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