Thursday, 14 September 2017

No strangers here

Booksellers are remarkable people, as are bookshoppers. For this week's bookshop both are what caught my eye, or ear, as I listened into conversations and enjoyed hearing the bookseller kept on her toes.

The venue was The Cobham Bookshop in Surrey, which was stop 2A on my latest bookshop crawl, stop 2 having been closed for the day. Set in a paved area away from the road, I'd expected to find a small space. In reality the bookshop is huge, stretching back much further than anticipated and also somehow managing to be wider than it appears from the outside too.

The front half included a good selection of fiction and fiction recommends tables, and it was here that my eavesdropping began, as a young customer came in looking for a gift for her mum, who 'reads books'. When gently questioned by the bookseller, the customer managed to elaborate that the books are usually big and contain stories, so I was very impressed  by the bookseller both for her patience and determination. Perseverance and gentle questioning about mum in general eventually drew out enough information for the young girl to find a gift she was happy with, but how booksellers manage this every day is beyond me.

Having started being nosy, it's very hard to stop, so while I admired the variety of fiction, a long wall of travel, non-fiction and a cheery children's area at the back (it's worth the long walk), I also found myself caught up in the conversations around me. There were discussions about loved or hated titles, must-read authors and plenty of collections of orders.

The Cobham Bookshop is clearly popular with the locals. I even met one customer who was enjoying his surroundings so much he joined in with the book recommending while I was queuing at the till. The only explanation I can come up with is that the large but somehow still cosy room is somehow spacious enough to make people feel comfortable chatting with strangers – but is anyone who loves books and bookshops really a stranger?

I selected I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes to be my purchase, but I could have gone for any number of other titles thanks to all the conversations I overheard.


The Cobham Bookshop
12A Anyards Road, Cobham,
Surrey, KT11 2JZ
Tel: 01932 862903
@CobhamBookshop

Monday, 11 September 2017

A feast for book lovers

While I'd recommend a visit to any bookshop featured in this blog, there are certain destinations that have achieved – in my mind – legendary status.

The bookshop might have been especially nice to me; or was recommended by a higher than average number of bookshoppers; maybe it stocked a particular title I'd hunted high and low to find; hosts intimate music evenings; had an especially friendly pet; or in the case of this week's subject, was not especially straightforward to visit.

Boulevard books and Thai cafe in Hastings on the south coast used to be a full-time secondhand bookshop, but like many others around the country, it had to diversify to survive. Where some have opened cafes or launched innovative booky experiences, this one became a restaurant.

Yes, you did read that correctly. You go to the bookshop, sit among the shelves and partake in a delicious two or three-course Thai meal. You can also buy a book.

The catch is that this offering has proved to be incredibly popular. Meaning getting a table is not necessarily an easy thing to do: "we had a wonderful meal, booked a month in advance" is a statement I've heard a lot. I'd even tried booking myself, but general disorganisation (phoning the day before) meant I'd had no luck. I'd even walked past and jealously looked through the windows, wondering when my turn would be.

Then, during a spur of the moment trip to Hastings on the last Bank Holiday, we walked past and saw the door open and books laid out on tables in front of the shop. The inside was closed to visitors while the family enjoyed their lunch, but we were told there were tables free if we wanted to return after 6pm. We had a quick look at the books and went to kill time for five hours.*


I'm not sure when the bookshop made the transformation to restaurant, but it's certainly a successful one. We returned at 6.05pm to claim the second table and not long after our arrival the rest of the bookshop had filled up, with yet more diners making the most of the summer evening at tables in front of the shop (the evening was nice, but not nice enough to draw me away from the books).

Our table was next to a corner bookcase stocking the early alphabet fiction, and I was initially confused as to what appealed to me most – the bookshelves or the Thai menu in front of me. The menu temporarily won, while the waiting staff politely told us the restaurant is cash only and we're welcome to pop across the road to buy our own wine. Having been pre-warned neither was a problem, we'd loaded up on cash and were driving. What we hadn't expected to find was that we didn't need to bring nearly as much money as we'd expected: the menu has a set price of £15 for a starter and main course. Which was all we intended to have. Honest.

Prawn crackers started the meal while we browsed the shelves and – very briefly – waited for our starters. My Thai soup was beautifully fresh, while my boyfriend chose a very tasty vermicelli salad which the restaurant helpfully adapted to be vegetarian. For the mains I chose something combining chicken and coconut milk while he went for a beautifully displayed stir fry. Accompanied by boiled rice and cooked to a medium spice level (we resisted trying the Thai extra hot option), everything was delicious and fresh, with portions just the right size that we felt treated but not greedy.

