Sunday 25 November 2018

A good heart

First impressions are a big thing these days, with so many demands on our time and attention that we're often distracted from one shiny thing to the next, whizzing through life and hardly having time to stop and consider what's in front of us.

When I arrived at Borzoi Bookshop in the heart of Stow-on-the-Wold I'd been racing through an Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl, so I'd already visited a lot of other bookshops and could easily have been in too much of a hurry to appreciate how special this unassuming destination is. Set in a lovely historic building, the shop front is made up of welcoming red door and two simple windows which offer only a glimpse of the treats inside. It's a far cry from the large picture windows and colourful displays many bookshops rely on to lure in readers and I loved this contrast and the feeling of cosy history that came with it.

Borzoi Bookshop is more than 30 years old and was named for the breed of dog that was the original furry bookseller, which I thought was a nice touch. I don't know how the bookshop has changed in that time, but the space I explored had the feeling of somewhere that has been cherished for years – and continues to be loved today. The low ceilings added to the sense of history, while the good variety of new titles brings everything into the modern day. The combination was comforting and reassuring and exactly what I've come to hope for in a long-serving bookshop.

The first room is snug but still larger than expected, with Molie the (thankfully quite small) furry bookseller relaxing near the door and two human booksellers available to answer questions and keep everything in order. They welcomed me in and did an excellent job of greeting browsers or leaving them in peace as preferred, with me obviously choosing to dive into conversation. This was mainly with the booksellers, but also with the other customers who'd popped in to collect an order, ask about the publication date of various new books or simply see what they might read next. It was a perfect example of a well-loved bookshop set in the heart of its community.

Equally importantly, for all of the questions I heard asked the booksellers' knowledge was impeccable and satisfied children and adults alike. Further evidence of their bookish genius was found in the content of the bookshelves and in their recommendation of my next new book.

I'd commented on titles and publishers as I'd wandered around the maze of shelves – there's a lot to be discovered if you venture beyond the front room – and almost picked a book by myself but wasn't quite sure if it was right for me. A chat about what I've read previously and what I was looking for next saw the bookseller politely agree that maybe my choice wasn't the one for this time, instead gently steering me to some alternative titles. From the selection put forward, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee stood out and having since devoured the book I can confirm the booksellers' instinct was spot on.

It takes a lot of courage, confidence and tact to be able to help a browser change their mind – especially when their choice of book is not bad but more not for this time – and I was very impressed by how well the bookseller achieved this, and am very grateful they did!

Which really sums up my feelings about this delightful bookshop. Borzoi Bookshop is not the flashiest or the most glamorous of indies I've visited, but it has a good heart, great books and exceptional booksellers.

The Borzoi Bookshop
Church Street, Stow-on-the-Wold,
Gloucestershire GL54 1BB
Tel: 01451 830268

Monday 5 November 2018

Taking stock of another person's joy

Sometimes, the best way to enjoy something is by seeing the joy another person is experiencing. I loved the last stop on day three of my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl, but whatever I felt for Woodstock Bookshop is nothing compared to the reaction of my boyfriend.

We'd spent two days touring bookshops and although my enthusiasm was still high, my boyfriend was obviously still keen but flagging a little. He dawdled on the walk to the bookshop, pausing to take photos of our surroundings so that I decided to leave him to it once we'd spotted the bookshop on the road ahead. I therefore arrived without him, taking in the two snug rooms and remarkable number of people they could hold as I began to look over the shelves. It appeared to be a lovely space that was very well filled.

As I made this assessment the dawdler arrived and began to look around. He looked happy enough, then I lost him and the next thing I knew he was kneeling on the floor to get a closer look. In the two plus years since he joined me on this adventure I've never seen him go to so much effort to look at the books, and this behaviour continued for the entire time we were in the bookshop.

To be fair, Woodstock Bookshop really is a place worth going to the effort to explore, but to see my boyfriend so engrossed really emphasised to me how good the variety of stock is here. We'd visited a lot of bookshops and yet here he was, re-enthused about bookshopping and excited by the variety of previously unseen titles in front of him.

