Wednesday 30 December 2015

Crossing the bridge

For as long as I can remember my life has involved trips to Wales. From north to south the country is littered with my family and friends, but it's also a great place for a holiday and there's something extra special about finding myself on the right side of the border.

The variety of Welsh destinations I regularly travel to means there's no one road most travelled, but given the choice nothing beats the Severn Bridge for making an entrance to a country. I must've been about seven the first time my Dad drove me across the original suspension bridge, which to me was the biggest, most impressive river crossing in the world. I don't remember that first journey, but I do remember – years later – the first time I crossed the Second Severn Crossing* and was able to enjoy the view of the original bridge: marvelling at its size, the beauty of the river below and being very grateful it was there to shorten our journey.

The second crossing is a cable-stayed bridge, yes, that's probably more information than you needed, but I'm a bit of a fan of bridges so I couldn't resist sharing. In fact, the more I think about this blog post the more I wonder at the influence these two bridges must have had on my consciousness, impressing a young Erica so much that when in later life I looked to end my brief time as a resident of Wales I chose my then new home because of its proximity to another bridge.

Another, more relevant to here, side-effect of all those crossings of the two Severn Bridges is Chepstow's appearance in my consciousness. Regularly driving past signs for the town put it on my 'must-visit one day' list, and yet more than 15 years after that first pass I'd still not left the motorway to find out what I was missing. Which is where a bookshop comes in.

The Chepstow Bookshop managed what general curiosity had failed to achieve: instead of pausing at the nearby service station, I left the motorway for a proper break in a proper community.

My visit took place on the morning of a bank holiday, so I found myself driving through a pleasantly empty town and enjoying the luxury of a half-empty car park within easy reach of the bookshop, which wasn't opening until noon. The plan was to explore a little of the town first, then to round off my visit with books. However things didn't quite work out as planned as roughly three doors away I stumbled across a cafe with a specials menu dedicated to crumpets.

So, for my comments on the town itself I can tell you Tiffin Vintage Tea & Coffee House is the perfect place to stop for a bite, enjoy relaxing surroundings and read a book, and that it's on an interesting street of independent shops. That may sound like a rubbish explanation of a town I've long wanted to visit, but if, like mine, your needs are crumpets and books it's the perfect visitor experience.

And so to the main event. Even if you don't want to make the most of the nearby offering of crumpets, The Chepstow Bookshop is worth a diversion from the motorway. I arrived shorty after opening so it was naturally a little quiet, but not empty, as a mother read to her daughter in the children's section while dad got on with the shopping. There's something extra special about hearing an adult and child enjoying a bookshop in such a way, those two voices filling the room with adventure, laughter and the possibilities of a lifetime of reading.

As the family were tucked away at the back of the bookshop – the children's section is slightly hidden from view by a cleverly placed bookcase – I contented myself with investigating a packed wall of fiction, a fascinating recommends table, areas of non-fiction and a great selection of gifts. Hardbacks run along ledges at the bottom of the main shelves, and occasional markers stand out from among the fiction, drawing attention to a particular Penguin title and listing others to help browsers find their next read.

Both the wall of fiction and assorted recommends grabbed my attention, but in the end I was drawn to Anne Tyler's A spool of blue thread, which has been recommended to me by just about every bookish person I know over the past few weeks.

I'd previously resisted buying the book until, stood in this bookshop near the bridge, the idea of winding through the past caught my attention. Perhaps because I couldn't help but wonder: how different might my own life be if I'd never crossed those bridges?

The Chepstow Bookshop
13 St Mary Street, Chepstow,
Monmouthshire, NP16 5EW
Tel: 01291 625011

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Answering the second question

Whenever I first tell people about this blog there's an inevitable question: Which is your favourite bookshop? It's a question that's impossible to answer, generally leading me to talk about a random selection of highlights from my travels so far and sometimes, but not always, managing to distract them.

A secondary question is whether or not I return to bookshops once I've written about them. Today's post should, in some small way, answer this second question.

The question takes a whole blog because it's not as simple as yes or no. I do revisit bookshops, as often as I can, but when it comes to finding a bookshop a week to write about I have to prioritise new visits. Otherwise this website would get very repetitive and a lot of brilliant bookshops would never get the chance to appear (as it is it takes me far too long to write about some of them). There's also the issue of distance, much as I'd love to, it's not so easy to jump in the car and pop to the Big Comfy Bookshop or Wenlock Books for the afternoon. (Both are on my 'must revisit list', along with most of the destinations featured on this blog if I'm honest.)

However in a bid to prove I'm not one for the bookshop equivalent of a one-night stand (a one-shop stand?) here are a few of the places I've revisited since writing.

We'll begin by looking back to the hottest day of the year, when I finally got to meet Baxter the bookshop dog. My visit sadly coincided with his last day at Belgravia Books, but he was an excellent excuse to revisit this excellent bookshop that's only a hop, skip and a jump from Victoria train station in London.

