Tuesday 30 June 2015

Exploring Essex for #IBW2015

I'm not going to pretend, I've now done a few bookshop crawls. Mainly while taking part in organised campaigns supporting the likes of Books are my bag, but also quietly for the fun of it when I decide to take myself for a day out walking around London, tweeting the odd picture and seeing where I end up.

Which is why this year for Independent Bookshops Week I decided to have a change and take my crawl on the road. 

But where to drive to? Last year's IBW bookshop crawl took me from west to east London and so I decided to continue in that direction, setting my sights on Essex.

With 99 miles of roads ahead of me, the day began with an easy drive around the M25 to Brentwood in Essex, where the remarkably bright and brilliant Chicken and Frog Bookshop is found just off the high street. From the outside this bookshop looks welcoming enough, but opening the door is like entering wonderland.

All manner of delights are on display in this dedicated children's bookshop, and the friendly hello I received is surely just what's needed to encourage little people. Indeed, the bookseller not only welcomed my request for a recommendation but happily chatted away, and all before she even knew I was there for Bookshop Crawl Day.

This was the kind of bookshop I could've happily hung out in for hours, but a strict timetable meant I had to eventually tear myself away – once I'd bought a book with the longest title I've ever encountered: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente.

Next up was Red Lion Books in Colchester. A high street bookshop that should've been easy to find, I managed to park at the wrong end of town and so am very grateful to the numerous shoppers who pointed me in the right direction.

In a prime shopping location, this bookshop had come to my attention for its science fiction and fantasy offering and it didn't let me down. Of particular note for me was a whole shelf dedicated to Brandon Sanderson, a writer I've often looked out for. There may have been a squeal of delight as I grabbed The Final Empire, Part One of the Mistborn series, before going on to explore the rest of the bookshop.

Red Lion is recommended for sci fi and fantasy, but regular readers need not be discouraged. While 'my' area was particularly large for an independent, the rest of the – also rather big – bookshop was equally welcoming. It also offered a treat that, in celebration of the day, shoppers were invited to take away a free lucky dip proof. My pick turned out to be Willow Trees Don't Weep by Fadia Faqir.

Lush green countryside and big blue skies led the way to a bookshop closed for lunch, but the beautiful surroundings meant I didn't care. Instead I took myself off for a wander, soon arriving at a lovely seating area by the River Colne. A family gave me directions to the chippie and £3.50 later I was stocked up on Cherry Coke, water and the best chips I've had in years.

Before I knew it 2pm arrived and Wivenhoe Bookshop was due to open. A delightful little indie, this felt like the perfect bookshop for a village in the summer. The atmosphere was gentle and relaxing, sprinkled with sunshine and friendliness as day-trippers and locals alike popped in for a book and a chat. Relaxing on a sofa in the back room, before I knew it an hour had passed in browsing and conversation. It was time to buy Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery and get back on the road.

More big skies followed on the road to Finton-on-Sea and my final stop of the day: Caxton Books & Gallery. Found on a busy road that leads to the coast, the bookshop was surprisingly peaceful given the noise of the street - but not so quiet that I was left to browse in silence.

A conversation with the bookseller about some bookends soon had the whole bookshop involved as I agonised over whether or not to buy. The outcome was obviously that they came home with me, but not before everyone had had their (very welcome) say. Half bookshop, half gallery, a painted pebble also made it into my purchases, along with The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson.

It would be easy to continue writing, but this post is already getting rather long, so I'll save the detail of each of these bookshops for their individual posts over the coming weeks. For now I'll leave you with the way my bookshop crawl ended: ice cream on the green and reading, followed by paddling in the sea. Bliss.

Chicken and Frog Bookshop
7 Security House, Ongar Road, Brentwood, Essex, CM15 9AT
Tel: 01277 230068

125 High Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1SZ
Tel: 01206 578584

23 High Street, Wivenhoe, Essex, CO7 9BE
Tel: 01206 824050

Caxton Books & Gallery
37 Connaught Avenue, Finton-on-Sea, Essex, CO13 9PN
Tel: 01255 851505

Thursday 25 June 2015

Hall's is dead, long live Hall's

I've had real trouble finding the words to begin writing about this bookshop, starting and stopping several times since my visit. Not because I didn't like it – I did, very much – but because of the confused emotions it evokes from a personal point of view.

On the one side you've got a new bookshop, opened relatively recently and offering a particularly fine collection of secondhand – mostly first edition – books I've often dreamed about encountering. But on the other you have the location of a now closed bookshop which had a great amount of sentimental love.

I therefore hope both the bookshop and bookshoppers old and new will understand and appreciate my words regarding this week's destination.

