Friday 28 March 2014

A Hive of activity

As far as I'm concerned nothing beats personal, face-to-face service in a real world bookshop.

However, recent experience has led me to concede that sometimes - in instances of extreme need - the internet may just have the answer.

I came to this conclusion when my personal beliefs (think on a par with devout religion) led to my cancellation of a DVD rental service part-way through a television series. Having seen the levels of impatience Breaking Bad generated I'm sure at least one or two of you will understand the horror of this situation. The reason for the abrupt cancellation? A request to transfer my account from the rental service to a popular internet seller. That was never going to happen.

Yes, it was frustrating to stop watching the TV show, but everyone needs to live by some kind of moral code, and this would have been a step too far for mine. Besides, with HMV down the road I figured for almost the same price I'd just buy the boxset(s) instead. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way, and the shop was unable to order the DVDs I wanted. Cue minor grumble on Twitter and an acceptance that patience would be required until I could watch the programme on repeat.

Then one of my tweets got a response, with the recommendation I try Hive. I'd heard of this internet seller before, but a) I don't do internet shopping and b) I thought the site was only about books. Thankfully, Twitter - and the Hive website - was there to educate me.

And, before I even started shopping, the first thing I learnt was the existence of a new independent bookshop in the very town where I live*.

How did it do this? Hive delivers your books, music, film, etc, to the nearest bookshop registered in its network or - for free depending on the order - to your door. They even give a percentage of the purchase to the bookshop, which can surely only be a good thing? All you have to do is visit the website, input your postcode and choose a bookshop near you.

Which I did, expecting to be directed to any number of shops a good half hour's drive away. So imagine my surprise when the search identified an independent bookshop within walking distance of my home. This introduction alone was enough to make me think maybe I should give the website a proper try.

I selected the bookshop and dived in. You've all done internet shopping before, so I won't patronise with an explanation of the buying process, but needless to say it all went very smoothly. For reference, my particular order would've been free delivery to my home but unwilling to totally remove a bookshop from the equation I still opted to collect myself. I received an e-mail the moment it arrived (swiftly) and popped along to collect my parcel - which, incidentally, was a lot easier than queuing at my local sorting office.

Yes, I may have done some shopping while collecting the parcel, but that wasn't mandatory. The bookshop was perfectly happy handing over my order without demanding I then go on to spend money with them too, but to find out about that purchase you'll have to read next week's blog post.

As for my Hive purchase? I bought the first three seasons of Haven on DVD for what I felt was a very competitive price. And then - five minutes later because it felt wrong to not be buying a book for the blog - I logged back on and ordered a paperback of Stephen King's Under The Dome too. (For those in the know I thought The Colorado Kid would have been overkill.) It was ridiculously easy.

But never fear, this discovery hasn't brought about a premature end to the blog.

Having discovered how large the paperback is I do now understand why people don't want to carry some books home from the shops themselves (but I still don't sympathise). I am also very pleased Hive helped me to watch the TV series without going against my beliefs or waiting for a re-run, but I will always be a real-world bookshopper first.

Essentially, the point of this - highly out of character - post is: Even if the internet is the only place you can buy item X, you still have a choice of stores to use. And many of them won't leave you feeling stung, or should that be sold down the river?

Warwick Innovations Centre, Warwick Technology Park, Warwick, CV34 6UW
Tel: 0845 6720020

*accurate at time of going to press, but the removal van is due any day

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Modern game plan breaks with tradition

It's not often my various interests combine, but a road trip to watch an ice hockey match proved the perfect opportunity to take in a new bookshop.

Unfortunately the game - Guildford Flame v Sheffield Steeldogs - was on a Sunday, the booksellers' day of rest, meaning I couldn't just pop along to the town's local indie. Not one to be deterred by a little thing like a couple of closed for the day signs, I volunteered to drive my friends to the game and set about finding an open bookshop somewhere between home and Guildford (and one not too off the beaten track for my unsuspecting passengers).

Leatherhead, a very, very short drive from the M25, saved the day in the form of Barton's Bookshop.

Found on a corner at the bottom of the high street, the stunning (Tudor?) building stands out from the modernity of its surroundings, as a beacon calling book lovers home. Selling new books in an historic setting, this bookshop has all the elements of a regular bookshop without following the regular game plan.

The first difference of note is the windows, large as they may be, they're at a height that limits the potential for the traditional displays of books, instead a random assortment of casts of cutlery, crockery, and even the odd dinosaur hang in lieu of blinds and demand further investigation from inside (they looked so good I'm tempted to recreate the look when I move home this summer).

Inside, a maze of tall shelves had me exploring with the excitement of a child as I struggled not to launch into a run, so tempting was every approaching corner. And when I finally slowed down it was because I'd stumbled across a gorgeous Chesterfield sofa by a wood burning stove, complete with two large cuddly toys inviting me to join them for a cuddle and a read.

Once I'd finally got over the excitement of exploring I remembered the reason for my visit: to buy a book. And so I hunted down the recommends table, my favourite place to start bookshopping and tap into the fictional personality of a bookshop.

But it wasn't there. Instead I found the other major - and possibly most controversial - difference between Barton's and other bookshops. Because instead of a table there were two bookcases for 'new books', and all the books were mixed up. Unexpectedly, I loved it.

Ordinarily if you were to suggest I look at a shelf of non-alphebatised books I'd break into a cold sweat and surreptitiously start to put them back in order. But at Barton's Bookshop I loved that these two rogue bookcases dragged me away from the norm, forcing me to really look, rather than hunting out specific names. I met a lot of new authors while stood by these shelves, with my eventual selection a page-turner from the shop's book club choices, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

And then, after a brief chat with the friendly bookseller - and a few bookshop recommendations for the future - it was time to go when my friends collected me to continue our journey.

