Monday 30 December 2013

Who needs the sales anyway?

It's cold and wet and miserable, a time to be huddled up by the fire, warming our hands and feet and generally avoiding the outside as we recover from the extravagance of Christmas and the flooding and power cuts that came with it.

However huddling up at home isn't very exciting without a good book to keep you company, and not everyone was lucky enough to get one of those for Christmas. Fortunately, this doesn't have to be an expensive thing to rectify, as I discovered when I visited the seaside town of Whitstable in Kent.

I have to admit, visiting a seaside town in the winter wouldn't be high on my to do list, but I was invited along by the town's reporter, who offered to introduce me to the local bookshops and other delights of the town, and I'm very glad I accepted.

I'd heard about Whitstable before, but not really visited properly as stories of nightmare traffic and high prices in boutique shops had put me off. Visiting on a cold Wednesday afternoon, I can't answer to any of those complaints for a sunny summer day, but the regular prices on offer in the bookshops I visited would put the sale offerings of most high streets to shame.

First stop on my tour was the independent Harbour Books on Harbour Street. Selling remainders and full price books, I'd been a little wary of visiting this bookshop because of how much I dislike high street remainder bookshops, or should that be shops that happen to sell books. I really should have known better.

As a follower of theirs on Twitter I already knew Harbour Books regularly crafts some beautiful window displays (my photo doesn't do it justice), what I hadn't expected was a shop crammed with more books than I'd seen in a long time, most of them in a space no larger than my living room. Sure, the shop includes a back room and upstairs, but it was this colourful front room that captured my heart. From recommendations and local interest to general fiction and classics - not forgetting a bright and colourful children's section - there was most definitely something for everyone. And listening into the conversation at the till where the bookseller appeared to be ordering in new stock, I was definitely in a place that appreciates a good book.

And so I appreciated their bookshop even more, taking my time to explore the books before selecting The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin for a mere £2.99.

Following a leisurely walk through the town, my next stop was the secondhand and antiquarian Oxford Street Books. In contrast to my first stop, this bookshop was massive. Sprawling through many rooms, each with a different subject, this was a shop to get lost in, and so I did... wandering from science fiction to history, to crime and even a few shelves dedicated to naval and western fiction. I picked up Stephen King's The Stand for just £1.95 and The True Deceiver by Moomin writer Tove Jansson for 95p. Yes, I failed to stick to my one book limit, but at those prices how could I do anything else?

Pleased with my purchases, it was time to take a break and go for lunch at the Horsebridge Arts Centre. A wonderful resource for the community, I enjoyed some friendly banter with the staff followed by a warming jacket potato in their cafe. Then, so comfortable was I in my surroundings (I did have a couple of good books to read too) that I decided to dawdle a while longer and sample their cakes and hot chocolate. It was during this second trip to the counter that I noticed a bookshelf by the door. While I know this technically probably doesn't class as a bookshop, I found it impossible to ignore the shelves and soon found myself picking up Danny Wallace's Charlotte Street for a mere 50p - as it's raising money for the centre I doubled my donation.

And so, for less than £7, I came away from Whitstable with a haul of seven books. Rain meant I didn't get to enjoy an ice cream by the sea, but with bookshops like this to tempt me back we all know I'll be returning for a 99 once the sun returns.

Harbour Books
21 Harbour Street, Whitstable, CT5 1AQ
Tel: 01227 264011

Oxford Street Books
20A Oxford Street, Whitstable, CT5 1DD
Tel: 01227 281727

Tuesday 24 December 2013

A gift for my Dad

We've all got that one person who they find it impossible to buy for at Christmas, for me that person is my Dad.

Every year I ask him what he'd like, and every year he tells me I don't have to give him anything. At a push he relents and tells me not to spend a lot, but if I want I can buy him a gift voucher. Which, quite frankly, is a pain.

Because of all the people I (willingly) buy gifts for my Dad is the one I want to find something really special for. We don't spend a lot of time together, and when we do meet up we don't always say a lot, but I know he's there for me and I hope he knows how important he is to me. And while I know you don't need a glitzy present to tell a person you care, it's nice to be able to give something to say thank you and show them they're special. Something that shows you took the time to think about them and consider what they might like. Unfortunately, when it comes to gifts for my Dad no amount of thought helps me to achieve such a present and this year was looking highly likely to be another exercise in gift voucher-buying.

Then I discovered The Aviation Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. Just a stone's throw from the historic Pantiles area of the town, this thriving specialist bookshop felt like the answer to all my present-buying concerns. Because despite ending his career (very successfully) behind a desk, the early days of my Dad's working life were as an apprentice at A V Roe.

