Wednesday 15 October 2014

Bookshops are my bag

I have a rule that – unless there's a very good reason – I will only write about a bookshop I've a) visited and b) spent money in. Which is why in this week's post I'm only going to tell you about 12 of the 15 bookshops I visited for the second annual Books are my bag day of bookshop parties.

Why? Because the best way to support a bookshop is to experience it first hand and spend money it. After all, how could I expect any of you to be encouraged to visit and enjoy bookshops if I wasn't prepared to do so myself?

But what is Books are my bag? In case you missed last year's post it's a campaign to get people off the internet and back into bookshops – to remind us of the joy of real-world bookshopping, of meeting booksellers and readers and stepping through the door of a bookshop and meeting a read you wouldn't ordinarily encounter.

My first stop was Beckenham Bookshop in (depending on personal preference) north Kent/south London. Having met the women from this shop at the Books are my bag launch party two days before I was welcomed like an old friend, giving me a hint of the experience regular customers must experience every time they visit. Our conversation was completed with the recommendation of short story collection Magic for beginners by Kelly Link and instructions for easy navigation of the south London buses... my bookshop crawl had begun.

Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham came next. A combination of new and secondhand books, I arrived part way through children's story time and would happily have sat down and listened where I not pushed for time. Instead, as the bookshop was also celebrating its 48th birthday I was able to enjoy 10 per cent off my purchase of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. A book I've often wondered about but never read, I was pleased to have it recommended when I asked for something to balance the heavy doorstops I've been reading recently. Double checking my bus route I set out for number three.

Crystal Palace's The Bookseller Crow on the Hill is somewhere I've always wondered about but been – I'm ashamed to admit – a little scared to visit. I'll explain why when I write in more detail, but needless to say there was nothing to be scared of, other than wanting to spend too much money on books... In the recommends section I picked up The extra ordinary life of Frank Derrick, age 81, by J B Morrison. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its name, but what a great name.

Hopping on another bus I made my way to Dulwich Books. Frustratingly my poor time management meant I arrived minutes after a child-focused Roald Dahl bookshop party had ended, and two hours before the author Jeremy Page introduced his book The collector of lost things. On the plus side I still got to buy the book and I met another friendly bookshop which, in honour of the day, also gave me a limited edition Tracy Emin-designed Books are my bag tote and two free books. Lovely.

Five and six on my list were both in Herne Hill - the tiny but delightful Herne Hill Books and the beautiful children's bookshop Tales on Moon Lane. The first would fit into my living room three times and still leave space for more but still had as many customers as I've seen in much larger bookshops, here I picked up the rather scary-looking The girl with all the gifts by M R Carey. At the other end of the fiction spectrum, a chat with a bookseller at the children's bookshop soon had me eager to read my next purchase of Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. It was here that I also met another bookshop crawler, @Yayeahyeah, a YA fiction blogger.

Switching to the underground to travel into town, my seventh bookshop was the discount destination of South Kensington Books. Having walked along its home street many times when visiting the Natural History Museum (a favourite haunt of mine) I couldn't quite believe I'd not visited this destination before, especially when I saw how far back the shop stretches and how cheap much of its stock is. I happily picked up SuperSense by Bruce Hood to satisfy my non-fiction cravings.

And now it was time to revisit a bookshop from last year's event. G Heywood Hill, a brief walk from Green Park, had been undergoing renovation works when I last came here, meaning I delayed writing properly until I could return to experience the shop to the full. I'd liked the shop on my first visit, so returning to see the finished offering was a real treat, as was my purchase of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. It was also while chatting here that I decided to take a detour to find bookshop nine...

John Sandoe [Books] Ltd, was somewhere I'd been unable to decide about visiting, meaning I'm very grateful for the recommendation (and directions) that set me on my way. Located just off a very busy main road you enter the bookshop and step back in time. In this classic bookshop I bought a classic - Howards End by E M Forster. I want to say more but for now I'll just tell you it was wonderful – find out more in a couple of weeks.

