Thursday 30 April 2015

The bookshop in the park

Spring is here, complete with blue skies, sunshine and inconvenient showers – so I thought it would be time I wrote about an experience in the sun.

I have to confess my visit to this bookshop took place last summer but events delayed my writing before winter set in, by which time it felt wrong to share an afternoon in the garden while I was huddling by the radiator.

Now though, the world is looking brighter and it's a lot easier to fondly remember my visit to Osterley. There are two bookshops in the area, one I've already told you about, the other is not quite so easy to find as it's set within the grounds of Osterley Park. I would never have known it existed if it hadn't been for a friend clearly stating there are two bookshops.

Walking from the tube – which isn't really underground by this point – the natural path was to take in our first bookshop, then continue to Osterley Park Bookshop, set within a stunning public park that was just the right level of busy. Having always believed National Trust properties to be closely guarded and expensive to visit, I was amazed by how much beautiful open space there was and spent much longer than anticipated enjoying my surroundings – although I understand further grounds are accessed if you pay to enter the house.

As it was a hot day, a cream tea was called for before visiting the bookshop, but I couldn't resist peeking through the door as we walked past on our way to the courtyard cafe and would've happily been diverted if not in company (the cream tea was worth the diversion).

Returning to the bookshop, a display of plants near the door and the temptations of a delightful gift shop opposite – combined with the lure of cream teas and the rest of the property – it would be easy to miss the small and unassuming bookshop, but I'd certainly encourage visitors to explore all sides of the stable it's set in.

A bright and airy bookshop, it's never going to compete with its neighbour (either bookshop or gift shop) for stock levels but as the way to complete a visit to a gorgeous country park it's perfect.

A range of subjects are stocked, with friendly volunteer staff ready to help with any enquiry, or simply welcome you to the bookshop, but what I particularly liked was the varied crime and general fiction areas – paperbacks perfect for reading in the park or while relaxing with a cream tea (my choice was The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart).

Think about that for one moment: jumping off the tube, walking a few minutes to a gorgeous park and knowing you don't have to worry about finishing your book/running out of scones.

It certainly made my day.

Osterley Park Bookshop
Jersey Road, Isleworth,
Middlesex, TW7 4RB
Tel: 020 8232 5050

Thursday 23 April 2015

Not quite the deal I'd expected

Tonight, I'm headed to Margate to take part in a World Book Night celebration with my favourite book club, Bee's Bookshare.

I have no idea what the evening will hold (other than a very long drive home), but I do know I'll get to take part in lots of lovely booky conversation, see old and new friends, and enjoy something out of the ordinary in honour of the special day. However, not content with spending one night celebrating, last night I also went to a World Book Night Eve-ent, hosted by a sister bookshare in Deal.

Without digressing too much from my bookshop focus, bookshares break away from the usual format of book clubs in that everyone reads something different, talks about it, and then leaves it on the table to share with another reader - no one ever goes home with the book they arrived with. It's a great way to spend a night talking books without having to try and find a title everyone is willing to read.

Why am I telling you about these book groups? Because last night's event is the reason I found myself taking a day off work to discover what bookshops the Kent seaside town of Deal had to offer.

Typically, my first discovery when arriving in Deal was that the bookshop I'd planned to visit had closed half an hour earlier. The imaginatively-named Books, on the High Street, appeared to be a secondhand bookshop of the old style, complete with orange film sun protecter pulled down in the window, but more than that I couldn't tell you. Next time I'll have less of a lie-in.

Feeling slightly dejected, I wandered around trying to decide how to recover the situation when I found myself in the company of Andy Miller, whose latest book is published in paperback today. Andy was in town for the same reason as me, only he had been invited as the special guest. Suddenly I had company, and we all know it's much more fun exploring a strange place with a friend*.

I'm not going to witter on about our explorations of the town, but they included an indie music shop and, eventually, a bookshop. It wasn't quite where I'd anticipated going but I honestly can't find fault with where we ended up: the local Oxfam Bookshop.

A compact little shop towards the other end of the High Street to Books, my first thought upon entering was to wonder if this was actually a new bookshop because of how untouched many of the books looked. There's also a lot of stock. To the left stretches a wall of general fiction, to the right is crime and thrillers, and sci fi. All the usual non-fiction genres can be found in between or upstairs, which is a surprisingly large area and even includes a section for antiquarian books.

Back among the fiction, I found Andy choosing a Barbara Pym and ended up drawn to the writer myself, meaning I stood and dithered over which of her books to buy, while Andy got chatting at the till. It was interesting listen, getting a feel for the friendliness and taking my time over my book choice - I went with Barbara's Some Tame Gazelle, while he bought A Glass of Blessings.