A particular favourite of mine for translated fiction (it's linked with Gallic Books, the people who brought the wonderful 'French romcom' The Red Notebook to English speakers), on the occasion of this visit I must confess to having broken my cardinal rule of never ordering a book. Given the wide variety of great books on offer in Belgravia Books I'm not proud of that confession, but if you're a regular reader you'll know I'd been overwhelmed by a book and simply had to know what happened in Patrick Rothfuss' second, The Wise Man's Fear.

Which leads us nicely to the bookshop where I actually bought The Red Notebook by Antoin Laurain: Much Ado Books in Alfriston. Just an hour away from my home, this is a gorgeous place to spend a day escaping from the world, and as an honorary member of their Friends group I've had the privilege of whiling away many a happy hour in their private room. But if I'm honest, everyone's a friend when greeted by Cate and Nash, the bookselling couple who give this beautiful destination its creative heart.

Closer to my home, we have Little Mouse Books in Maidstone. Once my local, this delightful children's bookshop feels like it's actually hidden away down a mousehole. I may not live near it any more but it continues to play a big part in feeding my comfort reading cravings, because to me that's what children's books are when read by adults, and we should all be proud to be seen reading them. For this blog I'm mentioning When the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo because I've lost track of which other books I've picked up here!

Returning to that boiling hot day in July, another place I've revisited a lot is London Review Bookshop, in particular for tea and cake – I adore the London Review Cakeshop – but also for books. It's one of those bookshops that has a recommends table unlike anything else I've seen and simply can't be compared. On this day I was meeting a friend from The Booksellers Association and she recommended Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. It would've been rude not to feed my book-buying addiction.

Further away, visiting friends on the coast has enabled me to enjoy the odd trip to Tiverton Books in Margate. Limited opening hours alone make this bookshop a treat to explore, throw in the quirkiness of its shelves and a friendly bookselling couple and it's a reason to get up early to ensure you don't miss out. I believe my last purchase here was The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind.

Finally, I've already mentioned a revisit to Blackwell's High Holborn, but that same quest to read more John Wyndham was also rewarded in West Hampstead, during a trip to West End Lane Books. I'd only popped in to say hello to their resident penguin, but their science fiction is so well-stocked I was also lucky enough to take home The Midwich Cuckoos.

Obviously the bookshops named here are all relatively close to home and easy to visit, so in some ways I feel like I'm cheating saying I make return trips to all bookshops, because I can't. But I've enjoyed revisiting them here and hopefully this has helped jog your memories about some of the many great bookshops I've visited.

Perhaps these, or other bookshops I've already visited, are among your favourites too? If so I'd love to hear about them.

Belgravia Books
59 Ebury Street, Belgravia, London, SW1W 0NZ
Tel: 020 7259 9336

8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX
Tel: 01323 871222 @MuchAdoBooks

Unit 11B The Corn Exchange Market Buildings, Maidstone, Kent, ME14 1HP
Tel: 01622 679826 @littlemousebook

14 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JL
Tel: 020 7269 9030 @LRBbookshop @LRBcakeshop

Down the steps, Smiths Court Hotel, 21-27 Eastern Esplanade, Cliftonville, Margate, Kent, CT9 2HL
Tel: 01843 222319 @Tivertonbooks

West End Lane Books
277 West End Lane, West Hampstead, London, NW6 1QS.
Tel: 020 7431 3770 @WELBooks

Thursday 17 December 2015

Growing tomorrow's readers in yesterday's city

As I've previously mentioned, a few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting York. It's a beautiful city, with narrow streets, quirky buildings and a sense of history everywhere you look. It's a place to step back in time, and nowhere is this more apparent than by the Minster.

The building towers over its surroundings, catching your eye as you meander through the higgledy-piggledy streets and guiding you to your destination. Which in my case was a bookshop. Now the obvious choice would be the traditional, antiquarian and secondhand bookshop that perfectly matches its historic surroundings. But I didn't hear about that one until after my visit was finished.

Instead I had my sights set on contrast. I wanted to see how the modern fit alongside the historic. The relatively new The Little Apple Bookshop was the perfect place to do just that.

The bookshop is tiny, it's not the smallest I've ever visited, but the front room especially is not a place for swinging a cat. It's also bright and colourful and perfectly filled with everything you could need to inspire young (and old) minds, with youngsters being particularly lucky with the space allocated to the well-stocked children's section at the back.

The thing that stuck with me the most was the sense of fun. Apples sit along the top of bookshelves, cuddly literary characters are everywhere and the mix of books and other stuff is spot on. Wherever you look there's something to admire, pick up, open or investigate, and even the bookshelves offer more than meets the eye as books facing outwards hide other titles by the same author. This last detail was a particular favourite of mine as an invitation to discover extra treats.

