Wednesday 27 May 2015

Taking flight

Booksellers are very important people. We rely on them to keep us in books, offer a friendly haven on the high street and, in my case, help us get from A to C, adding a B in the middle for good measure.

Which is what happened during my visit to last week's bookshop. Not being sure of my route, I asked the bookseller for some help. He admitted he didn't know how to get me to my proposed destination, but why not take a trip to the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town? It was at least in the direction I wanted to travel and someone there might be able to help with the next part of my journey.

From across the street, Owl Bookshop is huge (my photo doesn't do it justice). Inside, it's even bigger. So big that before I'd even looked at a shelf I found myself approaching the bookseller to confirm it really was an independent.* Satisfied with the answer, it was time to get shopping.

Two shops opened up into one, this really is a large bookshop. One whole side is mostly given to fiction, with some non-fiction which then spills over to the other side, half of which is also a spacious children's department. From current affairs to psychology, childcare to education, just about every subject you could anticipate appears somewhere, with sweeping displays of recommendations meaning it would be easy to lose several hours browsing.

This variety continues among the fiction, with the main shelves stretching along one wall, complemented by a long table display and further stands for the likes of science fiction, film, poetry, etc. Ordinarily, such choice should have seen me dawdling for hours, salivating over every book and struggling to choose between five or six, and I'm certain a return visit would see me enjoying just such an experience. However in this instance my purchase took a matter of minutes to decide. Because the size of the shop meant it had the luxury of stocking a book I've spent the last few months searching for: Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.

Thrilled with both my book and my bookshop find, it was time to return to the bookseller for a friendly hello and help with my continuing journey. Owl Bookshop united me with a brilliant book, but it was my encounters with the booksellers that helped my afternoon take flight.

Owl Bookshop
207-209 Kentish Town Road,
Kentish Town,
Tel: 020 7485 7793

*It would've been fine if Owl Bookshop was a chain, but I like bookshops to be honest.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Balancing the books

Bookshopping, a bit like filling your bookshelves at home, is all about balance. Does the doorstop of a book fascinate me enough to merit the effort of carrying it around for the rest of my shopping? Is the quality of advice offered by the booksellers good enough to deserve a trip across London? Is the bookshop itself friendly and welcoming enough to make me feel comfortable once I'm there?

West End Lane Bookshop in north London is one of those unusual places that perfectly balances a traditional old school setting with all the personality and welcome of a modern bookshop. Dark wood shelves that wouldn't look out of place in any 18th century gentleman's library line the walls, but they're filled with clever arrangements that banish any fears of stuffiness and instead create a modern, reassuring feeling of warmth and welcome.

Entering the bookshop, the natural path is to follow the wall on your left through recommendations and on into fiction, with non-fiction beyond. Then to the right you arc round to the large, welcoming children's section, including giant teddy bears to curl up and read with (yes, I did want a hug). A few more shelves of recommendations and some postcard stands then bring you back to the counter, where two booksellers are on hand to answer your every question in between stocking shelves, ordering books and engaging in some – during my visit – fascinating conversations.

Standout shelving units contain interesting displays of some of the more unusual collections with colourful spines and covers, but even without these the general fiction is striking enough. At roughly (short person) head height, the rows of spines are broken up by a shelf of covers facing outwards, highlighting titles of interest. These were enough to draw me in, but it was the quality of the books that kept me hooked.

This is undoubtedly an intelligent bookshop. I don't mean you have to be clever to shop here but that the people filling the shelves have made intelligent choices. The stock is so well balanced that any browser, whether a new reader or a lifetime devourer of books, is sure to feel at home. Everything from lighthearted fun to modern classics is represented, without encouraging browsers to go to the extremes of mindless throwaway fiction or overwhelmingly heavy intellectualism. Essentially, this is a bookshop for everyone.

Which was emphasised by the range of customers who passed through the shop during my visit. From students to mothers to dedicated shoppers and casual browsers, at one point the bookshop was filled with the joyful conversation of some French visitors, their voices rising above the gentle buzz of traffic from the street.

Making the most of a brief lull in visitors I sought out a bookseller for a recommendation and for the first time in years every suggestion made was of a new-to-me book – given how many books this blog sees me buying such an occurrence is rare. Naturally impressed by the offering, I took my time before choosing All my friends are superheroes by Andrew Kaufman and picking up a few other goodies too.*

West End Lane Books may be the wrong side of London for me to easily return to regularly, but the range of unexpected recommendations and the general selection of books easily cancel out the effort I'll have to make to get there.

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

* yes, I have recently finished reading The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Wednesday 13 May 2015

It is better to have visited and lost than never to have visited at all

When it comes to choosing bookshops to visit I have a system. Sort of.

Recommendations are prioritised, but to ease the damage to my bank balance bookshops are generally visited according to when I'm in – or travelling within 30 miles of – an area. Generally it works, but every now and then the system lets me down, for example when I suddenly realise a bookshop on my must-visit list is due to close. Which is what happened this week.

The Kennington Bookshop is a place I often meant to visit but failed to get to because I was always travelling elsewhere in London – it was just a little bit too far south down the Northern Line for my convenience. Then I found out it was closing at the end of the month. It was time to go out of my way.

Or so I thought, because despite often being the end of the line for south-bound tube trains, it turns out Kennington is surprisingly close to my preferred mainline train station. There was hardly time to read two pages of my book before the stop was announced and I found myself in the sunshine on a wide, welcomingly quiet, London street. A five minute walk then saw me stood across the road from the inviting bookshop front.

