The bookshop part of my journey was Much Ado Books in Alfriston. From the road there's not much to see, but I knew there was something special about the bookshop the moment I stepped into the entry courtyard and saw bundles of damaged books for sale to be given new lives as works of art. Quite how lovely the place would me took me by surprise.
But first the tour. Taking a straightforward look around Much Ado Books you begin in the courtyard of secondhand books interspersed with interesting literary clippings and bundles of old books in need of a new life. Inside, the ground floor houses the new books with a smattering of cards and wrapping paper and a welcoming bookselling couple who I'll return to later.
Taking the stairs up you pass the thoughtful detail of covers for muddy shoes (this is a country village) and a stunning selection of books that have been given a second chance at life after being transformed into notebooks. Then you enter the secondhand area proper, with a range of titles including the likes of 'old Bloomsbury books'. There's also a mix of crafts and other bookish delights, with my attention captured by the ephemera drawers that – politely – demand to be opened and rifled through. Finally, there's also a not-so-secret door that's private for Friends of Much Ado.
I was lucky enough to be shown behind the door and found my dream library, with everything about the books, comfort and decor absolutely perfect. Were I to live close enough to Alfriston I'd be putting myself on the waiting list to join the friends for that room alone, and it's just one of the many benefits members get to enjoy in an already wonderful bookshop.
Much Ado Books is quite simply a lovingly-crafted thing of beauty, I'd possibly go so far as to call it an interactive work of art.
The books on the shelves are a natural part of that loveliness, but it's the detail that makes this bookshop so special. From the interesting area labels (for instance 'get a life' instead of biography) to hand-crafted book decorations, the big picture is of a marvellous combination of books and crafts – and books about crafts – that are a delight to behold.
Then you look closer and spot even more detail. Poking out of at least one in ten books in the fiction section (and elsewhere too) are bookmarks, which upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be hand-written reviews, clippings of official reviews or even little details about the location/author/anything else that's taken the booksellers' fancy.
Recommendations are nothing unusual in bookshops, but the thoughtful, beautiful way in which these are done really is the most personal touch I've ever seen. It also reassured me that I was in safe hands asking to be matched up with a book myself.
Approaching the counter I met Cate and Nash, the friendly American couple responsible for Much Ado Books. As my visit was on Valentine's Day and my recent reading choices have been a little on the dark side I asked for a recommendation of something happy, possibly a romance, to cheer me up.
The enthusiasm with which they made their suggestions is unrivalled. From books I'd noted during my browsing to titles I already love to authors I've never heard of, their gentle suggestions and interpretations of my request both confirmed my belief in their good taste while also proving that while their stock may be small, the couple's knowledge is in no way limited. Every book on their shelves has been very carefully chosen.
Choosing The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera both for their spoken recommendations and the delightful review poking out from between the pages, I returned to chat more about the bookshop and enjoy a homemade blondie (like a brownie but better). Noting a basket of anonymously-wrapped books by the till I asked what they were for only to discover the couple were holding a give-away with purchases. I love the idea of unknown books so was immediately impressed, only to be surprised by Cate handing me Stella Gibbons' Westwood with the explanation she'd personally selected it for me following our earlier conversation about books.** In the presence of such thoughtfulness what's not to love?
I may have been on my own for Valentine's Day, but thanks to Much Ado Books I was in very good company.
Much Ado Books
8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX
Tel: 01323 871222
* It's supposed to be about secret admirers.
** To make it clear, it wasn't until after this conversation that I told them who I was or why I was there.