Thursday 26 June 2014

It's time to change the world

My latest bookshop is an unassuming place, labelled as selling new and used books it stands out from the street for its green canopy and table of books, but from the outside there was nothing to indicate just how much it would influence me once I stepped inside.

In fact, even now as I think back to Judd Books with its rows of shelves and piles of books everywhere I’m surprised by the impact it had. Because – while it was obviously a fascinating bookshop and really grabbed my attention – on paper it’s not so remarkable.

On paper Judd Books is simply a large collection of discount books. But then, as we all know, bookshops only really come alive when visited. When you step through the door and discover their true character, seeing the browsers scattered around (of which there were a great many) and gauge the flavour of the books on offer.

Stepping through the door, I met the standard offering of a fiction table and shelves, and normally this area would grip me, refusing to let me go until I’d selected one (or five), and with Judd this experience was the same. But with every book I saw I was compelled to step further into the shop, as the books lay like breadcrumbs, encouraging me to follow them wherever they may lead...

Which was downstairs into an even larger room of books – also shelved and piled as required – with yet more browsers. While Judd Books had a lot of books I’m pretty certain it’s also got the highest browsers to books ratio I’m yet to encounter in an independent.

And there, at the end of my trail, I found the book for me: Fighting the banana wars and other Fairtrade battles by Harriet Lamb.

A fairly innocent book, it tells the story of the Fairtrade banana, something I already buy regularly and haven’t really thought about as anything more than the right thing to do.

But the book – and by default the bookshop that supplied it – set me to thinking. Because (and please excuse the philosophising, I may have had a glass of wine while typing) when I was a child I grew up with grand ambitions of changing the world – free sweets, later bed times, world peace, that kind of thing – but now I’m an adult the closest I get to revolution is re-reading The Hunger Games.

Then Judd introduced me to this book. Now I admit I’m not up to the standards of influencing farming and food-buying on a global scale, but as I read about the mammoth task of bringing the Fairtrade banana movement into the mainstream I realised the difference we can all make, one small gesture at a time. And I don’t just mean by thinking about the type of bananas we buy (but that does help).

Because the Fairtrade movement didn't happen over night, it began with a series of small changes.

A bit like the small changes we can all make by supporting local, independent, tax-paying bookshops.

82 Marchmont Street,
Tel: 020 7387 5333

Friday 20 June 2014

Blooming into new life

Since this blog turned its first page last summer one of the main problems I’ve encountered is the precarious situations of the bookshops I’m visiting.

One of my very first visits was to a bookshop fighting for its survival, and several have sadly closed before I could even get around to visiting them. However, for this week’s bookshop I was lucky enough to have accidentally arrived as a bookshop was being brought back to life. 

As I stepped through the doors of Lloyds of Kew I found two booksellers sat on the floor reading through stock as they reviewed the contents of the bookshop. Because having ended its days as a specialist destination for gardeners (it’s found just a hop, skip and a jump from Kew Gardens), it had only recently re-opened as a general secondhand bookshop.

The shelves were all still labelled according to their former residents, and piles of books littered the back room as they awaited new homes within the shop, but this chaos of rebirth only helped add to my excitement as I explored the area open to the public.

The large front room - complete with knowledgeable bookseller who seemed to know the location of everything despite the chaos - is surrounded by tall wooden bookshelves that wouldn’t look out of place in a period home. While the cosy back room invites browsers to sit a while in a unique chair-cum-column that words can’t satisfactorily describe and photos will never do justice.

I had fun exploring, and picked up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake as a reminder, while one of my friends chose Star Dust Falling by Jay Rayner.

My visit to Lloyds of Kew was to coincide with a trip to Kew Gardens, exploring the grounds as they came back to life for the start of the summer, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the rebirth I’d be encountering in this small, friendly bookshop. It’s a few weeks since I visited, so I’m afraid you may be too late to see the rebirth for yourself, instead you’ll be just in time for its first bloom.

Lloyds of Kew
9 Mortlake Road, Richmond, Kew, Surrey, TW9 3DT
Tel: 020 89482556

Thursday 12 June 2014

Join the community

I'm pretty certain I can't be the only one who's dreamed of owning their own bookshop, spending their days surrounded by books, chatting to book lovers, drinking in the smell, drinking cups of tea and occasionally getting bossed around by my bookshop cat.

