Wednesday 24 December 2014

Quality over quantity

On a crisp, bright December afternoon I made my way along The Pavement to this week's bookshop.

An intriguing parade of shops, I couldn't help but take my time, stopping into a range of independent boutiques to pick up Christmas gifts and generally enjoy my surroundings.

In contrast to the often perfectly styled shops along my walk from the tube, Clapham Books is small and rough around the edges, but that by no means diminishes the experience of this bookshop. In fact, rough is probably too harsh a word, more unfinished: having relocated to this address a few months ago the frontage is a banner as opposed to painted sign and decoration (excluding the stairs down to the framers) is simple: the books are what's important here.

My picture below doesn't do the shelves justice – while bad for photography, the sunshine rippling across the shelves in accordance with passing traffic really was lovely – and what a selection of books they have.

There are no guilty pleasures or trashy novels here: if you're looking for a classic that will still be being read in 100 years' time I'm pretty sure anything in the fiction section applies. That's not to say their stock is all heavy reads, far from it, there is a wide selection from literary to love, crime to sci fi and everything in between. The difference is in quality. Where WHSmith might stock a range of throwaway holiday reads, in Clapham Books you find books you'll want to return to again and again. Essentially, every inch of bookshelf space counts. Having previously visited sister bookshop Herne Hill Books I really shouldn't've been surprised by this, but seeing really is believing.

Reassured by the high standard of books for adults (including a good selection of non-fiction too) I made my way to the children's area, where I needed to find a Christmas present for my niece.

A keen reader, hers is always my favourite gift to buy as it takes me back to childhood favourites and introduces me to new ones. Choosing the beautifully-illustrated Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell (and wanting a copy for myself), I wandered over to the till, asking for advice as I'm never good at choosing the right book for the right reading age. Thankfully, they soon agreed I'd made the right choice, so I completed the gift with a National Book Tokens card, followed up by a present for me: the short The Eyes by Edith Wharton.

My niece is yet to unwrap her present, so I'm still waiting to find out exactly how successful my trip was, but from my point of view Clapham Books made gift-buying a dream.

Clapham Books
26 The Pavement, Clapham Common, London, SW4 0JA
Tel: 020 76272797

Thursday 18 December 2014

A moment in a market town

Market towns are great. They're small enough to explore in a couple of hours, diverse enough to meet most shopping needs, liberally sprinkled with independent shops and one hundred times easier to park in than your average town or shopping centre.

They're even lovelier when right in the middle of them is an independent bookshop. With cake.

Located in the heart of its market town home, Jaffé & Neale ticked both of those boxes. Unfortunately Chipping Norton isn't quite in the heart of Oxfordshire (it's a lot further west than I'd anticipated) but the excitement of the bookshop more than made up for the long detour on my drive home from a weekend away. And the ease of parking when I found the bookshop (right next to a car park that doubles up as a market square) more than made up for the detour.

Tired from the drive, my first priority was to recover with a coffee and slice of clementine cake, both of which were every bit as delicious as you'd expect from an indie bookshop cafe. Making the most of a beautiful but chilly afternoon, I relaxed into a window seat from which I could enjoy the sunlight on my face, watch the world go by and – most importantly of all – take in my bookshop surroundings.

A bright bookshop, the light from the large windows made the main room feel larger than it was as I sat and people-watched while customers came and went, dithered over which of the many cakes to try and happily browsed the books. Very few people seemed to know each other, but all were friends as they shared in the common pleasure of the shop, meaning it didn't take long before I regained the energy to explore.

My favourite area was the first main room, where cake and books come together in the heart of the bookshop. This was where I spent most of my time and could easily imagine myself returning to daily, were I living a couple of hours closer. Then through to the back, past a selection of gifts and trinkets, a second room leads into the children's section, with secondhand books and more gifts upstairs.

Returning to the front room I browsed the recommendations and lost myself in the fiction, simply enjoying the moment. So it seemed appropriate when I stumbled across Claire Dyer's The Moment.

I loved exploring Jaffé & Neal and finding this gorgeous bookshop in a lovely English town, and okay, maybe it wasn't quite where I'd expected it to be on a map. But as much as bookshops are places to grow and learn, the journey to them can be an education too.

Jaffé & Neale
1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, OX7 5NH
Tel: 01608 641033

Thursday 11 December 2014

On the museum trail

One of my favourite* things to do in London is visit the Natural History Museum.