But who cares about the food when there are books?

To avoid intruding on diners the bookshop is only open to those diners, and I made the most of my visit by exploring as many shelves as possible in between courses and tables being refilled. The back room is dedicated to non-fiction and the whole shop is carefully organised to allow every table a certain amount of privacy, but ignoring the tables Boulevard Books and Thai Cafe looks and feels like a secondhand bookshop. Old favourites sit along modern novels, classics, sci-fi, crime and everything else.

It's as though one day the tables and menus simply appeared in the middle of the bookshop and the booksellers transformed into waiting staff. It all fits together perfectly and makes for a marvellous experience.

We were nicely full after dinner but a glimpse of homemade desserts and the opportunity to browse a while longer saw us jump at the chance of another course. Chocolate and caramel tart and a lemon meringue pie may not be traditional Thai dishes but they were certainly as delicious as everything else we'd consumed.

I then rounded off the meal with the purchase of a rather well-loved copy Robert Harris' Enigma for a mere 30p. Which I might have read a page or two of while enjoying my meal...


Boulevard books and Thai cafe
32 George Street, Hastings,
East Sussex TN34 3EA
Tel: 01424 436521

*Not strictly true, the five hours were spent enjoying the rest of Hastings, with me being only slightly distracted by the promise of what was to come.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Portal to a different world

If books are journeys to different worlds, then bookshops are the portals to them. Crammed with book-shaped passports to foreign intrigues, magical adventures and lives more remarkable or inspiring than our own. This week's bookshop is definitely such a portal, opening a wormhole between Baker Street in London and the golden, spice-laden streets* of Egypt.

But first a confession, I discovered this bookshop a long time ago and visited it over a year ago, during a very busy bookshop crawl. Which means these words come to you very late indeed, but the best things come to those who wait, so back to those spice-laden streets.

The Egyptian Alef Bookstore may not have the scent of the country but it was definitely golden, with late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows and making the shelves glow as if made of the precious metal. In reality the shelves were filled with something more special than gold: books.

A combination of remarkable reads any bookshop would be proud to display and Arabic titles I have no idea the contents of, there was much to discover on those shelves. I enjoyed the balance of the stock I do have the ability to read, with novels I recognised placed alongside what appeared to be a good variety of Egyptian titles and a large section of non-fiction too.

As good as the books I recognised were (the popular science section particularly appealed), it was the Egyptian titles that appealed to me the most – and the promise of being transported to a different world.


I had no idea where to start with the various recommendations, so instead I did what I do best and approached the booksellers for help. The man who stepped forward had the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen, and while I was mesmerised he politely listened to my plea for help and discussed what I was looking for before selecting his favourite book for me to try: Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali.

Which brings me to the other reason this blog is so delayed. In order to give a full picture of my experience I wanted to read the book before I wrote about the bookshop. Only I buy so many books and pick my next actual read so randomly (according to whichever unread title is in front of me at the time) that this one kept missing that rare golden moment of opportunity. Which is a crying shame because once I did finally reach that time I could not put the book down. I laughed, I cried, I swore, I related and I disagreed. All in just 224 pages. It was a remarkable read and even when scenes occurred in Britain it succeeded in transporting me to that different world and opening my eyes to how different our personal experiences can be.

In a world of increasing divisions and suspicions it's more important than ever to learn about our fellow humans who are both the same and different to ourselves. Egypt may be one country among many, but I figure it's as good a place as any to start. After all, as I said at the beginning, bookshops start us on journeys to different worlds – why shouldn't those worlds be close to our own?


Alef Bookstore
219 Baker Street, London, NW1 6XE
Tel: 020 7935 4311
@Alef_UK


*It may be around a decade since I visited the country but – thanks to a few days in Aswan – that is how I'll always remember it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Annual review #4: An apology and a promise

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of the bookshop blog, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting to wish it a happy birthday.

Look down the list of blogs posted and you'll see I've not written about a bookshop for almost a month, and that on more than one occasion this year I've failed to stick to my one bookshop per week promise. For that I apologise.

There's been no deliberate snub and this blog is definitely not finished, but since I sat down to write my manifesto so many years ago, my life has changed – in no small part as a result of this bookshopping hobby – and recently other commitments have had to, temporarily, take priority.

