and saw all the invitations to order my book if it wasn't in stock. I dithered over my choice, almost picking one of their featured books (which a week later was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) but eventually being drawn to John Green's The fault in our stars.

For a small town Oxted is well covered if you need to buy a book, or two.

Next on my list was the one bookshop with a question mark by its name. The Limpsfield Bookshop in the nearby village of the same name. The shop had listings in various phone and address directories, and appeared to be on the map, but otherwise there was no trace of it online, making me fear it had perhaps closed down, I had to investigate.

Limpsfield is a small, pretty village just off the A25, appearing to be a mostly linear settlement it wasn't difficult to spot the attractive window with books peeking out. Unfortunately it also wasn't difficult to spot the sign saying the bookshop was closed for a two-week holiday (my visit was a few weeks ago). Gutted, I peeked through the windows at what appeared to be a nicely spaced and well stocked new bookshop. I must return - once I've phoned ahead to confirm their opening hours.

Feeling a little dejected, I reassured myself that now I was at least on my way to the popular Barely Read Books and sure to end my travels on a high note before I got stuck into my work assignment.

My excitement levels rose as I entered the town, surrounded on all sides by independent shops and their many customers, I knew I'd come to a good place. There was the village green ahead of me, I'd just do a quick drive past the bookshop before finding a place to park... but... where was the bookshop?

Instead of the red and white front and boxes of books I'd been anticipating, there was a bright, lightly coloured something else. Too stunned to even take in what was being sold instead of books, I parked the car and did a circuit of the green on foot - surely I'd just mixed up my compass points and was looking at the wrong shop front? But no, I eventually asked a passer by, who sadly told me they couldn't remember when the bookshop had closed. It had been gone for a while.

Given the statistics for bookshop closures I know two and a half out of four is actually a pretty successful outcome to my road trip, and I'll certainly be returning to the area for a couple more Zolas and to increase my success rate to three, but I also learnt an important lesson.

The internet can be a very misleading place.

The Secondhand Bookshop
27 Station Road West, Oxted, Surrey RH8 9EE
Tel: 01883 715755

Paydens bookshop
18-20 Station Road East, Oxted, Surrey RH8 0PP
Tel: 01883 714214

The Limpsfield Bookshop
High Street, Limpsfield, Surrey RH8 0DS
Tel: 01883 714034

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Play time will soon be over

When I started writing about bookshops I promised myself that this blog would be a positive one.

Today I fail in that promise, because I visited Nickel Books for children in the last days of its physical existence. And nothing about that can be considered positive.

I live in Kent and - while the county isn't bursting with bookshops - I'd decided to save those there are for times when I was unable to travel. And so when I heard about a bookshop in a nearby town offering bookcases for sale before closing its doors I felt like I'd failed. Admittedly Nickel Books in Sittingbourne had announced its closure months before this blog was born, but to think I could have missed the bookshop - and the feeling of powerlessness that I was unable to help - was horrible. While I'd never pretend that this blog could singlehandedly save the bookshop's fortunes I'd have liked to have at least done my bit to help.

So it was with sadness that - after a brief drive along the M2 - I wandered down the town's High Street, anticipating a depressing shop with bare shelves. The window filled with sale signs didn't help my optimism, but considering the bookshop had just one week of trading left it was surprisingly well-stocked. There was still a sense of sadness, but this was probably more my feeling than the fault of the shop itself, as it was filled with colour and books and toys to show me what the children of Sittingbourne will be losing.

At this point I'd love to tell you more about the varied selection of books on offer (which will still be available online), or the interaction with local children (they will continue to work with schools, albeit without a base for those youngsters to visit) and baby Eleanor's weekly recommendations (she was enjoying a nap when I visited), but to go into more detail just feels like I'm dwelling on the loss. Which is particularly poignant when you consider that this children's bookshop closes during Children's Book Week.

And it's not just the youngsters who'll be missing out, despite being a children's bookshop there was an area dedicated to adults too. Meaning while tots are having fun in the bright play area for very little children, or older readers are picking up their first proper books or teen reads, there's something to keep the grown ups busy (unless, like me, they end up enjoying the kiddy fun).

