Wednesday 28 January 2015

Discover feminine beauty

Before visiting this week's destination I got completely the wrong end of the stick. I'm not sure how I picked the idea up or where it had come from, but I thought I was heading to an angry, feminist bookshop.

I expected in-your-face women's issues and no men for at least 100m – the terrifying extreme of feminism that only really appears in fiction.

Which is why I made Persephone Books a stop on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl: I expected to be taken out of my comfort zone.

The reality is very different. The reality is beautiful, calm, and just as welcoming to men as women. If I were to use one word to describe the bookshop it would be feminine.

I feel crass for saying so, but Persephone Books really is an elegant woman: she's graceful and attractive, with a beautiful smile, immaculately dressed in a smart skirt and blouse, perhaps a brooch or scarf to add a splash of colour, certainly a string of pearls. But there's nothing uptight about her – she's a joyful place, full of fun and adventure, much like the heroines in the novels you'll find there.

Okay, I'll stop with the metaphor now, but it really is what comes to mind as I think back to my visit, but first, for the uninitiated, a brief introduction.

Founded in 1998, Persephone Books "reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers", all the books have plain, pale grey covers and they can be bought – among other places – from the bookshop that fronts the publishing house.

The simplicity of these covers makes for striking bookshopping surroundings. Pale grey spines adorn every shelf, with decoration in the form of striking end-papers, all selected from fabrics designed in each book's original publication year. And with little more than 100 titles in the Persephone catalogue this is the most sparsely-populated bookshop I've ever visited, not that I realised at the time as the perfectly appointed shelves kept me happily entertained.

This was perhaps because the abundance of pale grey means you really can't judge a book by its cover. Instead interest is piqued by printed cards revealing brief synopses of the novels, so encouraging readers to do what they do best and dive in.

Which I did, lazily browsing and enjoying the unique surroundings. I eventually made my choice, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which drew my attention thanks to the explanation: "By the author of The Secret Garden a wildly romantic novel with a totally unromantic hero and heroine, a blend of Edith Wharton and Georgette Heyer."

Before writing this post I did a little background reading on the bookshop and publisher, and found a line in an interview with founder Nicola Beauman explaining the reason for the covers. She said: "I like grey, and I also had this vision of a woman who comes home tired from work, and there is a book waiting for her, and it doesn't matter what it looks like because she knows she will enjoy it."

I can't imagine I'd ever be nearly so elegant as the woman this bookshop is, but I'm definitely the woman who comes home to the book.

Persephone Books
59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
Tel: 020 72429292

Thursday 22 January 2015

Visiting my special place

We've all got special places in our lives, towns or villages that continue to mean something to us no matter how many years pass between visits. Places we grew up in, holidayed in, studied in. Aberystwyth in west Wales is one of those places for me.

Six years of my life were spent in the seaside town, first as a student, then as a graduate who wouldn't leave. It's where I discovered who I was, met some of my best friends and simply made the most of being young and free (of mortgage, bills and car insurance). It's also the place where a significant part of my library was collected.

I've already mentioned one destination I frequented for this purpose, which has now sadly passed on to the bookshop heaven in our hearts, but this week I bring happier news of the town - because the secondhand Llyfrau Ystwyth Books is still very much alive and page-turning.

We're going back a few years, and owners, but it was the place where I would buy and sell many of my books, safe in the knowledge they were coming from or going to good homes, and a quick chat with the bookseller on this visit revealed the town is no less literary in its tastes and characters than it was in my day (thank goodness). On this subject, I still remember, years back, my joy at finding a novel by one of my lecturers on the shelves at Ystywth Books. I snatched it up, paid, devoured it and then carried it to every creative writing seminar I had with her, never quite brave enough to ask her to sign it because I was so in awe of this brilliant author who lived nearby.

But what of the bookshop today? In many ways it's as I remember it from all those years ago: several snug rooms and floors of books, crammed – I'm not exaggerating – with old friends and new finds. Today it somehow feels more ordered, the books slightly easier to locate (although still requiring a good rummage for full bookshop satisfaction). There are some new books and – on request – an extra floor, including a well-stocked Welsh language room. Not forgetting bookshop dog Cassie, the quietest and most unobtrusive 'bookseller' I've ever met (I'm a sucker for a literary hound).

