Friday 30 September 2016

Books and friendship

One of the things that makes bookshops great is the people. The majority of the time those people are obviously the booksellers, but the customers are always pretty great too, especially when they're a new-found friend.

This week's blog is as much about one of those people as it is about the bookshop they introduced me to.

I've previously mentioned Tamzin, so you know she was kind enough to show me around Bath, what I didn't mention before is how pleased I was to be able to meet up with a random Twitter friend and realise I'd made a real-life friend too. Which I can assure you is not guaranteed when you've only 140 characters and can be a bit shy about meeting new people.

Fortunately, bookshops are great ice breakers and it was in Bookbarn International – hidden away on an industrial estate somewhere between Bath and Bristol – where our friendship was properly formed in the real world.

The bookshop is ginormous. Which is great when you're wandering around with a new friend because it gave us plenty of time and space to chatter away uninterrupted, while exploring what felt like hundreds of rows of secondhand books. It's also got a large cafe, meaning we were able to relax over soup and a drink while we carried on talking. Had there been time, I reckon we could've happily spent the whole day in this bookshop.

As it was we had other places to be, so we couldn't dawdle too long as we wandered up and down all those bookshelves, shopping basket in hand to fill with all the stumbled-upon books you knew you'd always wanted.

The whole place is a treasure trove, with everything from old yellow Penguins to rare books and other fascinating sections including a bookcase dedicated to cats (oh, how I could've spent a small fortune there). However I was so busy enjoying the good company and great atmosphere, I failed to find a book to buy. Even when I went to the children's section, certain such a large place must have the particular book in a series I'm slowly hunting down, I found myself empty-handed.

Fortunately, Tamzin pointed out the obvious: in Bookbarn International what you see isn't all you get. Extra to the rows and rows of bookcases there are whole other rooms, hidden from view, where the majority of the million books in stock are stored. It was a tiny bit disappointing to realised I wouldn't get to see those books but it's probably a good thing they're hidden away: There's plenty to keep browsers happy on the shop floor and too many books to choose from (even for book-addicts like me) could potentially be overwhelming.

Also, those hidden books are still available to browse. Tamzin took me to a collection of computers in the cafe area and helped me to understand how their stock check system works. I'll admit, when she first explained, I was a little unhappy about looking up a book on a computer – how could that be a proper bookshop experience? But once I'd typed the words "Peter Duck" into the machine, written the book's code down and then – at last – handed my slip to a physical bookseller everything was okay again.

We continued browsing while my real-world human bookseller went behind the scenes to dig out my request, the third book in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series*. Even better, when the bookseller returned she had several copies so I could choose the one I wanted according to condition, price, smell and any other criteria I wanted to use. The novelty of having a selection of books delivered to you within the bookshop setting is certainly appealing and definitely meets my criteria of sales being made face-to-face.

The extra time loitering was also well-spent, as I picked out some origami bunting and Tamzin added a little book art to her purchases.

Bookbarn International is a huge place in the middle of nowhere. While I know I'd have one day found it with the help of sat nav and a map, and would probably have eventually worked out what I was doing with the computers** the whole of this experience was made possible because a random person on Twitter was kind enough to help me out and become my friend.

I loved the size and variety of Bookbarn International and I definitely recommend you take a visit for an unusual bookshop experience, but for me the thing that makes it special is that it's where I got to know my new friend.

Bookbarn International
Unit 1, Hallatrow Business Park,
Wells Road, Bristol, Somerset,
BS39 6EX
Tel: 01761 451333

*It feels wrong to buy a series of books out of order. I already owned the first book before this blog began and I bought the second book here.

**Probably not, technology confuses me so I'd have most likely ended up doing my usual trick of hunting down an unsuspecting bookseller.

Friday 23 September 2016

Florence exchange

You already know how nervous I can get about failing to speak the right language when visiting a foreign country, but have I mentioned how I can occasionally struggle with international bookshops?

Don't get me wrong, I love visiting them and walking around spotting covers I recognise in languages I don't, but I also find them very frustrating. I want to be able to open the books and read and understand the words, but my ignorance won't let me. Instead I wander around enjoying the view but frustrated by my inability to understand: it's like taking a child into a sweetshop but making them watch all the other children enjoy the stock.

Thankfully, every now and then, a bookshop comes along to help me out. It either has an English language section or – in the case of this week's bookstore – is all in my native tongue.

