Wednesday 30 September 2015

Living history and a happy memory

One of the (many) great things about visiting a bookshop for the first time is knowing you're meeting a new friend. You don't yet know what they're like; whether you'll share love stories or set the world to rights; or even if they'll become a regular part of your life or a rare treat to be appreciated, but however the friendship develops you do know that bookshop will be there for you.

It will offer you a safe place, a friendly smile and – with a little time and patience – the answer to all of life's problems.

What's less expected when I enter a new-to-me bookshop is that it will also remind me of an old friend. Because no matter how many standard elements bookshops share (shelves, books, booksellers, etc) we can all agree each bookshop is unique.

I'm not saying Ken Spelman Books in York isn't unique, just that an element of it reminded me of a much-loved bookshop that is no more. It was like putting on a new jumper and realising it fits just as well as a holey, old favourite, only much classier and in a completely different league. I never did pretend to be any good at similes.

Found just beyond one of York's many 'gates', Ken Spelman Books is a secondhand and antiquarian bookshop with a distinguished exterior.

Where the word antiquarian could put off poorer browsers (ie me) this bookshop is cleverly laid out, with a discount stand outside the door and a wall of paperback fiction inside. With such temptations by the entrance the only natural thing to do is continue exploring inside – to a recommends table of reduced price fiction and non-fiction, all with helpful paper banners introducing their contents to browsers.

Dark wood fittings balance out the brightness of the books, many of which appeared to be new, and the overall feel of the bookshop was that of a sophisticated period library, and one very much worth exploring.

Heading to the back, a short wooden ladder to access the top shelves triggered the feeling of familiarity I mentioned earlier. The feeling intensified as I made my way upstairs, finally prompting a rush of happy memories as I looked over the bannister to the floor below. Granted, Ken Spelman Books is much smarter and more spacious than the old incarnation of Hall's I was remembering, but anyone who's loved and lost something must know how lovely it is to glimpse a memory of that loss in a living, current experience.

Re-living the memory, and enjoying another bookshop with an historic feel, meant I fell in love with this bookshop not only for its friendly atmosphere, gentle busyness and great selection of books, but also for its nod towards the historic. From the York setting to the warm, gentleman's library decor, to the happy reminder of a bookshop past, Ken Spelman Books is to be appreciated as much for its stock as for what it is.

We can't return to the past, but we can celebrate it in the modern world. We can also remember it with mementoes to take home. In this instance A Passage to India by E M Forster and a conveniently spotted birthday card for a friend.

Ken Spelman Books
70 Micklegate, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 6LF
Tel: 01904 624414

Wednesday 23 September 2015

A place to fall in love

I can't be the only one who's dreamed of falling in love in a bookshop? Of reaching for a book at the same time someone else does, your hands meet, you both awkwardly offer to let the other person have the book before eventually swapping numbers and agreeing to share it.

Okay, so the scenario doesn't have to work quite like that, you might simply have spotted someone with their nose in a book and struck up a conversation about the title's relative merits (or failings), but the outcome is the same: love, happiness and a home completely stuffed with books.

It's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. After all, a bookshop is one of those few remaining places in the real world where it's considered okay to strike up conversation with a stranger. I didn't set up this blog as an excuse to travel the country chatting up other bookshoppers – I'm far too shy with boys for that – but given a choice of online dating versus real conversations I know which one I prefer.

Which brings me to this week's destination: Primrose Hill Books, a very short walk from Regent's Park and one of a select few bookshops listed in my all-time favourite guidebook, London for Lovers.* I didn't know about this listing at the time of my visit, but while I was there it was impossible not to be taken by the romance of the bookshop.

A small area with near floor-to-ceiling books, the clever layout made it somewhere to explore despite the limited space, and with sunlight streaming through the window it was also a place of beauty. The books piled on top of middle-height bookshelves were somehow elegant and every display was an extra adornment to the stylish simplicity. This was enhanced by a corner of bookshelves to walk around, adding a moment of mystery before landing on your perfect read.

During my visit, on a particularly hot day, there was a gentle flow of people and air through the open doors and windows of the bookshop, leading to languid browsing and gentle jostling as we each made our way around the shop.

A display of Hesperus books was where my attention was eventually drawn, sparking a conversation with Jessica the bookseller as I picked out my purchase: The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame). Discussing favourite books and our wonderful surroundings, it was clear to see Jessica loves the bookshop she created and has really found her place within the local reading community.