This is a bookshop for everyone, but while I was there a stream of children were passing through and it's impossible to miss the appeal of The Little Apple Bookshop to young people. I love the idea of families visiting the historic landmarks and stumbling across the bookshop as a reward to patient children. Or of local youngsters being drawn in by the colour and fun, discovering a love of reading and continuing to visit as they grow into adulthood.

As for me, I took my love of reading and returned to childhood, choosing to buy Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland.* I've long wanted to read these dark children's books and this bright and fun bookshop in the shadow of the Minster seemed the perfect place to start my collection.

The Little Apple Bookshop may not be a dedicated children's bookshop, but to me it's the perfect place to grow young readers.

The Little Apple Bookshop
13 High Petergate, York,
North Yorkshire, YO1 7EN
Tel: 01904 676103

*Yes, I also bought a birthday card. A few months after the visit I need to own up to one of the friends I was visiting York with: Sorry, I forgot your birthday, but at least I still managed to buy you a card before the day itself.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Put your phone down

One of my pet hates is people who walk around bookshops with their phones out. In the general sense I find it rude – if you're in a bookshop you should be looking at the books – but the main thing that bugs me is when people wander around taking photos of the books.

Sure, the odd picture is probably a good reminder for a later bookshopping trip, but when I find myself stood next to a browser who's indiscriminately photographing covers and barcodes like there's no tomorrow I get more than a little annoyed. I'm British, so I obviously quietly fume rather than actually confronting them for their rudeness, but I like to hope my disdainful looks have stopped more than one internet shopper in the middle of a browsing session.

So what does my ineffective rant have to do with this week's bookshop? First up, I'm a bit of a hypocrite. Because I don't want booksellers to know I'm visiting to write about their bookshop I wander around sneakily taking photos with my mobile phone, although in my case the photos are of the shop, rather than the individual books. The main reason for my comments is because they'll hopefully help to explain the state of mental discomfort I was in when I got to the third bookshop on my latest Books are my bag bookshop crawl.

By the time I arrived at Pages of Hackney my phone battery had nearly died. Because I'm used to the poor performance of smart phones I was carrying a spare battery, but a dodgy cable meant the only way I could get it to charge was by holding phone, battery and cable at a certain angle in front of me while I explored. There are worse things to suffer, but at that moment I've never been so uncomfortable in a bookshop.

Fortunately, Pages of Hackney is a friendly place, and as the only passive-aggressive person in the room was the one holding the phone, no one frowned at me or told me off. Instead, everyone was happily browsing and I gradually managed to relax into this boutique bookshop.

At the time of my visit the downstairs was closed for renovation so I can only comment on the main bookshop space, but even with reduced shelving I liked what I saw. Pages of Hackney is a small and modern new bookshop, and what it lacks in quantity it definitely makes up for in quality.

Eclectic is the word I'd probably use for this bookshop, because there must surely be something for everyone as classics sit near modern fiction, with even a shelf of science fiction to keep me happy, not forgetting a children's corner, young adult and all the usual non-fiction too. I really don't know how they fit it all in while still keeping the bookshop feeling light and airy.

It was the recommends table that really caught my attention. Initially for the quality of books, but then also because I realised I could put my phone and charger down without getting in anyone's way. At the time of my visit I'd previously encountered very few of the books displayed, which is an increasingly rare occurrence for me and one that has to be savoured. I loitered by the table, enjoying sampling the books on offer and wishing I didn't have a one-book-per-shop rule. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline kept my attention the longest, and so it was this novel that came to the till with me.

The bookseller was as friendly as all the recommendations* had told me she would be, praising my choice of purchase and – as a true hero – giving me directions to the nearest phone shop to replace the cable that had been giving me a headache.

Pages of Hackney may only look small, but from my visit I could see it was a great little shop. Throw in events, great stock** and a friendly bookseller and this little shop appears to be a big part of its community. It's also welcoming to all, even those of us rude enough to be browsing while attached to our mobile phones.

Pages of Hackney
70 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0RN
Tel: 020 8525 1452

* I've lost track of the number of times Pages of Hackney has been recommended to me by Londoners.
** I believe the basement has now opened as a 'vintage' section, I must re-visit soon to find out.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Fiction and fizz on Civilised Saturday

When I realised I'd accidentally booked Black Friday off work I did the only thing any sensible person would do: I hibernated with a good book. Money may not be in abundance in my household, but sanity is much more valuable and the last thing I wanted to do was lose it fighting my way through a crowd of 'bargain-hunters' buying things they don't need simply because they're on sale.

But enough ranting, this week's post is actually about the following day on the calendar: Civilised Saturday. The book world's antidote to a day of shopping hell, this event is all about popping along to a good bookshop, enjoying the atmosphere and being generally relaxed, happy and more socially advanced than the day before.