One key thing is that I've moved house, which means although the bookshop blog books were the first thing unpacked, my life still looks a lot like this:


and I can't easily post my annual photograph of how the book collection has progressed. Hopefully I'll remedy that in the near future.

Meantime, some highlights from my past year of bookshop blogging have to be mentioned. There's the obvious one of my appearance on BBC Radio 4, but when it comes to bookshops, it's the less obvious moments that tend to be the most special.

A game of hide and seek had me feeling like a child, while a tour around Portsmouth provided a variety of unexpected gems. I got to meet the second half of a pair of London bookshops, find out what all the fuss is when it comes to Terry Pratchett, and I had a beautiful surprise by the sea.

There was also sadness, when I finally met a bookshop on its last day in business, two years after I'd first tried to visit. I can't tell you the tears I shed after that visit.

Bookshops continue to be an important part of my life, places filled with wonder and welcome that even after all these years often appear in front of me at unexpected moments just when I need them most. I may not have written as frequently as I'd like these last few months, but my bookshopping has continued, and I'm just as excited to tell you about my recent visits as I was in the early days. Life is still slightly chaotic, but I promise normal (or relatively normal) service will resume.

Thank you for your patience and for continuing to keep me company on this bookshopping adventure – and don't forget, if I'm quiet one week you're welcome to share your own stories too.

Happy bookshopping,
Erica x

PS. I may still be living out of boxes, but Dolly is very happy in her new home. Here she is guarding what's visible of the bookshop blog shelves, while having a chat with a purchase from another much-missed gem.


Friday, 21 July 2017

Brief encounter

When you're in the middle of packing up all your possessions to move in with your boyfriend for the first time in your life, things can be a bit stressful.

There are boxes to find; books to pack; books to cull; books to hide*; bookshelves to move; CDs and DVDs to pack; at some point there'll be clothes to fold; bedding and towels to merge; kitchen equipment to squeeze into a smaller room; kettles to argue over; a cat to move as stresslessly as possible**... and in between all that there's work, eating, sleeping, breathing, dieting, socialising, exercising, and helping to organise an annual awards ceremony. If you don't get the image of a Very Busy Time then I have no idea how you cope with your life.

Which is why, when it came round to a random weekday booked off for a day trip to Brighton we arrived in the town with absolutely no idea where to find a bookshop***. And no brainpower to work out how to find one either. It was an opportunity to relax, switch off and forget about all the stresses of day-to-day life. The internet was off, and we hurried to nothing. We wandered around, ate doughnuts on the pier, bought mementoes from arty boutiques and generally fell in love with our bright, quirky, and wonderfully chilled surroundings. It was exactly what I needed, if only we could stumble across a bookshop.

I'd pretty much given up on that hope until we turned down a road in the North Laine. Pausing outside a lively pub, we spotted a man bending down to take in the doormat just as Brighton Books was closing up. I was pleased to have found what I now know to be one of many independent bookshops in the town, but also sad we were only there in time to see the door closed. I took a photo of the shop front for posterity and prepared to keep walking. Meanwhile my boyfriend had gone inside and asked the bookseller if we could just look in quickly. I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to keep the bookshop open longer than needed – booksellers have homes to go to too – but we were told we could have a couple of minutes.

I loved the colour and bustle of Brighton, but entering the cool, slightly darkened bookshop and finding myself surrounded by floor to ceiling secondhand books and a general sense of calm was the icing on the cake. I liked it even more when contrasted with the general Brighton buzz drifting through the open door. I quickly located the fiction taking up a good space at the back and took note of diversity and quality (good and good). It hadn't occurred to me that I'd manage to buy a book and so be able to feature the bookshop on this blog as the result of such a short visit, but as I turned to leave a slim volume caught my eye.

Edith Wharton is my all-time favourite author and so to be able to add her novella Ethan Frome to my collection without even trying felt like it was meant to be. Not only that, but my boyfriend also found a book: Turner, a life, by James Hamilton.

There's not much more I can tell you. There's a comfy looking chair and the bookshop has a downstairs but it had been closed when we arrived. The bookseller seemed friendly enough, but anxious not to delay him further, I kept my chatter to the absolute minimum. It was a brief encounter but a happy one, and yet another reason for us to return to Brighton.

Books were reasonably priced, so the bookseller didn't make much money out of allowing us those few minutes in his shop, but he did make us very happy.