Our conversation also confirmed my belief Primrose Hill Books is a place to fall in love: it's where the bookseller met her husband.

Primrose Hill Books
134 Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill, pLondon, NW1 8XL
Tel: 020 7586 2022

*Yes, I have previously whittered on about this book.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

On the Rail Ale Trail

One of the great things about this blog is that I get to visit random corners of Britain that wouldn't normally make it to my radar. There's no reason I shouldn't visit those random corners – they all turn out to be stunning – but were I not led by an obsessive quest I'd probably be more likely to visit the major tourist destinations than willingly be sent to Coventry.

Fortunately for me, I like randomness and the unexpected gems you find when you take a different path. And that enjoyment's not limited to bookshops.

I'm a card-carrying CAMRA member and a fan of real ale, real ale pubs and real ale drinkers. So when a friend invited me to join a handful of strangers for a privately-organised Rail Ale Trail around Yorkshire I jumped at the chance. Three days, 18 people, 30+ pubs and a drink in every stop isn't for the fainthearted, but it's a brilliant way to see some gorgeously unassuming villages, meet new people (including one book editor) and try out some delicious local ales.

Which is how I found myself half a pint* down in Castlegate Books, Knaresborough, one sunny Saturday afternoon. The half – accompanied by a fish finger sandwich at The Mitre Inn – had been just the fuel required for the uphill walk to the bookshop, but the bookshop (and town) is definitely worth the effort.

Found to one corner of the main square, Castlegate Books looks to be the perfect size for its community, with space for fiction, children's and all flavours of non-fiction while also catering for tourists. There are also Buy One Get One Free bookcases and a selection of other money-saving options scattered around the shop – offers I was only able to resist because I knew how far I'd have to carry my purchases later.

For this visit I was accompanied by the above-mentioned book editor and another reading beer-drinker, both of whom seemed less concerned by the weight of their backpacks when it eventually came to buying. The recommendations table inspired our conversation – leading us to compare favourite reads and classics and eventually prompting me to buy Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library – while the bookshop's relaxed, friendly atmosphere easily distracted us from the pubs that had brought us to the town.

Castlegate Books may have been an unplanned pitstop, but it was a lovely added extra to my Rail Ale Trail experience and ticked all the boxes for a bookshop on holiday. Which is something I raised a glass to at my next destination, Blind Jacks...

Castlegate Books
13 Market Place, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, HG5 8AL
Tel: 01423 862222

*Trust me, halves are the only way to go when you're visiting *that* many pubs.

PS. Knaresborough is definitely a random place worth visiting even if (for some strange reason) you're not a fan of books or beer. As evidence I give you this:

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

This summer one of the kindest men I know finally tied the knot. He's one of those rare people who are absolutely 100 per cent lovely and you can't ever imagine will meet someone who appreciates them for what they are.

I say finally, because he did meet such a girl many years ago, but life kept refusing to play ball and they only recently managed to say I do. It was worth the wait. At least, this wedding guest certainly thinks so.

The ceremony was in a beautiful village church somewhere near Chichester and of personal importance to the bride, with the reception a few hours later in Worthing – at a venue the groom had actually campaigned to save some years before (I told you he was a good 'un). And the day was glorious.

Terrible traffic meant I arrived late and snuck into the church during a hymn mere moments before the vows were exchanged, but grabbing the nearest free seat I found myself surrounded by old friends and everything was suddenly rosy. The bride looked beautiful, the groom really did dance for joy, and – as you'd expect at a wedding – everyone was grinning like idiots.

The distance between the church and reception, and allowing for a select wedding breakfast, also meant the happy couple had considerately allowed time for me to go bookshopping. And so, in my wedding guest finery I found myself at Heygates Bookshop & Paperback Exchange, Bognor Regis.

The end of the road, in the last resort (their words, not mine), it feels like one last reminder of all that was good about the traditional secondhand bookshop. From the £1.50 'parcels' bundled up with string in the entrance, to the piles perfect for rummaging, this bookshop is crammed. It even has that wonderful faint whiff of secondhand bookshop smell. I loved it.

Timid book buyers could happily find a book or 20 in the front room, where the standard fiction genres are shelved and piled, however it really is worth exploring the narrow corridor behind.

Once again organised by genre, there's an area for the romance fans looking for Cookson or Steel, then there's crime from the likes of Deighton to modern day, classics, and a further section for non-fiction if you're not too distracted to reach the back of the shop.

