Wednesday 28 October 2015

My gothic fantasy

A month or two ago some friends and I enjoyed a long weekend in Yorkshire. It was the end of the summer but the weather was lovely, the scenery beautiful, the people friendly and the beer – ostensibly my reason for visiting – delicious.

The last night of our visit was planned for Ilkley, a spa town next to the moor, of which my only prior knowledge was that it's home to a good bookshop and a Bettys.

Finding ourselves in a pub 20 minutes from the town, we somehow got it into our heads that walking the remainder of the journey was the way to go. It was a decision that would ultimately influence my whole experience of Ilkley as we skirted the moor before arriving at our hotel above the town, glimpsing dark turrets in the early evening light.

It was a massive contrast to the generic chains we'd previously visited and I'll admit the dark wooden furniture and occasional creaky floorboard might not be to everyone's liking, but to me it was perfect. I found myself wishing for wind, rain and thunder and wanting to cancel all plans so I could curl up with Northanger Abbey or Wuthering Heights. Instead I went to the pub. Which meant my actual first experience of the town involved dark streets and the susceptibility to believe anything that comes after I've had a pint or two: think Catherine Morland's gothic imaginings on overdrive.

When morning came the skies were grey and a slight drizzle hung over everything. My dreams had come true. The gothic atmosphere was slightly broken by our early morning trip to Bettys for breakfast (have the rosti, you won't regret it), but as a timely reminder Ilkley can be happy and bright I wasn't going to complain.

Then it was time to return to the glorious British weather and await the opening of the much-anticipated Grove Bookshop. I'd previously been in touch with to check opening hours, so confess to being a little disappointed when their promise of skeleton staff turned out to not be meant literally, on the plus side I did get to have a good conversation with the bookseller.

My keenness had meant I was (briefly) the only customer, so this chatter stretched around the shop as I excitedly explored, enjoyed recommendations and asked 101 questions about the bookshop, hotel, town and anything else that came to mind. The Yorkshire friendliness is well-demonstrated here.

As more bookshoppers began to arrive I left the bookseller to it while I enjoyed the gentle buzz that was developing in the room. It's hard to keep your mood in a gothic novel when young families are filling the children's section and inquisitive visitors asking about the local interest titles, and I soon realised it didn't even matter that the sun had come out.

Grove Bookshop is everything I'd want my local indie to be: spacious, busy, well-stocked and friendly, with the power to lift even the darkest of moods. (Although I did try to cling to my atmospheric imaginings when I bought Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon.) It's a must-visit destination on the book lovers' map and easily a good reason to visit this West Yorkshire town. And if – for some bizarre reason – you're not a fan of books, it sits above Grove Music so you can probably happily get lost down there instead.

I say probably because as it was a Bank Holiday I didn't get to pop downstairs, but that's okay. It'll be something to do another day, preferably one that's particularly dark and stormy.

Grove Bookshop
10 The Grove, Ilkely,
West Yorkshire, LS29 9EG
Tel: 01943 609335

Wednesday 21 October 2015

What if you try exploring?

London brings out the tourist in me. Not the stereotypical snap-happy, loud-talking, slow-walking visitor of all the obvious destinations, but an explorer of strange corners, always looking up at the tall buildings and pausing to enjoy random fun as it occurs.

I'm not a Londoner so I'm generally ignorant of the random fun going on around the city. Instead I rely on friends, Twitter, Ian Visits and luck. For this week's bookshop the experience was entirely down to luck.

Admittedly, I had set out on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl with the intention of visiting a bookshop on Broadway Market, I just hadn't anticipated finding two bookshops and a bright and colourful market. (Frustratingly I later found out there are actually three on this road, I can only guess the third was on the other side, hidden from my view by those market stalls I'd been so busy enjoying.) It was a brilliant experience, with the wonderful smells of street food and fresh produce complemented by music and a general buzz.

The place I'm sharing with you this week is Artwords Bookshop, which was on the left side of the market as I walked from London Fields tube. It has a corner spot and a striking blue front, but even with these two things in its favour I might not've noticed it had I not paused to listen to the musicians who'd set up on the junction outside.

I'm not blind, but other than the occasional glance at street numbers on shop fronts, my attention had been entirely taken up by the sights and smells of the market – I could've hung around and enjoyed them all day.

As for the bookshop itself, it was cool and assured. Honestly, before I started this blog it was the kind of place I'd probably have been a little scared to enter. Thankfully I now know better.

The reason I would once have been afraid is because Artwords is all about visual culture, it's not somewhere you'd go for bestselling fiction – although fiction is stocked there – and it's definitely not your standard bookshop. The recommends tables have a message of awareness about them and imagery abounds. In the past my own ignorance and lack of cool would have made me doubt my right to be in such a place.*

However the books are there to open our eyes and nowadays I'm much less self-conscious and much more willing to dive in. As were lots of other people at the time of my visit: the bookshop was crammed. In a good way. It felt as though a little of the market atmosphere continued inside.

