Friday 30 May 2014

A journey, and a destination

In this fast-paced world of planes, high speed trains and motorways we've become used to rushing from A to B with little thought for the 'to' that lies in between, but sometimes it can be good to slow down and remember the journey is as important as the destination.

Since starting this blog my life has become very much about the journey, with bookshops regularly dictating the route I take from A to B. The result is some very pleasurable detours and often faster journeys as I've avoid the traffic jams on the more traditional, busy, routes.

Which is good news for avoiding road rage and good news for the bookshops I visit as I find myself with more time to explore them at my leisure.

My most recent detour saved me from the horrors of the M1 and M25 during a drive north to south, and led me to The Book House in Thame. Located on the High Street, it was easy to find after only a very minor detour from my route, and with on street parking right outside I didn't even need to spend time hunting for a car park.

Met on the doorstep by a puffin (who sadly didn't come out well in my photograph), I felt like I was being welcomed by a very special doorman, and the friendliness continued inside.

I'd intended to leave the booksellers in peace during this visit, as I didn't want to delay my journey too much, but as I explored the bright, well-stocked bookshop it was hard not to want to join in the booky conversation by the till.

So once I'd explored the recommendations, admired the courtyard garden and made a new friend in the children's section (I really wish I'd bought him to add to my growing collection of cuddly bookshop critters) I decided to ask for some advice on my purchase.

Having spotted serveral tempting books I was struggling to whittle them down to just one - as anyone who's ever wandered around a motorway service station will know, you can be too focussed on driving to think about anything other than maintaining a safe distance. Thankfully, when I held up Hannah Kent's Burial Rites there was such a unanimous show of enthusiasm it was easy to make my choice. You don't get that kind of service at a motorway stop off...

My visit to The Book House wasn't one of my longest, but it was no less pleasurable as it gave me a chance to pause and enjoy a moment of calm.

Sure, it feels rude to describe The Book House as anything other than a destination, but life is all about the journey. And mine has become a lot more interesting since it left the direct route behind.

The Book House
93 High Street, Thame, Oxfordshire, OX9 3HJ
Tel: 01844 213032

Friday 23 May 2014

Any bookshop is better than none

This week I'm writing about somewhere that may not sit too well with everyone, but as I've said many times: my interest is in bookshops, so long as the sale is face-to-face I'm happy.

Which means it's about time I write about what's possibly the elephant in the bookshop blog room: Waterstones.

Because while I'm sure we'd all like to only ever shop in our own local, independent bookshop (and grocer, and butcher, and haberdasher, etc), that's simply not always possible in the world we live in.

And so I turn to what has for a long time been my only local new bookshop, Waterstone's Fremlin Walk, in Maidstone, Kent. (There's now also an independent bookshop in the town, but that's another story).

I've chosen this particular branch partly because it's as good as any, and partly because I've had the privilege of chatting to the booksellers on any number of occasions and therefore come to realise that just because they work for a chain store doesn't mean they care any less about the books. I've regularly enjoyed bookish conversations here and one fraught Christmas I even made the most of almost an hour of help as staff found me fiction based around the Second World War; stories suitable for an eight-year-old with a much higher reading age; and, naturally, a couple of recommendations for my own enjoyment.

But what of the bookshop itself? Found in the town centre, it's a busy place of calm among the bustle of frantic clothes shoppers. Spread across two floors, this particular branch has one of the most varied and well-stocked new science fiction sections to compete with any good secondhand bookshop, and for more general readers the recently refurbished fiction area is pretty extensive. There's also a large Costa cafe, which is an easy place to spend several hours relaxing with a book, coffee and cake.

In fact, on the occasion of this particular visit I confess I was only popping in for a coffee with my book, but even so I was still able to enjoy the feel of the shop and take time to admire the many excellent recommendations on my way in - that first table has always been my downfall!

But once again, why am I devoting a page of the blog to a high street chain?

The answer is simple: Because it's a bookshop.

Sure in an ideal world we'd all love to buy from the aforementioned indie, and I will still always prioritise them if given the choice. But when there are no indies in your town which would you prefer - a shop full of books, interesting customers and enthusiastic booksellers, or a lonely computer screen with an online interface?