Personally I 'stumbled' halfway down, finding a number of James A Michener books which enabled me to add The Novel to my collection. It's a rare treat for me to find his less popular titles.

Noticing a sticker on the cover of my purchase, I continued exploring until all was explained with the 'exchange' prices. Okay, so it's not quite borrowing a book, but given how overflowing my shelves are I love the idea of being able to return books to build up exchange tickets and get a discount on my next read.

Happy with my find (both book and shop), and having chatted to the bookseller, it was time to return to the road to visit another bookshop* before the wedding reception got under way.

More smiles and reunions with old friends occurred, and it was here that I also encountered my something new of the day. Please forgive the name-dropping digression as it's nothing to do with books, but mid conversation with the groom I was introduced to another of the guests, who also happens to be the bass player in one of my current favourite bands. Starry-eyed groupie perhaps isn't the best of looks I could've gone go for, but he was perfectly charming as we compared notes on our experiences of my current home town before he politely escaped from my enthusiastic praise.

Old friends, new music, borrowed books – something blue? The sky, of course, adding sunshine and warmth to an already beautiful day.

Heygates Bookshop & Paperback Exchange
67 Little High Street, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, PO21 1RY
Tel: 07812 683440

*That bookshop's a story for another day

Wednesday 2 September 2015

The bookshop on a boat

Have you ever read a friend's diary? Seen their private book sticking out from under the pillow and thought "just one page won't hurt"? Then before you know it you're engrossed in their private thoughts and feelings, empathising with them (or not) as they struggle to understand whatever challenge life is currently throwing at them?

I haven't. But thanks to a visit to this week's bookshop I have now read The bookshop that floated away, by Sarah Henshaw. So I'm pretty certain I know what it's like to delve into a person's privacy.

Unlike anything I've previously read, it tells the story of her early days as the owner of The Bookshop Barge and the trials she faced during a six-month tour of some of Britain's waterways. I've mentioned before that I'm no book reviewer, and I'm not about to try to start now, but reading such a personal account reminded me that
  • booksellers are only human.
  • I was incredibly lucky to have finally visited this bookshop.

The former should be pretty obvious, but as booksellers also have the power to transport us to different worlds and bring magic to our lives it's easy to forget they're not superheroes with perfect lives.

As for the latter, the bookshop is on a boat. It moves. There's therefore no guarantee it'll be where you want it, when you want it. Its common home is Barton Marina in Staffordshire, so that's probably a good place to start looking when you decide to pop round for a visit. However plans are afoot to move abroad so I suggest you visit sooner, rather than later. If you live in Britain, that is.

My visit to The Book Barge couldn't've happened on a lovelier day: the sun was shining, the roads were clear and the marina easy to find. With no sign telling me where the bookshop would be, I decided to follow the crowds and head towards the nearest pub, which the barge is moored conveniently close to.

A smart, clean boat, open hatches containing books adorn the top, while an A-board at one end invites browsers to step aboard. Once there I climbed down a few steps into the boat, and spotted a couple sat chatting on a sofa at the other end of the barge. It felt a bit like I'd invaded their home but thankfully Sarah immediately greeted me, put the kettle on and offered me tea and cake.

I stupidly resisted the cake, but the cup of tea was very welcome as we chatted and I browsed. I've met many booksellers in my time, but the barge setting – complete with living and sleeping areas and kitchen – ensured it really did feel like I'd just popped in to say hi to a friend. The books are found all around the boat, on a central table and within shelves at the sides, meaning there was no forgetting I was in a bookshop, but this homely setting with a slight Scandinavian feel is unlike anything I've encountered before. It's simply beautiful.

Then I bent down to investigate a book on the bottom shelf and met the bookshop's other resident, when he gently headbutted me on the wrist. Napoleon Bunnypart is quite possibly the softest creature I've ever met, as well as the only bookshop bunny I've ever heard of.* I believe his role in the shop is to simply be adorably cute, but he is quite partial to nibbling on a dust jacket or two. He also likes to sit at a typewriter and contemplate his own novel whenever the mood takes him. Meeting such a literary bunny may have been unexpected, but he was a very welcome addition to my visit.

The Book Barge is a bookshop, a home and an experience. It's a place to feel welcomed. I could never take on the challenge Sarah's book relates, but I can appreciate the joy of what she's achieved.

The Book Barge
Barton Marina (probably), Barton Turn,
Barton-under-Needlewood, Burton upon Trent,
Staffordshire, DE13 8DZ
Tel: 07946 605324

* I'm happy to be corrected on that belief.