Saturday 3 October 2020

Bookshop Day 2020

Today is Bookshop Day, one of my favourite Saturdays of the year. It's a day for getting up early, starting a long journey and visiting as many bookshops as I can between the hours of 9am and 6pm.

It's a day of adventure, of new friends, of new worlds, of new experiences, and – inevitably – of a very nice amount of tea and cake along the way.

My bank balance would end the day battered and bruised, my face would hurt from smiling so much, my feet from walking, and my mood would be one of overwhelming joy at all the experiences I'd had and the books I'd bought. It's a wonderful day and has previously included anything from five to 15 bookshops, with a minimum of one book purchased in each.

For all of us 2020 has been a little different (understatement of the century), but it's not until today that I've properly felt the loss of the world as it was compared to the world as it is now. I'd dearly love to be embarking on another bookshop crawl, but for me that's simply not an option at this time.

I'm lucky in that I'm making the most of the many measures independent bookshops have put into place: I've been buying books by Twitter, email, website and phone, and I'm grateful to every independent bookseller who has listened to my requests, advised me on the possibilities and – always successfully – introduced me to a new read.

These last months have been the only time in my life when I've bought books in a way other than face-to-face and it's been hard. It's not the same as walking into a bookshop and being grabbed by a random book sighting from across the room – not forgetting the feel of the books, the noise of the pages and the wonderful smell of a good bookshop – and I admit I'm struggling to adjust to this different way of book buying, but my goodness I'm grateful for the booksellers who have supported me during this time.

Yes, it really is the booksellers who are supporting me.

They're real people with thoughts and opinions and they know when to offer a similar book to your previous read and when to go off at a tangent. They discuss the possibilities and are honest when they're not sure if what they've suggested is quite right but at least it's a good starting point. They are not an algorithm.

Now, more than ever, booksellers are worth their weight in gold.

We need independent bookshops, but for them to be there for us we need to be there for them too. This Bookshop Day, and every day, please support your local indie.

Friday 21 June 2019

Let's go on a bookshop crawl

An Independent Bookshop Week adventure: two people, three days, four counties, 17 bookshops, 28 books, 471 miles.

Bookshops are magical places. I’m generally a bit of a sceptic, but I really do believe that stepping inside a bookshop – especially one of the independent variety – can have a transformative effect.

There’s the calming influence of being surrounded by so many books; the excitement of so much potential inside those books; the distraction of all those titles and spines and covers; the little individual details that make each bookshop unique; the other browsers interacting with your personal most loved or most hated books; and there are the booksellers themselves, the bookshop heroes who curated the little piece of heaven you find yourself standing in.

Independent Bookshop Week is the perfect opportunity to explore, engage with and celebrate everything about those individual havens, and having been running for 13 years the celebrations are clearly going well. In the past year the number of indie bookshops who are members of the Booksellers Association has also increased, up to 883, so I like to think that’s a sign lots of us browsers and readers are also doing our bit to celebrate and support our local – and not so local – indies. You can search for indie bookshops near you here.

Following the success of my IBW bookshop crawl last year (and countless before then, bookshop crawls are great – try one!), Books Are My Bag, the campaign to support buying books from bookshops, invited me to go on another adventure to mark the start of Independent Bookshops Week 2019. I chose East Anglia as my destination, and while it was physically impossible for me to visit every bookshop in the area, my boyfriend and I did our best, taking in 17 bookshops spread across four counties – in three days. Almost 500 miles is a long way to travel to visit two people’s handfuls of bookshops, but as I’m hoping this blog will reveal, the rewards to be found in our many destinations were definitely worth the effort.

Our adventure began at The Book Warren & Café in Wilmingham, Cambridgeshire. Found just outside the village, this café-cum-secondhand-bookshop was the perfect cheery start to set us on our way. A handful of tables and chairs fill the room, with books around the edges and chatter and community spirit wafting around the room. We ordered breakfast (coffee and a sausage sandwich for me, tea, an egg sandwich and a cheese scone for him) and sat down at a table near the general fiction shelves.