While I confess I don't know the details of his plane building apprenticeship, one of the things I do know is that my Dad worked on the last remaining Vulcan to grace our skies. A fact I was particularly proud to share with all my Kent friends when it took part in an airshow in the county this summer.

And so I set off to The Aviation Bookshop to find a meaningful Christmas present for my Dad.

Being fairly (totally) ignorant of the aviation world I'd anticipated a small shop with a few easy to spot books about the Vulcan. I'd walk in, talk to the bookseller and choose a gift. In reality it is a large shop, spanning several rooms filled with shelves of carefully arranged books.

Thankfully the second part of my plan - the bit involving help from a bookseller - saved me from disaster. I mentioned the Vulcan and immediately a selection of new and old books were collected from the shelves, including a few that were signed. We talked about planes, Avro (as I now know my Dad's former employer is known) and eventually I selected a fairly new book with some lovely colour photographs that even this ignoramus could appreciate.

With a little gentle prodding the bookseller then told me about the history of the shop, book signings and the service it provides to aviation fans all over the country so that I soon became fascinated - I'd love to one day bring my Dad along so I can see a proper enthusiast enjoy the setting.

In the meantime I'll be presenting Dad with his gift on Christmas day, but just in case he already owns the book I've also bought a gift voucher...

31-33 Vale Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1BS
Tel: 01892 539284

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Solving a gift-buying dilemma

An invitation to a festive tea party put me into a bit of a quandry earlier this month. I knew my host would be providing a selection of homemade baked goods and that - while it wasn't essential - many guests would be bringing their own creations to share.

Now I'm perfectly happy to take a hospitality gift when invited to a special occasion, what I'm not prepared to do is take along something that looks like it's been baked by a four-year-old. In fact, my creation would've been worse than that because at least a child is supervised by someone who knows their way around the kitchen. And so I got into a bit of a panic. I spent the train journey to Dulwich half hoping for a delay to give me time to think (remarkably Southeastern were punctual).

Which is the state of mind I was in when I entered Village Books. As is only natural, the simple act of entering a bookshop did help to calm me somewhat, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help but feel I shouldn't be enjoying myself until I'd chosen a gift to buy my friend. Fortunately, the bookshop had the answer.

Even while looking at the array of baking books I'd not fully appreciated what was in front of me until I saw Great British Bakes by Mary-Anne Boermans and the lightbulb in my brain flashed on. What better hospitality gift could there be for a book lover to give to someone with a passion for baking?

Relief washed over me and I was once again able to appreciate my surroundings - including the largest travel section I've seen in an independent (or possibly any?) bookshop, and I was particularly appreciative of the effort to encourage teen readers by giving them a young adult section all to themselves away from the kids. Now I just had to find a book for myself.

While browsing the fiction it was hard not to notice the buzz in the shop, with a regular flow of customers and friendly booksellers happy to help - one of whom I soon cornered to ask for advice. Wanting to be sure I'd chosen a good gift, and one that wouldn't already be on my friend's shelf, I needed reassurance about my choice and, naturally, we soon got talking about books for me to read too. Within minutes a small pile of recommendations was collected in front of me and I felt truly spoiled.

One of the things I love about meeting a new bookshop is that as well as being introduced to new books (many of which have now been added to my must-read list), old - or at least slightly less recent - reads can often be shown to me in a new light too. And so it was the bookseller's enthusiasm for Kate Atkinson's Case Histories that won the day - a book I've always meant to read, this seemed like the perfect time to finally take a copy home.

Books selected, it was time to pay. As I was buying a gift, I'd also picked up some tissue paper wrapping, but as I was paying the bookseller told me about their free gift wrapping service and - as you can see - did a much better job than I'd ever manage.

Having entered the bookshop a nervous mess, I left with a book for me, a gift for my friend and a smile on my face: I was ready for an afternoon of civilised socialising and more festive tea and cakes than I ever thought possible.

Village Books
1d Calton Avenue, Dulwich, London, SE21 7DE
Tel: 020 8693 2808

Wednesday 11 December 2013

One final purchase on a bookshop crawl for #BAMB

There comes a point in any good pub crawl when you're a little but more drunk than you should be, you've spent too much money, dawdled a little too long in each pub and - if you're a girl - your feet hurt.

At this point you have a number of options, among them are admitting defeat, stopping buying drinks and heading home, or instead you can find your second wind, take a different tack and find a new burst of energy. Admittedly where booze is concerned you probably shouldn't've drunk so much, but when it comes to books I can highly recommend the latter option. And that's exactly what happened on my bookshop crawl.

By the time I reached Belgravia Books I was in the equivalent situation: I was running late and carrying a very heavy bag of books, but I was happy.

