Thursday 27 October 2016

A happy turn of events

Planning ahead is a very good skill to have. Apparently.

It would certainly have come in handy a few weeks ago, when we set off in search of orange bunting-clad bookshops celebrating National Bookshop Day. The day was a success, but it could have gone very wrong when the first bookshop we visited turned out to not been the bookshop we were looking for.

The mix-up occurred due to my inability to remember names combined with a vaguely similar address, so it's a miracle we even ended up at a bookshop. However, given this bookshop's apparently not even on the internet, I'm seeing my error as a happy turn of events: If I'd gone to the right place, who knows how long it might have taken me to even appreciate the existence of Highgate Bookshop.

Everything you could want an independent bookshop to be, it's packed with a great selection of books and obviously well-frequented by the community. There was room to move but the shop was busy enough to mean manners were needed to comfortably work my way around all the shelves.

The bookshop's clearly split into non-fiction, children's and fiction, with a good mix of new releases and standout titles highlighted for those in a hurry. General fiction covers two walls and is impressively varied. In particular, I was pleased to find their book-buyer obviously appreciates their classics and had selected a number of more unusual books by some of my favourite authors. This led to a long time eyeing up the works of Edith Wharton, who is rarely seen beyond her most famous title*, with the only reason I didn't buy from among this selection being that I need to check which ones I own. Instead I bought Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell, another writer who can't be recommended enough.

Like this week's blog, my time in Highgate Bookshop was brief, but my appreciation of the place isn't. The fact is, the story of this destination is simply that it's a stereotypically good new bookshop: a place to escape the every day and find your next favourite read, in a smart setting and the company of other book lovers.

Highgate Bookshop
9 Highgate High Street,
Highgate, London,
N6 5JR
Tel: 020 8348 8202

PS. I usually like to include a link to the bookshop's website and social media, but apparently Highgate Bookshop cannot be found in the virtual world, so instead here's a link to a (much more detailed) write-up at The Matilda Project. And if you'd like to see more (and better) photos, check out London Books. Finally, if anyone does know of a web link that might get people to the bookshop itself I'd appreciate your sharing it.

*The Age of Innocence happens to be my all-time favourite book, I'm still collecting up her slightly lesser-read works.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Escape the rain

One of my favourite places to hang out in during a rainstorm is a cozy pub with a roaring fire. Not the answer you were expecting on a bookshop blog? My other favourite place to escape the rain is a bookshop.

Not only did this week's bookshop offer me a cosy sanctuary from torrential rain, it also came with tea.

Found in Oswestry, on the Welsh border, it appeared Booka Bookshop must be used to welcoming damp or drenched customers, as I was greeted by a row of colourful umbrellas just inside the door. The pale shopfront had been a bright welcome on the drizzly day of my visit but I imagine even on sunny days this is a welcome place to visit, whether to browse for books or simply catch up with a friend in the cafe.

As the cafe area was full – and if I'm honest that wasn't my priority anyway – I began my visit among the books. Everywhere felt light and summery, even though it was a dull day outside, and the gentle buzz coming from the cafe and other browsers gave the whole room a very friendly atmosphere. Which is quite an achievement in a shop as large as this.

The comfy cafe area alone took up the space of your average medium-sized bookshop, with roughly another two thirds of room dedicated to books and gifts. My priority was the books but I also enjoyed the randomness of a shelf full of alarm clocks, and there was lots more to tempt should you for some reason want to buy things other than books. This bookshop is also packed with interesting details to catch the eye and make you smile – including these rather lovely Books are my bag tote cushions.

I dithered for some time over my choice of purchase as I made the most of the mix of all genres combined together under the one bracket of fiction. The way this enables and encourages browsers to leave their comfort zone and discover a wider range of fiction than they would perhaps ordinarily be used to is a big plus in my eyes. It also meant I was drawn to a title I'd not previously considered: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

Having bought my book I checked the status of the weather – still raining – and returned to the cafe just as a table came free. Somehow able to resist the delicious array of cakes on display (I can't have been feely well that day), I settled down with my new book and a pot of tea.