Yes, I'm sad the old venue is no longer with us, but life goes on and change is an important part of that. The building is still a bookshop, and were I to have 'met' Tunbridge Wells a few months later I wouldn't know any different. So with no disrespect to the previous incarnation it is with this attitude that I approach Hall's Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells.

The first thing to note is that this is a bookshop of contrasts: traditional dark wood bookcases line the shop, with modern, light wood shelves fitted in the middle of the room; classic older fiction is interspersed with newer releases; and a modern wooden floor is contrasted with a beautiful antique desk that it would be wrong to refer to as the till.

Books are 95 per cent first editions, with the random selection I picked out ranging from about £9-£25, which is probably a perfectly acceptable price range for the town. As a poorer inhabitant even I seriously considered taking home a £20+ favourite by Iris Murdoch, and another shopper happily spent £9 on what he said was a holiday read. However, if those prices aren't to your liking, standard paperbacks can be found on a couple of bookcases, which is where I stumbled across Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. A title I'd culled from my shelves a few months previously without reading and regretted the loss of ever since, it seemed the more sensible purchase given the current state of my finances.

Had I been feeling flush, a trip to the first floor Adrian Harrington Rare Books could've easily emptied my bank account of a couple of hundred pounds. Especially because I found a selection of perfect condition Edith Whartons and Elizabeth Gaskells I've long wanted to read. But as I saw that floor as technically a different bookshop it's a blog and buy for another – more affluent – time. A time when I'm hoping the basement gallery will also have been completed to enable me to explore the rest of the building.

Returning to Hall's proper, it was remarkably lively. During my browsing a range of customers visited, including one (purchasing) family that had me almost hyperventilating as their 'enthusiastic' child ran around removing random titles from the shelves and putting them on the floor. No damage was done and the family did replace every book, but I couldn't help but marvel at the bookseller's calm as he served customers and answered the family – and child's – questions without even batting an eyelid. I know this will be good for the child's long-term engagement with bookshops but had I been more than a silent observer it would've been hard not to rush to the books' rescue.

The reason for diverting to that story is not to moan about hyperactive children but because, to me at least, it emphasises inclusivity: the young are as welcome as the grown up. Which is exactly how I feel about the new Hall's Bookshop in relation to its much-loved ancestor.

Hall's Bookshop and Adrian Harrington Rare Books
20-22 Chapel Place,
Tunbridge Wells,
Tel: 01892 527842

Wednesday 17 June 2015

We're all going on a summer holiday...

How many of us are in desperate need of a holiday? Somewhere warm, interesting, relaxing and away from our daily lives. And how many of us can actually afford to go on that holiday?

This year, instead of sulking about not going anywhere 'other', I've decided to have a home holiday. I'm going to take a long weekend to myself, switch off my email, stock up on wine and good food* and ignore everyone except the cat. It sounds pretty dull, doesn't it? Well there's one other ingredient to make that home holiday special, and it comes thanks to a bookshop.

You see I recently visited my first outlet of Daunt Books, one of those well-known booksellers that's up there on the list of bookshops to visit before you die according to Buzzfeed or some other such list-generating website. Admittedly I didn't get to their flagship Marylebone shop – I'm saving that for another time – but if their Chelsea outlet is anything to go by it'll be worth the wait.

But what's any of this got to do with my holiday? Well, on top of being particularly classy, the bookshops are known for their travel and literary offerings, something that's perfectly emphasised here.

Entering from the middle of a long shop front, browsers can turn right for children's fiction, head forward for adult fiction (and possibly the best non-fiction set of bookshelves I've ever seen) or left for what can really only be described as the world. Bookcases are arranged by country, taking in travel guides, fiction and non-fiction and offering the best bookish introduction to the world you could wish for.

In this area fiction is shelved according to a range of criteria such as author's country of origin, setting, subject, etc, meaning some authors cropped up in multiple countries, while certain countries offered fascinating combinations. My particular favourite being Russia's great classics sharing a bookcase with Robert Harris' political thrillers. This also meant a wide selection of translated books were on offer, with more Saramago (Portugal) than I've seen in a long time. Other gems appeared in the form of one or two titles for the more unusual countries (if you're a British reader) such as Croatia or Borneo – both of which I'm tempted to return for – and a range of international titles from the bookshop's publishing arm.

So when I went up to the booksellers and asked for a holiday they didn't bat an eyelid. They instead asked what sort of thing I was after and came up with the goods. Several times.

Seeing my excitement at their varied offerings, combined with my reluctance to embark on a round the world trip, I was invited to take a chair and test the waters. An invitation I gladly accepted.