Bookshop owner Lyndsay came over to say hello in between running the café, and made us feel very welcome as she talked about her endeavour and the part the venue plays in hosting events and gatherings for the community. The book offering is limited – I picked up Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – but it’s interesting and varied and coupled with the café, Lyndsay’s enthusiasm and the warmth of the welcome on offer, it’s easy to see why this bookshop has been so well received.

Heading north we came to the two-bookshop city of Ely. First stop was Burrows Bookshop, a sweet little place dedicated to children. Set on a busy pedestrian street, several visitors popped in to say hello during our visit, creating a nice atmosphere. I took this stop as an opportunity to add to my Michael Morpurgo collection with Escape from Shangri-La.

Topping & Company is one of the more famous names in the indie bookshop world, and the people of Ely clearly appreciate it because it was packed with Saturday morning shoppers.

Three floors of bookcases (accessed by ladder if necessary) mean this was probably the most voluminous bookshop of our destination. Recommendations tables fill every open space and spines call for attention from smart wooden shelves that make me think of an historic home library. Readers sit with cups of tea, and browse books or sit and chat. There’s a good atmosphere.

While we're exploring, the boy picks up an interesting book, The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, which I promptly nab from him and claim as my purchase. So he returns to the shelves and comes back with a British Museum book about Manga, and Vivian Maier Street Photography.

Ceres Bookshop in Swaffham, Norfolk, came next. A new and secondhand bookshop with a tea room and garden, we’d just missed the lunchtime rush on what looked to have been a very impressive selection of cakes.

Bad timing in relation to cake aside, this destination is a good size and the tables next to some of the secondhand books get a big thumbs up from this bibliophile. The whole setting conjured up visions of a community space to read, eat and congregate.

Time was tight so we had to move on without cake, but not before I got my hands on Adam Rutherford’s A brief history of everyone who has ever lived.

Hidden away in an interesting-looking arcade in the market town of Holt, The Holt Bookshop turned out to be surprisingly large stopping point. I said hello and the nice gentleman behind the counter apologetically commented he’d not decorated for IBW. As much as I like a good bit of bunting I’m not going to hold a lack of it against anyone, especially if that anyone is a beautifully stocked bookshop.

We both gravitated towards the classics section here, which contained a number of previously unknown to us titles. I was drawn to Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns, while it was the boy’s turn to pick up a book I’d been interested in first: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. We also ended up with an audio book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and a classical CD of The Tippet Quartet, respectively.

The last Saturday stop was Jarrold & Sons in Cromer. We arrived just 15 minutes before closing, so our exploration was limited to establishing it was half stationery shop, half bookshop, and the buyers had the good sense to stock the latest publication by my favourite cookery guru: The Quick Roasting Tim by Rukmini Iyer.

End of day one: 6 bookshops, 2 counties, 9 books + 2 CDs

Sunday trading meant day two was a more leisurely one, starting at 10.45am, the opening time of City Bookshop in Norwich. We were welcomed by an obviously very knowledgeable bookseller, who we enjoyed chatting to as we explored the varied selection of remainder, secondhand and antiquarian books.

The two floors were well laid out with much to appeal to all tastes but I jumped at the opportunity to buy Patrick Rothfuss’ The slow regard of silent things, because it’s a book I’ve long kept a look out for. The boy chose Modernism, An Anthology, and the size of it meant we were both pleased to be traveling by car!

The Book Hive opened next. Upon entering there’s a smallish lobby with a menu advertising the week’s specials, but the really special thing is walking up the stairs into the bookshop proper, which somehow feels like you’ve been invited into a person’s home – in a good way.

Individual books are placed flat on tables, allowing the browser to sweep their eyes over a mass of covers, spotting new titles and generally being inspired to read X, Y or Z.