As for the ice hockey? Our team lost, but with a new book in my bag and a new bookshop met I was still a winner.

Barton's Bookshop
2 Bridge Street, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 8BZ
Tel: 01372 362988

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Who knew internet dating could be so much fun?

You know how it goes, you view a profile on the internet, you like what you see, and then you agree to meet.

Only with this dating scenario the man I met by the statue of King Alfred in Winchester - tall, dark and handsome as he was - did not have a carnation in his hand, instead he was the matchmaker, ready to introduce me to three very attractive bookshops.

My invitation to the city came from Ben, a bookseller at P&G Wells, but as he's a sociable chap he invited me not just to visit 'his' bookshop, but also all the other independent bookshops in the city too. How could I refuse?

Our first stop was The Winchester Book Shop. Taking up only a very tiny amount of ground but reaching to the stars, this shop knows how to utilise space to its advantage. And if first appearances are important then the stepping through the door certainly exceeds any expectations. A staircase winds up one corner, leading to the many floors above - wrapping around the till area where the bookseller sits - encouraging bookshoppers to look up and take in the rows and rows of attractive spines.

This secondhand and antiquarian bookshop - run by a collective of booksellers - is crammed with all the usual goodies, but the thing that struck me the most was the beautiful collections of hardbacks (particularly children's). Their colourful and artfully decorated spines could be works of art in their own right, and the only reason I didn't buy one is because one simply wouldn't have been enough. Instead I settled on Mark Haddon's The Red House, a topic of conversation during my visit and - purely by chance - one of the books being sold by Anne-Louise, another of the booksellers who joined in both inviting and warmly welcoming me to Winchester.

On the way to our next destination we passed by the cathedral and took in the Deanery bookshop, currently housed in a couple of huts, this usually resides within the historic arches of the site. Here I picked up The Warden by Anthony Trollope so I could read about the setting at a later date.

And so to Ben's 'home' and my third date, the city's new - but long-lived - bookshop.

In the interests of openness, before I write about P&G Wells I should probably confess they did ply me with tea and chocolate during my visit, but I promise to be balanced in my comments. Well, as balanced as any bookshop-obsessive can be...

Found just down the road from the place where Jane Austen died, this literary haven is very much alive and well. With a beautiful, old-fashioned shop front housing a large and varied collection of new books, P&G Wells somehow manages to combine classic with modern and fits perfectly into its surroundings.

The character, both of the people and the building, was what really struck me here. Entering a large, warm room with dark wooden shelves, topped by colourful pictures advertising the various sections, I was surprised by how cosy the bright and airy space felt. Whether exploring the broad general fiction and factual books or upstairs on the newly refurbished children's floor (which included some forgotten gems) there were delights to be enjoyed wherever I looked. I was even introduced to the resident book binder, gaining a glimpse of the remarkable workshop nestled in the back of the shop - there's much more to P&G Wells than first meets the eye.

And so I'd visited three wonderful bookshop matches, but finding it impossible to choose a favourite I instead asked my matchmaker to recommend a book. Several wonderful suggestions followed before I - just to be awkward - accepted his first offering of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

This post feels like it's only scratching at the surface of the fun I had during my visit to Winchester. Wandering historic streets, meeting bookshops and booksellers and generally enjoying the glorious environment of the city meant my afternoon flew by and I was sorry to say goodbye to Ben and my three 'dates'.

But rest assured, they've all been added to my little black book.

The Winchester Book Shop
10a St George's Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 8BG
Tel: 01962 855630

11 College Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 9LZ
Tel: 01962 852016

Tuesday 4 March 2014

From the pages of a book

No two bookshops are the same, they all have their own personalities and quirks that make them special, it's part of what's making this adventure so interesting.

In the case of Hall's Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, that quirk is its place in history. Because stepping through the doors - after enjoying the windows of shelves open to the street - feels like entering a different world.

Sure, it stocks a fascinating array of secondhand books like lots of other places, but the character of the shop and the characters within it were unlike any other bookshop I've encountered. It was only by chance that I visited. Popping in a mere 20 minutes before home time, I was only looking for a few minutes of calm after a long day, thinking I'd save a proper visit for when I had more time.

And so I randomly explored, marvelling at the floor-to-ceiling shelves and delighting at the friendly atmosphere. I hid behind a shelf to pore over the fiction, I wandered up stairs filled with books, and in between the shelves and customers on the upper floor. As I passed ladders offering access to the higher shelves I enjoyed the friendly chatter filling the shop, smiling to myself as I listened to the banter that occasionally passed between the two floors, drawing in customers and booksellers alike.

Here was a bookshop from a different time. A beautiful, character-filled gem to be treasured.

I was in heaven.

Then the bombshell dropped.

Because among the snatches of chatter I heard the word 'closing'. I'd only found Hall's minutes earlier and here I was learning it had a week, a month at most, to live. I felt cheated that my time in this bookshop - which could itself be straight from the pages of a book - was so brief, and lucky that I'd randomly decided to visit when I did.

I'm not going to pre-judge the new owners of this address, as it will apparently still be home to a bookshop, but for now I'm mourning the loss of a 100-year-old treasure and the fascinating staff who inhabit Hall's Bookshop.

If you're in the west Kent area in the next week, maybe longer as the closure date is uncertain, I urge you to pop into the bookshop and appreciate it for yourself. My photographs don't do justice to this little corner of history in a modern world.

And what book did I buy? Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon by Jane Austen, another literary gem lost too soon.

Hall's Bookshop
20-22 Chapel Place, Tunbridge Wells,
Kent, TN1 1YQ
Tel: 01892 527842

UPDATE: For more pictures of this bookshop see The Tunbridge Wells Project. There's also a great potted history of the bookshop here.

A new Hall's Bookshop has now opened at this address.