Wednesday 30 November 2016

Three is the magic number

It was freezing in Cambridge this Sunday, so when accosted in the street by a student intent on selling us tickets for a punt trip the last thing I wanted to do was say yes.

Having bought the tickets and found ourselves with half an hour to spare, the next last thing I wanted to do was leave the sanctuary of the unexpected bookshop we'd stumbled into for shelter.

We arrived in Cambridge late on Saturday evening, having done no research and barely able to find our hastily-booked cheap hotel (which was accidentally/fortunately almost in the centre of the university district). We wandered around until we had the luck to find a (fortunately very good) restaurant with a table and then shivered our way home, still none the wiser as to where anything was.

Sunday started a little better as daylight meant we were better able to spot landmarks and enjoy the atmosphere of the city, with every corner revealing something new and interesting to discover. It may have been cold, but the beauty of our surroundings meant it was an enjoyable experience.

Then we booked the punt. And stumbled across Heffers. Which turns out to be massive. We were in and out in roughly ten minutes and if you've ever managed to prevent yourself from throwing a strop after such a brief encounter with a large bookshop then you'll appreciate the remarkable self-restraint I demonstrated. Admittedly, I had been promised a return after our journey along the water, but I was being taken out of the warmth of a bookshop to sit on a piece of wood on an icy river. I was not happy.

Fortunately I love both water and boats of all shapes and sizes, so once I'd got over the wobbles of climbing aboard and realised our low level and full punt meant we were relatively warm and sheltered from the wind I was able to relax and enjoy myself, but it was a close thing when a few spots of rain threatened us just before cast off. The boat trip was fun and – I'm happy to admit – a pleasant way to see and hear more about Cambridge than we'd ever have managed with our wanderings.

Also, once we returned to dry land we returned to Heffers Bookshop. The place is huge, with a central board games section overlooked by the upper levels of the bookshop. This was the area we'd explored during our brief earlier visit, when we'd scampered in through the back door and briefly viewed a gorgeously colourful children's section. As a wannabe board game geek, I loved this addition to the bookshop and made sure I returned for a second look and to appreciate the diversity of good quality games available.

During our first visit we'd picked up Loot Letter, a mini Munchkin card game, so this time the priority was books.

We split up to better cover the ground, with me gradually making my way along the side of the bookshop dedicated to fiction. Raised above the rest of the shop, this long row of shelves arranged into cubbies was both small and intimate while also being open to view the rest of my surroundings. I'm yet to experience a bookshop like it but I definitely recommend this contrasting experience. It really enabled me to appreciate my surroundings and the efforts of the booksellers, with one man in particular standing out as somehow being everywhere and appearing to successfully answer the questions of pretty much every customer in the shop. I didn't catch his name but I feel certain the bookshop must know who he is.

Halfway around this level/layer/floor of bookshop (each word could be equally appropriate), somewhere between general fiction and sci fi, I paused to look out at my surroundings and spotted what became my main purchase of the day: Instructions to the young bookseller, a transcript of a 1933 speech made by Ernest Heffer. It's a wonderful read. However this hadn't been my intended book as I'd already found a copy of my favourite book, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. This was one of four different versions available – Heffers is very well stocked – and seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up another copy to share with an unsuspecting friend (I give this book as often as possible).

Then, once again, it was time to leave because we had a table booked for lunch. I hadn't seen all of the bookshop, but I'd at least managed to enjoy a good hour or so's browsing, which meant leaving was a little less painful this time. Fortunately, during our time of browsing apart my boyfriend had become so engrossed in the books he'd put his gloves down and forgotten them.

Returning to a bookshop a third time in one – short – day might seem a little excessive, but given there was still shelf space to be explored I wasn't about to complain. First of all though, a trip to the customer service desk where the all pervasive bookseller spotted earlier reunited us with the lost gloves.

This time we retreated beyond children's books (still welcoming and colourful), past a music section that even stocked a limited selection of instruments alongside its CDs and DVDs and into the basement. Here much of the non-fiction can be found, as well as a few unexpected treats. For example, as Heffers is now owned by Blackwells it stocks a random gift I've long heard about but not yet seen: cuddly germs. My excitement at this encounter led to my accidentally influencing the purchase of one student, who heard me gleefully exclaim "I've found syphilis" and went on to buy his own choice of microbe as a birthday present for a friend.

Finally, for a third time, we made our way to the exit. Only this time we were in less of a hurry and got caught by one of the various recommends stands. Before we knew it I'd found His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and my boyfriend had chosen a birthday present for his own friend (who I'm sure will be disappointed to discover he missed out on a cuddly microbe): Stephen King's The bazar of bad dreams. As these books were part of a three for two offer he also selected a title for himself: The price of inequality by Joseph E Stiglitz.

My one book per shop rule may have been spectacularly broken, but as I personally only ended up with one book per visit I'm not being too hard on myself. Especially because while everything about our encounter with Heffers Bookshop was accidental, there isn't a thing about it that I'd change.

The punts, the restaurants and all the history of Cambridge were impressive, but for me the highlight of the visit will always be Heffers.