That said, bookseller Megan also did a superb job with her recommendations (for us and others, conversation in the bookshop embraced many browsers). Based on her suggestion, I bought Olivia Lang’s To the river. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to discuss taste in books and then say “read this, I think you’ll like it” and based on the fact some of her recommendations were titles one or both of us had already read and loved I was even more impressed. The boy also did some buying: Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and A World of Three Zeroes by Muhammad Yunus.

My next bookshop conversation was when I was paying for my purchase in the bookshop in Jarrolds, also in Norwich. I have to admit I’d been a little uncertain about visiting a bookshop in a department store, even if it was an indie. My imagination had been of books lost among clothes or crockery. Instead this was a big, well-stocked space with an excellent range.

The book talk came from Annie at the till, who proudly shared the bookshop’s history, dedication to books and – because everyone loves a freebie – made sure I didn’t leave until I had the bookmark and badges created to accompany my chosen book: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

Leaving the city, we headed for the coast and another indie offering Sunday opening hours: Aldeburgh Bookshop in Suffolk.

Another surprisingly big bookshop, we entered through a door to the side and were met with a great mix of non-fiction, which is pretty much where I lost the boy. He quickly selected Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux, and The Brain: A User’s Manual by Marco Magrini. Moving into the bigger room I found a good selection of fiction to tempt me, dawdling by the recommendations and enjoying a selection of books displayed at my head height. As well as Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, I also bought a book of postcards, The Snooty Bookshop by Tom Gauld. No prizes for guessing the type of post my friends are going to start receiving...

End of day two: 4 bookshops, 2 counties, 9 books + 1 postcard book

A little last-minute route re-arranging meant the third day of our bookshop crawl began very early, to see us loitering on the doorstep of Woodbridge Emporium in Suffolk ready for opening time. A small bookshop with a definite leaning towards both historical fiction and science fiction and fantasy, the shop was as characterful as Jules the bookseller. We enjoyed a good chat and I came away with The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Walking a short distance down the street we came to Browsers Books, which had a particularly appealing display of non-fiction almost as soon as we entered through the door. I liked the variety here and was pleased to pick up Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams, which prompted a brief bookshop chat about the author’s excellent writing.

Heading north again, we arrived at the beautiful Halesworth Bookshop, which is clearly investing a lot of energy into making itself a place for the community. I lost track of the number of book-related events taking place thanks to the energy of Abbie the bookseller. Her bubbly enthusiasm was infectious and it was great to see the steady stream of customers visiting her shop early on a Monday morning.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim caught my attention here, as did a beautiful mural in the children’s department (the whole bookshop was really rather lovely) but I could only take one of those two things home.

Hurrying to make up time we could only manage a brief pitstop in Beccles Bookshop, which was spacious and simply organised with a buzz of shoppers and friendly booksellers. The children's area at the back caught my attention but in the end I picked up A closed and common orbit by Becky Chambers. Then there was a quick chat with the bookseller before returning to the road.

The first thing I noticed inside Diss Publishing Bookshop was the woman walking towards me wearing the same Book Shop Heroes t-shirt as me. As icebreakers go it was a good one and we were soon joined by a second bookseller for a group photo. There was a lovely, smiley welcome to this huge bookshop by the lake which also offers art supplies, gifts and a cafe, making it the perfect stop for lunch too.

I interspersed ordering and eating with browsing and chatting, while the boy relaxed at our table on the decking by the lake. It’s an idyllic setting. Tea and toasties revived us nicely but I missed out on trying the homemade jam Swiss roll because one of us ate that all to himself (I’m told he was too busy enjoying it to remember to leave some for me – he's still in the dog house).

Local books were top of the bestsellers here and were certainly very tempting, but I was eventually drawn to Wonders beyond numbers: A brief history of all things mathematical by Johnny Ball.

Winding roads brought us to Clare, near Sudbury, where Harris & Harris Books is to be found. I’ve long wanted to visit this bookshop and the welcome as we arrived at the door confirmed I’d not been wrong in my wish.

