Friday 30 March 2018

M40, Junction 11, where to find bookshop heaven

Bookshops are the answer to most of life's problems. From discovering magic, learning to make tiramisu, or even just finding out What Katy Did Next, there's generally a bookseller who'll be more than happy to put the answer into your hands.

Another thing bookshops are the answer to is finding somewhere to relax and take stock when you're nearing the end of a 120-mile drive to visit your old school.*

Books & Ink Bookshop in Banbury – found less than 10 minutes from junction 11 of the M40 – was exactly what I needed, in the form of a warm and cheery safe haven to calm my nerves. Terrible M25 traffic earlier in the journey meant I didn't have long to enjoy the bookshop, but the brief time I had there was a treat.

This is another of those destinations I've wanted to visit since the early days of this blog, so I admit I was a little annoyed with myself that I didn't have longer to spend there this time, but Books & Ink was so lovely, so big and so easy to get to that I know this will be the first of many visits. So what was so special?

This bookshop sells new, secondhand and antiquarian books, but walk through the door and it's impossible to pigeonhole. I knew what kind of bookshop I was visiting but my eyes didn't necessarily believe it. The first thing I spotted was a case of antiquarian books, but the bookshop was bright and colourful and I was soon distracted by a good-sized children's area, followed by the overall mix of new and secondhand books. I'd venture to say I'm yet to see any other bookshop that so successfully balances the three offerings without any one overwhelming: the new, secondhand and antiquarian are in perfect harmony here.

There were Ladybirds, Pelicans and Penguins. Observers. A range of travel. Secondhand children's books in stunningly good condition. Shelves for a pound and a great selection of subjects or book styles. For example I was impressed by the "newspapers/journalism" area, while the effort taken to bunch together the fiction criteria of "archaeology/history/mystery in the style of Dan Brown" is surely more than any bookseller should be asked to go through, and yet that effort had been made. There are also lots of nice details, from bunting and tote bags in the air to Bagpuss, poking his head out from one of the high shelves as he quietly observes us all.

The bookshop is maze-like but open, crammed to the rooftop but light and spacious. If you want to wander and get lost, you can, but the layout also means each area felt like an individual bookshop while remaining part of the whole. It also covers two floors. There's a lot to see. Yes, this paragraph is rather rambling, but this is how my mind was working as I wandered around, admiring details, marvelling at how cheap some of the books were and generally de-stressing. I was calm, I was happy, I could've stayed all day.

Instead I had that school talk to get to so I chose my book, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for a mere £2, and went to say hello to the bookseller and meet Bookshop Paddington. I was still a little nervous about the afternoon ahead, so rather than enjoy a proper conversation with someone I've frequently talked to on social media, it was more of a one-sided outpouring of words by me, for which I now apologise. I'm only grateful my enthusiasm and excitement didn't send the bookseller running for cover. As for Paddington, he'd taken the day off, so that's another reason for me to return to the bookshop – and next time I'll check it's one of his working days first.

My visit can't have lasted more than half an hour but that really didn't matter. Books & Ink is so well arranged and has such a welcoming feel that were you to pop in for a quick purchase or browse the afternoon away I'm certain your time would be perfectly well spent.

Books & Ink Bookshop
4 White Lion Walk,
Oxfordshire OX16 5UD
Tel: 01295 709769

If you'd like to know more about Books & Ink Bookshop, read what a guest blogger had to say in Your Bookshops.

*For anyone interested, I was visiting my old school to talk to the sixth form about my career and the life experiences that have helped me along the way (including this blog). At least one pupil seemed interested so I feel I achieved something useful. It was both good and strange to be back at school after so long and I really enjoyed catching up with my former English teacher.

Sunday 11 March 2018

London Bookshop Crawl 2018 – Waterloo and Southwark branch

I'm a bit late in sharing my latest London Bookshop Crawl exploits with you, mainly because the books have been distracting me from blogging, but finally – better late than never – here are the highlights of my participation in the day...

Most of my bookshop crawls have been solitary affairs, walking from bookshop to bookshop, meeting booksellers and occasionally saying hello to another bookshopper as our paths cross. I have now acquired myself a partner in crime to explore with, but before he entered the scene my only crawl in company had been the London Bookshop Crawl.

This year I was able to return to the organised event, accompanied by my boyfriend and also in the company of some of those other bookshoppers who I've met in the past. We didn't cover as much ground as I'd've done solo, but the company and conversation more than made up for that.