It would be impossible for me to list off all that was special about the stock here, but for a bookshop with incredibly limited space there really was an unusual and unexpected offering of everything. Non-fiction included an array of more unexpected titles in every genre, while I found a particularly high volume of translated and/or independent publishers on the fiction shelves. Children also had a generous and well-stocked area to enjoy. I honestly don't know how Woodstock Bookshop manage to fit it all in, but I'm very impressed that they do.

My boyfriend had no trouble choosing two books to buy here, Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. I took slightly longer because I'd been so distracted enjoying his delight, eventually selecting The Infatuations by Javier Marias.

Woodstock Bookshop is a truly tiny place but has such big personality – both in books and with the friendly bookseller – that I can happily recommend it as the reason I will be returning to visit Woodstock. Which is quite a coup considering Blenheim Palace is down the road.

The Woodstock Bookshop
23 Oxford Street, Woodstock,
Oxfordshire OX20 1TH
Tel: 01993 812760

Sunday 21 October 2018

A top trio for Bookshop Day 2018

The annual autumn Bookshop Day as part of the Books Are My Bag campaign is always going to be particularly special for me, because it's the event that first set me off bookshop crawling.

I'd done the odd two-bookshop days, but in September 2013, when this blog was barely a month old, I visited eight in one day. Technically alone, I had thousands of people keeping me company in my phone as I tweeted my adventure, and from that moment on I knew I'd always love bookshop crawls and the joy of sharing the bookshop love with anyone who cared to join in.

This year wasn't quite as ambitious as some previous years have been, but there were two very specific reasons for keeping things small:

1. Bookshop Day conveniently coincided with the official opening of a new indie.
2. I wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to take part in bookshop day if you don't live in London or in the same town as an indie.

More about point 1 later. As for point 2:

Over the years, the one sad thing about sharing my bookshop crawls has been the regular (but thankfully not large) number of replies along the lines of 'I can't take part because I'm not in London' or 'I can't take part because there isn't an indie bookshop in my town'. Now I admit the latter can be difficult for people in remote areas and/or who are reliant on public transport, but both of those complaints apply to my home town and in the course of one afternoon I still managed to comfortably drive to three different independent bookshops.

The crawl started with a 30-ish minute drive from my home town to East Grinstead, to see an old friend in the form of The Bookshop. It was drizzling slightly and very cold when we arrived, but the bookshop was easy to spot because of the crowd outside. A local author was proving popular signing copies of his books and a scout was doing well raising funds and awareness for an expedition she was due to take part in, with both next to an inviting chess board for anyone to sit and play. This combination created a nice buzz and I'm sure drew more people into the bookshop.

We had a wander to refamiliarise ourselves with the maze of bookshelves before I gravitated back to the front of the bookshop to the mystery books section. During my previous visit I'd enjoyed the randomness of this area and the temptation to again be introduced to something unexpected was too much to resist. It was also fun talking to other browsers as we tried and failed to guess the identity of the brown paper-wrapped books. My choice was battenberg, friendship, mystery, life, which turned out to be Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. I also got my hands on the Bookshop Day freebie, the short story Roar by Cecilia Ahern. Our visit ended with a nice chat with the bookseller, who I'd not met during my previous visit, before we had to head off to our next destination.

Sevenoaks Bookshop is another place I've previously visited, but not since a change of ownership. I loved it the first time around, so was a little nervous about returning for fear it might be different (it wasn't) and also out of shame at how long it's been since I last visited the nearest bookshop to where I live (hopefully the variety of bookshops appearing on this website explains the reason). I needn't have been concerned. Having been taken over by someone previously employed by the bookshop, all continues to be good here. I was also pleased to see how well my boyfriend took to our 20-minutes away local.

Within five minutes of entering Sevenoaks Bookshop we'd ordered tea and cake and my boyfriend had chosen two books to buy. Lots of browsing later (before, during and after cake) and he'd added to his pile and I'd found a book too. Between us we bought Tolstoy's War and Peace, Mann's Death in Venice, The Tangled Tree: A radical new history of life by David Quammen, and my choice of Maugham's The Painted Veil.

Our third destination saw us driving for a little longer as we headed over to Faversham, a town I've previously visited and loved for its secondhand bookshops, and somewhere I can now say I love for its new bookshop.