Okay, so bookshops are always more civilised than everywhere else, but on this particular day they were even more so.

For instance, although this was my first visit to Wenlock Books in Shropshire I'm pretty certain it's not every day the bookseller greets visitors with a: "Hello, would you like a glass of Prosecco?" Although I can be certain they'll always offer a warm welcome and friendly atmosphere.

Free fizz was a nice surprise and although I limited myself to a half glass, it was lovely to wander around the bookshop, nursing my drink and feeling like I was at a high class drinks party (only much more fun).

The bookshop itself is split across two floors. The ground floor is dedicated to new books, including a small but considered fiction section, while upstairs is secondhand. At the time of my visit this floor was also home to a selection of free hot drinks*, biscuits and cakes. All were homemade and I can confirm they were delicious.

The nature of the old building means neither floor is strictly one level, with steps and beams and period features vying for your attention in between the books. In among all of this are quirky details such as interesting bookends and a selection of thought-provoking (and useful when it comes to the random steps) signs. It's a beautiful setting and the more I explored and observed the more I found myself longing for Wenlock Books to be my local. I'd like to say this was due to one specific magic ingredient (not the fizz, I only had half a glass), but really it was the combination of people, place and all those individual things that mix together to make bookshops such welcoming destinations.

The bookshop may not be near my home, but I consoled myself with the knowledge it's at least somewhere to visit as often as I can and set about choosing a book as a reminder of this first encounter (Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend).

I may have visited on a specially designated day, but I'm certain the relaxed friendliness I encountered was pretty much the bookshop experience – minus the fizz – on any day of the week. Which could be something to remember when you next find yourself looking for an escape (from the Christmas shopping).

Wenlock Books
12 High Street, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, TF13 6AA
Tel: 01952 727877

*a nearby kettle and cups indicate free tea and coffee are a regular thing for browsers to enjoy.

Thursday 26 November 2015

In booksellers we trust

Blackwell's High Holborn has a lot to answer for. It's one of the places where my teenage self fell in love with bookshopping; it's where I first realised how big and wide the world of bookshops is; and it introduced me to John Wyndham.

Taking them one at a time, I've already explained the first in my post about the bookshop's original incarnation, which also included a little about the second (it was thanks to Say What You See that I first found myself wanting to meet so many different bookshops). Which leaves us with John Wyndham.

But as he wasn't even the author I was visiting the bookshop to buy you'll have to be patient. On the occasion of my 'official' visit I was hunting down The Dinner by Herman Koch. Picked out by a book club I'm a member of, instinct had told me it was about time I visited Blackwell's High Holborn to find it. Instinct was correct.

The new incarnation of this bookshop may be smaller than in its previous life, but the quality of books on offer hasn't been diminished. Where in the past there was a round wall of fiction, today we have islands to wander through, the 'more than books section' I've spent a small fortune in over the years also remains and – should you need an energy boost – there's now a Benugo cafe within the bookshop.

Most important of all, Blackwell's High Holborn continues to be a bookshop that's perfectly stocked to meet my needs. I'm sure it wasn't the only place to have had the book I was looking for on that particular day (I'm ashamed to admit the visit in question took place a few months ago), but part of the joy of counting a whole host of bookshops among your 'friends' is knowing their different personalities and who to turn to when.* And as with my everyday friends, such knowledge builds trust.

Which leads us to John Wyndham.

He's not an author I'd previously been interested in, but when the bookseller behind the @BlackwellsHH Twitter account told me I should read three particular books I took him at his tweet. I took the next opportunity to return to the bookshop, where I picked up The Day of the Triffids.

The bookseller was right, it was a brilliant read and swiftly became one of my top ten favourite books. Before I knew it I'd also read The Midwitch Cuckoos and now The Kraken Wakes is at the top of my TBR pile.

Blackwell's High Holborn isn't my local bookshop, but as a result of any number of booky conversations it's long been somewhere I've trusted to understand my reading needs and make recommendations accordingly. Which is what all good bookshops should be – if you take the time to get to know your local you'll understand what I'm talking about.

50-51 High Holborn, Holborn, London, WC1V 6EP
Tel: 020 7292 5100.

*Yes, I'm aware that sentence probably makes me sound a little crazy, but every bookshop is a product of its booksellers and the very nature of their jobs means all booksellers have great personalities. Fact.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Miss Jones lives for a day

Once upon a time in a land not very far away, a woman found herself in a bit of a rut. Her life was reasonably happy, but each day revolved around commuting, working, more commuting, collapsing on the sofa and sleeping. Then she started writing a blog...

Okay, so I'm not much good at writing in the third person and you've probably guessed who the woman is, but hopefully you get the idea. One day I was sleepwalking through life, the next day I'd resumed living it.