Heffers Bookshop
20 Trinity Street, Cambridge,
Cambridgeshire, CB2 1TY
Tel: 01223 463200

Thursday 24 November 2016

There's nothing like a good yarn

A few days ago at work we were talking about yarn bombing and it reminded me of a lovely spring day in Thirsk that I've not yet shared with you.

I was in North Yorkshire as part of what I affectionately called my Northern Bookshop Adventure, but by chance my arrival in Thirsk almost coincided with that of the Tour de Yorkshire and the community's way of celebrating it: by dressing up the town in yarn. And we're not just talking pompoms in trees. There were bollard covers, woolly-footed benches and all manner of bright and colourful creations adorning the main square of the town.

As a first experience of the place it was wonderful. I parked up and explored, enjoying not just my surroundings but also the reactions of the people around me. It was a very happy, friendly experience – and that was before I'd even made it to the bookshop.

White Rose Book Cafe has been on my list ever since the first Books are my bag day, when a chance Twitter conversation saw us chatting about washing tote bags and hanging them on the line (see the bookshop's Twitter avatar). Back then I was a naive new blogger and this bookshop was one of the first random strangers to talk to me. The memory stuck with me and I looked forward to finding out more. I only wish it hadn't taken me so long to visit.

A yarn flower covered the door handle as I made my way in to the particularly spacious bookshop. From the front I'd known it would be wide, I hadn't realised quite how far back it would stretch – and the bookshop is on two floors.

If you're in a hurry, the front area is enough to satisfy your fiction needs, with alphabetised shelves as well as recommendations areas. However delving deeper to find offers, non-fiction and more is definitely recommended. After the main part of the bookshop you come to the cafe area, which at the time of my visit was around half-full and generating a happy buzz of conversation.

Alongside this is part of the children's section, or head upstairs to board games, young adult and more non-fiction. Up here there's also an activity room.

I enjoyed taking my time to explore, especially because the bookshop's open layout means you always feel a part of the activity, even if you're browsing alone. Not that I was alone for long as I soon headed back to the front of the shop for a chat with the bookseller.

Her recommendations were varied and excellent, but I have to confess for the first time ever I didn't follow them because, just as I was dithering over several of her highlighted titles, a book that's long been on my must-buy list caught my attention. Nick Hornby's Long Way Down is one of the favourite books (and, interestingly, films) of a friend's teenage daughter and her praise of it means I'm pleased to have finally added it to my bookshelves.

White Rose Book Cafe is every bit as friendly as I'd anticipated and is easily large enough to lose an afternoon – or longer – in. I may have taken several years to get there but the joy of exploring, coupled with this long-sought for book, means it was definitely worth the wait.

There was only one thing left to do: settle down for a coffee while I dived into my new yarn.

White Rose Book Cafe
79-81 Market Place, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 1ET
Tel: 01845 524353

Thursday 17 November 2016

I believe in bookshops

This week we go to possibly the most out of my comfort zone bookshop I've ever visited. As bookshops go, this one was so far down my list of places to visit I'm not sure it was even on the list.

But it was Independent Bookshops Week and my boyfriend had heard about the place from a friend. My boyfriend was good enough to let me drag him around hundreds* of bookshops, the least I could do is let one of those bookshops be somewhere he'd suggested.

Which is how we ended up at a home of magic, esotericism and the occult, Treadwell's Books in Bloomsbury.

As we walked along Store Street, he admitted it wasn't his usual idea of a bookshop, but he also reassured me my reservations were unfounded: despite our complete lack of belief we'd still be made to feel welcome. I wasn't so sure but the least I could do was find out.

From the front the bookshop looks normal enough, which was some reassurance but not quite enough to make me feel at home. Yet.

Inside, the bookshop has its esoteric quirks but the thing that struck me the most was the walls of dark wooden shelves crammed with books. It's impossible to be uncomfortable when you find yourself in such a setting, especially one so well organised – the genres may have been different from what I'm used to but everything was very easy to find.

I'll admit, my own personal tastes and beliefs mean I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by some of the sections but I could still appreciate the range of subjects and diversity of books collected under each genre. None of them were books I wanted to buy, but they were certainly informative and made me think.

Then, towards the back of the shop, I found some shelves I recognised.

Split into centuries; life and letters; and other "ordinary" categories, these books served a good purpose in giving this skeptic a place to comfortably loiter while I took in my surroundings.

The bookshop is medium-sized, stretching quite a way behind its small front. The dark shelves are perfect for the atmosphere and comfy chairs give plenty of places for browers to relax. At the time of our arrival there appeared to be an event of some kind downstairs, so we were unable to explore the second floor of the bookshop, but this did mean there were occasionally people passing through. Not only were these people friendly and welcoming, but their appearances were also a welcome reminder of how diverse and interesting book lovers can be: even lost among the subjects I was still very much at home.

While enjoying my observations I even found a purchase for myself, Dava Sobel's book about Copernicus: A more perfect heaven.