Leaving the shop, we continued our wanderings before heading to the bookshare at 81 Beach Street, where I'm sure I don't need to tell you lots of book-related banter ensued, including a fascinating talk about books and reading.

All in all, this meant I came home with my bookshop purchase; a World Book Night title, Charity Norman's After the Fall (which will soon be passed on); and, of course, The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller.

My afternoon hadn't gone at all as I'd expected, but good company, a late bookshop find and an evening of food, friends and books meant I still got a good deal**.

168 High Street, Deal, Kent, CT14 6BQ
Tel: 01304 368662

Oxfam Bookshop Deal
5 High Street, Deal, Kent, CT14 7AA
Tel: 01304 364752

*If I've talked to you on Twitter I consider you my friend.
**I make no apologies for the shamefully obvious puns.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Bookshopping before football

I am a hypocrite. Were you to ask, I would tell you I dislike sport, find it boring to watch, painful to participate in and – when it comes to football – am horrified by the vanity of overpaid players and the ignorance of thuggish fans. However, when invited to watch pretty much any sport live I will jump at the chance.

Which is why, one sunny Saturday afternoon, I found myself leaving the tube at Upton Park and making my way to West Ham United's football stadium, surrounded by a sea of football fans who definitely weren't thuggish.

I was there because my friends (who also aren't ignorant thugs) found themselves with a spare ticket and invited me along to a game. I'm fascinated by live sport so I immediately said yes, then they mentioned there's a bookshop around the corner from the stadium and I couldn't get on the train quick enough.

Newham Bookshop is just a few minutes past the football stadium when walking from the tube, and even though I arrived more than an hour before the game the street was already filled with claret and blue. As was the bookshop, which enjoyed a steady stream of customers during my far-too-brief visit - I could've happily stayed all day.

The bookshop's made up of two units in one, split into children and adult, with the teenage fiction cleverly placed in the walkway between the two. Knowing I was pushed for time I'm sorry to say I spent very little of it in the children's area, which was crammed with books and colour and definitely merits a return visit for closer inspection. For now, I kept myself busy in the grown up world.

Two words are all that's needed to describe this bookshop: rummaging heaven. It must easily be the most filled bookshop I've ever visited. Shelves line the walls, with piles of books at the front of each individual shelf and also bookcase, meaning glancing at what's in front of you only reveals half the story.

This really is a bookshop to get stuck into: looking behind books and delving into the piles. Which also means it's a shop for conversation. I found myself volunteering to help a fellow browser as he struggled to extract a book from the bottom of a pile, jumping to his aid to support the volumes on top (our combined efforts saved the display), and so we were soon chatting about books, the upcoming football match and the world in general. It was a conversation I later repeated and extended with one or two other customers as we helped each other out.

My description is probably making it sound like this is a bookshop to spend a lot of time in, but equally it's so well-stocked you could dash in, grab a book and leave within minutes – as many bookshopping football fans did. I'd easily spotted several titles from my must-buy list upon entering the shop but took my time because I wanted to be sure I enjoyed the full experience of delving below the top few spines.

And my dedication paid off. Ever since reading Fran├žoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse I've been searching for another of her works and here, under a pile of classics, I found The Unmade Bed. At the same moment my friend joined me in the shop, ready to collect me to go to the game (after she'd looked at the sport books first, naturally). The game was a 1-1 draw, but rummaging around in Newham Bookshop was (obviously) a big win for me.

Newham Bookshop
745-747 Barking Road, Upton Park, London, E13 9ER
Tel: 020 8552 9993

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Hidden depths

A mere 20 minutes' drive from my home is a bookshop I've spent the past two years not quite managing to get to. Work, play, housework, food shopping, bookshops elsewhere in the country, you name it, they've all got in the way of my jumping on the A21 for a quick drive.

Then one Saturday while driving home from an afternoon with friends I got lost. At least, I'd thought I was lost. Instead it turns out my homing beacon was set to bookshop and – thanks to a red traffic light – I found myself stopped right outside the door of the bookshop I'd never quite managed to visit. It would've been rude of me not to park up and pop in.

From the front, Sevenoaks Bookshop looks tiny. Maybe because it's next to a much larger corner unit, or maybe because it's simply a straightforward shop front, but opening the door I felt like I was walking into a Tardis. The bookshop is at least three times deeper than I had anticipated

Just inside the door, by the window – which offers a surprising amount of light – is a cafe area, with a few tables, tea and coffee and a selection of cakes so tempting I regretted the big lunch I'd just eaten. Of particular note was one of the best looking Victoria sponge cakes I've ever seen, even before I'd explored the bookshop I knew I'd have to return another time to try a slice.