Top Hat & Tales was celebrating its official opening, and although all the festivities had ended by the time we arrived there was still a feeling of excitement as we entered the bookshop. Champagne glasses were liberally scattered around the shelves and a large bowl of cheese and olives tempted us from the corner of the room. More importantly the bookseller was obviously thrilled by how well the day had gone and was joyously recounting the highlights with others who'd been in attendance. It was wonderful to arrive and see such happiness.

A half-and-half shop, Top Hat & Tales, formerly The Hat Shop, has been adapted by its owner to stock hats and books. As both areas can help improve the head I fully approve of such a combination, and again my boyfriend was impressed as he got caught up by the unusual selection of books on offer. For a new bookshop that had obviously been 'ravaged' by hoards of celebrants on opening day it really was very well stocked. I chose Watling Street by John Higgs, a book I've been looking out for since hearing the author interviewed by Cerys Matthews on Radio 6.

We really enjoyed our time here and both agree Top Hat & Tales is an excellent addition to the town's bookshopping offering. I look forward to returning soon so I can buy and then take my hat off to it.

So ended one of the shortest bookshop crawls I've ever been on. Short but sweet and all the other phrases that emphasise quality over quantity. The main aim being to hopefully encourage a few others to realise that a bookshop crawl doesn't have to be epic to be worth doing and – most importantly – if you're willing to travel to your nearest indie bookshop it'll definitely be worth the effort.

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

Sevenoaks Bookshop
147 High Street, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN13 1XJ
Tel: 01732 450933 @7Oaksbookshop

Top Hat & Tales
110 West Street, Faversham, Kent, ME13 7JB
Tel: 01795 227071 @FavHatshop

Thursday 4 October 2018

Finding my perfect for right now book

As I write this, all I can think about is how much I want to drop everything and get back to my book.

It's one of those rare reads that is so perfectly what you want and need to be reading at the exact time you're reading it that it's almost impossible to find the words to explain what it is you want and need to be reading at that moment. Which will only make sense to anyone who's been lucky enough to have such an experience for themself. The book in question is certainly not one I can easily describe, and probably isn't the kind of book I'd have ever thought to ask for, had I even known how to ask for it, but The Overstory by Richard Powers has me absolutely hooked.

I bought it in the second bookshop I'm going to write about here, which is the older half of the two-bookshop 'chain' that is Jaffé & Neale. The visits were part of days two and three of my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl.

But first to the younger sibling, Jaffé & Neale in Stow-on-the-Wold. Our visit coincided with lunchtime, so I was particularly pleased to say yes to tea and cake and the opportunity to take a moment to sit and relax. The refreshments were delicious as we chatted to the bookseller about this young (a year or two) bookshop, books and cake. We browsed the books from comfy chairs in a large back room that was flooded with light, and we occasionally brought a book over to our table or talked to the other browsers. It was a delightful lunch break.

After taking that time to relax and absorb our surroundings, we began to investigate more thoroughly. Having previously visited the original Jaffé & Neale I'd had an idea of what to expect from this bookshop but – as is often the case with indies – I was still surprised by our surroundings. Yes, the cake (lemon drizzle) was exactly as delicious as I'd expected and there were naturally some nods to the original shop, but this outlet was appealing in its own right.

Fiction (for adults and children) is found in the spacious back room we'd walked through to, with the long, thin front of the shop given over to the majority of the non-fiction. It's not a way of organisation I'm familiar with but I liked that my first view of the books was of subjects I wouldn't necessarily give much thought to. It inspired me to pay more attention and almost saw me buy from here.

In fact my boyfriend did choose something from here, picking up a Landscape Photographer of the Year book – as my unofficial bookshop crawl photographer I believe he was feeling inspired. While I returned to fiction(ish), chosing This is the story of a happy marriage by Ann Patchett. It's not a title I've seen before and the realness of the subject particularly appealed.

The lightness and chatter we found here was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday lunchtime and I could easily see myself regularly losing an hour or two in the bright back room if I lived nearer.

Heading to the original Jaffé & Neale the next day I didn't expect the same level of relaxation and happy first thing on a Monday morning, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find an equally chirpy welcome at the grumpiest time of the week.