Waterstone's Fremlin Walk
24 Fremlin Walk, Maidstone, ME14 1QP
Tel: 01622 682042

*Pictured are a small selection of my purchases from Waterstones over the years when this bookshop was my local.

Friday 16 May 2014

A religious experience

Invitations have become an important part of my bookshopping journey.

Sometimes I have to wait weeks, or months, to follow them up, others it could be just days – as happened when a response to a vague Twitter posting about traveling north won me an invitation to meet a trio of bookshops in Lincoln.

The invitation had been extended by Unicorn Tree Books, and if I'm totally honest with you (sorry Unicorn Tree) if I hadn't been invited then I probably wouldn't have visited. You see, this particular destination advertises itself as a Christian bookshop. And although it also stocks a wide range of fiction books and art materials, religion makes me feel uncomfortable and therefore acts as a pretty good deterrent.

However, I had been invited and my British manners meant that at the very least I had to pop along and see. After all, if I didn't like the bookshop I didn't have to write about it. As if I'm not going to like a bookshop.

With walls built entirely of shelves (it's found inside a market building), this shop is 100 per cent books and a good reminder of how inclusive and welcoming such places are.

Picking up a copy of Nora Roberts' The Search, it didn't take me long to relax into my surroundings and introduce myself to the bookseller and thank her for her invitation. I may not have originally planned to visit but once inside I should have known it was inevitable I'd like what I found!

It was now time to do some exploring - and, unfortunately, climbing - to find my next destination, The Book Stop Cafe, at the top of the appropriately named Steep Hill. Exhausted before I'd made it even halfway up, I can't find the words to say how relieved I was to see the door of this cafe-cum-bookshop encouraging me to the top.

And I was even more relieved once a large slice of cake and a pot of tea was placed in front of me as I reclined on a sofa, casually browsing the shelves of local authors.

Refreshed and recovered from what had felt like a mountain climb, it was time to move on to the final bookshop of this visit, the very newly opened Lindum Books.

A gorgeous little new - in all senses of the word - bookshop, I soon lost the teacher friend I was with to the children's section, meaning I had plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny.

With the ground floor dedicated to new fiction of all shapes and sizes and upstairs secondhand, every budget is catered for. I'm not going to lie, the rooms weren't crammed with books and the option to lose yourself for hours, but it takes time to build up stock and Lindum Books are definitely going for quality over quantity.

Despite the occasional bare wall I still had a tough time narrowing down my choices and ended up having to ask the bookseller to help me to select Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible from among the shortlist I gathered. She certainly knows her books and gave some very confident, and welcome, comments during our friendly chat.

It will be good to see how this bookshop grows into itself and its community in the future and – along with the many bookshops I failed to visit – will be an excellent reason to return to Lincoln.

Because during my afternoon I walked past many more bookshops of all shapes and sizes and ages and subjects that I'd've loved to become better acquainted with had there been more time. Instead I'd had to keep things simple and choose one from each style: new and secondhand (and new). Throw in the bookshop cafe serving tea and cake and I had found my perfect trinity.

Unicorn Tree Books
35/40 Central Market, Sincil Street, Lincoln, LN5 7ET
Tel: 01522 525557

Book Stop Cafe
47b Steep Hill, Lincoln, LN2 1LU

Lindum Books
4 Bailgate, Lincoln, LN1 3AE
Tel: 01522 262374

Friday 9 May 2014

It's all about the humans

I often write about how great booksellers are, willing to share their time and knowledge and general friendliness, but something that's often forgotten by the customers of bookshops is the other customers.

Because as much as the staff of bookshops are fascinating characters, the shoppers are also pretty special too - they're readers. They enjoy books and the words they contain, and they're happy to share that enthusiasm with other book lovers. As was emphasised to me when I visited Walker's Bookshop in Stamford.

A well-stocked high street bookshop in a striking Tudor building, when first entering I'd found myself doing a double-take as instead of books I was met by chocolate: the ground floor is a combination of a newsagent and a Thorntons. But as everyone knows chocolate and books are a good mix I wasn't complaining (the chocolate got eaten before I had a chance to photograph my purchases).

