Thursday 28 August 2014

My first recommendation

This blog thrives on recommendations, some of which I manage to visit within days, others take much longer, such as London Review Bookshop.

As the first place recommended before I'd even written a word, it took approximately 370 days before I finally made it through the doors of this central London bookshop, which is probably a shameful thing to admit given how close I live to the capital. But if there's one thing I've learnt with bookshopping, it's that - just like you wouldn't turn straight to the back page of a book - bookshop visits can't be rushed.

Even when they include cake.

It wasn't for want of trying, but life has a habit of getting in the way. Not forgetting a lack of geographical knowledge meaning – despite several visits to the British Museum over the past year – I hadn't realised how close to London Review Bookshop I was. Indeed, having walked the long way from Russell Square and entered the bookshop through another square around the back, it wasn't until after I'd finished my visit that I realised I was less than a minute from the popular destination.

But back to the important stuff.

London Review Bookshop is one of the more famous indies I've had the pleasure of visiting, with its own magazine – London Review of Books – and cake shop, with the former enjoying a massive following. All of which made me uncertain of what to expect and, frankly, terrified of writing about somewhere that's already so well known and loved. Meaning I never pushed too hard when trying to pin down a friend to meet for tea, cake and a browse.

Which is a shame, because I've been missing out on a lovely little bookshop. Entering by the back I immediately stumbled into the sprawling fiction section and could see why the magazine has picked up such a following. The shelves are crammed with every author you could wish for, from best sellers to little known gems, with a recommendations table that must surely be 100 per cent unique in its choice of titles. I forgot about my friends as I browsed the books on offer, delighting at the sight of complete collections by authors I know and love alongside lesser known names I've spent years hoping to stumble across in the real world (even with bookshop ordering services I'm a firm believer that some books are meant to be found, rather than chased down).

Beyond the fiction there were books crammed into every corner, and if bookshoppers choose to venture behind the till they'll find stairs to the basement and a well stocked children's section, more non-fiction and a comfy seating area to rest a while, enjoying the peace and calm of your surroundings. Not that anyone would want to sit downstairs for too long when there's the lure of the cake shop next door.

Entered via the bookshop, this is no ordinary cafe, but a reading cake lover's paradise complete with tea menu and more books to drool over (hopefully not literally).

Having no clue about anything other than a cup of Tetley, I confess I was a little bewildered when handed the tea menu, but clear explanations of the tea plus a chat with the waitress meant I was soon happily ordering a pot of Pheonix Honey Orchid to go with my carrot cake. Further confusion ensued when a gorgeous glass tea set was placed in front of me, but again the waitress immediately explained my order and I soon found myself the envy of my friends as they sipped on their sensible drinks.

Given I was the only reader in our group, I was surprised when I realised we'd enjoyed a good couple of hours in the book and cake shop. Had I been alone I could've possibly dragged it out even longer as I got comfortable in the cafe, but as it is I had to be sociable.

My purchases of Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and long-awaited find of The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth had to come home to be read instead. My bookshop visit may be over, but the memory lives on every time I turn a page.

London Review Bookshop
14 Bury Place,
Tel: 020 72699030
@LRBbookshop @LRBcakeshop @LRB

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Annual review #1: 65 bookshops met

This time last year I posted my first blog, little knowing what an adventure it would set me on.

I'd written for myself, wanting an excuse to legitimately go and visit something like ten bookshops that had caught my eye from across the country without sounding like a crazy lady, and I had no expectation of finding more than a handful of readers.

But when the first post was read - and by significantly more than my immediate friends and family - I realised I actually had to take my challenge seriously. I had to find at least one bookshop to write about a week, and if I was to continue to be read by strangers I couldn't just share random experiences interspersed with the occasional bookshop from fiction.

Which is why, 365 days later, I've so far written about 65 bookshops, with a further five in hand to tell you about in the coming weeks and many more bookshopping trips planned.

My bookshelves have increased by 75 books (I'm looking out for a good carpenter to help me find more space), I've discovered the existence of Elmer the Elephant and befriended a bookshop mouse.

I've been on two bookshop crawls. When on my travels I've had two failed bookshopping attempts (one has since been met, the other is still to be retried). Three bookshops have closed, although one of those is relocating and the other is being reborn. With one entry a reminiscence about my first bookshop love.

But enough stats, because while the number of remaining independent bookshops is important this is more a story about the destinations themselves: of the beautiful buildings and interiors, the friendly booksellers, the animals who guard the shops (my biggest failing is that I'm yet to meet an actual bookshop pet, they're always busy elsewhere when I call) and, of course, the wonderful array of books I wouldn't otherwise have been introduced to.