Brighton Books  
18 Kensington Gardens, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 4AL
Tel: 01273 693845


*he really doesn't need to know about my Sweet Valley High collection
**impossible
***slight exaggeration, I did know of one but it was out of range at this time. I fell head over Irregular Choice heels for Brighton though, we'll be back again soon


UPDATE: 28th July 2017: I've just received a very lovely email from this bookshop, sharing all the local bookshops in Brighton. Independent bookshops are lovely.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Appearances can be deceiving, sometimes

Things aren't always what they seem, whether we're talking the answer to life, the universe and everything or simply looking at a good bookshop and its books.

In the case of this week's blog, I'll stick to the latter two subjects (although surely the answer to the first is liberal doses of bookshops and books), and tell you how constantly surprising The Bookshop in East Grinstead turned out to be.


From the front The Bookshop looks massive, with large modern windows set in an otherwise historic building. These windows are packed with books inviting passers-by in to what appears to be a large space, but the moment you're through the door you're instead transported into a small, cosy, period bookshop that wouldn't look amiss in a costume drama.

Look again and you realise the series of snug areas (including what appeared to be a very popular small cafe) squeezed in between beams and walls are actually filled with new books – this is far from the musty secondhand bookshop you'd expect from such an arrangement. The books are modern and the staff welcoming, and for me a wonderful reminder of what I'm missing out on with no immediately local indie nearby.

For Independent Bookshop Week, the booksellers had wrapped a variety of books in brown paper, with each identified by just four words that saw us almost completely unable to guess the reality from the clues. The idea was to inspire readers to look beyond the cover and genre and try something new and we certainly had fun taking part. This was also part of their The Art of Giving campaign, with donations of books being given to local charities later in the week. As I'm always keen to encourage and support other people's reading habits, we chose one mystery book for us and one to be a donation.

The books we chose were Australia, war, affair, Man Booker for us – because when we asked the bookseller we were again surprised to find things were not what they seemed and it wasn't A Town Called Alice – and Books, promises, romance, small town as our gift. Can you guess which books they are? Read on to find out.

Moving upstairs painted with the spines of books is where you come to the really fun part of the physical space, with a maze of small rooms (stocking the secondhand books) leading to a comfy event area and inspiring a lot of exploration and delight. The upstairs isn't massive, but the layout and content meant we could've been entertained for hours were we not on a bookshop crawl.

We completed our visit with a chat to the booksellers, who were as friendly, smiley and enthusiastic as you'd hope for, telling us more about events, books and the bookshop as a whole. It was a good start to the day and showed that in one way, at least, appearances aren't deceiving: as you'd expect from any good indie, The Bookshop is as welcoming and worth a visit as you could hope for.


The Bookshop
22 High Street, East Grinstead,
West Sussex, RH19 3AW
Tel: 01342 322669
@JohnPye7


Our purchases were The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The Little Bookshop of Promises by Debbie Macomber.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Independent Bookshops Week 2017 - bookshop crawl

***This is a brief overview of my Independent Bookshop Week bookshop crawl, to find out more about the individual destinations come back in future weeks.***

Over the past three years I've done my fair share of bookshop crawls. Some have been short, some numerous, some because I was invited, but until this week only one has been in company. Which is why, an hour before I was due to get in the car ready to be waiting outside the first bookshop at opening time, I found myself hastily revising down my plans and working out a shorter route so I could make the most of more company.

It was bookshop crawl day for Independent Bookshop Week 2017 – which included Harry Potter 20 celebrations – and my very hungover boyfriend had decided he'd like to join me for a day of bookshopping. Admittedly, he'd hinted at wanting to join me before then, but as he also wanted to watch the Lions rugby I'd not really taken him seriously. He was serious though, compromise was needed. I trimmed bookshops and changed my route, he agreed to leave the pub the moment the game finished and not be too hungover in my car. He mostly managed.

First on our list was delightfully friendly The Bookshop in East Grinstead. Shelves were assembled to perfectly complement the building within which they were housed, comprising two floors of rambling heaven and we bought from the mystery book section. Wrapped in brown paper, these books had just a few words to identify them and were part of a campaign to buy a book for a reader in need. We chose one for us, one to donate. Ours was labelled: Australia, war, affair, Man Booker, while the donation was: Books, promises, romance, small. They turned out to be The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The Little Bookshop of Promises by Debbie Macomber. Our day was off to a very good start.

