Thursday 30 January 2014

Village community in a three-bookshop town

Despite having now lived in Kent for almost a decade, until a month or so ago I'd never visited Faversham. I knew there was a creek, and I'd heard about the hop festival, but if I'm brutally honest I'd simply not heard anything to tempt me to visit when there were places like Whitstable or Canterbury nearby.

Then I met someone who lives in the town.

She told me it's home to three bookshops.

I rearranged my diary.

The Saturday I travelled to the north Kent town happened to be a market day blessed with blue skies and relatively warm temperatures, meaning bustling streets and great weather to show the area at its best.

My guide gave me a relaxed, meandering tour of the town, taking in market stalls, antiques, gift shops, the creek and various houseboats (I've a big soft spot for water and boats) and, most importantly, the three bookshops. But before I get to those bookshops I have to mention how friendly and attractive the town was. Maybe my guide cannily avoided the branded part of the town, but during my visit I was struck by the variety of independent shops, the character of the buildings themselves and just how welcoming the people were.

In most of the shops (book or otherwise) that we visited someone would say hello and exchange a few friendly words, and even in the street when a shopper heard me comment on an attractive building they paused to recommend a few more things I might like to look out for. Faversham had all the quirk and community appeal of a village, with the necessary distance to be found in a town.

But back to the bookshops. Our tour started down a quaint lane in The Fleur Bookshop. A charity shop run by The Faversham Society it was hard not to appreciate the fact I was in a town that was so much a community it even has its own community-run bookshop.

Set in a period building with beams and quaint features, the bookshop had a wide selection of more than enough to inspire my guide and I to begin a wonderfully booky conversation of past loves and those we're both yet to encounter.

Picking up Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I then continued the book conversation with the two lovely older ladies on the till as they disagreed over my choice of book: one loved it, the other thought it rather slow, but whatever I end up thinking of the book I certainly enjoyed their lively banter.

Next up was Bowstring Bargain Books. A decidedly more new establishment, here I was treated to a selection of discount titles in a light and airy shop that remembered to cater for the needs of us classics lovers as much as the more contemporary reader, not forgetting a well-stocked local interest section.

Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone caught my attention here, and once again I found myself treated to some friendly conversation with the bookseller, this time taking in music as well as books - always a good combination.

The delightfully named Past Sentence was our third destination. Ticking all the boxes of a secondhand bookshop to get lost in, this even offered a large selection of battered sci-fi - which always gets a big thumbs up from me. Ordinarily I'd probably have splurged on this genre, but it would have been very rude to ignore the rest of the shop, not forgetting my guide, who I was still happily chatting books with.

And so I continued through the winding shelves, never knowing if the next corner would be the last and enjoying the floor to ceiling shelves, with books crammed into every available space. Eventually we came to the final turn, and so our conversation rested on a book my guide had very much enjoyed, Tim Pears' In a land of plenty.

Having appreciated her recommendation of visiting the town it would've been rude not to open my mind to a new-to-me author too.

Satisfied with our purchases, all that remained to be done was the conclusion of our conversation - over hot chocolate and cake at Jittermugs. What better way to end a bookshop tour of the community?

The Fleur Bookshop
1B Gatfield Lane, Faversham, Kent, ME13 8NX
Tel: 01795 590621

Bowstring Bargain Books
6b and 6c Preston Street, Faversham, Kent, ME13 8NS
Tel: 01795 229263

Past Sentence
119 West Street, Faversham, Kent, ME13 7JB
Tel: 01795 590000

Thursday 23 January 2014

Returning to the joy of our childhood books

Children's books are, quite simply wonderful.

They're full of innocence and adventure, they introduce the young to reading and the 'old' will always have a favourite to fondly remember and encourage others to read. I particularly love them when I'm having a bad day as - depending on my mood - two particularly good pick me ups are The Secret Garden and Treasure Island.

But just because you see me reading a children's book doesn't mean I need cheering up, they can be a joy at any time and I despair of so-called grown ups who aren't mature enough to understand the pleasure to be found in a great children's read.

My latest children's book crept up on me quite by chance during a visit to Book-ish in Crickhowell, south Wales. I certainly hadn't intended my time in this bookshop to end up being a self-indulgent hour of children's stories, but as we all know, things seldom turn out as planned.

