Wednesday 2 September 2015

The bookshop on a boat

Have you ever read a friend's diary? Seen their private book sticking out from under the pillow and thought "just one page won't hurt"? Then before you know it you're engrossed in their private thoughts and feelings, empathising with them (or not) as they struggle to understand whatever challenge life is currently throwing at them?

I haven't. But thanks to a visit to this week's bookshop I have now read The bookshop that floated away, by Sarah Henshaw. So I'm pretty certain I know what it's like to delve into a person's privacy.

Unlike anything I've previously read, it tells the story of her early days as the owner of The Bookshop Barge and the trials she faced during a six-month tour of some of Britain's waterways. I've mentioned before that I'm no book reviewer, and I'm not about to try to start now, but reading such a personal account reminded me that
  • booksellers are only human.
  • I was incredibly lucky to have finally visited this bookshop.

The former should be pretty obvious, but as booksellers also have the power to transport us to different worlds and bring magic to our lives it's easy to forget they're not superheroes with perfect lives.

As for the latter, the bookshop is on a boat. It moves. There's therefore no guarantee it'll be where you want it, when you want it. Its common home is Barton Marina in Staffordshire, so that's probably a good place to start looking when you decide to pop round for a visit. However plans are afoot to move abroad so I suggest you visit sooner, rather than later. If you live in Britain, that is.

My visit to The Book Barge couldn't've happened on a lovelier day: the sun was shining, the roads were clear and the marina easy to find. With no sign telling me where the bookshop would be, I decided to follow the crowds and head towards the nearest pub, which the barge is moored conveniently close to.

A smart, clean boat, open hatches containing books adorn the top, while an A-board at one end invites browsers to step aboard. Once there I climbed down a few steps into the boat, and spotted a couple sat chatting on a sofa at the other end of the barge. It felt a bit like I'd invaded their home but thankfully Sarah immediately greeted me, put the kettle on and offered me tea and cake.

I stupidly resisted the cake, but the cup of tea was very welcome as we chatted and I browsed. I've met many booksellers in my time, but the barge setting – complete with living and sleeping areas and kitchen – ensured it really did feel like I'd just popped in to say hi to a friend. The books are found all around the boat, on a central table and within shelves at the sides, meaning there was no forgetting I was in a bookshop, but this homely setting with a slight Scandinavian feel is unlike anything I've encountered before. It's simply beautiful.

Then I bent down to investigate a book on the bottom shelf and met the bookshop's other resident, when he gently headbutted me on the wrist. Napoleon Bunnypart is quite possibly the softest creature I've ever met, as well as the only bookshop bunny I've ever heard of.* I believe his role in the shop is to simply be adorably cute, but he is quite partial to nibbling on a dust jacket or two. He also likes to sit at a typewriter and contemplate his own novel whenever the mood takes him. Meeting such a literary bunny may have been unexpected, but he was a very welcome addition to my visit.

The Book Barge is a bookshop, a home and an experience. It's a place to feel welcomed. I could never take on the challenge Sarah's book relates, but I can appreciate the joy of what she's achieved.

The Book Barge
Barton Marina (probably), Barton Turn,
Barton-under-Needlewood, Burton upon Trent,
Staffordshire, DE13 8DZ
Tel: 07946 605324

* I'm happy to be corrected on that belief.


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