Next up we drove to Surrey, for The Limpsfield Bookshop. Having previously failed in my attempt to visit, I'd checked the opening times and the IBW website. They were definitely taking part. I was looking forward to finally stepping inside and my slightly less fragile boyfriend was looking forward to fresh air and a break from my driving along winding lanes. He got his fresh air, I was less lucky with the bookshop, which was once again closed. I'm not giving up, one day I *will* work out their regular opening hours and meet the elusive bookseller.

Heading west, we took a gamble with our route and were lucky enough to make good headway on the M25 to The Cobham Bookshop. Unexpectedly large, this bookshop was busy with talkative customers who kept the bookseller – and each other – busy making recommendations. We enjoyed a chat with one such customer and left with Terry Hayes' I am pilgrim.

Winding roads took us to The Haslemere Bookshop, which is in an attractive market town. Fully revived, my boyfriend enjoyed taking photos of the charity fundraising display of decorated pigs scattered around the town (I'll share those later), before attempting to find me in yet another deceptively large and character-filled bookshop. Stocking new and secondhand books, there was lots to tempt me here but in the end it was the photography book Shop Cats of New York by Tamar Aslanian that won me over and prompted our conversation with the happy booksellers.

By this time (mid afternoon) hunger got the better of us, and so we paused for food at Madeleine's Kitchen inside One Tree Books, Petersfield. Possibly the healthiest bookshop cafe I've ever visited, we lost good browsing time but also enjoyed two floors of open plan browsing. I resisted the board games and jigsaws and instead bought Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

A short walk around the corner took us to the very different The Petersfield Bookshop. Home to Dilly the bookshop parrot, a range of secondhand and antiquarian books and all manner of character that I'll write about in full another time, we had a lot of fun exploring this maze. I was also pleased to find a good selection of Arthur Ransome books and extended my collection with Winter Holiday.

We were supposed to have two more stops after The Petworth Bookshop, but instead we arrived here in a panic, 10 minutes before closing time. A kind word from the bookseller reassured us he didn't mind our late appearance and we took to exploring the smallest bookshop we'd walked into that day – which was still a good deal bigger than your average indie. I was pleased to find Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Everywhere we went we'd enjoyed the traditional warm welcome only an independent bookshop can offer. It's a shame we missed out on a few stops, but we were having so much fun in the places we did get to visit it would've been wrong to rush. It was a brilliant day and I can't wait to tell you more about all the wonderful individual bookshops we visited, just as soon as I've worked my way through my book haul...


The Bookshop
22 High Street, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 3AW
Tel: 01342 322669 @JohnPye7

The Limpsfield Bookshop
High Street, Limpsfield, Surrey RH8 0DS
Tel: 01883 714034

The Cobham Bookshop
12A Anyards Road, Cobham, Surrey, KT11 2JZ
Tel: 01932 862903 @CobhamBookshop

The Haslemere Bookshop
2 Causewayside, High Street, Haslemere, Surrey, GU27 2JZ
Tel: 01428 652952 @HaslemereBooks

One Tree Books
7 Lavant Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3EL
Tel: 01730 261199 @_onetreebooks

The Petersfield Bookshop
16 Chapel Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3DS
Tel: 01730 263438 @The_PBS

The Petworth Bookshop
Golden Square, Petworth, West Sussex, GU28 0AP
Tel: 01798 342082

With special thanks to the flag bearer for the day.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The restorative power of a bookshop

A week or two ago I found myself a couple of hours from home and feeling pretty grumpy. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was in a beautiful part of the world but it had been one of *those* days, a few people had let me down, a van had tried to ram me out of a parking space and, well, you know how it goes. Lots of little things compound into a very bad day.

The two hours of driving had been pretty much wasted which only added to my grumpiness, but as I sat there, scowling into my phone trying to work out whether to admit defeat and drive home I realised there was something that might just save the day. Google Maps: bookshop.

There it was, half a hour in the direction of home: a bookshop. More importantly, it was a bookshop I'd not previously heard of. Admittedly, I am still meeting and finding out about new-to-me bookshops all the time, but on such a bad day this was a particularly special treat. I set Google Maps to CM21 9AR and drove.

Sawbridge Words is a short detour off the M11, in the small town of Sawbridgeworth. The area looked nice enough, but other than drive to a side street to park I admit I only had eyes for one thing, although it must be noted there's a very nice looking cafe across the road.