I'm not about to go into the 101 things that happened to fall into place to start me writing the blog – it'd be far too self-indulgent and not particularly relevant – because what really matters is the fact I did start writing it, and benefitted from the surprising side effect of a new lust for life. My weeknights became the perfect time to plan and write about bookshop adventures and as for my weekends, a look down the geographical index page shows just how packed they've become.

Where previously I'd use quiet moments in strange places to hide away with my book (admittedly still a common occurrence) nowadays I seek adventures, searching out the nearest bookshop and new experience therein. Which is why when I went to a south coast wedding I used the few hours of down time as an opportunity to hunt out bookshops instead of hiding away with a book.

Badgers Books in Worthing caught my attention because it was almost exactly halfway between the wedding reception and my bed and breakfast. It was an excellent place to pause in my tour of the town before continuing the celebration, and with books piled up on displays outside the shop I defy any reader to walk past without finding a bargain or five.

A secondhand bookshop, rooms of books extend from the front allowing quiet browsing and exploring within easy reach of the friendly booksellers by the till. It's a lovely space, but what really makes this place special is the books. They're organised and sorted while also being just a tiny bit untidy. Not messy, but sort of rough enough around the edges in the way excess stock is piled up, and standing and looking at a wall from a slight distance is like appreciating a work of art.

During the time of my visit the booksellers were politely looking through a selection of books brought in by a customer, who was proudly/ignorantly declaring they no longer need bookshops because they own an e-reader. It made me want to give the booksellers a medal (or hug) for their patience and manners while I quietly browsed and listened and thought "her loss".

Once normality resumed, I ventured back to the fiction in the front room, where the booksellers were chatting books and answering enquiries from much nicer customers. It made for happy, relaxed browsing as I worked my way along the shelves, being rewarded with a copy of Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew lives for a day.

A Persephone book, this story of a woman who leaves her comfort zone and falls into life has swiftly become one of my favourites and – like this bookshop – I can't recommend it enough. The book won't change your life, but it's a lovely reminder of what a difference a little bravery and a lot of hope can achieve.

Badgers Books
8-10 Gratwicke Road, Worthing,
West Sussex, BN11 4BH
Tel: 01903 211816

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Friends in the right places

Given how regularly I can be found inside a bookshop, most of my visits inevitably take place on my own. It's not that I don't want to encourage friends to join me, it's simply the law of averages: think of your favourite past time and then consider how often non-participating friends volunteer to take part. The results are probably comparable for me and accompanied bookshop visits.

Which is how, in the middle of this week's visit, I briefly found myself feeling a little alone (spoiler alert, the loneliness didn't last long).

The momentary loneliness happened when I left the hustle and bustle of a busy London market behind to enter The Broadway Bookshop. Stop number two on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl, it's located almost at the end of the road where the market meets the canal, with the small shop front giving no hint of the atmosphere hidden inside. Even when you first enter, the treat that awaits isn't immediately apparent, as just a small display of books is seen next to a narrow walkway by the till. It's when you squeeze past whichever customers are waiting to pay that you discover the real appeal of this bookshop.

Down a few steps you enter what feels like a sort of secret, private library packed with warmth, friendliness and beautiful books. It's a bright and cheerful place and somewhere to feel at home, which is exactly what one young family was doing during my visit: Curled up in the children's section a mother read to her young child while a man selected books to take home. It was a lovely first experience of The Broadway Bookshop and made me more than a little envious of their cosy enjoyment.

Not wanting to disturb, I got stuck into the books. And what a collection they are. This is quite definitely a literary bookshop, but not in the sense that it should scare off timid readers. It's a place where you can feel confident that no matter what you buy it'll be good. Also, if you fall in love with a particular author found on their shelves, you're almost guaranteed to find the rest of their works there too. Which is how I started dithering over a number of fascinating-sounding titles.

During all this browsing, including a brief inspection down a few more steps to a nook perfect for hiding away in, the bookshop had begun to fill up and I'd naturally been tuning in and out of the quiet reading of the mother to her child. Torn between wanting to sit down with the family and not wanting to intrude on a tender moment, I instead zoned in and out of the other conversations around me.

Conversations varied but included favoured and impossible reads, authors and where people were going for lunch. It was a great experience, made the more so by the layout of the bookshop as chatter was shared over the shelving display. However it was also where my brief moment of loneliness kicked in: here I was, in a crowd of happily chatting book lovers but without the company of a friend of my own for their opinion.

Then sense prevailed and I remembered one of the people in this backroom crowd was a bookseller. I forgot my loneliness and went to say hi to someone I knew would happily talk books without the risk of my showing myself up as a nosy parker. We compared reads (past and present), reviewed my selections and (after consultation with another bookseller) agreed on my choice of Roberto Bolaño for the author. Next came the title itself, this took a bit more work but eventually saw me pick The Third Reich. (Which isn't a sentence I ever thought I'd write.)