Personally, I ended up in the pre-school section, where I picked up my first Elmer the elephant book and struggled not to buy a gruffalo or two. As there was a closing down sale on I then grew up a little, picking up a copy of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. Already an author I love, I felt spoiled to be getting my second book for free.

Nickel Books' final day of opening is Saturday, 12th October, so there is still time to go along and enjoy the bookshop before it's relegated to the virtual world.

Nickel Books
22a High Street, Sittingbourne, Kent ME10 4PD
Tel: 07462 778570

Friday 4 October 2013

There's no such thing as just the one

When I was first contemplating my big bookshop adventure one of the things that inspired me to write a blog was, perhaps unimaginatively, another blog.

I’d been a crew member on a previous odyssey when my friend Pete set out to visit 1,000 recommended pubs, meaning I knew my idea (or slightly adapted version of someone else’s) had potential.

And so, when Pete announced he was emigrating north, I was one of the first to sign up to attend his leaving London drinks, even if they were in Wimbledon village, a two-hour train and Shanks' pony trip from my door. The fact there was a bookshop around the corner from the pub obviously had nothing to do with my decision.

Having travelled to the end of the (District) line on the tube, I was excited by the thought of the afternoon ahead of me and the opportunity to explore somewhere new. The walk up the (admittedly rather moderate) hill to Wimbledon village was less appealing, but knowing there was both a pint and a bookshop at the top did help with my motivation.

Once I arrived in the village I soon found Wimbledon Books, a little along from the Dog and Fox and just off the main road (the turning is opposite the Rose and Crown). It was probably one of the busiest of the independent bookshops I’ve visited so far, but not in a crammed uncomfortable way, with only the occasional "excuse me" needed as I swapped places with a fellow browser.

A large table advertises a selection of new releases, with a wall of fiction and recommended reads to the left and the children’s section to the right. While I didn’t fully explore the latter I did enjoy the eye-catching mobiles hanging above the displays (the one pictured had flown over to my side of the shop) and the general feeling of fun and colour to entice younger readers.

Over in the general fiction, the carefully selected recommendations caught my attention as I was drawn to Danish writer Peter Høeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children. And if I had any sense at all this is where my visit would have ended. I’d have picked up my book, marched straight to the till and been on my way to the pub.

I have no sense.

I loitered, exploring the A-Z of general fiction. It was wonderful.

“It’s okay,” I told myself, “I’ve chosen a book, I have a one book rule so I can look and enjoy. I’m strong enough for that.”

Not only do I have no sense, I’m also a deluded weakling.

I looked and I fell in love. While the A-Z is comparatively small - more of a back up to the various recommended areas - the section is crammed with more tempting authors than this book addict would consider healthy. Never have I been so drawn to a bookshop's entire stock: If I could I’d have simply transfered the whole lot to my own bookcases at home.

Sure, it had a good mix of the usual suspects to rival any regular bookshop, but in among these was the widest selection of international authors I’ve ever encountered in such a small space. And I have a big, big soft spot for good translations of international fiction.

If I’d had that all important sense then maybe when I’d found the Peter Høeg I’d have realised what was to come, as he’s not a name I regularly see (or am I not looking hard enough?). But we’ve already established I’m lacking in the sense department so you won’t be surprised to read that I’d soon grabbed at least five more books, all clutched to my chest and begging to be taken home.

Don't be misled by my intellect, they weren't all foreign authors, I really was drawn to a wide selection of books, which possibly made my task all the more difficult as there was little room for comparison. However, reminding myself of my struggling bank balance, I gradually whittled my selections down to just two, as along with my original choice Tom Winter's apparently lighthearted first book, Lost & Found, simply refused to leave my hand.

And so in an attempt to choose a favourite I made myself comfortable in one of the bucket chairs by the window and started reading. And reading. And then I realised I was half an hour late going to the pub. So I carried on reading.

As you can see, my attempts to be critical failed. I bought both books and then, an hour late, ran away to the pub before I could buy any more.

I want to be disappointed with myself, to tell myself off and promise I won’t do it again, but the reality is it's a miracle I didn't buy more given the selection available and how great the shop was.

Sure, this may have started me down a very slippery buying slope, and it did mean I had to buy one less beer (London prices), but I think we all know which gives you the more enjoyable hangover.

Wimbledon Books
40 High Street, Wimbledon SW19 5AU
Tel: 020 8879 3101