I'd had to drop my less chirpy boyfriend at a railway station so he could go to work, meaning I arrived at the Chipping Norton bookshop early and feeling a little lonely as I sat in my car, reading outside a quiet shop. The next time I looked up there was a bustle of activity as the booksellers were carrying chairs and tables about. Within moments the outdoor seating area was assembled and it was time for me to say hello.

Polly and Patrick were wonderfully smiley as they welcomed me into their bookshop, giving no hint of the Monday blues that most of us are full of at that time of day (I should've realised no bookseller could ever be grumpy about going to work). They knew I'd visited before, so they told me how the shop had changed since then – with quite a rearranging of rooms – and put the kettle on.

While they finished their last bits of setting up I re-familiarised myself with the bookshop, delighting at the way the staggered bookcases of the revamped ground floor (which is now home to non-fiction) draw you through to the children's area, before heading upstairs.

I'd been told the upstairs front room was converted into a reading room, but I hadn't quite anticipated how stunning a sight it would be (my photos don't do it justice so you'll have to visit to find out what I'm talking about). The wall of books is really something as you walk into the light-filled room, and I wasn't the only person to think so. By the time I arrived here another fan had set herself up in one of the comfy chairs facing across the room from the bookcases, with her coffee and laptop and ready to work. It was an envy-inducing sight.

This room kept me for some time, but I wanted to have a proper chat with the booksellers and I knew coffee and cake (specifically tiffin) awaited me downstairs, so off I went.

Having spent a lifetime in publishing and bookshops, Polly and Patrick are both incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their subject. A former president of the Booksellers Association, Patrick tutors others in an introduction to bookselling course and it was a pleasure to talk about everything he does to encourage and support the bookshop community.

We paused in our conversation to pose for a photo, which was when Patrick insisted on holding his current* favourite book, The Overstory by Richard Powers (you know where this is going).

I rarely buy hardback books because I like to be able to carry my current read everywhere with me, but in the few words he said about why he'd fallen for the book I knew I couldn't leave without it and my only regret – if you can call it that – is that I'm being forced to read it slowly because of the lack of portability. That said, it's a nice change to have a book that can only be read when curled up at home, comfy and warm and free from the distractions of the world.

In fact, I have the same difficulty tearing myself away from this book as I did from these two bookshops. Bravo Jaffé & Neale!

Jaffe and Neale
8 Park Street, Stow-on-the-Wold,
Gloucestershire GL54 1AQ
Tel: 01451 832000

Jaffe and Neale
1 Middle Row, Chipping Norton,
Oxfordshire OX7 5NH
Tel: 01608 641033

*If you want to hear Patrick at his most enthusiastic, ask about his all-time favourite book.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Annual review #5: Still loving every moment of bookshopping

It's August, which can only mean one thing: The bookshop blog is five.

The time has flown, but looking back over those five years (and possibly influenced by my current read*) is a realisation not of years racing by but of roots growing, anchoring me deeper to my love of books, bookshops and booksellers. Of branches expanding my life in all manner of different directions and of leaves unfurling, turning to the sun as my life has become brighter and more filled with experiences with every passing year of bookshop blogging.

Yes, that's possibly the strangest and most ill-explained metaphor I've ever inflicted on anyone, but it really is what came to mind as I sat down to type.

After five years I feel remarkably lucky that I ever sat at my laptop and decided to embark on this barmy adventure that even now prompts looks of bewilderment and raised eyebrows on a regular basis. But instead of returning to the explanation of everyone needs a hobby, I tell the bewildered some of the wonderful, unexpected ways my life has changed as a result of this adventure, or of some of the adventures themselves. People are often still bemused, but they're also coming around to the understanding that a bookshop is more than four walls and a load of shelves. Each individual bookshop is a community unlike any other, and if they can influence the course of one life, they can do so to others.

I can still see myself five years ago, sat on the sofa in my old home, a Victorian terrace at the dodgy end of town. The neighbours rowing through the wall, a draft through the fireplace and my best friend and housemate about to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend**. I had a job I liked but hindsight tells me I was aware it wasn't going to last forever, minimal social life and next to no friends in the same town as me. Life was okay, but it wasn't going to win any prizes if turned into a book or film.

