Wednesday 29 July 2015

After the gift, a lesson is learned

A few years ago, someone gave me a book. Believe it or not, this isn't a common occurrence. The reason for this could be because I own a significant number of the things and people don't want to buy me something already on my shelves, or it could be because I've no idea who gave me this particular book and others don't want to suffer the same lack of recognition in later years.

Despite this instance of forgetfulness books are one of my favourite things to receive as presents, in particular if they happen to be the favourite book of the giver, surely one of the most special – purchased – gifts you can receive.

Hopefully the buyer will forgive me when I explain that while their name may be forgotten, their gift still had an effect: I'm not about to attempt to review the book – I'm not that kind of blogger – but, where other encounters with Australian based or produced fiction have failed to move me, this book grabbed hold and wouldn't let go, fascinating and frustrating and gripping me until the last page and reigniting my interest in the country.

And the only reason I read it is because the book had been a gift.

After the fire, a still small voice by Evie Wyld not only transformed the way I feel about literature set in Australia, reminding me I shouldn't be so narrow-minded, but it also sent me on a quest to visit, of all the places in the world, Peckham.

Why? To go to a bookshop, obviously: Review Bookshop is less than a five minute walk from Peckham Rye Railway Station and author Evie Wyld can occasionally be found there.

Typically – understandably given her book commitments – the author wasn't in on the boiling hot afternoon of my visit, and so my copy of her first book remains unautographed, but that in no way diminished my experience as I stepped into the welcome cool of the bookshop (in both temperature and attitude).

From the section labels on the shelves to the 'brilliant local things' and determined recommends section, Review Bookshop is effortlessly cool. Even the music wafting into the bookshop from elsewhere was cool, as I wandered into the back room of fiction enjoying The Who as my soundtrack.

Books are cleverly placed to catch the eye, with extras such as the 'nice little bit of sci fi' which made perfect use of its space, or 'wimmin' lined up along the fireplace. Then there's the old school desk in the children's section and other randomly interesting items scattered throughout the bookshop, all of which create a place where people can comfortably hang out... and that's before they take their books outside to enjoy in the garden.

It may not have been cool of me to initially visit only because of the bookshop's links with the author, or to confess my previous narrow-mindedness regarding fiction set in Australia, but as I've learned the error of my ways hopefully some forgiveness is allowed?

If not, at least I came away with a copy of Evie Wyld's second book, All the birds, singing.

Review Bookshop,
131 Bellenden Road, Peckham,
London, SE15 4QY
Tel: 0207 639 7400

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Indulging in some bookshop fantasy

A few months ago I devoured the first book by a new-to-me author in a matter of days. It was an epic story of life, death, love, learning, music, friendship and more and when I finished the last sentence I was broken.

Not by the book, but by the absence of its sequel, which I desperately wanted to pick up and start reading but hadn't yet bought. The first book had consumed me, grabbing my attention in the way only a book can, so that at every possible moment I dropped what I was doing and returned to its pages. Then it was over and I was left with the impossible task of finding something else to read that would be even half as engrossing.

Admit it, most of you know what I'm talking about?

Only this time my challenge was made even harder because the book had specifically awoken a craving to read more from the same genre, and it's a genre that's not always found in independent bookshops. You see, when listing the many themes covered by this book I left one out, magic. The book was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and it's listed under science fiction and fantasy. I've previously written about my hunt for this book, finding it in a larger bookshop that had the luxury of space to stock what's possibly the least-loved of genres, and I don't in any way blame the majority of indie bookshops for being unable to hold such books – after all, a bookshop can still order in any title you want faster than the internet can have you queueing in your Royal Mail sorting office...

So what relevance does any of that have to this week's bookshop? Despite it being unusual to find science fiction and fantasy in many indies, this week's destination is known specifically for that genre. Given my reading state of mind, Red Lion Books in Colchester was somewhere I had to visit, and fast – I made it part of my Independent Bookshops Week 2015 bookshop crawl.

Found in a town centre location, the bookshop is large enough to rival a chain and was being enjoyed by a good number of customers during my visit. The front part of the shop houses mainly non-fiction, moving on to fiction and then books for younger readers, all of which would be more than enough to challenge the willpower of your average bookworm, but I was on a mission. I took a walk downstairs.

Almost the same size as the ground floor, I found myself in a room large enough to house events, more non-fiction and a good offering of local interest books, and the genre I was looking for.

Taking up the space occupied by your average boutique indie, the science fiction and fantasy section is easily one of the largest I've seen on my bookshop travels. It was heaven. Moving from recommends, to sci-fi, to fantasy, to retro sci-fi (my guilty pleasure) and on to yet more recommends, I was spoilt for choice. Then there was the moment of (temporary) disappointment as I got to S in fantasy and there wasn't a single book by the author I was looking for, followed by sheer joy as I reached the next bookcase and realised Brandon Sanderson had been picked out and given a shelf of his own under popular authors. In case you're wondering, he's been recommended as someone who'll "get me through my Rothfuss cravings".

Choosing The Final Empire, Part One of Sanderson's Mistborn series, I found myself really struggling not to buy up the rest of the bookshelf, knowing it will be a while before I'm again treated to such a realisation of my bookish fantasies. Instead I stuck to my one book per shop rule and slowly moved away from the bookcase, which, incidentally, was topped by two rows of Terry Pratchett's works, overseen by an orangutan librarian. I'm not a fan but who wouldn't appreciate such a detail?