I may be in my mid 30s, but I know a significant number of its rooms by heart and barely need to think about where I'm going to find any given area. I've bought most of the gift shop over the years and am a big fan of their cafe as a place to sit and people watch. Most important of all, every year I make a pilgrimage to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

All of which meant I was pretty surprised when I realised the next stop on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl was somewhere I've walked past on countless occasions when hurrying between the museum and the underground.

The new and remainder South Kensington Books is found on Thurloe Street, approximately ten doors from the exit of the tube station. Admittedly, walking from the tube to the museum the bookshop doesn't stand out (probably because you've taken the underground tunnel route), but on your way home the natural route to the tube is past several eateries and directly towards this unassuming bookshop.

Now I know it's there I can't miss it. On the day of my bookshop crawl I walked past it. Twice.

And this is despite it having a pretty picture window crammed with books and me having a homing beacon for bookshops.

The room behind the window of South Kensington Books really has to be seen to be believed. To call the place a Tardis doesn't really seem fair, because this bookshop is so much bigger than that. Where the shop front would indicate a cosy, boutique bookshop, instead you find two huge rooms, stocked floor to ceiling with books, and centrally filled with large tables of recommendations.

Advertising art, history, travel and literature on the shop front, they certainly do have a good selection on these subjects, but if visitors are after something else there's more than enough variety to keep them occupied.

Whether it was because I was so close to the beloved museum or the fact I'd already bought a lot of fiction that day, I found myself drawn to the non-fiction end of the shop, in particular popular science, where I picked out SuperSense by Brian Hood – because I accidentally got carried away and read several pages while stood in the bookshop.

In a hurry to make up on time I made my way to the till and continued my journey. But now I know where this – very, very reasonable given its location – bookshop is it's become a necessary part of my Natural History Museum routine.

Next week I'll be making my annual pilgrimage to the photography exhibition, afterwards be sure to say hello if you spot me loitering in the bookshop.

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

*to clarify: favourite thing excluding visiting a bookshop or five

Thursday 4 December 2014

Over the half moon

It's absolutely bucketing it down, and within seconds of breaking cover and entering the street I'm soaked, the growing bundle of books in the bag on my shoulder is beginning to weigh on me and I've not had any lunch. Essentially, I'm wet, tired and hungry. Then I spot a bright blue and white shop front peaking out of the grey.

Just the sight of Tales on Moon Lane is enough to brighten a rainy day, but entering the bookshop firmly puts your smile back in place.

Despite the lack of sunlight through the large, welcoming windows it was still a bright and airy shop, with splashes of colour from pictures, toys and lots of lovely books. All of which helped to brighten my mood even further as I recovered from the downpour that had intruded on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl. It is hard not to be impressed by the delights surrounding visitors to this wonderful children's bookshop.

Parents and children chose books together, with friendly booksellers on hand to answer any questions and generally be helpful. Recognising a book blogger from their Twitter photo I said hello and had a chat with a couple of those booksellers before continuing on my exploration, enjoying my surroundings and wishing there'd been a place like this available when I was a child.

During my browsing another bookseller, who I'd missed during the introductions, came over to speak to me. Jen introduced herself as having recently joined Tales on Moon Lane after a previous life in the children's department of a different bookshop. We immediately got stuck into conversation about our surroundings, bookshops and – of course – books.

It seemed a little mean when I asked her for a recommendation so early into her time at the shop, but Jen didn't bat an eyelid, immediately walking over to a shelf in the smaller, back part of the shop and picking up Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s.

Over the past year or so, and for many before, I've had my fair number of recommendations from booksellers. All of them good: reasoned and well explained and enough to capture my attention and help me decide if a novel's for me. This was something different. Jen's whole face lit up as she introduced the book, but it was her words that mattered. The balance of praise and emotion, mixed in with a little about the story without influencing my approach to the book meant that when she asked if I'd like a different suggestion I had to be careful not to shout 'no' too loudly as I tried to snatch the book from her hands.

Never before have I been so keen to read a recommendation. And now I have read it I can confirm Counting by 7s is every bit as beautiful and enjoyable as Jen suggested it would be.

So why don't you find out what all the fuss is about? Head down to Half Moon Lane to meet the booksellers and hear their thoughtful bookish recommendations and I'm sure you'll be as impressed as I am.

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