Starting the bookshop blog gave me a sense of purpose, it was an excuse to travel, to buy books and to meet in the real world the many bookshops I'd met online through the magic of Twitter. I was quite naive when I started writing – I hadn't really grasped the challenge of keeping to a weekly schedule of writing a blog – but it was a fun learning curve and even though I know bookshops are amazing I still can't believe just how many of you take the time to regularly read this blog. Knowing how much support I have for this adventure really makes my day, and when I hear of people being inspired to visit their local bookshop as a result of one of my blogs I do a little leap of joy. I don't pretend to think I can change the world, but to know I've changed a few individual worlds is brilliant.

That said, when the Booksellers Association included me as a Bookshop Hero and invited me to go on a bookshop crawl for Independent Bookshops Week I certainly wasn't going to tell them they'd got the wrong person. I embraced the opportunity, occasionally wore a cape in public and mostly marvelled at my luck at getting to meet so many more lovely bookshops. I've already told you about some of them, the rest are following in the coming weeks, then I'll return to the randomness of telling you about bookshops from wherever I've found myself.

The list of visited bookshops I've not yet written about continues to grow – as does the size of my book collection. I may not always be managing to write about one bookshop a week, but I'm definitely still visiting them and my rule of spending money in each bookshop I write about stands firm: If I can't find something I want to buy in a bookshop then why should I be encouraging you to do so?***

The expanding bookcases now look like this:

The bookshop blog takes up the two bookcases on the left and all the unsorted books on the top (and 'one or two' more out of picture). Before you all start commenting in horror, there is an order to the top books, they're in groups according to where and when they were bought and if I've already written about the bookshop they are from. As usual, the rest of the books are ordered according to when their bookshop appears on this blog. The bookcase on the right is one I've given over to the boy (more elsewhere) and yes, that is two boxes of books in front. We're still trying to work out where to fit more bookcases in...

Anyway, what about my highlights for the past year? It's always tough to pick bookshops out to mention here, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you my highlight of the year (decade) occurred when a bookseller sent me to meet a boat.

I've also met an unusual bookshop pet, dined in, gone wild and got the t-shirt (although The Edge of the World Bookshop is still waiting to be written up. The delightful little Imagined Things is also on the must-write list, famous for its bad day tweet, loved for its excellent books). Not forgetting losing myself, meeting a new indie and the personality of a 'chain'. Even the boy fell in love.

It's been another great year of bookshopping, and while the rest of the world may feel like it's going to pot whenever you turn on the news, it's good to know we always have bookshops as a place of sanctuary.

Happy bookshopping,
Erica x

* The Overstory by Richard Powers, bought from Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton.
** Reader, she married him. And she didn't manage to move far enough away to escape me.
*** It is incredibly rare that I visit a bookshop and choose not to write about it, but when that happens I keep quiet and give them another chance at a later date. Everyone's allowed a bad day every now and then and there are already more than enough people complaining on the internet.

Monday 13 August 2018

Erica in wonderland

Bookshopping can be a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. From the outside I'm visiting a shop on a high street, which is a really rather unremarkable experience, but from the inside it leads to all manner of possibilities, encounters with weird and wonderful people and the potential for more adventures than a trip to your local newsagents can offer.

Even in the most ordinary of bookshops you never know what you're going to get if you open your mind to the possibility of all the offerings hidden behind simple paperback covers, but let's be honest, there's no such thing as an ordinary bookshop.

The second day of my IBW 2018 bookshop crawl began with a different Lewis Carroll reference, as we visited Madhatter Bookshop in Burford. You enter this bookshop not through a rabbit hole but a delightfully quirky door, and the first thing you see is books. Lots of them. There's also a large selection of hats, but we'll come to those later.

To the right of the door is the wall of general fiction, next to the till so it's in the perfect place to chat with the bookseller while you browse. Which is exactly what I did, learning about the bookshop, the books, hats and enjoying a great selection of recommendations. This latter point was very welcome but also challenging, because even without the good advice I'd found a good five or six titles I couldn't imagine leaving behind. You see, Madhatter Bookshop's shelves are among the most unusually stocked I've visited.

Four booksellers choose the stock, each with their own reading preferences and areas of expertise, and it really shows here. Sure there were a few must-have titles that every bookshop needs to stock, but otherwise the range and diversity of the books was remarkable. These observations aren't just limited to general fiction.