Inside, a sense of calm flowed over me that was particularly welcome after a day of rushing around London. Not that the bookshop was quiet, there were several other customers coming in and out, including one very patient browser of the canine variety, but there was something so simple and stylish about the place that it was impossible not to slow down. A sign in the shop sums it up perfectly: 'Thank you for browsing gently'.

The next thing of note was a display of food related books, just to the right of the door. One, Gin Glorious Gin by Olivia Williams, immediately stood out as being my must-buy, but I decided to give myself time to explore. I took in the brightly arranged display tables and the books with their coloured elastic bands around the covers.

Then I looked along the shelves, filled with a range of genres and proudly labelled 'Fiction, new and secondhand' because all books are equally important, before returning to 'my' book. My visit continued, taking in the children's area and a further range of non-fiction tables and shelves, all beautifully laid out and inviting, but always returning to the same book. Until it was time for me to leave. I returned to 'my' gin book and it had gone. A man was at the counter handing over money for it. I'm sure the book found a good home, but next time I'm hoarding all the books that catch my eye!

Fortunately, my dedicated scouring of the tables and shelves meant gin wasn't the only book I'd wanted to buy that day. Returning to a table, Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide was swiftly picked up before another customer could beat me to it and my calm and equilibrium were restored.

Ordinarily, a visit to a bookshop that's due to close would be tinged with sadness, but the reason The Kennington Bookshop is saying goodbye is because the lease is up for renewal and the owners have decided to move on to a new challenge. Yes, I'm still very sad at the thought of this lovely bookshop being no more, but there was no desperate need to sell everything off quick, or upset at a lack of local support, which meant I was able to enjoy my browsing as I would in any other place I've visited.

It's sad The Kennington Bookshop is soon to close*, but if this visit could only be linked with one distinct emotion it would be of joy: It may only have been once, but I'm glad I was able to experience this beautiful, peaceful place.

The Kennington Bookshop
306-308 Kennington Road,
SE11 4LD
Tel: 020 7735 5505

*You have until the end of May 2015 to experience this bookshop.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

A bundle of bookshop joy

For a long time now a woman on Twitter has taken it upon herself to encourage me to visit this week's bookshop. She's always been friendly and polite, giving gentle nudges and encouragement to get me to visit her favourite local, and my responses have always been 'one day'. Not because I was trying to fob her off, if anything I try to prioritise recommended bookshops, but because I simply didn't know when I'd be able to get there.

Then, finally, I had a day off work and found myself travelling within 30 miles of her recommendation. It was time to take a detour to dedicated children's bookseller A Bundle of Books in Herne Bay, Kent.

On first arriving in the town I did the obligatory drive by, taking in the seafront with its coastal view to Reculver – an historic landmark I'm determined to get to one sunny day, it overlooked the edge of town, bringing a touch of the gothic to the modern world.

The bookshop itself is on a wide side street near the town centre, conveniently near to on-street parking, but possibly just too out of the way to be immediately obvious to pedestrians. Not that they let such a disadvantage stop them, as I later found out A Bundle of Books is all about interaction with its community.

When I arrived, on a slightly gloomy weekday afternoon, I was surprised first by how light the bookshop seemed from the inside and second how busy it was. The first was obviously a combination of the large shop window and bright and colourful displays, the second can only be a sign of the bookshop's success – something I heard more about later.

Split into two levels, the ground floor is dedicated to younger children and was where the customers were, so I decided to start upstairs with the books for older kids (aged seven plus) and young adults. Another large window continues the flow of light, with children's artwork providing decoration.

At first glance there don't appear to be a massive amount of books, but once I actually started looking it became obvious that quality is more important than quantity, saving young browsers the trouble of being overwhelmed and almost guaranteeing they can't go wrong. And the bookshop is by no means empty.

With books arranged according to age, there's a nice variety for each grouping and I soon found myself absorbed in the range of titles, wondering whether to choose a popular favourite or a less familiar author. At this point in my visit I'd generally approach the bookseller for advice, but leaving my browsing reverie I tuned into the conversation going on downstairs.

A customer had popped in to discuss arrangements for a children's party to be held in the bookshop a few days later*, and the more I listened the more I wished I could come along. With book-themed games and activities – all organised by the bookseller – this was my idea of the perfect birthday, and as a not uncommon event in the bookshop it sounds like the perfect way to help enthuse young children about books.

And so, while happily/nosily enjoying the thought of all that fun, I turned to twitter for my recommendations from among the young adult shelves. Within minutes @charlieinabook and @theprettybooks had come to my aid with some great suggestions, eventually leading to my choice of Non Pratt's Trouble.

Armed with a purchase, I made my way downstairs just as the birthday party conversation began to wind up, leaving me just enough time to explore the books for younger children (I fell in love with a number of picture books) before saying hello to the bookseller.

Run by a team of two, I'd turned up on one of their days off and, typically, missed the bookseller I'd been introduced to via Twitter, but even so we were soon deep in conversation about children's books, authors and the bookshop we were stood in. A Bundle of Books is just a few years old, but I was amazed by how involved it's already become in the community with a range of book clubs for children and adults, author events and a focus on developing relationships with schools. They've even recently been granted funding in the second round of James Patterson grants to bookshops.

It may have taken me a while to get to this bookshop, but with all its dedication to spreading the bookish word I know A Bundle of Books is here to stay – which is good news for my planned return (and Reculver) visit, but even better news for the young people of this Kent coastal town.

A Bundle of Books
6 Bank Street, Herne Bay, Kent, CT6 5EY
Tel: 01227 373802

*I waited until after the party had happened to write about this bookshop