The bookshop was a mass of colour and books and just the tonic I needed. A five minute walk from Victoria train station, Belgravia Books is packed with all the variety a discerning bookshopper could need and I again found myself marvelling at what I saw - I may have walked around a number of bookshops that day, but my journey never once felt repetitious.

From the book art above the shelves - which revealed further delights when you looked behind the front rows of books - to the £5 fiction section that proved independent doesn't have to mean full price, I couldn't help but drink in the view.

However, as is only natural at this stage in any good crawl, I was tired. And whilst I was enjoying the view my decision-making capabilities had pretty much run out. I needed help.

Fortunately there was a friendly bookseller on hand to come to my aid. After a brief chat in which I explained how much I'd gorged on books and just needed something fun to revive myself he came up with a number of suggestions and, much to my relief, patiently talked me through them so helping to reduce the number of tough decisions I had to make. Not that this took him particularly long, because within moments of our conversation he'd picked out Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos - I'm sure I don't need to remind you of my weakness for translated fiction.

With this choice a weight was lifted from my shoulders and I was able to further enjoy my surroundings, chatting with the bookseller about the shops and our love of books. He even introduced me to the Love Your Indie loyalty card, which after ten stamps entitles the holder to a free book. As you'd expect I'm not far off my first reward, and I think this scheme sounds like a wonderful way to reward bookshop fans for their support.

But back to Belgravia. I had hoped that before writing this post I would return to the bookshop to meet their resident pet Baxter, but as he only works Wednesdays I've not - yet - been able to make this happen. Having followed his Twitter feed I've discovered he has impeccable taste in books, so if the human I spoke to is anything to go by I'm sure I'll have an excellent time talking books with Baxter too.

In the meantime my bookshop crawl means I've some reading to do...

Belgravia Books
59 Ebury Street, Belgravia, London, SW1W 0NZ
Tel: 020 7259 9336

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Escaping from the world in a reading retreat

Sometimes, all you want is to escape, to hide in a cosy nook where you can relax and forget about everything going on around you.

Such a haven is just what I found at Wheeler's bookshop, but first I had to get there.

Driving through beautiful countryside on a crisp autumn morning, it was hard to believe I was just over an hour from my urban home as I marvelled at far-reaching landscapes, golden trees and a stunning selection of English country villages, linked to one another by winding lanes.

My destination was Midhurst, an attractive market town found pretty much in the heart of the South Downs National Park. Packed with independent shops and period homes (many of which I'd really like to live in if someone has a spare half million), it was a delightful, relaxing place to explore.

Not far from the high street, Wheeler's bookshop felt like a cosy retreat from the moment I stepped through the door. Its front may have been two large windows, but the atmosphere of warmth and cosiness - and the wonderful selection of books - made it easy to forget the outside world.

The first books I saw were, naturally, in the fiction section, and immediately the bookshop got a big thumbs up. As you''d expect this included a mix of best sellers and old favourites, but I also discovered a truly eclectic mix with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Julian Barnes and Len Deighton all sharing the same shelves. Science fiction doesn't seem to be all that common in independent new bookshops, and so to find everything all mixed in together really piqued my interest and helped me to consider a wide selection of books without having to wander between a number of different areas.

Not that this stopped me from exploring.

In the children's section, a rocking horse looked at home among the period features and must surely be a delight for youngsters - perhaps this is as much a retreat for young and grown up alike? It was near here that I discovered the first of the chairs that was crying out to be curled up in. Next to what must once have been a fireplace but was now decorated with flowers and books, I struggled not to stop and read.

Moving upstairs, the secondhand section is found in a series of rooms decorated with books, scattered with lamps and - importantly - more sofas and comfy chairs where I could relax and escape. Larger than the shop downstairs, this area managed to feel both spacious and cosy at the same time, as each doorway opened into a new room and subject.

Aware I had to eventually leave my retreat for the real world I found it impossible to go without taking two books with me. The first was The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna, a book about leaving everything behind somehow seemed an appropriate purchase for such a country retreat, at the till it was then praised by the bookseller too, reaffirming my choice. (Incidentally a lovely conversation revealed her to be the mother of the current owner, who had taken over the family business, have I mentioned how much I love chatting to booksellers?) My second purchase was Books Do Furnish A Room, taken from the fireplace display, it's served as a reminder of this stunning bookshop and also an inspiration in my own home (aka an excuse to buy more books).

Now I just have to use that second book to create my own reading retreat at home.

Wheeler's bookshop
Red Lion Street, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9PB
Tel: 01730 817666

Friday 29 November 2013

A first encounter with Doctor Who

In honour of the recent 50th birthday of The Doctor, last weekend I decided to take the plunge and finally start reading my first ever Doctor Who book.