During my reading I was able to appreciate how good their suggestions were and further enjoy the atmosphere: the setting was beautiful and the staff were friendly and attentive. They were also remarkably patient as they politely explained to another shopper why her Waterstones card wouldn't be accepted (the chain's managing director happens to be this independent bookshop group's founder but the two are otherwise not related). The other thing of note was how busy it was given I was there at 7.30pm on a Saturday, hardly prime book-buying time although the bookshop is open until 9pm.

Having read a few opening chapters and dipped into pages at random it soon became clear that India would be my home holiday destination of choice, with Amitav Ghosh's A Sea of Poppies the method of my transportation... Now where's the suntan lotion?

Daunt Books
158-164 Fulham Road,
London, SW10 9PR
Tel: 020 7373 4997

*take away menus

Thursday 11 June 2015

A post-apocalyptic thriller

At the time of my visit, this week's bookshop was comparable to the book I bought there: initially a little grim, then packed with story, rounded off with a brilliantly optimistic conclusion.

That may seem a little extreme, but it's pretty hard to feel happy when you arrive outside a bookshop to find a 'Shop To Let' sign. Which is exactly what happened as I crossed the road from last week's destination.

From what I could see during my approach, Muswell Hill Bookshop was large, there was a good selection of books and there were lots of customers – all reassuring things if it wasn't for the shadow of the estate agent's board. However, like all readers of dystopian fiction, I didn't let the potential unhappy ending put me off...

The first sight is of a large area of recommendations that could easily house your average independent bookshop and leave room to spare. This was an excellent start and really helped build up the anticipation for the rest of my visit.

In this area, the shelves of fiction begin – continuing along the same wall to the back of the shop – and prompting a mix of excitement, only slightly tainted by the fear of that board outside. Where ordinarily I'd expect one or two titles by each author there was often at least one copy of every book they'd written, with a good number of complete works filling the shelves. I've commented before on my amazement at large, well-stocked independent bookshops, and here was no exception.

Walking the length of the shop – through fiction, crime and sci fi – had me well and truly hooked, before I eventually tore myself away to look at non-fiction, classics and yet more recommendations, the only sour note creeping in when the occasional gaps on shelves forced me to contemplate the possible meaning of that To Let sign. That hint of an ending was a shadow hanging over the whole experience, and it was possibly the bleakness of my thoughts that drew me to selecting Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel as my purchase.

Thankfully, like the book, my visit finished with a sense of hope. I can't tell you the full ending for either, as one story would be a spoiler and the other simply hasn't reached its conclusion. What I can say is I discovered that this wonderfully well-stocked, huge haven to books isn't coming to the end of its life but simply downsizing by half the shop.

Yes, this is sad news, but the important thing is that bookshop life goes on, and on, and on again, hopefully enabling me to return to find out how the story continues.

Because who doesn't like a good sequel?

Muswell Hill Bookshop
70-72 Fortis Green Road,
Muswell Hill,
N10 3HN
Tel: 020 8444 7588

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Have no fear

When I was younger – and before I knew any better – the thing that kept me out of bookshops was the fear of not fitting in. Of walking in and looking like I didn't belong there, and of having no idea what to buy.

Obviously, that fear didn't come true.

Until I visited this week's bookshop.

When for the first time in my life I experienced all those thoughts, but for all the right reasons.

I was in Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill, a bright and colourful bookshop filled with little people cultivating their love of reading. It was wonderful. A good 70 per cent of browsers looked to be under the age of 16, with the only adults being looked after by a child or three. And so, as the only unsupervised adult in the room (the booksellers were busy answering customer enquiries), I was quite obviously the odd one out.

From the young adult area by the door, moving down the ages as I progressed through the shop, there was no hiding the fact I was completely out of place in this bookshop. Thankfully, a bookseller soon came to my aid, politely asking if she could help and making me feel welcome despite my advancing years.

Having recently heard lots of good things about young adult fiction I asked for advice as to where to start and soon forgot my awkwardness as we discussed book likes and a varied selection of recommendations.

After some dithering – and quiet enjoyment of my surroundings – Slated by Teri Terry ended up being my book of choice. Having since devoured it in a couple of days I'm pleased to confirm the bookseller did a good job of helping me make the right book decision.

From the enthusiasm of so many other browsers I'm certain I wasn't the only one to have received good recommendations from the bookshop staff: I especially loved seeing a girl bring her gran in to buy the next book in her new favourite series, much as I'd have done with mine.

Never have I been to a bookshop so crammed with children. Whether dragging their parents or grandparents in to pick up the next big thing or simply looking for something new, the large room was filled with the happy voices of young readers talking about books and generally loving reading.

Which made it alright that I'd felt out of place at first, because here is a generation of readers who will never know that fear of bookshops. I wish I'd had such an experience when I was their age.

Children's Bookshop
29 Fortis Green Road,
Muswell Hill,
N10 3HP
Tel: 020 8444 5500