Walking up the stairs to the bookshop proper, I entered a long room, sprinkled with period features, a couple of inviting sofas, a rocking horse for the children and lots of lovely, wide-open bookshelves that encouraged me to naturally explore the perimeter.

Once I'd wandered around - falling in love with everything and finding at least five books I wanted to take home - I made myself comfy in one of the sofas with the aim of whittling down my choices. Stretching across to the nearest shelf, I managed to use the science fiction book I'd grabbed to dislodge a bookend, which is when I was reminded of how great other bookshop customers can be.

My violence to the poetry section* distracted a fellow shopper and despite our apparently differing tastes we soon struck up a conversation about poetry, essay books, fiction and how great bookshops can be. I'm not about to go into detail about our conversation, but can you tell me one other type of shop where you could start talking to a total stranger - whose tastes are totally the opposite of yours - without appearing to be either crazy or making a bad attempt to chat them up? (Music shops don't count as there are barely any of those left.)

And the best bit? Once I'd finished chatting to my fellow customer I had plenty of time to talk to the bookseller too, when I got to learn more about the lovely bookshop, it's sister shop in Oakham and plans for the future that meant I'll be returning as soon as possible for yet more bookshop joy.

But what was I buying? Matt Haig's The Humans, of course.

Walker's Bookshop
10 High Street, Stamford, Lincolnshire, PE9 2AL
Tel: 01780 764405

*sadly I wasn't the one to come up with this turn of phrase, that's courtesy of my fellow shopper

Thursday 1 May 2014

Bookshops are the best medicine

The truth is, when I visited David's Bookshop in Letchworth Garden City I felt like death. I'd spent the previous two weeks curled up on my sofa unable to speak (laryngitis) and coughing like a dog. I'd missed work, cancelled a holiday and only made it to this bookshop because I was determined I couldn't spend another day in a paracetamol-aided sleep.

But as I drove I began to perk up. The excitement of meeting a new bookshop - supported by orange juice and an array of non-drowsy over-the-counter medicines - was enough to get my adrenaline pumping in anticipation of my next discovery.

Having never knowingly visited a garden city before I was relieved to find myself following a relatively straightforward route into the town centre, soon arriving at a car park just a minute's walk from the bookshop and saving me from having to expend any unnecessary energy on getting lost.

David's Bookshop is actually one half of a books and music shop and, despite rain necessitating the covering up of the outside display tables, the bright green frontage is easy to spot from along the street.

Entering David's Music, I couldn't help but remember my days of living near an independent music store, but instead I forced (perhaps an exaggeration) myself on to the main event.

The two shops are linked at the back, with the bookshop the larger of the two and both appealing. However as I tired and my lurgy began to reassert itself it was the cafe that caught my attention.

Nestled in between the music and books, this bright space was also home to the classics, so as I regained my strength while sipping on a latte I happily browsed here, seriously considering picking up one of my favourite authors for a spot of comfort reading (Treasure Island is the ultimate in sick-bed books).

Then the coffee kicked in and I was once again ready to explore.

Quite a long bookshop, one detail that particularly struck me was the occasional secondhand shelf in between the new, emphasising how well the two can blend together and reminding shoppers of the secondhand section on the first floor. But, predictably, it was the wall of new fiction that caught my eye. Stretching over half the shop, this was everything I needed for some good old, well new, bookish pleasure and - combined with the music and the cafe - is definitely a reason for me to return in healthier days.

With many interesting books I was spoilt for choice and have promised myself I'll further investigate Pushkin Press after being impressed by a number of their titles, but it was a book at the very end of the alphabet that made me stop: How to live safely in a science fictional universe by Charles Yu. A book about a time traveller really appealed to this girl who wanted to regain the previous two weeks of her life.

I'm guessing it won't teach me how to reclaim that lost time, but reading the book will at least transport me back to David's Bookshop, and the memory of several happy hours of exploration.

David's Bookshop
14 Eastcheap, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, SG6 3DE
Tel: 01462 684631