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