Okay, so the helpful bookseller may not be my new bosom buddy and he's unlikely to make my Christmas list, but one thing is certain: We're all friends when it comes to bookshops.

The Broadway Bookshop
6 Broadway Market, London Fields, London, E8 4QJ.
Tel: 020 7241 1626.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Who's afraid of France?

Of all the strange things to be afraid of, one of my fears is of being alone in Paris. Not of the loneliness, I'm perfectly happy on my own (and have visited numerous other places by myself), but until two weeks ago this particular city was up there with haunted houses and dark alleyways.

Which is really stupid.

However, like the dark alleyways, there was good reason for my fear – the awareness of my own ignorance. Visiting Paris I had no idea what I'd be encountering and were I to get into difficulty I had no way of getting out of it. Because despite years of French lessons my spoken French is about as good as the average person's spoken Latin. And because I really should know better I'm ashamed, nervous, and generally terrified of being yelled at by an angry Frenchman who's sick of seeing his language murdered by yet another ignorant tourist.

Then I got talking to a bookshop. And spent the next six months or so failing to pluck up the courage to take a trip to Paris.

Thankfully, I have some very good friends, one of whom kindly came to my rescue with the suggestion we both pick an activity* to do and head off for a few days' escape. I was so stunned by the possibility of actually visiting the bookshop that, believe it or not, I dithered over agreeing to the trip. Then sense, and the reassurance I would be in the company of a trusted, seasoned traveller (to whom I'm eternally grateful), won out and before I knew it we were on the Eurostar.

Berkeley Books of Paris first caught my attention the way most far off bookshops do, through Twitter. The bookseller's observations are entertaining and informative, and the occasional exchanged tweet meant it soon became a familiar part of my online readings, so earning a place on the increasingly long bookshops I want to meet list – it may not be the most famous bookshop in the city, but there's a lot to be said for a friendly hello from a stranger.

My visit began with a walk through the Opera region. Not an area I know much about, I soon discovered this was something like the Paris equivalent of Charing Cross Road and enjoyed nosing in the windows we passed. Then, as we drew closer to the bookshop, I spotted The Inevitable, a gorgeous neighbourhood cat who would've been my first ever bookshop cat met if I'd arrived just five minutes earlier. As it was she'd already decided to resume her exploring and miaowed her hellos as she passed. By this point I was getting quite excited.

Then came the bookshop itself. The light blue front makes Berkeley Books easy to spot once you've found the right street, opening into a warm, welcoming secondhand bookshop. An average-sized space, it was just the right size to appeal to my browsing needs without intruding too much on the inevitable tourist trail.

Walls of bookcases give the feel of a personal library, with the company of other customers to remind you you're really in a public place. One wall advertises 'literature', while further back I found shelves labelled 'fiction', it was a decision I struggled to understand until it was pointed out the latter is actually stocked with pocket books, with the shelves built to fit that specific size. I loved this unexpected organisational choice. As for our purchases: I picked Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, while my friend chose Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Of course, I was equally engrossed by the rest of the broad-ranging stock, but it was the realisation I was in a safe haven that hit me the most.

Yes, I'd been carefully guided through Paris by a very considerate friend, but for the duration of my visit to Berkeley Books I realised I was no longer afraid. I was surrounded by books I could understand; bookshopping customers who were surely more interested in their surroundings than my inability to speak their language; and there at the counter was a bookseller, my as yet unmet friend in a foreign land. I went over and said hello.

As you'd expect, the bookseller – an American in Paris – was as lovely as ever, chatting about anything and everything (including other local bookshop recommendations) and generally putting me at ease. Everything about Berkeley Books of Paris made me feel at home in a foreign city, helping prove I'd been wrong to be scared and right to make the journey. This time I travelled to the bookshop with a friend, next time I'll make the trip alone – to visit a friend.

Berkeley Books
8 rue Casimir Delavigne, 
75006 Paris, France
Tel: +33 1 46 34 85 73

*The friend chose football. Go Paris Saint-Germain!

Wednesday 28 October 2015

My gothic fantasy

A month or two ago some friends and I enjoyed a long weekend in Yorkshire. It was the end of the summer but the weather was lovely, the scenery beautiful, the people friendly and the beer – ostensibly my reason for visiting – delicious.

The last night of our visit was planned for Ilkley, a spa town next to the moor, of which my only prior knowledge was that it's home to a good bookshop and a Bettys.

Finding ourselves in a pub 20 minutes from the town, we somehow got it into our heads that walking the remainder of the journey was the way to go. It was a decision that would ultimately influence my whole experience of Ilkley as we skirted the moor before arriving at our hotel above the town, glimpsing dark turrets in the early evening light.

