Friday 29 September 2017

The bookshop by the bridge

This blog has been running for several years now, meaning you can name pretty much any county and I'll know of a bookshop worth visiting. It's a niche area to be an expert in, but it does mean a random diversion through anywhere can be vastly improved by a stop at X, Y and/or Z independent bookshop. Also, given some people collect traffic cones as a hobby, I reckon my interest isn't all that odd. But there are gaps in my knowledge.

Last weekend saw me take a long-anticipated trip to Telford, where a friend was getting married. Despite my having almost two years' notice, I somehow managed to forget to book a hotel until just three weeks before the big day. Meaning I also had no idea where the hotel was in relation to either the wedding or any potential bookshopping activity.

For once, the internet helped me out perfectly, reassuring me I was staying in the correct county and – more importantly – surprising me with the introduction of a new-to-me bookshop.

Every now and then I do stumble across a previously unknown-to-me bookshop, but it's an increasingly rare occurrence, so to have accidentally booked my boyfriend and I into a hotel just five minutes' walk from both a bookshop and a bridge (another thing I'm quite fond of) was a welcome surprise.

The Ironbridge Bookshop is found approximately a hop, skip and a jump from the bridge it's named after, an enviable location in what turned out to be a lovely village. Knowing the history of Ironbridge and its popularity with visitors I'd expected the area to be ever so slightly tacky to appeal to tourists. Instead we were met with a lovely selection of shops that are admittedly probably slightly more geared to visitors than your average village, but were also high enough quality to keep our attention and ensure that when we spent money, we spent it well.

The bookshop was obviously my highlight when it came to money-spending, and within about five seconds I knew what area of shelving I was buying from. It is stocked with good quality secondhand books to tempt all tastes, but walk up a short flight of stairs to the till and children's area and you also find a wall of orange Penguins (and associated other colours).

I've seen early Penguins in bookshops before, but this is the first time I've seen so many and so brightly presented and it was a wonderful treat to discover when we walked in wearing our wedding guest finery during a break in the proceedings. I quickly began investigating the selection, passing up on a few titles I've long wanted to read in favour of Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell because before I knew it I'd read a page and a half while stood in the shop.

The bookshop is a snug, lovely little place, with a large variety of reasonably priced secondhand books. Signs around the shop offer the paperback fiction at £2 each or three for a fiver (the Penguins have their own pricing structure), which seemed very reasonable to me and certainly appealed to those browsers who were somehow able to resist the orange of Penguin.

During our brief visit not long before closing time we could see it was a popular place, with customers popping in to shop and chat. I'd hoped to meet the bookseller responsible for Twitter, who had tweeted with me about the area a week or two previously, but as is often the case when arriving at places unannounced, I'd turned up when she was on holiday. That didn't matter though, I still enjoyed a friendly chat with the bookseller I did meet.

Bookshop found and book bought it was time to think about returning to my friend's wedding, via the bridge for a selfie first...

The Ironbridge Bookshop
5 The Square, Ironbridge,
Telford, Shropshire, TF8 7AQ
Tel: 01952 432273

Thursday 21 September 2017

A labyrinth of books

One of the things we loved about the first stop on our IBW2017 bookshop crawl was how unexpectedly big it was, with room after room opening up in front of us. That was nothing compared to the labyrinth my boyfriend and I found waiting for us later in the day.

The Haslemere Bookshop in Surrey looks like a typical welcoming indie from the doorway: compact, nicely stocked and beautiful. Had it been that, then we would've been happy. However, walk the length of the wall on the right and you find yourself in a large children's area. Turn a corner and there are cards and more new books. Turn another corner and there are stairs...

Going up a level you find room after room of secondhand books, some small, some large, some taking your round in a circle. More books are in a cupboard, and there's even a discounted area. We lost each other up here but neither of us really minded because of how much fun it was to make each new discovery.

I was taken with the vastness of the fiction, the secondhand area enabling a good offering of usual suspects so the new books could be equally accommodating but also much more diverse than I'd usually expect. Alternating between the two floors meant there were some real treats to be found. Once he'd returned from charity pig-spotting around the town, my boyfriend seemed equally impressed with the non-fiction.

From the very hungry caterpillar among the children's books, to a wall of letters from local schools, and a very handsome bear in a bowler hat behind the counter, this bookshop clearly reaches out to young readers too.

When it came to a purchase, despite the wide array of fiction that was calling out to me I had to buy Shop Cats of New York by Tamar Aslanian. Not a book I've seen before, it's a beautiful selection of photographs with brief explanations and made this Crazy Cat Lady want to hop on a plane immediately. Hopefully they'll still all be there in three years' time.

This book, our wonderful surroundings, and a question about the pigs scattered around the town*, prompted a very cheery conversation with the booksellers, further confirming my love for The Haslemere Bookshop. They had a natural enthusiasm for books and friendliness towards customers – the ones who wanted to say hello – that meant I'm sure anyone would feel welcome and at home here.

Not only did they share (humour?) my love of cats, they explained about the pigs and very generously increased my knowledge of the other bookshops in the not so near area. It's always a good sign when bookshops are friends with their neighbours, even if some of them are quite a distance away – who needs rivals when there's a wonderful booky community?

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

* Apparently the Haslemere Hogs were decorated by businesses and auctioned off to raise money for charity.

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

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.