Wednesday 26 November 2014

Happy as an aardvark in a book barn

Even though I knew I was on the hunt for a barn, blindly following my (evil, horrid, abominable) sat nav through the country lanes of Shropshire made me nervous.

I'd lost mobile phone signal a while back and road signs were few and far between. It was also a miserable, wet day and I needed the loo.

Then I spotted a small, home-made sign with the word 'aardvark' written across it and all was once again well. I was on the right road to warmth, the safety of books, a cafe and, thankfully, a toilet.

I admit from the outside Aardvark Books isn't much to look at – especially on a dreary day – but as we all know, it's the inside that counts, and given this destination is found inside a large barn I knew there was a lot of bookshop waiting for me. Walking into what felt like a large reception area, I was greeted by the woman at the till and asked if I'd like a map. That's how big this bookshop is.

Naturally I thanked her, took the map and promptly got lost as I was too busy looking at the shelves and shelves of books to take any notice of where I was actually going. I may have been lost, but I was having too much fun to care.

Leaving 'reception' – itself larger than many bookshops I've visited and filled with new and antiquarian books, postcards and a basket of baby aardvarks – I found myself in the cafe. While people relax at a table with a cup of tea the books flow into and around this area, blurring the edges of the two sections. The cakes on offer looked particularly appealing, but being part-way through a long drive meant I hadn't time to sit and relax.

Instead I moved on through the cookery books (perfectly placed within the cafe area) and a range of other non-fiction and into the book burrow for children. Crammed with books, a castle, pirate ship, princess seat, trees, more books and colourful pictures drawn by young customers, my only disappointment was that I was visiting on a weekday and therefore unable to see all the youngsters enjoying these wonderful surroundings. In the absence of children I may have played in the castle a little myself...

Rejoining adult land I made my way upstairs to a loft crammed with secondhand fiction and what looked to be new, remainder books. All thoughts of my tight time limit were forgotten as I wandered along the alphabet, eventually finding myself at science fiction (I am quite predictable when it comes to secondhand bookshops). Here I hit gold with a new-to-me Arthur C Clarke, Imperial Earth.

Slowly making my way back to the till I also picked up a couple of postcards and a baby aardvark for myself before diving into conversation with the bookseller. Here I met the couple who own the bookshop and my first bookshop dog, the friendly Coco, not forgetting the bookshop name's inspiration Ethel Aardvark and her partner Arthur.

I may have felt as out of place as an aardvark while wandering the Shropshire countryside, but once inside this warm and friendly bookshop I was perfectly at home and happy as Larry. Or should that be Ethel?

Aardvark Books
The Bookery,
Manor Farm,
Brampton Bryan,
Tel: 01547 530744

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Less is more

The smallest bookshop I've ever visited crossed my path as the fifth destination of my Books are my bag bookshop crawl.

A hop, skip and a jump from the area's tube station, Herne Hill Books is made up of two interlinked rooms about the size of my kitchen, and I promise you I don't have a large kitchen. Described as the little sister of Clapham Books, this bookshop's diminutive size doesn't make it any less worthy of note than its larger cousins.

In fact, it's so popular that during my visit a steady stream of customers filed in, popping by to pick up the new best seller or looking for something to keep them entertained on the train, while I stumbled across M R Carey's The girl with all the gifts. Possibly a little scarier than my usual reads, the condensed shelves meant this title stood out where usually I might've skipped past.

I'm going to be honest, it's a small bookshop so I can't write hundreds of words on my experience or all the people I met, but for what it is this bookshop is perfect. It has a large enough collection of books to suit diverse tastes, but is small enough that it's to the point. You can pop in, find something to read and be on your way in minutes. And sometimes that's all you need.

Herne Hill Books
289 Railton Road,
Herne Hill,
SE24 0LY
Tel: 020 7998 1673

Wednesday 12 November 2014

All is not lost

Four stops into my Books are my bag crawl and I almost got to my first bookshop party of the day.

I say almost because, being new to buses, I managed to still be sitting enjoying my journey as we drove straight past the attractive little parade of shops within which the bookshop is nestled. Ten minutes later I'd retraced my journey – just in time to miss the end of a Roald Dahl event at Dulwich Books.