I'm not generally a book snob, I've read pretty much any style of writing I can get my hands on, but - despite a childhood love of the television programme - Doctor Who is a, er, genre(?) I'd not previously considered reading.

Whether that's because I've never forgiven the (I think) seventh Doctor for the nightmares that once kept me up half the night (something to do with zombies and a church, I probably didn't hide behind the sofa enough during that episode) I couldn't say, but if I hadn't found Who One in Ryde on the Isle of Wight I'm not sure I'd ever have gone down this line of reading.

And so, stood outside the shop, eyeing up a suitably scarf-wearing Dalek, I realised this was possibly the first bookshop I'd ever entered with a feeling of total ignorance. Mostly because I was unsure if it would class as a bookshop in my mind when weighing up the balance of other Doctor Who items on sale (there was a lot of merchandise for fans), but also wondering if I'd even find something I wanted to buy - two quite important factors when deciding whether or not to feature the shop here.

For the first concern my question was answered pretty quickly as a large wall of books greeted me, looking rather fine in all their modern artwork but with some original books thrown in too. For the second I did what I'd do in any good bookshop: I asked for help.

Contrary to the popular stereotyping of Doctor Who geeks, the only man around was behind the counter, was perfectly capable of talking to the various women in the shop, and wasn't wearing a Tardis. In fact, he was just as friendly and approachable as any bookseller with a passion for their subject and didn't bat an eyelid when I asked him what I should buy.

Just inside the door was a bookshelf of secondhand books (most of which had been so well looked after they could easily have been returned to the new bookshelves), and so as a newcomer to the genre I'd managed to narrow down my choices to this smaller, cheaper, selection, but beyond that I had no idea where to start. The bookseller asked me a little about what I might be interested in, and we managed to narrow it down to me not wanting to read about the Cybermen and generally being a bit of a wuss.

After some more questioning he reduced the search to Doctors from the 1980s and soon began picking out a selection for me to choose from, recommending a variety of storylines or authors and telling me a little about each one. I was both grateful for his time and impressed by his knowledge.

Eventually - after what must've been a lot of patience on his part - I chose Palace of the Red Sun by Christopher Bulis. An adventure featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri (neither of which I could remember at the time of purchase), its cover blurb boasted an unscrupulous reporter, fanatical gardeners and the threat of an interstellar tyrant, what more could a reader ask for?

And so to the book. I'm only halfway through at time of writing, but I can't put it down.

It's well written and the story is captivating, but the thing that gets me the most is that - once again - I'm encountering books that are judged very much by their cover, or television series, or geeky stereotyping.

I hadn't really had any particular expectation about the genre (I can't think of a more appropriate way to describe it) but if anything I'd possibly anticipated a cross between science fiction and crime and thriller. So when among the robots and spaceship-wielding bad guy I encountered a girl having to choose a husband and some kind of sprite that looked like a teddy bear I was surprised to realise how balanced the book is between the stereotypically male and female themes of action and fluffy stuff.

In short, it's the kind of book I'd happily recommend to just about anyone I know, certain they'd each find something - probably very different - to enjoy.

I'd try to explain more but blogging is eating into valuable reading hours and I sadly don't have a Tardis to travel back in time and post this at an earlier date...

Who One
44 High Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO33 2RE
Tel: 01893 564455

PS For reference, I have no idea if it's a controversial thing to admit but my favourite Doctor from memory is Peter Davison (I was only four when the fifth Doctor stepped down), and my favourite companion was Ace (who travelled with Doctor number seven). My favourite storyline, after some research, was Paradise Towers. If we jump to modern day then it has to be Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith's current companion, Clara Oswald.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Harry Potter leaves his Watermark for #BAMB

Continuing on my Books are my Bag bookshop crawl, we come to Watermark Books in Kings Cross Station. A destination I very nearly skipped.

While I'm all for bookshops in train stations - they've saved many a journey for me - I'd debated whether or not to visit due to time constraints and the concern that such a destination might be more functional than exciting. How glad I am I ignored this thought.

I arrived at Kings Cross Station ignorant of my destination, and walked the concourse a little lost, wondering if I'd perhaps got the wrong train station. Then, just as I was about to give up, I spotted a crowd of people at the other end of the station and decided to be nosy.

Which is when I discovered platform nine and three quarters and the crowd of Harry Potter fans hiding Watermark Books from view. Not a fan of the films I didn't stop to pose for a photo, but as the bookshop is nestled between the platform and a Harry Potter store the whole area is definitely worth a visit by enthusiasts of J K Rowling's books.

But for me the magic was in the bookshop itself, because once again I had stepped through the door into a different world.