But given the ratio of bookshops to people (and I'm guessing a much less dream-like reality) that's not possible for all of us. So one day about eight years ago I did the next best thing: I started volunteering at Oxfam Bookshop, Maidstone.

My days of regularly helping out are long since over, but having spent many happy years sorting books (the recycling was always sad), serving customers and stocking shelves on a Saturday afternoon, this bookshop will always be special to me.

Which is why this week, as I finally pack my bags and move to a new town, I'm deviating slightly from the usual visit and purchase (although both did happen for the purposes of this blog) and sharing my general love for the shop instead.

Because all bookshops are part of the community, but it was only when I got to spend prolonged periods of time in one that I was able to truly appreciate just how true this is.

It began by getting to know the other volunteers. From teenagers to silver surfers and everything in between, these were some of my first friends in the town and years later I still go drinking (both beer and tea) with many of them.

Then came the customers. It took a lot longer to get to know them, but gradually chats about books would grow into general conversations, followed by hellos in the street, and even a trip to a beer festival. And those customers I didn't get to know properly were still a great part of the experience, with memorable chats ranging from why Ayn Rand is the most visionary writer in the world or the refusal to accept The Hunger Games could be written by a children's author, to countless 'lively discussions' regarding the merits of history over romance (and vice versa). This last subject is always a good one for capturing the attention of everyone in the room.

As for the bookshop itself, well naturally that's generally bright and welcoming, with two floors of books, CDs, vinyl and DVDs meaning even the non-reading residents of Maidstone are encouraged in to search the music on offer.

My weakness as a volunteer was generally the classics, science fiction or recommendations, with me loitering by those shelves at some point during my shift and rarely managing to leave without a book or five. Indeed, on the day of this visit I left with two great reads, snapping up a pair of Professor Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's popular science books: The quantum universe: Everything that can happen does happen, and Why does E=mc2?

Maidstone now has three havens for book lovers, an indie, a chain, and the Oxfam Bookshop, all of which I've come to know and love during my time in the town, and all of which I'll be returning to for their varied attractions.

The first has the obvious appeal of being a beautiful independent bookshop, the second is in a convenient high street spot, and the third? It's a community of book lovers just waiting to welcome you.

Oxfam Bookshop Maidstone
34 Gabriels Hill, Maidstone, Kent, ME15 6JJ
Tel: 01622 753585

Thursday 5 June 2014

The perfect gift

I've mentioned before how useless I can be when it comes to gift buying, so it'll probably come as no surprise to readers that the sudden realisation I'd forgotten my niece's birthday caused me some concern.

Fortunately, the realisation hit while on my way to Gerrards Cross Bookshop in Buckinghamshire, and as I've mentioned here, bookshops are good at solving my problems...

I'd only meant to visit to buy something for myself, and indeed that's how my visit started out. But the calming atmosphere of this bright, warm bookshop, combined with a varied and attractive children's section, saw me realising books are the answer. Obviously.

However, as we live some distance away my niece isn't someone I see very often, so other than knowing she likes rabbits and princesses I wasn't sure where to start. I asked for help.

In the past booksellers have received praise for their excellent service, but the woman at Gerrards Cross Bookshop really outdid herself with dedication to my cause. She made several excellent suggestions, then scoured the shelves to give me more choice, and even let me carry on exploring the rest of the shop (where I found fluffy deely boppers, paper and a card) while she came up with ideas. Then as I was paying she even offered to wrap the gift for me, the result being the most beautifully wrapped present I've ever given.

And while the books were wrapped I had time to find a book for myself. All the happy-making from the ease of gift-choosing had obviously rubbed off, because I picked Jenny Colgan's The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.

The two ladies I met at this bookshop had been so unbelievably helpful that I confess I was a little embarrassed when I owned up to the blog for fear of sounding like I'd been testing them. But once again they proved their loveliness as we chatted some more about books and the shop.

Gerrards Cross Bookshop may not be the biggest of destinations I've visited, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in heart, friendliness, generosity and - naturally - great books.

Gerrards Cross Bookshop
12a Packhorse Road, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, SL9 7QE
Tel: 01753 885429