The visit had begun as most do at this time of year, running through the rain, avoiding puddles and then trying not to drip too much as I entered the beautifully arranged bookshop. But as I slowly dried off and began to explore it was impossible to not be influenced by the beautiful children's section taking up roughly half of the shop.

Dedicated to books and gifts, the front half of the room offers a selection of fun for reading adults and big kids, and I could've happily browsed in this area for some time. Indeed, I was there long enough to choose a new diary for 2014 and drool over the beautiful collection of Vintage books on display (a publisher I particularly enjoy).

But the children's section was calling. A children's book was playing on my mind, and hearing Mrs Book-ish (Emma) and the lady behind the counter talking, I simply had to ask for their advice in identifying the story (my misguided hunt for the book can be read here).

We already know I'm not shy when it comes to talking books, and booksellers are generally very friendly souls, so it didn't take long for me to have enlisted their help as I recalled what little information my memory had (I now know badly) retained.

And once a book conversation has been started it's impossible to stop at one, and so we continued. I can't remember all the children's books we talked about, but favourites were compared as we chatted in the middle of a wonderful children's section filled with books, toys and fictional characters to inspire young minds.

All of which left me craving the joy of a new children's adventure to immerse myself in. My experience in this age group is mostly of the classics, and so to choose a modern children's author to live up to my favourites was too tall an order for me to fill. Cue further children's book talk as I looked for a recommendation.

Thankfully, Mrs Book-ish was able to come up with the goods, recommending Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Not an author I've wanted to try before, I bought the book partly out of curiosity about his popularity and partly because of how much I'd enjoyed our bookish discussion - I was clearly in the company of someone who loves their books.

Did I make a good purchase? Definitely.

Whether or not this book will make it onto my rainy day list I can't say until I've finished reading, but the fact I'm struggling to put it down leaves me reassured that tomorrow's adults will be able to look back on their own generation of children's books with as fond memories as we did that rainy day in Book-ish.

23 High Street, Crickhowell, Powys, NP8 1BD
Tel: 01873 811256

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Can you identify this book?

Visiting my sister for the weekend, we took an unexpected Sunday shopping trip to Abergavenny, and so an unexpected trip to The Abergavenny Bookshop.

Noticing my excitement as we approached the bookshop, my sister saw sense and took my young niece to a nearby cafe while her partner and I gorged on books - with me discovering I was in the company of someone who could actually spend longer browsing than me. But then, I was on a mission...

I had this idea that when I visited The Abergavenny Bookshop it would be to pick up a copy of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales (because I thought it was set in the town, see below), and so as I wandered around this book was first in my mind.

Working my way through the recommendations, Christmas specials (my visit was a few weeks ago), children's, Welsh language and local interest books - of which there were many - and not forgetting the extensive selection of fiction and non-fiction, I kept an eye out for the book by Thomas, but had no luck. After a brief chat with the bookseller, who helped in my search, we realised the shop had sold out of the book, as I should probably have expected given the time of year and the closing down posters in the window. (At time of writing I believe there is hope for the future of this lovely new books shop.)

Despite being unable to find the book I wanted, The Abergavenny Bookshop still had a large selection of Welsh authors, and so instead I happily purchased Richard Llewellyn's How green was my valley, with several other local interest books picked up between the two of us. Indeed, in a bid to be unique in the fight for sales this bookshop definitely pushes ahead when it comes to Welsh interest titles.

However, despite my enjoyment of the shop I couldn't help but be a little disappointed at missing out on the book I'd wanted, so when we returned home I was shown my niece's copy to enable me to at least read the story. Which is why I need your help.

I'd been looking for A child's Christmas in Wales because I remembered being given it as a child but never getting beyond the first one or two chapters. Only the book I was shown at home was not the story I remembered.

The book I'd started to read was about a little girl who was put on a train to a place she did not want to visit. Before reaching her destination she sees a sign spelling out A-B-E-R-G-A-V-E-N-N-Y and decides to get off the train there instead.

After that all I remember is that at some point a box of coloured pencils appears (perhaps as a Christmas present) and the girl wanders the streets at closing time, at some point ending up outside a toy shop.