Intelligent non-fiction is cleverly placed among the hats and walk into the back room and the children's section is brilliant. I also further lost myself in the classics (where I was pleased to spot the odd classic science fiction title alongside their contemporaries) and crime, which is usually my least favourite section to browse. In every instance I'd spot unexpected stand out titles generally only found in the largest of bookshops. Independent bookshops are often limited for space and therefore have to stock books accordingly, so to find such a large number of unexpected titles and authors was a treat.

Returning to the front room, I'd chosen my book (Money by Emile Zola, while the boy picked David Bellos’ The Novel of the Century) and now I couldn't leave without trying on a hat or two. I admit this isn't my area of expertise, but there was quite a mix of styles and at least two happy hat buyers visited the shop while we were there. I also enjoyed the opportunity to pose with my bookshop hero cape and a hat, while I'd never encourage anyone to visit any shop purely for the fun of trying out the stock the bookseller embraced my adventure and encouraged me to find my superhero style!

With books and hats and beautiful details everywhere there's lots to enjoy in Madhatter Bookshop, which is actually one half of a pair. We didn't have the time to venture to the second outlet on this visit – that will be a treat for another day.

Madhatter Bookshop
122 High Street, Burford,
Oxfordshire OX18 4QJ
Tel: 01993 822539

Sunday 5 August 2018

Buzzing for books

When I think back to my encounter with Octavia's Bookshop in Cirencester – visited during my IBW2018 bookshop crawl – my immediate memory is of the joyful buzz of happy children.

They were noisy, chattering, enthusiastic, boisterous, happy, excited and any number of other words that convey a sense of positive noise. Some were loud, some were more mellow, but for the entire time of our visit there was an infectious buzz of chatter coming from the young readers this bookshop is aimed at. There were no piercing shrieks or angry voices, no one needed to be told off and there was certainly no bad behaviour, just a room full of children and their accompanying adults in search of their next favourite book. It was a wonderful sound and incredibly infectious.

Not that there needed to be any children in this gorgeous purple surrounding for me to enjoy it. Even empty the bookshop is a luxurious delight, with sumptuous decorations so that the Moomins scattered around the room (and flying in the window) looked like works of art in their custom-made outfits.

A large L-shaped space, Octavia's Bookshop follows the usual style of fiction and recommendations at the front, then reference then – where children's would usually be – a dedicated corner for adults. It was a nice touch and yet another reason for me to smile. I didn't see any adults in this section during our visit, but they definitely appeared to be enjoying themselves as they joined in the browsing with their youngsters. My favourites were the adults reading picture books to their children, but there's also a lot to be said for the middle grade youngsters who marched determinedly to the shelf of their favoured author to see if a new title might be available.

The thing all the children had in common was their apparent love of reading and a willingness to share it as they loudly told whoever was willing to listen just why X was their favourite author, or what they hope will happen to Y character during their next adventure. I challenge even the grumpiest of adults to not enjoy such sounds as they browse shelves holding books from a genre they're less familiar with.

We didn't get to meet Octavia herself during our visit, but the bookseller in charge was obviously as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the books as the young customers he was serving. He also took the time to talk to us, telling me the story behind the custom-clothed Moomins and the bookshop in general.

Ordinarily in a children's bookshop I'd make a point of asking for a recommendation but this time I resisted because I'd already spotted a series that's long appealed: I chose Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.

I'm conscious I've not described the bookshop itself in any great detail and this isn't down to any failing on its part, it really was a stunning space, but I was so taken by that buzz of children and the joy they exuded that I feel their excitement is the thing to be focused on here. Youngsters aren't shy with their opinions, and the noise about Octavia's Bookshop was 100 per cent positive.

Octavia’s Bookshop
24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2AA
Tel: 01285 650677

Sunday 22 July 2018

In conversation

It can't be repeated enough that bookshops are places to have conversations. They're one of the few real-world places where it's acceptable to talk to a stranger without looking like you're up to no good.

Which is why, when walking through the entrance to Stroud Bookshop and hearing a couple at the counter asking for a map of Costa Rica I didn't think twice about joining in as they discussed a future holiday destination. My boyfriend and I had barely seen more than the bookshop's recommends table, but within seconds we were deep in conversation with the two buyers and two booksellers, as we encouraged their idea of buying a map and shared as many tips as we could following our recent holiday of a lifetime to the country.