The bookshop is easy to find because there are books displayed in a small open courtyard out the front, meaning it would be virtually impossible for your average bookworm to walk past without getting at least a little distracted.

There's something about entering a room full of bookshelves that automatically washes away a layer of stress, and my experience in Sawbridge Words was no exception.

From behind his desk the bookseller greeted me an asked if I needed help before leaving me to browse and enjoy the mix of new and secondhand books on offer. It was exactly what I needed. The books were new and secondhand and diverse, with a variety of previously unheard of names alongside the titles everyone wants to read. Prices were excellent and with a three for two offer running at the time of my visit it was particularly tough sticking to my one book per shop rule. My purchase was Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland for a mere £2.

Towards the back, a comfy seating area tempted me to stay for the rest of the afternoon and I believe this is where events, including a writers' club, must take place. I've also since discovered browsers are welcome to stop for a while to play Scrabble, chess or backgammon for £2. From the well-stocked shelves of games books I should have known there was something more on offer here.

When it came time to pay I eventually felt relaxed and revived enough to have a conversation with the bookseller and heard he's been in the town for a year now. It's the quiet end of town, so passing trade is slower than on a bustling high street, but given the activities, books and ability to order in should you not find what you're looking for I'd urge the people of Sawbridgeworth to take the short walk to find out more.

My tiredness after earlier stresses meant we didn't talk for long, and for that I'm sorry. The bookseller seemed a friendly, interesting gentleman who I felt I'd have liked to have known better. Instead I was grateful for my moment of calm and to be restored to near equilibrium by the surroundings of the bookshop.


Sawbridge Words
47 Bell Street, Sawbridgeworth,
Hertfordshire, CM21 9AR
Tel: 01279 248336

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On taking bookshops for granted

You know how every now and then you're lucky enough to meet someone really lovely? One of those extra special, kind people who will do anything for you, just because it's the right thing to do?

This week's bookseller is one of those people. She welcomed browsers and buyers with a friendly smile and a warm heart, offering just the right levels of kindness or information as each individual required. For some, she'd eagerly listen as they popped in for a chat and to share their ambitions for the future, for others it was a friendly hello and leave them alone to look. Then there were the customers asking about X book or where they could buy Y elsewhere, her smile and helpfulness were a marvel and added to the brightness of an already beautiful bookshop.

Her smile and helpfulness were also heartbreaking: my visit was on the last day of trading for independent children's bookshop The Book Nut in Billericay, Essex.

The Book Nut was a boutique children's bookshop found in Barleylands Farm and Craft Village, a complex of shops, workspaces and family activities that appeared to be particularly popular on the sunny Saturday of my visit. A confusing map at the entrance meant it took me a few minutes to locate the bookshop, but otherwise the area was interesting to explore and the bookshop's collection of children's books, carefully curated by a bookseller who's also a talented illustrator seemed the ideal addition to the site.

I enjoyed browsing the shelves but ended up buying a shop recommendation: There may be a castle by Piers Torday. From our conversation it sounded like the perfect combination of joy tinged with sadness, a mirror for my experience in the bookshop. I also came home with a beautifully illustrated The Book Nut mug.

On top of the standard offering of children's books for all ages – and a shelf for grown-ups not brave enough to read younger – the bookshop also ran book clubs and story times. Reading about these has been a poignant experience. It had even won a James Patterson grant.

The bookshop itself was beautiful, decorated with bunting and booky details and staffed by bookseller Hazel and Gizmo the bookshop dog. It was a gorgeous, cheery destination and Hazel's boundless energy meant it was somewhere I wanted to hang out all day, but had to leave for fear of breaking down and sobbing in the middle of the shop.

In the days leading up to the closure, Hazel had politely tweeted about her encounters with customers drawn in by the closing down sale signs. In any other situation this would probably come across as bitterness, but her sunny disposition and the matter of fact way in which the comments were shared instead made this a simple record of experience. They included lines such as: "I go past you all the time, this is my first time here. Isn't it lovely, why are you closing?" or "I haven't been here in two years, oh, you're closing down. Just couldn't make it work could you?"

Now these comments make me angry, but I'm ashamed to admit I can't be self righteous about them. You see, some years ago I was visiting a nearby bookshop when they told me I should take a detour to The Book Nut. Only I was in a hurry to complete a bookshop crawl and nervous I'd run out of time, I made a note of the address and determined to visit when I was next in the area.