Back upstairs, I enjoyed the mystery proof lucky dip in honour of IBW2015, picking what later turned out to be Willow Trees Don't Weep by Fadia Faqir, before continuing on my road trip.

To finish, yes it'd be great if independent bookshops were able to stock more of the genre. But maybe that's what's so special about fantasy: it's not part of the every day.

Red Lion Books
125 High Street,
Tel: 01206 578584

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Highs and lows in the Peak District

There are a number of rules when it comes to this blog. They include the requirement to write once a week, to have spent money in any place I write about, to be positive and to be honest.

Simple enough rules, but in order to remain positive and honest I had to give myself a get out, a way of not offending those bookshops visited that may not make me happy enough to deserve a write-up. Admittedly, in the nearly two years this blog has existed such instances of unhappiness wouldn't even require the fingers of one hand, but given I'd rather be silent than negative there has to be a plan.

My plan is to turn up unannounced. Generally I'll introduce myself at some point, but if I'm not expected my visit is more accurate than if I'm welcomed (or shunned) and it's a lot easier to leave in the rare instances of unhappiness.

The trouble with turning up at bookshops unannounced, is that you can't check if the booksellers you hope to meet will actually be there at the time of your visit.

And so it really wasn't too surprising last Saturday when I arrived at High Street Books in the Peak District to discover the bookseller (and equally importantly their bookselling hounds) were on holiday. I'd even bought treats in an attempt to bribe the dogs into being my friends.

All of which should've left me feeling rather disappointed. And maybe I was, a little. But it's hard to be upset when you're in the middle of your first proper visit to Derbyshire and it's absolutely beautiful. The drive had been stunning. From the moment I passed the county sign the countryside was overwhelmingly gorgeous. Throw in a shop full of books and music and it's hard to be anything but happy.

Initially not wanting to accept the absence of the dogs, my first experience of High Street Books was to rush around every corner in the hope they were hiding, meaning my first pause for breath was downstairs in the music section of the shop.

Split across two floors, music is in what I imagine classes for a cellar, but still manages to have a window to the outside due to the peaky nature of the area. It's bright and packed with vinyl for proper music fans, but equally welcoming to those of us who still appreciate a good CD, with me drawn to the options of Indie 90s, Manchester, and other such groupings. Selecting We'll live and die in these towns by The Enemy, I finally accepted the dogs weren't hiding under a record player and returned to the books.

A relatively small, secondhand bookshop, High Street Books feels surprisingly well-filled and roomy for its size. There's a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, including a varied children's section, loads of classics and even sci-fi and fantasy. Three or four people were wandering around without us tripping over each other too, and all in the space of roughly one room of what looked to have formerly been a Victorian terraced house. Were the dogs also there I imagine things would've been a little more cosy, but as it stands I can't fault my visit.

In the absence of the bookseller I spoke to the guy from the music side of the premises, who'd kindly invited me back two days later to meet the dogs and their human. Even without being able to immediately accept the return invitation, it was a lovely interlude in the middle of a long journey and one I'm determined to repeat in the form of a proper holiday to explore the area at a later date.

Meantime, the bookshop had one final treat to ensure I left happy: my book purchase. Readers of Other People's Bookshelves will know of my quest to read the Swallows and Amazons series in order, and thanks to High Street Books I'm now the proud owner of the second book in the series: Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome.

High Street Books
6 High Street, New Mills, High Peak, Derbyshire, SK22 4AL
Tel: 01663 308212

PS In case you're wondering, I didn't leave the dog treats at the bookshop. They came home with me as a gift for the office puppy. Instead I'll take fresh chews next time, when I'll have the sense to agree a good time to visit the High Street Books hounds.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Welcome to wonderland

Crossing a busy, slightly grey, street, it's impossible to imagine what's hidden behind the small shop front of Chicken and Frog Books. Sure the shop front looks friendly enough – but as I said last week in my overall write up for Independent Bookshops Week – opening the door takes you to wonderland.

Starting with a hello, it took a matter of seconds for me to feel at home in this children's bookshop as Natasha (aka Mrs Chicken) welcomed me in and struck up a conversation.

Blue-haired and wearing a cheerful red dress, she was every bit as brilliant as her surroundings, which were a mass of colour and books and stuff, all of it dedicated to catching the attention of little (and slightly less little) people.

From the Lego minifig collections on the top of one set of bookcases to chickens along the till, with Ghostbusters, pictures, random displays and a delightful collection of gifts from children – all of the latter being proudly introduced during the course of our later conversation – this bookshop is simply alive with colour.

Not forgetting the books, which practically cry out to be read by young visitors as they curl up on the sofa at the back.

As a not so young visitor I was still in heaven, enjoying every detail and thinking how great it would be to curl up on said sofa with a book or two and enjoy my surroundings. And I did get to enjoy that sofa for a little while, as Natasha picked out recommendations and invited me to sit and take my time selecting the book was for me. Her enthusiasm meant it wasn't easy choosing just one from the brilliant selection picked out for me, so the invitation to sit and read was a winner. Selecting The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente, it was time to introduce myself properly and ask more about the shop.

At just a couple of years, Chicken and Frog has grown up with its customers, something that made me even more impressed as we talked about all the goings on. This includes a 'classroom' tucked away at the back of the shop for book events and children's parties, and a whole raft of other activities for youngsters.

I wish I'd been lucky enough to grow up alongside a bookshop.

Chicken and Frog Bookshop
7 Security House, Ongar Road,
Brentwood, Essex, CM15 9AT
Tel: 01277 230068