The layout remains a big plus for me, with an upstairs that allows you to go round in circles through the rooms, each time noticing something different to the previous revolution. Eventually I slowed to make myself comfortable in the chair in the classics room, reacquainting myself with former course books and remembering the pleasure and pain of their reading. Then I stumbled across something I'd not seen before: Aphra Behn's The Rover and other plays. The one course text I'd failed to locate, this was the book I always pretended to have read during discussions for fear of dropping grades. I had to finally buy it.

Making my way back downstairs I got properly talking to the bookseller. Although he hadn't been in the shop during my student days his friendly chatter still brought back memories of happy days of days gone by. Clearly a very knowledgeable man with a passion for his trade, we talked for some time covering a range of topics including my introduction to Drif's Guides (I hope I'm friendlier than Drif), and hearing more about the excellent local book community - upon his reccomendation I visited his 'competitors' later in the day, but more on them another time.

A bookshop may not typically be the first place on a holidaymaker's must-visit list when taking a trip to the Welsh seaside, but for me a trip to Aberystwyth wouldn't be complete without a peek inside the door of Ystwyth Books. It'll always be special to me, and next time you need to escape the rain and find a good holiday read, hopefully you too will realise what a wonderful place it is to rummage in.

Llyfrau Ystwyth Books
7 Princess Street, Aberystwyth,
Ceredigion, SY23 1DX
Tel: 01970 639479

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Hide away in the city

You know that image of a small, cosy room, crammed floor-to-ceiling with books? A room that's homely and warm, miraculously dust-free and a place you can escape to?

Well that unexpected – and wonderful – discovery is what you get if you wander upstairs to the fiction area of John Sandoe [Books] Ltd, found just off a very busy road in Chelsea.

I only visited on a whim, having been recommended the place a mere 15 minutes previously by last week's bookshop as I rushed around London on my Books are my bag crawl, but I'm glad I did as it was the perfect place to hide from the modern world in a relaxing sanctuary of books.

The bookshop itself isn't especially large, even if it feels quite spacious when you enter the central front door and find yourself in the middle of what looks to have once been three terraced homes, but for me wandering upstairs is what this place is about.

At each end of the ground floor narrow staircases – themselves crammed with books – take you up to a series of three cosy rooms, crammed with books. And I mean crammed. Yes, there's enough room to move, but the fiction shelves are so well filled that movable cases slide in front of one another to allow for two sets of bookshelves (you can just about see in the photograph below).

Books are also piled up along the walls, with every inch of space utilised for the love of books. So carefully is the space used that comfort comes in the form of a window seat to relax in the sun as you browse your options. Although personally I enjoyed squeezing myself onto a step on the narrow staircase, quietly relaxing between a bannister and yet more bookshelves – until I realised I was blocking the way for other customers, thankfully they're book people so they were all very polite.

Which the booksellers were too. I didn't get the chance to say more than a few words to them as the bookshop was pretty busy (it wasn't easy getting empty pictures), but listening to the buzz of conversation including recommendations and general friendliness emphasised that even in the middle of London this bookshop was part of a community.

From John Sandoe I took away Howards End by E M Forster. More importantly, I also took away the memory of cosy, historic, relaxed, bookish heaven nestling in the middle of a modern city that never sleeps. Next time I need to escape I know where I'll be heading.

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

Thursday 8 January 2015

Fall in love (along) with me

Listed in one of my favourite guide books* as a romantic London destination, the next stop on my second annual Books are my Bag bookshop crawl is somewhere I'd also visited on my first crawl.

However at the time of my 2013 visit G Heywood Hill was undergoing building works and so I decided it was only fair I make a return trip before writing. Not that I'd been able to notice anything wrong during that first visit, but if a bookseller tells me they're not quite straight I'll accept them at their word (as far as I'm concerned, any excuse to visit a bookshop is a good one).

Returning, I was able to understand the bookseller's concern. I'd loved my previous experience of books so tightly packed it was difficult to move, but now the shop is restored to its traditional two floors there is more room to breathe. There's also the opportunity to appreciate your surroundings: gorgeous fitted shelves and sturdy wooden tables that conjure up the idea of a Georgian gentleman's library. Move to the back of the room and striking red shelves surround, giving a startling alternative to the front. This is where the booksellers hang out, at sturdy, book-laden desks.