Kate the bookseller had the biggest of smiles and the happiest of chatter as she greeted us and showed us around her beautiful boutique bookshop. I’ll be honest, we were beginning to flag a little at this point so the welcome and wonder of this bookshop was exactly what we needed to revive us.

It may be small, but what Harris & Harris lacks in space it makes up for in quality and content. There are eye-catching details everywhere and the books have clearly been lovingly and carefully selected and despite being almost at the end of a bookshop crawl the majority of titles were ones I didn’t recognise. Which is a remarkable achievement for a small bookshop.

I was only sorry I didn’t have more time to appreciate all the details interspersed between the two floors of new and secondhand books. That sorrow was balanced by the joy of finding a new-to-me-title by Edith Wharton, The Touchstone. As the author of my favourite book I’m always thrilled to find more of her writing (all bookshops please take note!). The boy chose A history of the American people by Paul Johnson from the secondhand section.

We arrived at Between The Lines in Great Bardfield, Essex, just 15 minutes before closing but the reaction of the booksellers was so great that I was again reminded why indie bookshops are the best. There were four or five people gathered on their way to celebrate a birthday but rather than tapping their watches and rushing us out, they opened a bottle, settled in for a chat and entertained us with bookshop stories for almost an hour!

Another example of the care and consideration that goes into stocking a bookshop, we were again impressed by the unexpected and largely new to us selection on offer. I greedily grabbed another Wharton, Twilight Sleep, then ended up buying a second book when one of the booksellers saw me looking at Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, which she praised so highly I had to find out more. Annie Ernaux’s Les annees, from the French language corner, was the the boy’s choice.

The bookshelf discoveries and the cheery, celebratory atmosphere generated by the gathered ladies (see them behind us in the photo above) were the perfect ending to our Independent Bookshop Week Bookshop Crawl.

End of day three: 7 bookshops, 3 counties, 10 books

Total: 17 bookshops, 4 counties, 28 books

To find out more about all of these bookshops, come back soon as I focus on them individually.

The Book Warren and Cafe,
Over Road, Willingham, Over, Cambridgeshire, CB24 5EU
Tel: 01954 260762 @TheBookWarren19

Burrows Bookshop,
9 High Street Passage, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7  4NB
Tel: 01353 669 759

Toppings & Company Booksellers,
9 High Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4LJ
Tel: 01353 645005 @ToppingsEly

Ceres Bookshop,
20 London Street, Swaffham, Norfolk, PE37 7DG
Tel: 01760 722504

The Holt Bookshop,
10 Appleyard, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6AR
Tel: 01263 715858 @TheHoltBookshop

Jarrold Books,
33 Church Street, Cromer, Norfolk, NR27 9ES
Tel: 01263 512190 @JarroldBooks

City Bookshop,
12-14 Davey Place, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1PQ
Tel: 01603 626113 @CityBookshop

The Book Hive,
53 London Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1HL
Tel: 01603 219268 @bookhive

Jarrold Books,
1-11 London Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1JF
Tel: 01603 660661 @JarroldBooks

The Aldeburgh Bookshop,
42 High Street, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, IP15 5AB
Tel: 01728 452389 @AldeBooks

Woodbridge Emporium,
66 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 1AL
Tel: 01394 382382 @WoodbridgeEmpor

Browsers Books,
60 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 1AL
Tel: 01394 388890 @BrowsersBks

The Halesworth Bookshop,
42 Thoroughfare, Halesworth, Suffolk, IP19 8AR
Tel: 01986 873840 @abbieyvette

Beccles Bookshop,
Exchange Square, Beccles NR34 9HH
Tel: 01502 716806

Diss Publishing Bookshop,
40 Mere Street, Diss, Suffolk, IP22 4AH
Tel: 01379 644612 @DissPublishShop

Harris & Harris Books,
7B High Street, Clare, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 8NY
Tel: 01787 277267 @HandHbookshop

Between the Lines,
Vine Street, Great Bardfield, Braintree, Essex, CM7 4SR
Tel: 01371 810087 @BTLBardfield

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.