Sure, it has all the characteristics of a regular bookshop: there's a featured table in the entrance, and further in there were travel guides that could be useful if you're off on a long journey, but even the recommendations shied away from the obvious, as themed collections added weight to the must-stock bestsellers. It wasn't long before I was hooked.

Despite being a relatively small bookshop there was lots to take in (including that Harry Potter section), but personally I was torn between the children's section and a recommendations table at the back, which must surely have been designed for the well-travelled reader as a selection of translated books leapt into my hands.

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago ended up being my book of choice for this visit, but whether I'd picked it because I love the author or because of my earlier exploration of the children's section I can't decide. You see, before finding the table of translations I'd discovered a different kind of elephant. For it was during this visit that I first 'met' Elmer the Elephant. I realise how ignorant that may sound - especially considering I profess to be a bit of a reader - but I really had never heard of the pachyderm book-dweller before. (I've since read one of his adventures thanks to another bookshop visit.)

Yes, I was there to buy books, but how could I not stop and play with such a colourful character? I even returned to the bookshop the following week to pick up an Elmer for myself.

Harry Potter may be the obvious celebrity draw to this bookshop, but Elmer will always be my hero.

Watermark Books
Kings Cross Station, London, N1C 4AL
Tel: 020 7713 7903

UPDATE: Watermark Books closed on 31st July 2015

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Looking for what's right in front of you

Some people remember birthdays, others faces or cars or clothes, I remember books.

Tell me when your birthday is and unless it’s around an already significant date I’ll have forgotten it before the conversation is over, but tell me about a book you’d like to read and five years later, when I stumble across it in the forgotten corner of a bookshop, a lightbulb will go on in my brain and I’ll pick it up for you.

Which is exactly what happened when I visited my sister’s local in Chiswick, but first I need to tell you about the bookshop itself. Stephen Foster Books is on Chiswick High Road, less than a five minute walk from Turnham Green tube. Apparently the oldest shop in the area, having opened in the 18th century, its traditional front stood out among the trendy offerings of the upmarket village, even without the tables of books that were revealed once it finally stopped raining.

The prevalence of hardback spines and original dust jackets mean that on first inspection the shop probably doesn’t look much different to the early days of its life, making it both fascinating but not immediately accessible to the modern shopper. However, once I took the time to really look at the books on display I soon relaxed into my surroundings.

This was probably helped somewhat by my sighting of a collection I’ve long dreamed of finding – the complete, original, 12 volumes of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Unfortunately its (accurate) £180 price tag put it a little out of my price range, but I did pause for some time wondering if I could live off bread and water to justify its purchase. Eventually allowing reality to take hold, I pulled myself away and began to look for a book I could afford.

Pausing at the children’s section I was sorely tempted by some of the original Peter Rabbit books, but also aware that such gems should go to a home where they’ll be properly appreciated for their historical as well as entertainment value I moved on. And so I found myself browsing the fiction – where I was pleased to note Iain M Banks sits on the same wall as Dickens.

Leaning more to antiquarian stock than regular secondhand, I confess I did find myself beginning to wonder if I could justify the purchase of any of the beautiful books that had caught my eye. And so I ended up randomly stood in front of the cookery section, attempting to work through my budget for the month.

Which is when something quite remarkable caught my eye.

Years ago a conversation with my sister’s better half (he’s the main reader in the couple) had strayed to the subject of secondhand books and those odd titles every reader keeps an eye out for when first encountering a new bookshop. A particular request of his had been crime and thriller writer Len Deighton’s cookbook. Obviously.

So imagine my surprise when I looked up to see Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book directly in front of me on the shelf, in a bookshop less than ten minutes’ walk from their home. Cue lots of frantic text messaging with my sister to check he’d not already found it, and even more surprise for me as I soon spotted a couple of the author’s French cookbooks too.

My rule when bookshopping is to buy one book per shop, but I was so taken by Stephen Foster Books that I found myself reluctant to leave without something for myself. So I returned to the tables in front of the shop and picked up a Beatrix Potter, a more ordinary copy than the ones I'd seen inside.

At the till I did my usual thing of chatting with the bookseller, but this time it was he who sparked the conversation, inspired by my purchase - talking about Len Deighton and his love of cooking (I now have to see The Ipcress File and pay particular attention to a scene where eggs are cooked).

A few hours later I proudly presented the cookbook to its happy new owner with instructions he pay more attention to his local bookshop - I wonder if those French cookbooks have moved in yet?

Stephen Foster Books
183 Chiswick High Road, Chiswick, London W4 2DR
Tel: 020 89952768

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Say what you see for #BAMB

Returning to Books Are My Bag, the second stop on my bookshop crawl was Blackwell's on Charing Cross Road.