Paperback Exchange has been located near the Duomo in Florence, Italy, since 1979, when it was established as an Anglo-American family business, and a welcome quiet haven in the centre of Florence. These are words stolen from their own website that exactly sum up how I felt when walking into the air-conditioned cool one hot, sunny afternoon during my holiday.

It's a good-sized space, with two rooms, lots of bookshelves and a couple of seats scattered around for browsers to relax in. Books are fiction and non-fiction, with areas for local interest and a row of bookcases dedicated to Italian fiction that particularly attracted me. Stock is a mix of new and secondhand.

Starting life as a secondhand bookstore where customers could exchange old for new-to-you (as the name would suggest), it gradually evolved to also offer properly new books as the years passed. These are all shelved next to each other, giving browsers the chance, for example, to browse several copies of the Decameron in varying stages of life. I was particularly attracted to a slightly battered book with just the right level of notes in the margin to enhance your reading pleasure. The hefty tome would have come home with me were I not worried about baggage weight restrictions imposed by a particularly strict airline.

Instead I opted for the third book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, Those who leave and those who stay. I'm a little late to the party with these books and it seemed only right to continue my reading of Italian novels thanks to a purchase in an Italian bookstore. My only complaint is that of the four books in the series this was the only one to not be available as a secondhand copy and I refuse to buy a series out of order – how I'd have loved to stumble across someone else's notes in the margins while I read* – but I'm sure many of you will agree that's no reason to complain.

Paperback Exchange, and Florence as a whole, were wonderful, friendly places to visit (whether English or Italian-speaking) and I encourage every one of you to add this friendly family bookstore to your itinerary should you be holidaying nearby.

Paperback Exchange
Via delle Oche, 4Red
50122 Firenze, Italy
Tel: +39.055.293460

*I'm a big fan of (within reason) allowing books to become changed: battered in handbags, corners folded and words underlined. All help to tell the story of the book's journey and I'm sure I'll write a miscellaneous post on the subject one day to try and win one or two more of you around.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Simple pleasures

This blog often sees bookshops described as destinations, highlighting their many differences and explaining why each one is uniquely appealing. Perhaps it stocks otherwise out of print titles, has a mascot, is a cool place to hang out or is a great place to hear live music.

These are all wonderful, important details and great ways to remind people why they should be spending a little more time appreciating their local bookshop.

Sometimes the reason the place is special is simply because it is a bookshop.

The Guisborough Bookshop in North Yorkshire is surprisingly large for a market town*, but its unusual details are limited. Fortunately, while I'm a fan of all those special, unusual details, I'm also a fan of simple things. Like books.

From full-priced to discount, fiction to non, and a well allocated children's area, the large space means browsers have a lot of books to choose from. Which means there were lots of browsers at the time of my arrival – mid Northern Bookshop Adventure – and lots of people means lots of atmosphere.

The bookshop was exactly the right level of busy to generate a buzz from conversation without being too jostled and while it meant I waited a long time to take photographs that didn't include people that's hardly a thing to complain about. I enjoyed the mix of shoppers (and their random conversations) across the whole bookshop, but the thing I found particularly special was seeing the parents introducing their young children to books. The shelved-off children's area made me think this was a particularly safe space for little ones to gather in as they develop their love of books.

Extra to this, a large area for cards and other bits and pieces at the back (think independent Clintons) means there were even more people popping in for a birthday card and finding themselves distracted by the appeal of the books. It's a clever layout and filled me with joy at the thought of all those accidental readers and book gifts accompanying the cards.

My gift to myself was Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, followed by a bit of a wander around Guisborough. I'm becoming quite a fan of market towns.

The Guisborough Bookshop
4 Chaloner Street, Guisborough,
Cleveland, North Yorkshire, TS14 6QD
Tel: 01287 610179

*I have a feeling I'm often surprised by the large size of market town bookshops, maybe I need to move to one of these places so I can make the most of the phenomenon.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Making every corner count

Good things come in small packages, and never has this been more apparent than in this week's bookshop.

Book Corner in Saltburn-by-the-Sea was the final destination on day one of my Northern Bookshop Adventure and it is tiny.

It's so small I possibly have more bookcases in my own living room, but none of my books are for sale (and you probably wouldn't want to buy most of them if they were). Book Corner may not have a lot of stock but what there is is excellently displayed and very well selected. There's also room for bags of personality and a very friendly welcome.