As it was I did run out of time, but not for the bookshop crawl. Checking my diary, purely by chance I find I'd actually planned to visit The Book Nut exactly two years to the day since I received the recommendation – which would have been around two weeks after closing. Okay, so I'd made a plan to visit, and I'm not writing this blog to seek reassurance, I know it's not my fault alone that this beautiful bookshop has had to close. But I'm as much a part of the problem as that customer who hasn't visited in two years, as is every one of us who walks past a bookshop and thinks "next time I must pop in".

I'm not trying to guilt-trip readers into visiting bookshops, I'm just trying to encourage you to pause and think next time you're about to walk past one.

Another quote from Twitter: "We walk past all the time and take it for granted you're here, now you're closing we've come in."

Don't take independent bookshops for granted, next time you might be too late.


The Book Nut (RIP)
Studio 3, Barleylands Crafts Village, 59 Barleylands Rd, Billericay CM11 2UD
Tel: 01268 286219
@nutshellstudio1


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The place to meet

You can't get more heart of the community than a tiny little secondhand bookshop with a sofa and a range of random events.

Not that I knew about any of this when I turned up, boyfriend in tow, during a day of bookshop crawling. At the time we'd simply chosen to visit because Offside Books in north London sounded like an interesting place to explore. We walked through the door and realised 'explore' was possibly a bit of an optimistic word, because this bookshop really is rather snug, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in personality.

At the time of our visit the bookseller was very enthusiastically chatting to another couple, discussing bookshop activities they'd like to make the most of and generally giving nosy me the impression this bookshop is the place to be if you want to know what's going on in your community. The limited space meant it was impossible not to listen in to their conversation, but I don't think that mattered – this was the place to arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.

Even if you weren't interested in the extra-bookular activities, a table for two looked appealing for chess players and a comfy sofa dominated the centre of the shop, demanding to be relaxed on with a book. I think hot drinks were available too, so had we not been in the middle of an adventure I'm sure we could have comfortably wiled away the afternoon here, making friends and soaking in the atmosphere.

Instead we took to exploring the shelves, which covered two walls on opposite sides of the bookshop. the space was so limited I'd say a good 50 per cent of the stock could probably be reached from the sofa, but this simply added to the charm. A full fronted window also means the space didn't feel at all dark or cramped. Books were obviously limited, but there was still a nice variety and I had no trouble choosing a purchase: 10:04 by Ben Lerner.

The bookshop's popularity and our lack of time meant I didn't get the chance to make friends with the bookseller on this occasion, but from the experience of other visitors, and the atmosphere in general, I'd say the people of Kilburn are lucky to have such a friendly place to hang out in.


Offside Books
92 Willesden Lane, Kilburn, London, NW6 7TA
Tel: 020 7624 9340
@OffSideBooks

Saturday, 20 May 2017

My introduction to Terry Pratchett

My bookshop visits – like the bookshops themselves – can be inspired by all manner of reasons, but this week's possibly has one of my oddest reasons for visiting: I had a drink with a friend and she was wearing scythe earrings.*

I don't know much about Terry Pratchett, but what I do know is that one of his characters is Death, and Death carries a scythe. This one fact was enough for me to be the only person to have put two and two together and ask her about the earrings, it was also enough for her to convince me a visit to Discworld Emporium in Wincanton was in order. For those in the know, this is obviously a bookshop dedicated to the works of Terry Pratchett, but believe it or not, there are those of us who live in relative ignorance of the popular author's legacy.**

My childhood reading went from Ladybird books to Sweet Valley High to whatever I could find on my Gran's bookshelves and so, sometime in my teenage years, when all my friends suddenly started quoting lines from Pratchett at each other I had no idea what they were talking about. Initially, it felt like they'd joined some kind of cult, conversing in quoted sentences that meant absolutely nothing to me, but after a while it became frustrating, so when I did get the chance to read one of his books I rejected it, having been put off by not being part of the gang.

However despite this rejection I did grow to have a respect for the books and their author, and I was pleased by the number of people whose reading adventures had begun thanks to Terry Pratchett's writings. Not that this helped when I arrived at Discworld Emporium and realised how little I knew about his books and characters.

Arriving at the bookshop, the front is both understated and striking, as a sign for Ankh-Morpork swings above the door, which has an amusing blue plaque to one side, but what's really impressive is the inside.

