Wednesday 25 March 2015

The cool place to hang out

We all know bookshops are welcoming places where you can meet new friends (on and off the page), open your mind to different worlds and generally be yourself in friendly surroundings. but not all of us grew up with that understanding, some of us had to take the plunge and discover the joy of bookshops for ourselves.

Which isn't always an easy thing to do – I was certainly pretty nervous before visiting my first bookshop, and these days for non-booky types I tend to guess their idea of a bookshop is somewhere quiet, dull and devoid of interesting people. Most of us know that's a load of rubbish, but for those in doubt this week's destination breaks all those stereotypes.

Universal Books, found just off the main road in Letterkenny in the north west of Ireland, is colourful and inviting on the outside. A theme that continues inside with an assortment of what can only be described as stuff, mixed between shelves of books, CDs and DVDs. Not forgetting – at the time of my visit – a number of young adult browsers, alternately considering purchases and chatting, their banter filling the room with laughter that had to be enjoyed.

Roughly the size of a living room, the customers were scattered around the shop, browsing and chatting, with subjects ranging from the latest computer game to Scrabble to whatever they were looking at, leaving me able to participate or not as I made my way to the fiction along one wall.

With books in a general alphabetical order but slightly mixed up to highlight certain titles, the shelves were equally colourful and eye-catching. I stuck mainly to fiction but also browsed children's, Irish, classics and a good selection of non-fiction, resisting the urge to increase my music and film collection and enjoying the company of an alien, Batman and various others among the previously-mentioned 'stuff'.

Selecting Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, I decided to join the conversation with a hello at the till. The bookseller immediately treated me to the famous Irish friendliness, making me feel as though I'd been shopping there all my life, enjoying introductions to the other customers and even the offer of a biscuit.

In their own words on Facebook, Universal Books is a "cool bookshop", and I couldn't agree more. It's the kind of place I'd've loved to hang out in as a teenager and would happily frequent now I'm in my 30s, were it a little closer to home.

Sure, some may only visit because they're looking for music and films, but they're doing it in an independent shop so kudos to them: don't forget, these days few remember the joy of browsing an indie music shop and stumbling across new artists. For this reason alone I give Universal Books top marks for attracting customers and continuing that pleasure.

If, while hanging out, chatting and looking at those CDs and DVDs, the shoppers happen to notice the majority of their surroundings and pick up a book too then even better.

Universal Books
Church Lane
Tel: 00353 74 916 1869

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Let bookshops be your travel guide

For any traveller finding themself in a different country for a few days the obvious thing to do is explore.

So when a horde of Brits overwhelmed a hotel ahead of a good friend's wedding, it was inevitable the conversation over breakfast would turn to which sights we each planned to visit that day.

Destinations were varied, including beaches, mountains, distilleries and, in my case, bookshops. Reactions were generally similar, including oohs, ahhs, cheers and, when directed at me, raised eyebrows. It didn't take long for me to tire of the quizzical reactions, but mostly I pitied their narrow-mindedness – everyone needs a starting point for their travels, so why not let that starting point be bookshops?

It worked for me. Especially when I found myself driving south along the N15 and struggling not to be distracted by the beautiful, rugged countryside surrounding me. Further on stunning beaches and coastline awaited, and in the middle of my journey was a stop at the Four Masters Bookshop in Donegal town.

Now I admit, when I entered the bookshop it wasn't what I expected. For starters my first view was not of books, but of gifts and cards. Looking to my right, I then saw the books stretching out along one wall, taking up the smaller half of the shop's length. It's not what I'd normally ask of a bookshop, but I kept an open mind and began to investigate.

Thankfully, that feeling of being underwhelmed vanished when I actually started looking at the books. First up were fiction and recommends, swiftly followed by Irish fiction, young adult, classics and all the non-fiction you need, including bargains and an extensive local interest area that could've happily set me up for months of exploration if I'd had the time off work.

As it was I only had an hour to enjoy my surroundings, realise how many Irish authors are already on my bookshelves and pick a book to get to know another. I should probably have already read something by Joseph O'Connor, so choosing Ghost Light hopefully makes up for lost time.

Having realised a bookshop can still be worth a visit even when forced to share space with other goods – and happily clutching my book of choice – I decided it was probably necessary to explore the rest of the shop. Essentially it was filled with beautiful things, hopefully all selected as a cunning way of drawing in the non-reading public before luring them over to the Book Side. At least, the reverse worked for me as I'd've never entered the shop if it hadn't been the books but somehow found myself at the till buying a necklace to accompany my read...

Which only backs up my earlier navigational reasoning: bookshops are a great way to discover destinations you might otherwise overlook.