This story is the book I'd wanted to buy from The Abergavenny Bookshop. Can you identify it so that when the bookshop stays open I can return and buy the book?

The Abergavenny Bookshop
1 High Street, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, NP7 5RY
Tel: 01873 850380

Thursday 9 January 2014

An amateur adventurer

I've been visiting bookshops for a few months now, but the new year feels like a new start for my bookshopping adventure as a year of journeys to far flung bookshops stretches ahead of me. Already I'm planning visits north and west and mid, wondering how excessive it would be to go on holiday to meet a bookshop and just generally getting excited about all the bookshops in my future.

This idea probably played a significant part in how my next visit worked out, with what was meant to be a brief stop off at one bookshop on the way to my sister's instead taking me on a journey of more than 200 miles, two countries and three bookshops, in one day.

But I'm jumping ahead, because as I left the M4 to explore new (to me) country lanes my only thought was of Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye - would it be worth the drive? And would I even be able to find it with my poor navigational skills?

Thankfully, the answer to both of those questions was yes. Whether it's because Rossiter Books is in an easy to discover location or I have a bookshop homing device in my brain I couldn't say, but I drove into the town and my destination appeared in front of me, as did an empty parking space a matter of seconds later. This visit was meant to be.

On entering Rossiter Books my first thought was of surprise. I'd seen the three large windows on my way in, but as they're quite dark from the outside I'd not realised just how full of light the space would be. It was a beautiful and warming experience on a cold winter's day and one I'd very much like to replicate in my own home some day.

The bookshop was empty when I arrived, giving time for the bookseller and I to chat about what I might like to read next. One of his recommendations, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, immediately captured my attention but before buying I wanted to take time to enjoy my surroundings and explore a little. As more customers appeared a friendly buzz filled the shop and before I knew it I was engrossed in Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. With signed copies available at cover price how could I not revise my choice of purchase?

Pausing to admire the selection of book-related goodies I also found myself unable to resist a Penguin tote bag of The Amateur Adventurer by Gandar Dower - given my endeavour it seemed appropriate.

As I got back on the road with my book and bag - and Rossiter loyalty card - by my side I really did feel like I was on an adventure, or some kind of pilgrimage, and before I knew it I found myself wishing I'd bought the two books instead of one.

This thought grew as I crossed the border into Wales and suddenly I realised I was on the road to Monmouth, home of Rossiter Books' sister bookshop of the same name. It would've been rude not to pop in and say hi, and pick up the book I'd left behind...

A smaller version of its big sister, this bookshop's large windows were hard to miss and seemed to glow golden on the gloomy winter day. Thankfully it also stocked the book that almost got away and so I was able to happily explore, being particularly pleased to discover another adventurer, Paddington Bear, taking a break from his travels to rest next to a couple of Arthur Ransome's titles in the well-stocked children's section.

Another pleasant discovery in Monmouth had taken place before I even entered Rossiter Books, as I unexpectedly discovered its next door neighbour was also a bookshop. And so I ended my trio of visits by exploring Stephen's Bookshop.

An unusual place, this initially appeared to be a good quality secondhand bookshop but also stocked a variety of new fiction, an 'airplane shelf' of battered pound books to leave behind once read, DVDs and computer games and a tempting selection of sweets. It was also a bit of a rabbit warren with the small shop front giving no hint at the length of bookshop corridor waiting to be explored.

Here I picked up a book by an author I've wondered about reading ever since Lata in A Suitable Boy praised their work: P G Wodehouse. I look forward to my first encounter with his writing in The Adventures of Sally - and yes, the adventurous title did help in my selection.

Three books happier, my mini bookshop adventure drew to a close as I finally got back on the road for my original destination, safe in the knowledge that while the day's bookshopping was over, stretching out before me is my own amateur adventure.

Rossiter Books
The Corn Exchange, 7 The High Street, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 5HL
Tel: 01989 564464
5 Church Street, Monmouth, Monmouthshire, Wales, NP25 3BX
Tel: 01600 775572

Stephen's Bookshop
3 Church Street, Monmouth, Monmouthshire, Wales, NP25 3BX
Tel: 01600 713701