The rain was still flowing when I finished my chapter and drank the last of my tea, but the warmth and friendliness of Booka Bookshop had set me up for the day.

Booka Bookshop
26-28 Church Street, Oswestry,
Shropshire, SY11 2SP
Tel: 01691 662244

PS. My apologies to Booka Bookshop, as they'll know from the window display, it's some time since this visit took place. No disrespect is meant by the delay in sharing this lovely bookshop, other events just got in the way.

PPS. Don't just take my word for it that Booka is great, here's a guest post about the bookshop.

Friday 14 October 2016

National Bookshop Day 2016

***As usual, here's an introduction to my National Bookshop Day bookshop crawl. I'll write about individual destinations in more detail over the coming weeks***

If books are my bag, bookshops are my home, heaven, place of worship, and everything else that indicates a great place to hang out.

So you can probably imagine how excited I was to discover Saturday, 8th October, was named the first ever National Bookshop Day. Ignoring the fact I believe every day should be bookshop day, I knew it was important to celebrate this one in style. I couldn't just wander around the capital greedily collecting up as many bookshop experiences as possible. Instead I set about roughly planning a route, taking in a limited selection of destinations hosting events between my home in Kent and a bookshop birthday party being thrown in the north of the country.

The route wasn't particularly well plotted – it certainly wasn't as direct as a motorway – but it ensured the maximum amount of bookshop parties in relation to distance travelled.

Then I got a call from the BBC. A few months previously I'd emailed their Saturday Live show telling them how I spend my weekends visiting bookshops, and now they were inviting me to share the experience with other listeners.

If there's one thing I love more than visiting bookshops it's knowing other people are visiting bookshops. Even knowing there were a string of places I wanted to visit, there was no way I could pass up on this opportunity, especially on National Bookshop Day.

Of course, rather than doing the sensible thing and thinking about how I'd rearrange my plans, I then spent the next week in a state of over-excitement, bouncing off walls and failing to engage my brain. Which led to a hasty bit of planning the day before, trying to work out what and where my boyfriend and I could go to celebrate bookshop day.

All bookshops are great, but there's a lot to be said for taking the time to plan, as I discovered at the start of our bookshop crawl.

Destination number one (after recovering from all the Radio 4 excitement and navigating a spaghetti junction of tube stations) was up a hill, past Dick Whittington's cat in Highgate. The first thing that struck me was that this wasn't the bookshop I'd intended to visit. There was no orange bunting or balloons and everything was simply business as usual.

This could have been a let down but we all know bookshops are fab, and Highgate Bookshop proved that with its friendly atmosphere and extensive selection of books. My lack of organisation may mean I mixed its name up with somewhere else, but the experience was still one to enjoy, especially because it saw me go home with Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Next up was a bookshop I'd meant to get to as the final stop of last year's bookshop crawl, if I'd not become so engrossed in the east.

As the sister to one of my semi-regular haunts, Queens Park Books is somewhere I've long wanted to visit and was pleased to discover it felt familiar as soon as I walked inside. Small and stylish, I enjoyed my first splashes of Bookshop Day celebrations and it united me with a title that's long been on my must-buy list: Jenny Colgan's Resistance is Futile.

The bookshop is also notable for being attractive to pandas, but more on that in my proper write-up.

Wandering around the corner, we went secondhand with the Community Bookshop, or Offside Books as I know it on Twitter. A tiny space with big personality, the comfy sofa and chatty bookseller meant it didn't take long for us to appreciate the community aspect of this bookshop. I bought 10:04 by Ben Lerner.

Heading back into town, we took a brief break from bookshops to pop into independent record shop Sister Ray. It's usually hard to distract me from books, but as the lack of good music shops on the average high street is part of what made me so determined to tell people about bookshops, this diversion seemed appropriate. It's not pictured here, but I showed my support by purchasing Portishead by Portishead.

Next up came Gosh! Comics. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have even considered including anywhere with the word comic in a bookshop crawl. As my full write-up will explain, I'm glad I now know better.