Okay, so we had some common ground in the form of the country, but that's part of what the bookshop experience is about: being in front of the gardening and swapping tips for growing spuds; telling the cookery books browser exactly how easy it is to use the book in their hands (but not the second one, that's for the professionals); joining in with a moan that your favourite crime writer hasn't published anything in the last month; or sharing a love of whichever obscure translation you've just finished reading with a fellow fan. And that's before we move onto the more random conversations of what's going on across the road, how well tea'd up the bookseller is, or where you bought your shoes.

Bookshops are about conversation, and don't let anyone with a fear of silent, serious places tell you otherwise.

Our conversation was lively and a great ice-breaker for getting to know the booksellers and hear more about the bookshop once the map-buyers had gone. Even if it did mean we didn't get to the large array of bookshelves for at least 20 minutes. The bookshelves were obviously worth the wait.

Stroud Bookshop is curiously arranged into three long walkways with bookcases either side that maximise the available space. It's a clever way of cramming in a lot of books without feeling claustrophobic. Browsers do have to politely pass each other but it was never too close for comfort and the walls of bookshelves were so long that there was easily enough space for many of us to be enjoying our surroundings at the same time. This was helped by the volume and variety of books, with lots of recommended titles and some excellent choices throughout the genres.

Frustratingly, most of my pictures from here are out of focus, so you'll have to trust me on my comments (or visit and find out for yourself), but there really is a lot to see here. A clever hidden turn gives children the opportunity to be tucked away and browse without distraction, while the non-fiction offering is also plentiful. I bought a book I feel I should have read some time ago, but it's one I've somehow only encountered through recommendations: Elizabeth Strout's My name is Lucy Barton.

In a similar manner to this book, Stroud Bookshop had somehow slipped off my original list of destinations for the IBW2018 bookshop crawl (even though it had been suggested as a place to visit). Fortunately it was easy to find and also looks to be in a rather quirky town, I'd definitely recommend taking a little time to find it.

We'd made the effort because Stroud Bookshop was recommended during conversations in earlier destinations. Which just goes to show, it really is good to talk in bookshops.

Stroud Bookshop
23 High Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL5 1AJ
Tel: 01453 756646 @stroudbookshop

Sunday 15 July 2018

A community book room

When it comes to long descriptions of bookshop encounters, this week's isn't going to be near the top of the list. The bookshop was small and my time there brief, but what it lacks in big adventures it makes up for with big heart.

Cotswold Book Room in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, was destination two on my IBW2018 bookshop crawl, and the first thing to note on arrival is that this is actually three rooms. The name arises from its origins, which were in a room of a house many decades ago. The location and size of the bookshop may have changed, but the name has stuck, and I think it's a good one.

The three rooms are small and there wasn't a huge amount of stock during my visit, but my boyfriend and I found plenty of books to catch our attention and the reason for the occasional area of space on the shelves was happily explained by the ladies behind the counter. It was these ladies who made the bookshop such a joy.

Conversation flowed easily as they told me about their time running the bookshop, its history and its part in the community. The word community comes up time and again when writing about bookshops, and I make no apology for repeating it here. The two ladies of Cotswold Book Room clearly put a great deal of importance in their community, and hearing about visitors to the bookshop and their other experiences really emphasised the heart within this small, simple space.

Our visit may have been brief but it was filled with laughter and interesting stories, and the ladies happily offered advice as to where might be best to pose with the cape. I picked up M R Carey's The Boy on the Bridge, which may not be the most obvious choice to remind me of such a happy, local bookshop, but it is a book I've long wanted to read so I was pleased to find it among the fiction shelves here.

Cotswold Book Room may not be the most remarkable of destinations, but I really do believe its community is the richer for its presence.

Cotswold Book Room
26 Long Street, Wotton-Under-Edge,
Gloucestershire GL12 7BT
Tel: 01453 843140

Sunday 8 July 2018

Putting personality before brand

For this week's blog I'm looking at contrasts and welcomes, and how two very different but related bookshops can be equally appealing, as we visit the two Yellow-Lighted Bookshops in Gloucestershire as part of my Independent Bookshop Week 2018 bookshop crawl.