As a late-comer to signing up for the bookshop crawl, I was very grateful to be able to get two last-minute spaces on the Waterloo and Southwark guided tour led by Twitter's BookingAround.

Our first stop was Somerset House Bookshop, sometimes known as the Rizzoli Bookshop. It was my first visit to Somerset House, and I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have spotted the bookshop to the left side of the square if I'd not been told it was there. Yes, there is a sign above the door, but it's not particularly visible from a distance and easily lost in the grand surroundings.

Stock is narrowly selected, but interesting, focusing on art and design themes that stretch to include photography, crafts, interiors, food and drink and a good selection of children's books. There's an understated beauty to the three-room bookshop, with cards, stationery and other bits and bobs adding splashes of bright colour. It also has a mind-boggling selection of magazines, with us unable to leave without buying The Life Of Things: Cabinet, a striking publication dedicated to the art and history of, you guessed it, cabinets. Bizzarre, beautiful and unexpectedly engrossing. With our purchase we also received a freebie goody bag, made up for the crawl.

Our next stop was the National Theatre Bookshop. I've passed by or briefly paused at this bookshop many times, but this was the first time I'd properly stopped and looked around. As someone with minimal experience of reading plays, I found it a relief to be eased into this bookshop with a few tables of fiction. There was a good mix of genres and it would've been easy to stay here to find my purchase.

Instead I explored properly, wandering the long wall of plays at the back of the bookshop. My boyfriend and I were determined to resist the urge to stay within our comfort zone of familiar drama, so we loitered by an area of new, recommends and currently showing plays, eventually selecting Sweat by Lynn Nottage.

Continuing with the dramatic, we moved on to The Calder Bookshop & Theatre. Part drama, part philosophy, this is a new and secondhand bookshop with a large selection of cheap secondhand titles out the front and a performance space hidden at the back. It was a busy bookshop and I enjoyed the randomness of browsing the books, occasionally hearing a dramatic outburst from behind the curtain, where a rehearsal must have been taking place. In an attempt to educate myself, here I bought Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. I really need to start working my way through all the non-fiction I've started buying.

Next up was somewhere I already know and love: Travelling Through... Still as diverse and welcoming as I knew it would be, this bookshop is organised by location and encourages readers to look beyond the comfortable boundaries of their daily worlds. With that thought in mind, I travelled to Canada (one day I'll get there in reality) with my purchase of The peculiar life of a lonely postman, by Denis Thériault, while my boyfriend headed to the Caribbean, with V S Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. I'm pretty certain both purchases were unlikely to have crossed our paths had we been looking at regularly organised bookshelves.

Our guided tour ended with a visit to somewhere I'm ashamed to say I'd never have found (possibly heard of) if it hadn't been on the list: The Feminist Library. Not a bookshop, although it does have a small selection of titles for sale, this important collection of books is hidden away in a very unassuming building near the London South Bank University. It's so well hidden that at first when we stopped to press the buzzer I'd been certain we must be at the wrong place. We didn't buy anything here, but it was a remarkable experience to wander its two rooms, appreciating the many decades of literature that have been collected together. It was a fascinating end to the day.

The London Bookshop Crawl took place across the city at the beginning of February, with a selection of guided walks in different areas, or the option to simply set out on your own and see what you might find. In our case the discovery was a small selection of bookshops I've long meant to visit and a varied group of men and women who had individually paid the nominal fee to take part in the tour.

It was a lovely day of books, conversation and exploration and I can't wait until next year, when I'll get to explore another area of London bookshops (that I may or may not know) with strangers who I'm sure will become friends.

Somerset House Bookshop/The Rizzoli Bookshop
East Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 7845 4600 @SomersetHouse

National Theatre Bookshop
National Theatre, Lambeth, London SE1 9PX
Tel: 020 74523456 @NTBookshop

The Calder Bookshop & Theatre
51 The Cut, South Bank, London SE1 8LF
Tel: 020 7620 2900 @CalderBookshop

Travelling Through...
131 Lower Marsh, Waterloo, London, SE1 7AE
Tel: 020 7633 9279 @Trvllng_Thrgh

The Feminist Library
5 Westminster Bridge Road, South Bank, London SE1 7XW
Tel: 020 7261 0879 @feministlibrary

A few of us from the bookshop crawl posed for a selfie outside Travelling Through...