There was no need for Treadwell's to cater for the likes of non-believers such as myself, but the shelves I gravited towards emphasise the inclusivity of this fascinatingly unusual bookshop and are a reminder we don't have to share the same beliefs to be made welcome. Which is a lesson we should all take note of in these troubled times.

Treadwell's Books
33 Store Street, Bloomsbury,
London, WC1E 7BS
Tel: 020 7419 8507

*possibly a slight exaggeration

Thursday 10 November 2016

Step back in time

Who remembers the good old days? Weren't they great? Those days when everything was simpler and life was good?

Okay, so I don't remember those days but thanks to this week's bookshop I certainly enjoyed a glimpse of the past and how different life once was.

George Bayntun occupies a large building just a few steps from Bath Spa railway station. Despite this excellent location, I can't help wonder how many people wander past without even realising the bookshop is there. The building is understated and smart and while it fits into the historic surroundings of Bath it's completely overlooked by the brash brightness of a modern high street. I consider this to be a good thing.

I arrived at this bookseller and bookbinder a little after 2pm, when it had re-opened after lunch. I rang the doorbell and waited to be allowed in.

A friendly bookseller in jeans came to the door. The normality of their hello served as reassurance in a moment of nerves, helping me to remember all are welcome in a bookshop – even one was imposing as this.

George Bayntun is a combination of antiquarian and secondhand bookseller, bookbinder and even a print gallery. It's unlike anywhere I've ever been before.

The ground floor offers beautifully filled shelves and glass cabinets of books almost as expensive as my car but so stunningly bound I found myself contemplating offering a swap. Exploring the cabinets was an incredible experience and definitely worth my earlier brief flutter of nerves – these incredible surroundings really should be experienced by all book lovers.

Moving upstairs we find more books to make my bank manager's eyes water but still so wonderfully displayed (think personal library in a traditional old-fashioned home) that the idea I might be out of place never occurred to me – because I wasn't. Although the high prices mean it would be perfectly understandable if you instead choose to head straight to the basement.

This is where the regular secondhand bookshop is found: the bookshelves are functional and the books more averagely priced. A map at the entrance explains where the sections are and browsers are left to their own devices, allowing plenty of space to review the mix of old and new hardbacks. In such a classic bookshop it seemed only appropriate to choose a classic I've long meant to read: The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne.

At this point I'd like to give you more information on the history of this wonderful bookshop and all it offers, but that's all available on the website and nothing beats personal experience.

George Bayntun is a stunning bookshop from another time and somewhere I feel lucky to have experienced. If you get the chance, you should visit too.

George Bayntun
Manvers Street,
Bath, BA1 1JW
Tel: 01225 466000

Thursday 3 November 2016

A literary hangout

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be among the crowd at the second Books are my bag launch party.

It was an invite-only event at the then new Foyles, and guests included the great and the good from the bookshop world. There were booksellers, publishers, writers and even a few readers and other bloggers, and me. I've told you this before, so I won't repeat myself here, but the short story is I was in a room full of fascinating people and I wanted to get to know them.

At the end of the night I hadn't quite got to know all of them, but I had met a diverse and wonderful selection of people. One of them was writer and editor Abbie Headon. We kept in touch and, finally, last weekend I was able to take her up on her invitation to visit the bookshops of Portsmouth. It was a fun day of exploring and this week I'll tell you about our first stop: Blackwell's.

I have to be honest, being set in the middle of the concrete buildings of the university means this bookshop hasn't got the most beautiful surroundings in the world, but it is conveniently located for students and is also within walking distance of a large shopping centre. Two things which must work in its favour. More importantly, once you walk through the door it doesn't matter where this bookshop is, the world inside is more than enough.

The long shop front is completely glass, allowing light to pour in, opening up the bookshop and making it feel even more spacious than it already is. Our visit was a Saturday, so there wasn't the busy stream of students you'd expect from a weekday, but business was still steady and the atmosphere friendly.

We were lucky enough to stop by at the same time as a local author and editor, as well as meeting the manager and a few of the regulars. It wasn't long before tea and cake came out and I began to feel I'd found the literary heart of Portsmouth in this branch of Blackwell's.

As a university bookshop, a massive proportion of the stock is course-related, but this is simply catering for the market and I was by no means lost among text books. Fiction still greets you from recommends tables by the door and a comforting wall of it awaits to one side of the bookshop. Course books obviously find their way over here too, with ready-parcelled bundles collected together according to the English course syllabus (even as a non-student I'd have happily bought a bundle to take home with me).

The students of Portsmouth are obviously very well catered for.

We enjoyed browsing and chatting for some time and I have to admit I could've happily spent the day in this bookshop, soaking in the atmosphere and relaxing in such a friendly environment. Instead we had places to go, so we said goodbye to the bookseller and her booky surroundings after making our purchases: Only ever yours by Louise O'Neill for me, and I love Dick by Chris Kraus for Abbie. I also took home the Portsmouth Writers' Hub compilation Day of the dead and a greeting card, because we all need a cwtch every now and then and this was definitely a great big hug of a bookshop.

Blackwell's Portsmouth
University of Portsmouth, Cambridge Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 2EF
Tel: 023 9283 2813