My visit coincided with Shakespeare's birthday, so I had the option to try on period costume and take part in activities – which was a pretty impressive offering given the small floor space available – but instead I opted to enjoy the bookshop itself. I also made friends with the bookseller, who obviously cares a great deal for her work and knows a great deal about books, meaning we had a good chat about all she's achieved over the past few years. Some of those achievements are visible within the bookshop itself, including a selection of recommendations from regular customers and good community support, but the rest are simply evidenced in the success of the bookshop.

For instance, the diminutive size of Book Corner obviously doesn't put customers off. During my visit a cute puppy popped in for a browse with her human family, proving the bookshop can comfortably hold a good number of people if you're willing to be polite and alternate which shelves you look at. This requirement isn't a problem because every corner of the bookshop is worth appreciating. I certainly had no trouble finding a purchase (Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller) and the other customers looked just as happy as me.

Found opposite the railway station, Book Corner is an easy place to visit if you're taking a trip to Saltburn-by-the-Sea and definitely worth a few minutes of your time on the way to the blustery seafront. Which is where I headed next, after a day dedicated to book-buying it was only right I reward myself with an ice cream.

Book Corner
Unit 1, The Regency Buildings,
Station Square, Saltburn-by-the-Sea,
North Yorkshire, TS12 1AG
Tel: 01287 348010

Friday 2 September 2016

Bookshop takes us on a world tour

Most of us are very particular when it comes to the shelving of our books. Alphabetical order is generally a given, as is shelving by genre, but not everyone does things the same way, with the one common thread being order of some kind.

For instance, all of my books are in order but a significant number of my shelves no longer follow the alphabet. When I started this blog the books got placed according to when the bookshop they were from got written about. It's a nice reminder of my journey and also a lot easier than shuffling along the entire bookcase every week. And I'm not alone.

I've met people who order books by colour, by date read or studied or simply by height. So long as there's an order of some kind my bookish OCD can cope and I'm able to resist the urge to re-shelve all their books by the alphabet.

Which means I'm okay when I find myself in a bookshop that doesn't immediately appear to follow the alphabet either.

Travelling Through... on Lower Marsh near Waterloo in London is one such bookshop. In its own words: "Whether it is fiction, non-fiction, travel writing, memoir or biography, we categorise our recommendations by continent, country and place rather than by genre. In this way, we hope to inspire cultural discovery across the world and across London."

The journey to the bookshop itself is one of discovery as you leave the mainline train station to head in the opposite direction to the way most people are heading. I'd not previously heard of Lower Marsh, but it's a varied and interesting street of shops and places to eat* if you're looking for an alternative London experience. My trip was as part of a bookshop crawl, so I didn't have time to fully investigate all that was on offer, but I could easily have loitered nearby (and in the bookshop) for longer.

The bookshop itself appears to be a small journey of discovery, and the main room is nicely compact. However that room is still very well-filled and leads on to other equally interesting rooms and even a large basement cafe (where secondhand books are available) which looked like the perfect opportunity to travel the world on a plate as well as a page.

Staying in the main part of the shop, there's a bookcase for travel guides, a wall to journey around the world and a selection of recommendations, which at the time of my visit comprised books linking to an exhibition being held further along the road.

It was the world wall with its continental shelving system and clocks indicating different timezones that made my visit memorable. Seeing the books by country really did take me on a cultural journey, making me think beyond the alphabet and appreciate how little books care for borders or ethnic differences: a good book is a good book no matter where it originates from.

It also made me think more about where my own reading choices are from and realise they're more international than I'd assumed. While browsing I expected to choose a title from some far-flung place in an attempt to broaden my horizons, but the other thing I was reminded of while visiting Travelling Through... was that you don't have to travel far to find interesting experiences.

My purchase, thanks to a bookseller recommendation, came from Ireland: Anne Enright's The Green Road. Not a distant country geographically, I was surprised by how few books I knew from there and pleased to have some of them picked out for me during our conversation.

Its proximity to Waterloo railway station means Travelling Through... is a surprisingly easy bookshop to visit when you are travelling through or simply exploring the area. Best of all, thanks to those well organised shelves, it's a journey around this wonderful world.

Travelling Through…
131 Lower Marsh, Waterloo,
London, SE1 7AE
Tel: 020 7633 9279

*I also recommend walking along the back of the street, where a giant model camel can be spotted on the roof of a restaurant. Obviously.