In contrast, the children's section downstairs is simple and light. Having been closed on my first visit I'm unable to identify the result of the work, but simply found myself in a nicely appointed room where children can safely roam (and read) while the grown-ups lose themselves among the books above. From classics to modern fiction, they certainly have a lot to enjoy.

The limited size of this bookshop may not need long to take in, but the traditional details and many and varied books require hours to appreciate. Whether you feel the romance or not you'd be hard-pressed not to fall in love with what you see, but telling you my experience here is only half the story, because the appeal of Heywood Hill is also in the history of the place itself.

Found just off the beaten path on Curzon Street in Mayfair, the bookshop has had its fair share of fascinating visitors, not forgetting staff such as Nancy Mitford, who worked there during the Second World War. Indeed, reading the website or (even better) talking to the staff during a visit reveals a wealth of stories, and while I can't comment on the fame of present-day booksellers they certainly deserve their reputations as book-lovers. And I certainly recommend having a chat.

Offering book advice and library building (including new, secondhand and antiquarian) among their services, visitors to Heywood Hill know they're in good hands. The bookshop even has a selection of A Year In Books options, where 12 specially-selected, brown paper-wrapped books arrive in the post. Surely the perfect gift for any reader?

I could praise the services and the beauty of the bookshop all night, but as we've all got books to get back to I'll instead tell you I picked up classic books to complement my memory of this classic bookshop: Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did came home on this visit, while Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands has now sat on my blog bookshelf for a year.

Perhaps not the most obvious of bookshelf-fellows but great additions to my collection and mementoes of my visits to this rare and unusual bookshop.

As traditional as they come in one sense but modern and welcoming to all in another, I hadn't arrived looking for the romance promised by my guide book, but that didn't stop me from falling in love.

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

Thursday 1 January 2015

Down the steps, by the sea

The cheapest bookshop I've ever visited is also the one that's possibly the most difficult to visit.

Located just across the road from the sea near Margate in Kent, Tiverton Books opens for a mere eight hours a week – four on a Tuesday and four on a Sunday. However, found 'down the steps' below a hotel, it's not obvious from the street, so even if you do arrive on the right day you might still struggle to find the bookshop if walking by the sea.

Fortunately, it didn't take too long for my friend and me to realise we needed to cross the road, and we were soon making our way down those steps. Walking into a good-sized non-fiction front room, we were greeted by a friendly bookseller who explained the books are ordered by section but randomly allocated shelf space. An organisational decision that would ordinarily make my blood run cold, her demeanour and choice of words were so natural I found myself accepting the explanation and getting stuck in.

And, surprisingly, neither of us really minded the lack of alphabetical order. Yes, it was initially a little bewildering when we walked through to the back room and started studying the fiction shelves, but after a while it was a refreshing change to skip from M to A and back to G. It certainly prevented me from resorting to a 'safe' read from an old favourite.

The size of the bookshop also helps in this respect. I'd naturally moved from the central fiction recommends table (which is a gentle jumble wherever you shop) to the shelves, so this transition made the mixed up alphabet seem less jarring. What would've been harder to stomach is a mix up of genres, but these were very clearly allocated their own areas to help me leap from crime to general fiction to romance to sci fi with no danger of finding a George R R Martin next to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez (heaven forbid).

I admit I'm not advocating throwing out the alphabet, but in Tiverton Books it certainly helped to draw my attention to a range of titles I wouldn't usually notice - hence my purchase of Anna Pavord's The Tulip, a non-fiction title among the history books and priced just 80p. As for my friend? He picked up Ajax: The Dutch, The War, by Simon Kuper. I'm not sure how impressed he was when the bookseller and I teased him about buying a football book, and for that I apologise, but from his contented browsing I can confirm I wasn't the only one to enjoy the bookshop.

Browsing was fun, throw in a gently chatty bookseller and a comfy sofa donated by a bookshopper and you've a relaxing place in which to spend a couple of hours - but make sure you're there before 2pm or you'll have to come back in a couple of days...

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