Number ten was another old favourite. Watermark Books in Kings Cross was the first bookshop party I actually managed to get to on the day. Here I found a whole host of authors hanging out and a selection of cakes and bubbly too. It was great to see so many customers engaging with the various wordsmiths and I got to meet crime writer Jake Arnott as he chatted to a friendly bookseller. I first came here on last year's bookshop crawl and have revisited several times since, so I hope they'll forgive me that on this occasion I only bought a greeting card.

The understated Persephone Books was my 11 and I confess I cheated on my way here, hopping into a taxi to give my feet a rest and save time. Jumping out of the cab and entering a pedestrian zone, the light grey of this bookshop immediately caught my eye as it mimicked the simplicity of the covers it houses. Two lines introducing Frances Hodgeson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness captured my imagination here.

[CENSORED] On foot I then took in bookshops 12, 13 and 14, but as they were all quite specialist in their subjects I found myself unable to buy anything on this visit. When I return – with a little more energy – I aim to get to know their subjects properly, make a purchase and finally tell you about them. [CENSORED]

My final destination was also the place where I completed last year's bookshop crawl: Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Lack of time last year meant I only managed a glass of wine in Ray's Jazz Cafe upstairs, so this time I made sure to explore every floor of its new flagship store before pausing for a bowl of stew for dinner (and lunch). Even after a long day – and already overloaded with book purchases – I felt like a kid in a sweetshop. Getting my hands on Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch was the icing on the cake of an epic day.

This post is only a very small glimpse of the many varied and wonderful bookshops I met on my Saturday bookshop crawl and I must apologise if it appears list-like at times. All I ask is that you return over the coming weeks to find out more about each of my destinations.

They're all independent and individual, and I can't wait to tell you about them.

Beckenham Bookshop
42 High Street, Beckenham, Greater London, BR3 1AY. Tel: 020 8650 9744. @BeckenhamBooks

Kirkdale Bookshop
272 Kirkdale, Sydenham, London, SE26 4RS. Tel: 020 8778 4701. @KirkdaleBooks

The Bookseller Crow on the Hill
50 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, London, SE19 3AF. Tel: 020 8771 8831. @booksellercrow

Dulwich Books
6 Croxted Road, Dulwich, London, SE21 8SW. Tel: 020 8670 1920. @DulwichBooks

Herne Hill Books
289 Railton Road, Herne Hill, London, SE24 0LY. Tel: 020 7998 1673. @HerneHillBooks

Tales on Moon Lane
25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London, SE24 9JU. Tel: 020 7274 5759. @talesonmoonlane

South Kensington Books
22 Thurloe Street, London, SW7 2LT. Tel: 020 589 2916. @SouthKenBooks

G Heywood Hill
10 Curzon Street, London, W1J 5HH. Tel: 020 7629 0647. @HeywoodHill

John Sandoe [Books] Ltd
10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea, London, SW3 2SR. Tel: 020 7589 9473. @JohnSandoe

Watermark Books
Kings Cross Station, London, N1C 4AL. Tel: 020 7713 7903. @Watermark_Books

Persephone Books
59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB. Tel: 020 7242 9292. @PersephoneBooks

107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT. Tel: 020 7434 1574. @Foyles


  1. Wow - that's an amazing number of bookshops. Have your feet recovered? And I hardly dare contemplate how big your "To be read" pile now is. You're going to need new bookshelves!

    I'm now trying to work ourt whatthe 3 censored shops are! Were they in the general area of Persephone??

    Really looking forward to reading the descriptions of the various visits.

    1. My feet - and the rest of me - needed most of the following day to recover! But it was so much fun I didn't mind (and it gave me a chance to attempt to make a little headway with the TBR pile, which you've correctly guessed is getting out of control).

      The three censored shops are sort of between Persephone and Foyles, but as my London geography is rubbish they're only between the two if you meander. A lot. I will identify them one day, I promise.

  2. I can't help but be surprised and delighted to see that you bought Hopscotch. Glad to see Cortazar in UK! (I'm from Argentina, that's why)

    1. Am happy to have brought some delight! I searched for Hopscotch for years after my sister read it (untranslated) and recommended it to me. I can't begin to say how thrilled I was to finally find it.


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