There was a great buzz to this bookshop, which was crammed with readers of all ages browsing through a broad range of graphic novels and comics.

Thanks to a friend's recommendation, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson was my book of choice here.

Finally, I took my boyfriend for his first ever trip to the now not so new Foyles. How he's gone so long without visiting is beyond me, but it did give me the opportunity of re-living my first visit through his eyes. It was great watching his reaction to the wide range of titles on offer and gave me an excuse to buy one final book: Pushkin Press' Browse: The world in bookshops.

Highgate Bookshop
9 Highgate High Street, Highgate, London, N6 5JR
Tel: 020 8348 8202

Queens Park Books
87 Salusbury Road, Brent, London, NW6 6NH
Tel: 020 7625 1008 @QPBooks

The Community Bookshop/Offside Books
92 Willesden Lane, Kilburn, London, NW6 7TA
Tel: 020 3609 1150 @OffSideBooks

Gosh! Comics
1 Berwick Street, Soho, London W1F 0DR
Tel: 020 7636 1011 @GoshComics

107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT
Tel: 020 7437 5660 @Foyles

Friday 7 October 2016

The town with the difficult name

Wales has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from visits to relatives and long school holidays to eventually spending a few years living there myself. I love returning to the country as often as possible and I'm always surprised when I meet those rare poor souls who are yet to visit.

My favourite area of Wales is the west. Travelling north from Cardigan to Machynlleth I've explored a good proportion of the beaches, countryside, towns and villages and when visiting Aberystwyth it feels like I'm going home. Given it's more than a decade since I've lived there it's probably time I mentally moved on.

All this love means I'm a bit of a menace if you happen to be in the area with me. I'll try to drag you to all my favourite haunts, share hundreds of memories of visits and insist you come along to my favourite cafe or pub. In the past I'd also have dragged you into my favourite bookshop but nowadays lots of those places have closed so I can only talk about the gems people are missing out on. However, as times change new attractions are also opening.

Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop in Machynlleth didn't exist in my day, but had the bookshop been born it would certainly have been one of my reasons for visiting the town.

I discovered this bookshop, which has actually been around for many years, during a recent tour of the area as part of my annual Rail Ale Trail. The visit was late in the day, but lots of train travel and my decision to skip a pub to visit mean sobriety was not an issue here. It also gave my friends a few minutes of peace from an over-enthusiastic me telling them how much I like the town's clock tower/pub/hippie shop/famous residents.

The bookshop is a series of small rooms, with smart shelves of new and secondhand books in English and Welsh sitting side-by-side. Above these at the time of my visit, a striking black and white photography display contrasted with all the colourful spines and lived up to the gallery part of the bookshop's name. And as I entered the bookshop this was all perfectly illuminated by sunshine streaming through the window, and the smile of the friendly bookseller.

She welcomed me in, gave a brief but helpful explanation of the layout of the bookshop and then left me to enjoy my surroundings. It was a welcome moment of calm in between the excitement of my travels and I enjoyed familiarising myself with the selections and working out the not-quite-straightforward-but-actually-very-sensible arrangement of different combinations of fiction – if you're wondering what I'm on about you'll have to travel over for a visit, I can't give everything away in this blog. My purchase was Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, not the most obvious choice in such a calming place but for me it's a good reminder of the diversity of Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop's stock.

Machynlleth's not somewhere many people can pronounce* and as far as I'm aware – beyond the Centre for Alternative Technology and miles of beautiful but slightly rainy countryside – it doesn't have a big tourist industry so I'm guessing visitors are few and far between. But in my eyes these are perfect reasons to visit, especially when that train line makes access so easy.

Then, once you arrive in the town but want a rest from all the fresh air and countryside, pop along to Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop and find a book to curl up with, preferably in one of the local pubs.

Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop
Heol Pen'rallt, Machynlleth,
Powys SY20 8AJ
Tel: 01654 700559

*Try mak-un-cleth, although many of us get around the risk of ruining the name by simply calling it Mach.