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.