For now, my appetite was firmly set to books. And a very satisfying experience it was: from the wall of general fiction, crime and thrillers, to the broad non-fiction which included particularly fascinating sections on art and science, topped off with a children's area overseen by a friendly-looking puffin. For a small commuter town, Sevenoaks has a surprisingly well-stocked bookshop.

Even better, the bookshop was filled with the gentle chatter of browsers of all ages. From random book-buyers to those who'd popped in to place an order, customers were everywhere and the booksellers were always on-hand to answer their requests. It was a wonderful thing to behold and be part of – watching is never enough for me so I made the most of a brief quiet moment to ask for help choosing between two books. A fascinating discussion followed, with the bookseller eventually helping me settle on Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist.

It may have taken a while for me to visit but I won't be waiting nearly so long to return. The combination of books and cake, complemented by the friendly buzz of fellow bookshoppers, means I've now found my local: next time I need somewhere to escape for a few hours, Sevenoaks Bookshop is where you'll find me.

Sevenoaks Bookshop
147 High Street, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN13 1XJ
Tel: 01732 450933

Wednesday 1 April 2015

A big comfy blog post

From the very beginning of this blog there have been certain constants: my obsession with bookshops, my excessive book-buying habits, my cat, and a big comfy armchair.

Three of these things rule my life, the fourth has been a friendly presence, inviting me along for a visit since before it even had a physical bookshop to live in. Okay, so technically it wasn't the armchair that extended the invitation, but it was certainly a part of the offering whenever Michael from Big Comfy Books tweeted a hello.

Back in the early days of this blog the bookshop still had a long way to go before it joined the real world, but I enjoyed following its progress and was particularly disappointed when I was unable to make the opening in late 2014. Then, finally, I found myself vaguely north of the Watford Gap and knew this was my chance to meet The Big Comfy Bookshop and finally experience that big comfy armchair for myself.

Cheating and relying on SatNav, the car park for the creative village it lives in is surprisingly easy to find. Still a work in progress, the entry to the 'village' is surrounded by striking artwork. I'm not here to write about the bookshop's home, but from what I saw I'd certainly recommend a visit to explore the many other outlets that make up Fargo Village.

The Big Comfy Bookshop is easy to find, with a big red armchair painted on the wall outside so that even the non-bookish must be encouraged to look inside. Once through the door they'll find a reasonable-sized room, lined with bookcases, lightly sprinkled with tables and chairs and the big comfy armchair and sofa.

A good range of secondhand books lines the walls, including fiction and non-fiction, with everything from modern classics to everyday reading to the pulp novels some would consider too low-brow to own up to. That's the beauty of The Big Comfy Bookshop: All are welcome here.

During my Sunday stay a steady stream of customers passed through, picking up books, stopping for cake and a cup of tea and generally making the most of their surroundings. Visitors ranged from a family to friends catching up to waifs and strays such as myself, including another Twitter acquaintance of the bookshop, a musician who'd also randomly decided to drop in (and whose music I've now become a fan of).

So what's the secret of Big Comfy's popularity in such a short space of time? Well apart from the obvious – it's a very good bookshop – I'd say it's also down to the fact bookseller Michael, who's generally to be found behind the till, is such a great bloke. Friendly, welcoming, happy to leave customers be or join in the conversation, I found myself chatting to him for a good couple of hours and could easily have stayed for longer.

While I was there we talked about the bookshop itself and how he's really taken to his 'big comfy' brand: the armchair may be the icon, but it embraces Big Comfy Sessions and all the music events they involve. Music is a big part of this bookshop, and it fits in perfectly. The name doesn't stop there, with Big Comfy Conserve among the bookcase of local crafts and preserves; and even the possibility of Big Comfy Beer in the future. In short, Michael's enthusiasm for the bookshop and everything it involves is clear.

Returning to the books, some truly inspired comments adorn the fiction shelves, including a reference to one author which ends: "then he* wrote books which are also good. Mostly." Such honesty has to be applauded and certainly made me giggle as I sought out other recommendations and quotes along the shelves.

Naturally drawn to the great selection of sci-fi (especially some older classics) I spent a long time dithering over which I should buy, before being swayed by the highlights table where Miranda Dickinson's I'll take New York was on display. Not an author I've read before, I follow her on Twitter and this continued theme of social media acquaintances – along with the chance to pick up a signed copy – swayed me to select her book over the rest.

I also picked up a Big Comfy Mug before finally, reluctantly, making my way home.

The Big Comfy Bookshop may still be comparatively young, but it already feels like it's found its place within the community. My only complaint? I was so busy enjoying the bookshop proper I forgot to actually sit on that big comfy armchair – I'll just have to wait until next time.

The Big Comfy Bookshop
Fargo Village,
Unit 2F,
Far Gosford Street,
Tel: 07710 400428

*to find out which author 'he' is you'll have to visit the bookshop