It was a massive contrast to the generic chains we'd previously visited and I'll admit the dark wooden furniture and occasional creaky floorboard might not be to everyone's liking, but to me it was perfect. I found myself wishing for wind, rain and thunder and wanting to cancel all plans so I could curl up with Northanger Abbey or Wuthering Heights. Instead I went to the pub. Which meant my actual first experience of the town involved dark streets and the susceptibility to believe anything that comes after I've had a pint or two: think Catherine Morland's gothic imaginings on overdrive.

When morning came the skies were grey and a slight drizzle hung over everything. My dreams had come true. The gothic atmosphere was slightly broken by our early morning trip to Bettys for breakfast (have the rosti, you won't regret it), but as a timely reminder Ilkley can be happy and bright I wasn't going to complain.

Then it was time to return to the glorious British weather and await the opening of the much-anticipated Grove Bookshop. I'd previously been in touch with to check opening hours, so confess to being a little disappointed when their promise of skeleton staff turned out to not be meant literally, on the plus side I did get to have a good conversation with the bookseller.

My keenness had meant I was (briefly) the only customer, so this chatter stretched around the shop as I excitedly explored, enjoyed recommendations and asked 101 questions about the bookshop, hotel, town and anything else that came to mind. The Yorkshire friendliness is well-demonstrated here.

As more bookshoppers began to arrive I left the bookseller to it while I enjoyed the gentle buzz that was developing in the room. It's hard to keep your mood in a gothic novel when young families are filling the children's section and inquisitive visitors asking about the local interest titles, and I soon realised it didn't even matter that the sun had come out.

Grove Bookshop is everything I'd want my local indie to be: spacious, busy, well-stocked and friendly, with the power to lift even the darkest of moods. (Although I did try to cling to my atmospheric imaginings when I bought Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon.) It's a must-visit destination on the book lovers' map and easily a good reason to visit this West Yorkshire town. And if – for some bizarre reason – you're not a fan of books, it sits above Grove Music so you can probably happily get lost down there instead.

I say probably because as it was a Bank Holiday I didn't get to pop downstairs, but that's okay. It'll be something to do another day, preferably one that's particularly dark and stormy.

Grove Bookshop
10 The Grove, Ilkely,
West Yorkshire, LS29 9EG
Tel: 01943 609335

Wednesday 21 October 2015

What if you try exploring?

London brings out the tourist in me. Not the stereotypical snap-happy, loud-talking, slow-walking visitor of all the obvious destinations, but an explorer of strange corners, always looking up at the tall buildings and pausing to enjoy random fun as it occurs.

I'm not a Londoner so I'm generally ignorant of the random fun going on around the city. Instead I rely on friends, Twitter, Ian Visits and luck. For this week's bookshop the experience was entirely down to luck.

Admittedly, I had set out on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl with the intention of visiting a bookshop on Broadway Market, I just hadn't anticipated finding two bookshops and a bright and colourful market. (Frustratingly I later found out there are actually three on this road, I can only guess the third was on the other side, hidden from my view by those market stalls I'd been so busy enjoying.) It was a brilliant experience, with the wonderful smells of street food and fresh produce complemented by music and a general buzz.

The place I'm sharing with you this week is Artwords Bookshop, which was on the left side of the market as I walked from London Fields tube. It has a corner spot and a striking blue front, but even with these two things in its favour I might not've noticed it had I not paused to listen to the musicians who'd set up on the junction outside.

I'm not blind, but other than the occasional glance at street numbers on shop fronts, my attention had been entirely taken up by the sights and smells of the market – I could've hung around and enjoyed them all day.

As for the bookshop itself, it was cool and assured. Honestly, before I started this blog it was the kind of place I'd probably have been a little scared to enter. Thankfully I now know better.

The reason I would once have been afraid is because Artwords is all about visual culture, it's not somewhere you'd go for bestselling fiction – although fiction is stocked there – and it's definitely not your standard bookshop. The recommends tables have a message of awareness about them and imagery abounds. In the past my own ignorance and lack of cool would have made me doubt my right to be in such a place.*

However the books are there to open our eyes and nowadays I'm much less self-conscious and much more willing to dive in. As were lots of other people at the time of my visit: the bookshop was crammed. In a good way. It felt as though a little of the market atmosphere continued inside.

Which is only natural given the selection of books available to feast on. Art is in abundance but I also dawdled around history, cookery, humour and more, eventually choosing to buy What if? by Randall Munroe of xkcd fame. The combination of science, absurdity and stick figure cartoons was further reassurance of my right to be there.

Artwords Bookshop is an excellent example of the variety and difference independent bookshops can offer, inviting us into a world of discovery. If this blog achieves anything then I'd hope it's to encourage others to think "what if I ventured in there?" – to look beyond their nerves and start exploring such out of the ordinary bookshops as this. Who knows what adventures it may eventually lead to...