But first, a small moment of insecurity from me. One of the reasons I write this blog is to show people that bookshops can be welcoming places for anyone, that they're not the scary, elitist places I feared they might be when I was a teenager. I can confirm they're definitely neither of those things (not even when they're in somewhere as well-to-do as the Cotswolds), but even with that knowledge I can still, on occasion, get nervous about visiting a bookshop.

Which was pretty much my state of mind as I arrived at The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury. It's daft really, because I'd been to this bookshop before. I knew it was a good quality, friendly place and I could even remember exactly where it is in the town and in relation to parking (very close). And yet, the nearer we got to our destination the more nervous I got. You see, this time I was expected. And I had a cape. Neither of which fall into my usual experience of visiting a bookshop. Obviously things went well, but I reckon it doesn't hurt to remind others that even the most confident of bookshoppers can still have an attack of the nerves.

Those nerves were swiftly banished by Hereward the bookshop owner, who greeted us and offered us coffee and a bun as soon as he saw us. I obviously can't have been in my right mind because I declined the bun, but the tea and coffee he bought my boyfriend and I from the independent cafe across the road were just what was needed to recover from a couple of hundred miles in a car.

Hereward's brief distraction getting the drinks also gave me a few minutes to regain some composure after the drive. I wandered around blindly for a few moments, reacquainted myself with the different sections, admired the choice of books and then collapsed in a heap on the comfy leather sofa in the snug children's area.

The bookshop was as good as I'd remembered and I soon lost my boyfriend to the bookshelves, which is his way of paying a bookshop a compliment. The selection met the approval of both of us, with warm wooden shelves and tasteful decoration perfectly pitched to make the browser comfortable without being a distraction.

I enjoyed looking at the books on offer, but once the bookseller returned I had a question to ask and the visit went from there. I knew the bookshop was named for a book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, but my question was why. I won't share the story here because I want you to visit the bookshop and find out for yourselves, but as someone who is fascinated by the reasons for names I was impressed by the answer. So impressed I bought the book as a reminder of my visit.

Conversation with Hereward was pleasant and relaxed in an understated, calm way. We covered a remarkable selection of topics that gave me a feel for the area, the bookshop, books and bookselling – after years of writing this blog I'm still amazed by how much I continue to learn about this enviable but tough career choice. It was a pleasant, informative conversation, punctuated by the odd customer query and accompanied by the gentle buzz of browsers in a busy bookshop. I'm certain we could've both happily stayed here all day.

Instead (after subtly posing for a photo with the cape) we continued with day one of our bookshop crawl, which included stop three: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth (we'll come back to stop two another day).

Where Tetbury was refined and calm, Nailsworth was bright and bubbly. Louise the bookseller greeted us like old friends and her energy and enthusiasm were evident for all to see. I've often thought booksellers – aka bookshop heroes – are the secret ingredient to making each bookshop unique, and it was never more obvious than in a comparison of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshops.

While both bear the same name and smart blue and gold signage outside, their ingredients differ. There were obviously some similarities in this younger bookshop, but these were more of a nod to the original than a copy. Personality – rather than brand – is the priority, enabling the two sister bookshops to have grown to suit their respective communities.

During our visit we saw a larger number of children in this second bookshop, and it was clear Louise has an enthusiasm for encouraging younger readers. She welcomed them as equals and the children's space was well-thought out with a sweet little hidey-hole for those who'd rather sit and read without distractions. She also embraced the crazy of the cloak, joining me for a photo and helping me realise there was no need to feel self-conscious about my not-so-secret superhero accessory. Louise is a true superhero.

When it came to buying, my attention was grabbed by pretty much all of the offerings on the recommends table, so I turned to Louise for help in whittling my selection down. This prompted further conversation about books and reading and I'm very pleased with my eventual choice of Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

Where the first Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury had been exactly the calm, relaxing influence I'd needed to recover from a tiring drive, Nailsworth's Yellow-Lighted Bookshop a few hours later was the perfect energetic boost to ensure our bookshop crawl took flight.

Which pretty much sums up the unique experience of visiting different independent bookshops: they put people first.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
21 Church St, Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8JG
Tel: 01666 500221 @YLBookshop

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
17 Fountain Street, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BL
Tel: 01453 832555 @YLBookshop