My first visit to this bookshop was in August 1998, when my then boyfriend insisted we make a trip to London because as an academic specialist Blackwell's was the only place we'd be able to buy all our university course books. The fact I was due to study English and therefore able to buy my set texts pretty much anywhere had passed him by (I should've known the relationship was doomed), but I certainly wasn't going to deny myself the chance to meet a new bookshop. 

I don't recall much about that visit, but I do remember the feeling of satisfaction as I struggled under the weight of several big bags of books on the long train ride home. I'm pretty certain it's the only time I've bought such a large haul in one go (raiding my shelves I've photographed only a random selection of old and new).

Heading off to university in Wales meant it was a long time before I returned to this branch of Blackwell's, but since moving back east it has become one of my go to destinations when I find myself with a few minutes (hours) to spare in London - including, obviously, several more bookshops, Green Park and the National Gallery

Slowly wandering round and round, and round, the er, round bookshelves for general fiction (they really do never end) it's (un)surprisingly easy to lose track of time as I gather a pile of books or, if time's really tight, just take a few minutes to relax and enjoy the beauty of all the spines on display. And that's before you take in the actual academic books, gorgeous children's section or various recommended areas you'll have walked through on your way in. The bookshop also has quite possibly the best carrier bags I've ever seen.

As well as being a wonderful place to visit, this particular shop also helps me to satisfy my bookshop fix on weekdays.

Working in a converted apple barn miles from anywhere means it's impossible to visit a bookshop on my lunch break, and that's before you take into account the fact I currently work in local journalism - taking an hour out for a break is not a common occurrence. But for a few minutes - sometimes seconds - at 2pm I take some time to myself for Blackwell's Charing Cross' Say What You See, a 'pictorial pondering of publications' for book lovers on Twitter. I'd explain further, but it's easier if you just log on and find out for yourself.

It may only last for mere moments, but that break from the news for some lighthearted fun is a welcome pause and change of pace to set me up for the afternoon. It's also helped cement my belief that this is a rather great bookshop and introduced me to a number of bookish people and bookshops around the British Isles - essentially Say What You See sowed the seeds that grew into this blog.

However this week is my last as a regular participant in the game to which I am so indebted, as on Friday I leave the world of journalism for an exciting new career (which will most likely turn up in a future post as it's conveniently located in a multiple bookshop town).

I've enjoyed my years as a sub-editor and my months as a participant of Say What You See, and should the opportunity arise I'll certainly continue to play but - for the next three days at least - I've a crown to regain*.

100 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JG
Tel: 020 7292 5100

*At time of writing I'm in second place by half a point after months at the top of the table, my competitive side isn't happy.

UPDATE: On the last day in my job as a sub-editor two things happened to make my day: 1. My boss, who was on holiday for my final week, popped in to say goodbye and wish me well, I cried. 2. I won my tenth #SWYS, returning to the top of the leaderboard. I may possibly only stay there until 2pm on Monday, but to end my regular playing career in first place had me bouncing up and down with joy.

UPDATE: This bookshop has now relocated, you can read about its new incarnation here. Meantime, find them on Twitter as @BlackwellsHH.

Thursday 31 October 2013

A ray of sunshine in the storm

Struggling to stand upright in 70mph winds, watching as the sea crashes against the Needles, spray flying, passers by losing their hats, and more fresh air than you could enjoy in a lifetime, I found myself glad I'd chosen to holiday on the Isle of Wight during the weekend of the latest 'super storm'.

Sitting at my computer at home a few days later, struggling to keep warm as the wind blows through the hole in my roof, my thoughts on the storm are less exhilarating - yes I'm glad I wasn't home to hear the almighty crash as the tiles were blown to the ground, but it would've been good to be a little further forward in the queue to bag a decent roofer.

Fortunately, thanks to a visit to an island bookshop or two (more to follow) I at least have a good selection of books to enjoy as I hunker down under my duvet in a bid to keep warm. Indeed, my visit to Books 2 Love in Newport was itself enough to banish the winter blues...

Holidaying anywhere in Britain at the end of October obviously isn't about sun, sea and sand, but my first thought on entering this secondhand bookshop was - and I hope the shop forgives the comparison, it's meant kindly - that it reminded me of a beach shop from my childhood. It really did feel as though I was stepping into the summer, with a bright and colourful shop filled with what felt like sunshine - it certainly didn't live up to any musty stereotype.