Artwords Bookshop
20-22 Broadway Market,
London Fields, 
London, E8 4QJ
Tel: 020 7923 7507

* If I'm totally honest, in the past a certain level of shyness would never have seen me traipse across London to randomly encounter a wonderful market while on my way to a bookshop I'd not previously met. It's amazing where a little bit of bookshop stalking can take you.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Bookshops will always be my bag

***As usual for a bookshop crawl, there would be too many words to write properly about each bookshop in this one post. Come back later and each destination will have had its own proper write up – they're worth your time. Honest***

There aren't enough hours in the day. Or even days in the week. Especially when work's really busy, a friend has a birthday, you're engrossed in an unputdownable book and counting down to the annual Books are my bag day of bookshop parties.

Which is why, despite a month of excitement, I found myself Googling routes to Dorset at 9pm the night before. It was at this point I discovered the bookshop I'd planned to visit is almost three hours drive from my home, which wouldn't've left enough time for a trip to Monkey World while I was in the county. I needed a new plan. Fortunately, I remembered previous bookshop crawls and another blogger's* recommendation to visit Pages of Hackney. Having started in the south last year, the north east seemed a good place to go this time.

The first stop on my route took me to London Fields overground station, followed by a walk along the bustling Broadway Market and the unexpected discovery of Artwords Bookshop.

Packed with books dedicated to visual culture, there was no doubting the cool, questioning attitude of this bookshop and its customers. All of which was about engaging with the world and opening minds. This isn't the bookshop to visit for a mindless holiday read, but lighthearted reading could still be found: I bought What if? by Randall Munroe.

Moving to somewhere I had planned to visit, The Broadway Bookshop is a short walk further on, at the end of Broadway Market near Regent's Canal.

A small front opens into a surprisingly large bookshop space, which saw a steady flow of shoppers young and old. Awed by the wall of literary fiction in front of me, I could've happily bought half the shop as I encountered author after author that I've long meant to read but never quite been brave enough to try. Thankfully, a bookseller was available to help me narrow down my selection: The Third Reich means I can finally begin my acquaintance with the works of Roberto Bolaño.

Walking along the Regent's Canal, I eventually spotted the sign for my next stop sticking out over a busy high street but, as I got nearer something wasn't quite right. A note in the door told me I'd missed Victoria Park Books – apparently by a matter of weeks – as it's now joined the ranks of the virtual world.

Admittedly, it does still have a presence in the form of Story Habit, but I can't help but be saddened by the closure of another bookshop. If this isn't a reminder of why initiatives such as Books are my bag are so important then I don't know what is.

Staying positive, it was time to head over to the highly recommended Pages of Hackney. A tiny bookshop on a busy street, it was here I got my first glimpse of BAMB orange bunting.

I had no idea what to expect of this bookshop, and renovation works meant my browsing was confined to one space, but the quality of what I did see and the bookseller's friendliness proved the recommendation had definitely been deserved. I picked up one of their recommendations: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

A short walk away, Stoke Newington Bookshop and a bookshop party came next. Art was the order of the day as I explored this large and colourful space, occasionally stopping to read while also trying to sneak a peak at the efforts of the artists and also enjoying the general banter and friendly fun flowing around the shop.

Picking up Dear Bill Bryson by Ben Aitken, I finally got a glimpse at an artist's work when I spotted a tote bag on the counter – with a sketch of me browsing in the bookshop! An unexpected treat, the bag now has pride of place in my growing tote collection.

Heading back into town I stopped off at Old Street Station for a visit to Camden Lock Books. Offering a great selection of new and discounted books, the atmosphere of this Islington bookshop easily reminded me of the destination's namesake and if it hadn't been near closing I could've happily hung out here for hours. As it was I still struggled to select just one book from the discount table in the time I had: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman won out in the end.

Finally, as has become tradition for my Books are my bag crawls, I made my way to Foyles. This time ending my day with hot chocolate and cake as I settled down with one of my purchases while waiting to meet a friend.

Parties may not have been taking over each bookshop I visited, but friendly booksellers, happy browers and the generally great atmosphere I encountered ensured fun was still had. Because let's face it: Bookshops will always be my bag.

Artwords Bookshop
20-22 Broadway Market, London Fields, London, E8 4QJ.
Tel: 020 7923 7507. @ArtwordsBooks

The Broadway Bookshop
6 Broadway Market, London Fields, London, E8 4QJ.
Tel: 020 7241 1626.

Pages of Hackney
70 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0RN.
Tel: 020 8525 1452. @pagesofhackney

Stoke Newington Bookshop
159 Stoke Newington High Street, Stoke Newington, London, N16 0NY.
Tel: 020 7249 2808. @StokeyBookshop

Camden Lock Books
Old Street Station, 4 Saint Agnes Well, Islington, London, EC1Y 1BE.
Tel: 020 7253 0666. @camdenlockbooks

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


*I'd love to thank the blogger personally, but I was so busy noting their recommendations I'm afraid I've forgotten who they were.