Four Masters Bookshop
The Diamond
Tel: 00353 74 972 1526

Thursday 12 March 2015

It's good to talk

There are certain things every visitor to Ireland has to do: try a pint of Guinness, drink a shot of whiskey, explore the beautiful surroundings and – in my opinion – visit a local bookshop.

The latter is important because to my mind a bookshop is the heart of a community, where people can meet and talk, where the books can help reveal their interests, and quite simply one of the easiest places I've ever found where you can safely strike up a conversation with a stranger.

A bookshop is therefore the perfect place to find out about the place you are visiting. Which this week happened to be Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

My destination of choice was the secondhand and antiquarian Foyle Books, which although in the middle of the city, was tucked away behind a historic(?) wall and part-way up a slight hill. Located within a craft village, this was a lovely little area away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world and therefore the perfect place to pause and relax in friendly surroundings.

Unfortunately, upon stepping through the welcoming red door, my first reaction was surprise at how quiet the bookshop was. Not empty quiet, the place was packed. But no one was saying anything. It's a long time since I'd been to a bookshop so cloaked in silence, and I admit that as a first impression it made me nervous – where was the Irish friendliness I'd heard so much about?

Fortunately, the silence was momentary and I soon got to experience the welcome I'd hoped for when I introduced myself to the bookseller and our conversation inspired the other browsers. While we talked books, bookshops, Ireland and everything in between, conversations got started, the silence was broken and the whole atmosphere lightened. Which, in my mind, can only be a good thing. Especially in such a bright and interesting bookshop.

Foyle Books, not to be mistaken with the independent London bookseller, is an open, spacious shop taking up what looks to have been two rooms knocked into one. Large enough to house all the browsers but small enough to be cosy, the contents of the shop range from paperback fiction to non-fiction and include a wall almost the length of the shop filled with Irish interest and local, broken up with a delightful full-height mural.

On entering the bookshop I'd been impressed by the sci-fi selection sprawling by the door, followed by a large crime section nearby, but as I was on holiday it was the general fiction that captured my attention this time, with Jenny Colgan's The Little Beach Street Bakery a happy reminder that secondhand and antiquarian doesn't have to scare off everyday browsers.

Which is equally true for silence – next time you step into a silent bookshop strike up a conversation, you never know who you might get talking to.

Foyle Books,
12 Magazine Street, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, BT48 6HH
Tel: 028 7137 2530

Wednesday 4 March 2015

The quirks of a village bookshop

Should you unexpectedly find yourself driving past, you could be forgiven for thinking this week's bookshop is closed.

I certainly did a double take as I parked across the road from The Old Saddlery Bookshop in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, looking across at an unlit window and a bricked-up front door.

Pausing to consider whether the Twitter-using villagers I'd had contact with weren't simply luring me in to be sacrificed under the village clock I happened to be next to, I looked around very carefully before emerging from my car.

Thankfully, approaching the other side of the bookshop – the side villagers would walk towards – I found the front door. Which was locked. At this point I admit an outsider might be tempted to run away, but following the instructions and ringing the doorbell is worth the effort. Honest.

After a few moments I was greeted by a friendly gentleman who asked if he could help. Establishing I was there to visit the secondhand and antiquarian bookshop, he offered his assistance then politely gave me space to browse by retreating to a different room. I was left in peace, able to explore the two-room bookshop at my leisure.

The brightness of the bookshop immediately struck me, with light flooding in from two large windows. Next was the smell, the reassuring mustiness of a traditional secondhand bookshop. Not too overpowering, but just enough to remind you you're in the presence of books that have already enjoyed many lives before they met you.

Finally, looking to the books themselves, you notice the beautiful jumble of your surroundings.

Attractive children's books are directly ahead as you enter, with a range of non-fiction genres all around. Wandering down a few stairs to the second room, a crate of random titles of interest draws your attention, with the fiction wall to one side.

The alphabet isn't needed here, which admittedly took some getting used to but didn't affect my enjoyment as I randomly jumped from one author to the next, with classics and general fiction all sharing the shelves. It was this happy pairing that prompted me to buy Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a book I've long meant to read but rarely remember to look for.

Honestly, The Old Saddlery isn't a bookshop I'd go out of my way to find, but as a detour to a beautiful village it has now become part of my route and somewhere I'll always pause to visit when passing. Why? Well, apart from the obvious fact it's a bookshop, because it's a wonderful quirk of a rural village.

While there I imagined myself as a local: walking up the road from the village, ringing the doorbell and being welcomed as a friend before diving in to choose my next pre-loved read. I'd possibly take a few moments to relax on a chair with a book, gently warming myself in the sun streaming through those big windows.

For this bookshop alone, next time I move house Robertsbridge may well be my destination.

The Old Saddlery Bookshop
56 High Street, Robertsbridge, East Sussex, TN32 5AP
Tel: 01580 880631