Frustratingly for me I was also too early for the more grown up event being hosted that afternoon, when author Jeremy Page was due to talk about his book The Collector of Lost Things. As a 'collector' of things I don't ever want to be lost, the book and its author intrigued me, but this time it proved an encounter that wasn't meant to be. However, I prefer to act instead of mourning when it comes to loss, so instead I appreciated the opportunity to fully appreciate my location with no distractions. Well, none except the books.

There was therefore lots to keep me distracted as I weaved between browsers and shelves, enjoying the bright atmosphere and piles of recommendations on top of the middle-of-the-room bookshelves.

The perfect height to feel both apart from and included in the conversations of fellow browsers, these shelves made the bookshop feel full but not overcrowded, allowing me to get lost among the books and banter. I don't want to share the semi-private conversations of Dulwich Books' customers, but I can assure you they're an interesting and varied bunch.

Instead of interrupting their conversations and joining in (something I felt would probably have been perfectly acceptable among this friendly bunch of browsers) I turned my attentions to the booksellers. Their happy banter whirled around the bookshop and welcomed in whichever lone browsers it flew over, meaning even though I'd missed the scheduled parties I still felt I was taking part in the fun.

This proved correct when I arrived at the till and discovered goody bags were being given out with purchases as part of the day's celebrations. When asked if I'd like fiction, non-fiction or crime I, rather indecisively, asked to be surprised. Which is exactly what I was when handed a Tracey Emin tote with two crime novels inside. Three books for the price of one is always good, but to be given two books I don't already own is a rare achievement these days.

And my purchase. Surely it must be obvious?

I may have lost out on the author, but The Collector of Lost Things joined me on for the rest of my journey, collecting new bookshop experiences for the Books are my bag campaign.

Dulwich Books
6 Croxted Road, Dulwich, London, SE21 8SW
Tel: 020 8670 1920

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Not remotely scary

Please don't mock me too much for this, but before I visited it I was actually a little scared of the idea of this week's bookshop.

I obviously now know my fears were unfounded, but on the day of my bookshop crawl the thought of visiting The Bookseller Crow on the Hill in Crystal Palace made me nervous. And it wasn't until I was stood across the road from the bookshop that it dawned on me how stupid my fears had been.

Because The Bookseller Crow isn't the leader of a large, black feathered murder, but the owner of a colourful full-length window with a welcoming light blue shop sign. Throw in the view from the doorway – which includes rows of white paper doves flying across the ceiling – and my fear seems even more ridiculous.

I assure you I'm also (I hope) intelligent enough to know dressing a local (non-specialist) bookshop in black feathers and fear wouldn't be a good business move. Can I defend myself with the excuse I've recently finished reading a Stephen King novel? I didn't think so.

Of course, if I'd done my research first and visited the bookshop's website, rather than limiting myself to clicking on the occasional blog link on Twitter, I'd've realised how ridiculous I was being much sooner. But that would've been far too sensible – and much less embarrassing on my part.

Anyway, about The Bookseller Crow on the Hill. Naturally there is a reason for the unusual name, and it's got nothing to do with scaring those of us with over-active imaginations. I'd share it with you here, but it's much more fun if I leave it for you to visit the bookshop and ask one of the bookselling crows yourself.

Meantime I'll reassure you it's a large, friendly bookshop with smart grey shelves, a knowledgeable bookseller and books. Lots and lots of lovely books, including a sci fi bookshelf, which is often a luxury in an indie; a children's area complete with toys I wanted to play with; random fun stuff such as Moomin postcards I forgot to buy in my excitement at all the books; and a broad new titles and recommendations section that furnished me with my purchase.

I'd not heard of The extra ordinary life of Frank Derrick, age 81 by J B Morrison before this visit, but that's part of the fun of wandering around a physical bookshop. Not only do you get to conquer your fears and have your preconceptions smashed, you also get to stumble across unusual new reads that would've perhaps flown away from you online.

And that's something I'm always happy to crow about.

The Bookseller Crow on the Hill
50 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, London, SE19 3AF.
Tel: 020 8771 8831