I'm not about to repeat the past 53 blogs (I'm not sure how the calendar maths for that works either), but highlights have included an adventure in south Wales, looking beyond the 'cover', and an internet date. With other notable events revealing my ignorance and potential lack of, not forgetting my continued embarrassment at realising I'd been searching for the wrong book.

My first annual review is also an opportunity to thank the many people who have recommended bookshops to me and continue to do so today. Just because I've perhaps not visited your recommendation yet doesn't mean I haven't made a note and added it to my must-visit list.

Indeed, even this cutting, which was handed to me a few days after that first blog was posted has so far had only one bookshop crossed off, with the remaining four still jostling for attention among the many others I'm desperate to visit as soon as time and money allow. It may take me a while, but I'm determined to meet these and many more bookshops one day.

So thank you for keeping me company on my first year of amateur adventuring, for sharing the joy of bookshops and - to the many subjects of this blog - thank you for being so wonderful, diverse, welcoming and generally brilliant.

It has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure,

Thursday 14 August 2014

The beauty of colour

We all know the basics of day and night, with the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, but I've never been one for following convention.

So when I went on my bookshop crawl for Independent Booksellers Week I started in the west before settling in the east.

And despite it being an hour before closing time at the end of a long day of running around, it was in my final destination, Brick Lane Bookshop, that I found the most colour, energy and vibrancy.

I was new to Brick Lane, so while I'd previously heard the area was worth visiting I hadn't known what to expect, indeed, I'd not really given it much thought at all as I turned the corner and began counting off buildings.

Starting at one, I could've been on any London street, but moving up the numbers the colours began to build up, then the noise - welcoming music and chatter - and finally the people, enough to make a crowd without feeling crowded. With every step the atmosphere, and my excitement with it, began to build.

Eventually reaching 166 - I confess I'd begun to wonder if I'd walked too far - the joyful atmosphere continued inside. Where earlier in the day I'd met simple beauty, here I found a cacophony of colour, and beauty of a different kind.

The recommendations tables seemed more of a rainbow than usual, and the other browsers ensured a buzz filled the bookshop, meaning that close to 6pm on a Saturday the room felt like the ideal place to build up some enthusiasm for a night out. Tired after my day of bookshop crawling, I instead opted for an evening with a book - picking up Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita for a mere £4. With a significant amount of the stock appearing to be around the half price mark, a visit to Brick Lane Bookshop means you'll have plenty of money left for the party (or to buy more books).

Leaving the bookshop behind I made my way back down the lane towards home. The colourful atmosphere gently fading with each step I took, but this time I had a book to keep me company when the crowds died down.

Brick Lane Bookshop
166 Brick Lane,
E1 6RU
Tel: 020 247 0216 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Going underground

Stop number four on my Independent Booksellers Week bookshop crawl took me underground.

I'd walked around this area before and - looking up at shop fronts - failed to find Skoob, which is (admittedly not very) hidden down a pedestrian area, with an unassuming entry way that opens to steps down to this underground treasure trove.

In fact, the only reason I found the bookshop this time (stupidly walking right past the large sign pointing the way) was because I spotted two women taking selfies outside the shop - one of the requirements of bookshop crawl participation. A welcome opportunity to compare bookshop stories and general bookish excitement, it was great to meet this pair and share in the excitement of finally visiting a destination that had heard of the IBW stickers intrepid bookshoppers were supposed to be seeking on their crawl (see book photograph).

Buoyed by the meeting, I skipped down the steps and into the maze of secondhand books below.

Being underground means Skoob opens up into a much larger space than you'd anticipate. With lots of nooks to get lost in, and scattered office chairs which I initially wondered at until I found myself utilising one for more comfortable perusal of the lowest of the bookshelves.

Just the right level of busy, there was a buzz to the shop as I weaved between the shelves passing all manner of subjects and collections - including a Penguin orange-filled bookcase - before lighting on the large science fiction section (to my mind the jewel of all secondhand bookshops). It was while browsing here and delighting at the selection that I was able to further take in the atmosphere: snippets of conversation, interesting people, and marvelling at the patience of the bookseller as a loud woman declared she'd visited with the hope of finding a cheap book here because "it's more than £100 on Am****" as though rudely assuming the bookseller wouldn't know the quality of his stock.

Picking up Iain M Banks' The Player of Games and heading to the till I was impressed such a conversation hadn't ruined the booksellers' mood as he kindly checked online to see if I'd selected the correct book in the series.

Cue a fascinating conversation about books and the bookshop, followed by a quick check I hadn't taken any pictures of browsers for this blog - they feel very seriously about the privacy of their customers and have a great reason for this, which I'm sure the bookseller will explain if you ask about historic bookshoppers when you visit.

And should you need further encouragement – there's a piano too.

Skoob Books
66 The Brunswick,
off Marchmont Street,
Tel: 020 7278 8760