Directly in front of the door is a table with large plastic tubs of different genres of fiction, prefect for rummaging in, and reminiscent of the search for the perfect bucket and spade or other entertainment to fill my time on the beach. The contents of these tubs ranged from Mills and Boon to sci fi - including a random find of C S Lewis' third novel in the genre, I hadn't even realised he'd written one, never mind three - all perfect had I been heading to a beach, with various other sections and a wall of general fiction should you manage to drag yourself away from the tubs for something a little longer lasting.

Further treats await at the back of the bookshop, where tables and chairs invite you to sit and enjoy a cuppa and cake as you bask in the sunny atmosphere of your surroundings - had I been alone I'd have easily lost a couple of hours to this bookshop.

Instead I lost my friends upstairs in the children's section, with them only reappearing when the teen in our group discovered a Twilight spin off, meaning two books were picked up on this visit as I finally bagged a copy of The Bridges of Madison County - a heartbreaking film that I've often wondered about reading.

At the till I asked about a second independent shop in the town and was saddened to hear it had closed in the face of bigger competition, but the ray of sunshine that is Books 2 Love meant that, on this day at least, nothing could dampen my spirits.

Books 2 Love
53 Pile Street, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 1XB
Tel: 01893 533494

PS This blog is about bookshops, so I won't witter on about all the other wonderful attractions I visited during my stay, but I can't write about the Isle of Wight without at least mentioning the Owl and Monkey Haven, not far from Newport. Even bookshopping struggles to compete with the joy of having a bundle of monkeys curled up in the hood of your coat and running across your shoulders during feeding time: I loved their marmoset encounter.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

There's no place like home

A weekend at my parents’ house was supposed to be an easy one to satisfy my bookshopping needs as it would be the perfect opportunity to re-visit the town and indie bookshop of my teenage years.

However, as it’s been more than 15 years since I visited Wellingborough in Northamptonshire I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that W D Wharton had closed down. And so I had to face up to the fact that I suddenly had just one day to find myself a bookshop to visit in my parents’ home county. I turned to the internet.

We’ve already established that this isn't necessarily the most helpful of places to go bookshop hunting, but eventually at about 4.55pm on a Friday - and not long after I had almost printed out directions to a bookshop in Northampton, Massachusetts - I found myself on the phone to a friendly woman from The Old Hall Bookshop in Brackley.

I had no idea where the small town was and so, to ensure I didn’t end up driving to America, I’d decided the safest option was to call and ask for directions. The woman seemed a little surprised when I admitted where I was driving from, but when I explained I was visiting family (saying nothing of my bookshop stalking tendencies) she soon gave me simple directions and reassured me about parking in the Market Place, right outside the shop’s front door.

And The Old Hall Bookshop really is easy to find from the A43, about a ten minute drive from the M40 (near Banbury), or half an hour from the M1 near Northampton, Brackley is clearly signposted and you’d be hard-pressed not to stumble into the (free) car park even if you tried. The bookshop then takes pride of place in a beautiful Georgian building, set back from the road behind an equally lovely garden, and on the day of my visit this was filled with a rather tempting plant sale.

The front door opens into the entry hall of what can only be described as a home for books, and I immediately new I was ruined as their entire recommended display called out to me. Telling myself at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting for something to buy (like that’s ever happened), I began my exploration.

Essentially, the ground floor of the house is filled with bookshop, each room furnished with bookcases and offering a different delight, all centred on the main hall where the till is nestled under the large staircase. From a room for children (which I thought of as the playroom), to a varied secondhand selection (in my head the workroom or maybe kitchen, pictured) and even what must have been a large cupboard converted to display some quite special older books, there was a room for every taste. My favourite was what felt like the living room, which was alive with colour and new books, and I soon found myself ‘lost’ behind a bookcase, engrossed in another must-read as one of the factual books leapt from the shelves and into my greedy hands.

In an attempt to stick to my one book per bookshop rule I found myself happily passing in and out of rooms and shelves, pausing to read and forcing myself to be harsh as I whittled down the pile of six I’d accumulated, eventually settling on American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld because it felt like the biggest departure from my recent reading choices. (And which also currently has me so engrossed that I'm running out of time to sleep.)

Slowly making my way to the till, I once again weaved between the shelves, enjoying the bright and welcoming atmosphere and appreciating the finer details, including the ABC of Scrabble mugs above the new fiction (if anyone wants to buy me a gift then I’d love an E please).

Saying hello as I paid, the conversation naturally turned to bookshops and Brackley as I needed somewhere to go for lunch (ask for directions to The Courtyard Café, the food there is delicious), and before I knew it my planned half-hour pitstop on the way to my parents had happily more than doubled in length.

Don't be mistaken, I'll always regret the loss of my teenage haunt, but everyone has to move out of their childhood home eventually, and I certainly felt at home here.

