Thursday 21 May 2015

Balancing the books

Bookshopping, a bit like filling your bookshelves at home, is all about balance. Does the doorstop of a book fascinate me enough to merit the effort of carrying it around for the rest of my shopping? Is the quality of advice offered by the booksellers good enough to deserve a trip across London? Is the bookshop itself friendly and welcoming enough to make me feel comfortable once I'm there?

West End Lane Bookshop in north London is one of those unusual places that perfectly balances a traditional old school setting with all the personality and welcome of a modern bookshop. Dark wood shelves that wouldn't look out of place in any 18th century gentleman's library line the walls, but they're filled with clever arrangements that banish any fears of stuffiness and instead create a modern, reassuring feeling of warmth and welcome.

Entering the bookshop, the natural path is to follow the wall on your left through recommendations and on into fiction, with non-fiction beyond. Then to the right you arc round to the large, welcoming children's section, including giant teddy bears to curl up and read with (yes, I did want a hug). A few more shelves of recommendations and some postcard stands then bring you back to the counter, where two booksellers are on hand to answer your every question in between stocking shelves, ordering books and engaging in some – during my visit – fascinating conversations.

Standout shelving units contain interesting displays of some of the more unusual collections with colourful spines and covers, but even without these the general fiction is striking enough. At roughly (short person) head height, the rows of spines are broken up by a shelf of covers facing outwards, highlighting titles of interest. These were enough to draw me in, but it was the quality of the books that kept me hooked.

This is undoubtedly an intelligent bookshop. I don't mean you have to be clever to shop here but that the people filling the shelves have made intelligent choices. The stock is so well balanced that any browser, whether a new reader or a lifetime devourer of books, is sure to feel at home. Everything from lighthearted fun to modern classics is represented, without encouraging browsers to go to the extremes of mindless throwaway fiction or overwhelmingly heavy intellectualism. Essentially, this is a bookshop for everyone.

Which was emphasised by the range of customers who passed through the shop during my visit. From students to mothers to dedicated shoppers and casual browsers, at one point the bookshop was filled with the joyful conversation of some French visitors, their voices rising above the gentle buzz of traffic from the street.

Making the most of a brief lull in visitors I sought out a bookseller for a recommendation and for the first time in years every suggestion made was of a new-to-me book – given how many books this blog sees me buying such an occurrence is rare. Naturally impressed by the offering, I took my time before choosing All my friends are superheroes by Andrew Kaufman and picking up a few other goodies too.*

West End Lane Books may be the wrong side of London for me to easily return to regularly, but the range of unexpected recommendations and the general selection of books easily cancel out the effort I'll have to make to get there.

West End Lane Books
277 West End Lane,
West Hampstead,
NW6 1QS.
Tel: 020 7431 3770

* yes, I have recently finished reading The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

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