To the left of the door is the main area of bookshop, which includes copies of every book Terry Pratchett contributed to as well as stationery, games, Discworld memorabilia and, obviously, a selection of jewellery. Then to the right is a slightly partitioned off area, where the staff were sat chatting while wrapping up parcels to be posted elsewhere.

None of this truly enables you to visualise the room. It's dark wood, with the look of a gentleman's library and an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. An orangutan presides over the books, and all about there are details which I'm sure all Pratchett fans will appreciate, I certainly did.

My ignorance of all things Pratchett meant I had no idea where to start with the books and so as the booksellers sounded so cheery I decided it would be best to own up and ask their advice. It felt a little wrong going to the counter and admitting I'd not read a single book by the author, but my ignorance wasn't held against me and the conversation felt a little like I was being welcomed into the fold.

Anecdotes were shared, books discussed and a friendly dose of rudeness in the context of the characters was also dispensed as I was introduced to the appeal of the Pratchett world. Wyrd Sisters was the eventual recommendation (and having since devoured it I can finally see why the books are so popular), while my boyfriend, who has previously read a little Pratchett, opted for Mort. Upon opening our bag later we also discovered a selection of mint humbugs and our receipts – from the Thieves' Guild.

Discworld Emporium may be a very focused specialist bookshop, but as a treat for fans and an inspirational destination to nurture young readers it must surely be considered a worthy destination. Only take care to choose the date of your visit wisely, like the whimsical nature of Pratchett's books the bookshop doesn't open to the usual hours.



Discworld Emporium
41 High Street, Wincanton,
Somerset, BA9 9JU
Tel: 01963 824686
@Discworldshoppe

*No, I'm not sharing a photo of the scythe earrings, if you want to find out what they look like you can jolly well go to the bookshop yourself to find out!
**Prior to this visit my knowledge stretched as far as Death, the play of Mort, Discworld, the tortoise and, obviously, the orangutan librarian.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Everyone's a winner

One bright, reasonably sunny day in May, a bookshop won an award. Not an official award with a trophy or a certificate (although there may have been an official certificate involved somewhere), but an award all the same. Because this bookshop blogger officially declared it to have the best Christmas bookshop window. Which obviously makes it true. Don't believe me? See here, it's all the evidence you need.

The fact it was a finalist in a competition I wasn't judging and there weren't any other bookshops in the shortlist of three is completely irrelevant. Gulliver's Bookshop in Wimborne, Dorset, was the highest placed bookshop window in The VM Christmas Awards (and was beaten by Hamleys toy shop) so I reckon it's a winner. Everyone please give them a big round of applause.

Having said that, now I've visited the bookshop I pretty much think the whole town of Wimbourne is a winner for having such a lovely destination at its heart.

My first impression of Gulliver's Bookshop was one of friendliness and welcome. I enjoyed the buzz of customers chatting to the bookseller and no one batted an eyelid when my boyfriend made me pose for a photograph with a book about Scrabble* found on the discount table. This table was located conveniently close to the door, luring browsers in with the offer of cheap books I'd have happily paid full price for, but I can't imagine Gulliver's needs to go to much effort to encourage people in. The stock is varied and plenty, and combined with the friendly atmosphere there's a lot here to appeal.

Non-fiction runs along one wall, and everything from a biography about setting up a space observatory to essays on the story of water caught my attention, with an equally diverse fiction offering opposite. It even – joy of joys – had a whole bookcase of science fiction, with titles by the likes of John Christopher and Brandon Sanderson (I bought The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker). While the other end of the fiction offered a good selection of the classics.

However towards the back is a bigger surprise, with a large mechanical Lego figure welcoming children to their area of the bookshop. Okay, so Lego doesn't make a reader, but I can't be the only one who thinks this is a great combination, I'd certainly have loved such a diverse children's area when I was younger (if I'm honest I still loved it today, I couldn't contain my excitement when the Lego man was actually switched on).

Gulliver's Bookshop is family-owned, and I was lucky enough to find out more about the various generations' dedication to the trade when I got chatting to the booksellers. They're a welcoming, knowledgeable family who obviously care deeply about books and the community, it was a pleasure talking to them.

Finally, Gulliver's also organises Wimborne Literary Festival, if you happen to be in the area in the middle of May.


Gulliver's Bookshop
47 High Street, Wimborne Minster,
Dorset, BH21 1HS
Tel: 01202 882677
@gulliversbks


*I suggested he might need the book if he's ever to have a hope of beating me. He took the joke quite well, probably better than he will when he realises I'm mocking him now.