The Old Hall Bookshop
32 Market Place, Brackley, Northamptonshire, NN13 7DP
Tel: 01208 704146

Monday 14 October 2013

The internet is a fickle beast

The world wide web is somewhere I both love and hate when it comes to its role in the world of bookshops.

It's vital for publicity and as a signpost to help people find the way, but it's also the home of their biggest rival.

For the former the internet can also be very misleading, with out of date or confusing listings or maps, broken links and any number of technological stumbling blocks to scare away customers or even just overlook the bookshop's existence. A fact that was highlighted when I took a recent visit to Westerham in west Kent.

A last minute work trip, I knew I'd have a lot of free time to go bookshopping, but only had one evening to do my research and see what treats might be available. And so I turned to the internet, typed bookshop into a popular search engine, and began trawling the results.

And I hit the jackpot. Barely Read Books, just off the green, had countless results, inviting me to visit and snap up a secondhand book. It was too late to phone the shop to find out more but - as I'm teaching myself to be more internet savvy - I turned to the map facility and took a look at the shop front and surrounding roads. Easy.

However, as I was on a roll I thought why stop at one bookshop? There might be more nearby. It would be rude to drive all that way and ignore them. I zoomed out a bit on the map and three more bookshops jumped out at me. Perfect, I thought, as I set out on my road trip along the A25 the following morning.

Crossing the border into Surrey, first up was The Secondhand Bookshop on Station Road West in Oxted. Crammed with so many books the shelves are stacked two-deep, I was particularly fascinated by the large collection of old Penguins displayed in colourful groupings of orange or green.

A man I assume to be the proprietor was reading by the door, and so I followed his lead and soon found myself in one of my favourite places - sat on the floor scouring the shelves of fiction, pulling out the books and piling them up around me. You know you're in a good bookshop when no one bats an eyelid at book fortress building.

My joy grew as my delving uncovered a large selection by Emile Zola, a favourite from my thoughtful teenage years whose Rougon-Macquart novels I've always wanted to finish working my way through. The Earth was mine as I reluctantly left the shop.

Crossing the neighbouring train station I made my way down Station Road East to Paydens.

A relatively large shop, the front half is dedicated to new books and the back to stationery and art supplies. I admit I initially found myself wondering about the bookshop status of what felt like an independent WHSmith, however, given that I was surrounded by shelves of tempting reads my doubt didn't last long. I was then further reassured as I heard the ladies at the counter talking books with a customer and saw all the invitations to order my book if it wasn't in stock. I dithered over my choice, almost picking one of their featured books (which a week later was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) but eventually being drawn to John Green's The fault in our stars.

For a small town Oxted is well covered if you need to buy a book, or two.

Next on my list was the one bookshop with a question mark by its name. The Limpsfield Bookshop in the nearby village of the same name. The shop had listings in various phone and address directories, and appeared to be on the map, but otherwise there was no trace of it online, making me fear it had perhaps closed down, I had to investigate.

Limpsfield is a small, pretty village just off the A25, appearing to be a mostly linear settlement it wasn't difficult to spot the attractive window with books peeking out. Unfortunately it also wasn't difficult to spot the sign saying the bookshop was closed for a two-week holiday (my visit was a few weeks ago). Gutted, I peeked through the windows at what appeared to be a nicely spaced and well stocked new bookshop. I must return - once I've phoned ahead to confirm their opening hours.

Feeling a little dejected, I reassured myself that now I was at least on my way to the popular Barely Read Books and sure to end my travels on a high note before I got stuck into my work assignment.

My excitement levels rose as I entered the town, surrounded on all sides by independent shops and their many customers, I knew I'd come to a good place. There was the village green ahead of me, I'd just do a quick drive past the bookshop before finding a place to park... but... where was the bookshop?

Instead of the red and white front and boxes of books I'd been anticipating, there was a bright, lightly coloured something else. Too stunned to even take in what was being sold instead of books, I parked the car and did a circuit of the green on foot - surely I'd just mixed up my compass points and was looking at the wrong shop front? But no, I eventually asked a passer by, who sadly told me they couldn't remember when the bookshop had closed. It had been gone for a while.

Given the statistics for bookshop closures I know two and a half out of four is actually a pretty successful outcome to my road trip, and I'll certainly be returning to the area for a couple more Zolas and to increase my success rate to three, but I also learnt an important lesson.

The internet can be a very misleading place.

The Secondhand Bookshop
27 Station Road West, Oxted, Surrey RH8 9EE
Tel: 01883 715755

Paydens bookshop
18-20 Station Road East, Oxted, Surrey RH8 0PP
Tel: 01883 714214

The Limpsfield Bookshop
High Street, Limpsfield, Surrey RH8 0DS
Tel: 01883 714034