Which is only natural given the selection of books available to feast on. Art is in abundance but I also dawdled around history, cookery, humour and more, eventually choosing to buy What if? by Randall Munroe of xkcd fame. The combination of science, absurdity and stick figure cartoons was further reassurance of my right to be there.

Artwords Bookshop is an excellent example of the variety and difference independent bookshops can offer, inviting us into a world of discovery. If this blog achieves anything then I'd hope it's to encourage others to think "what if I ventured in there?" – to look beyond their nerves and start exploring such out of the ordinary bookshops as this. Who knows what adventures it may eventually lead to...

Artwords Bookshop
20-22 Broadway Market,
London Fields, 
London, E8 4QJ
Tel: 020 7923 7507

* If I'm totally honest, in the past a certain level of shyness would never have seen me traipse across London to randomly encounter a wonderful market while on my way to a bookshop I'd not previously met. It's amazing where a little bit of bookshop stalking can take you.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Bookshops will always be my bag

***As usual for a bookshop crawl, there would be too many words to write properly about each bookshop in this one post. Come back later and each destination will have had its own proper write up – they're worth your time. Honest***

There aren't enough hours in the day. Or even days in the week. Especially when work's really busy, a friend has a birthday, you're engrossed in an unputdownable book and counting down to the annual Books are my bag day of bookshop parties.

Which is why, despite a month of excitement, I found myself Googling routes to Dorset at 9pm the night before. It was at this point I discovered the bookshop I'd planned to visit is almost three hours drive from my home, which wouldn't've left enough time for a trip to Monkey World while I was in the county. I needed a new plan. Fortunately, I remembered previous bookshop crawls and another blogger's* recommendation to visit Pages of Hackney. Having started in the south last year, the north east seemed a good place to go this time.

The first stop on my route took me to London Fields overground station, followed by a walk along the bustling Broadway Market and the unexpected discovery of Artwords Bookshop.

Packed with books dedicated to visual culture, there was no doubting the cool, questioning attitude of this bookshop and its customers. All of which was about engaging with the world and opening minds. This isn't the bookshop to visit for a mindless holiday read, but lighthearted reading could still be found: I bought What if? by Randall Munroe.

Moving to somewhere I had planned to visit, The Broadway Bookshop is a short walk further on, at the end of Broadway Market near Regent's Canal.

A small front opens into a surprisingly large bookshop space, which saw a steady flow of shoppers young and old. Awed by the wall of literary fiction in front of me, I could've happily bought half the shop as I encountered author after author that I've long meant to read but never quite been brave enough to try. Thankfully, a bookseller was available to help me narrow down my selection: The Third Reich means I can finally begin my acquaintance with the works of Roberto BolaƱo.

Walking along the Regent's Canal, I eventually spotted the sign for my next stop sticking out over a busy high street but, as I got nearer something wasn't quite right. A note in the door told me I'd missed Victoria Park Books – apparently by a matter of weeks – as it's now joined the ranks of the virtual world.

Admittedly, it does still have a presence in the form of Story Habit, but I can't help but be saddened by the closure of another bookshop. If this isn't a reminder of why initiatives such as Books are my bag are so important then I don't know what is.

Staying positive, it was time to head over to the highly recommended Pages of Hackney. A tiny bookshop on a busy street, it was here I got my first glimpse of BAMB orange bunting.

I had no idea what to expect of this bookshop, and renovation works meant my browsing was confined to one space, but the quality of what I did see and the bookseller's friendliness proved the recommendation had definitely been deserved. I picked up one of their recommendations: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

A short walk away, Stoke Newington Bookshop and a bookshop party came next. Art was the order of the day as I explored this large and colourful space, occasionally stopping to read while also trying to sneak a peak at the efforts of the artists and also enjoying the general banter and friendly fun flowing around the shop.

Picking up Dear Bill Bryson by Ben Aitken, I finally got a glimpse at an artist's work when I spotted a tote bag on the counter – with a sketch of me browsing in the bookshop! An unexpected treat, the bag now has pride of place in my growing tote collection.

Heading back into town I stopped off at Old Street Station for a visit to Camden Lock Books. Offering a great selection of new and discounted books, the atmosphere of this Islington bookshop easily reminded me of the destination's namesake and if it hadn't been near closing I could've happily hung out here for hours. As it was I still struggled to select just one book from the discount table in the time I had: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman won out in the end.

Finally, as has become tradition for my Books are my bag crawls, I made my way to Foyles. This time ending my day with hot chocolate and cake as I settled down with one of my purchases while waiting to meet a friend.

Parties may not have been taking over each bookshop I visited, but friendly booksellers, happy browers and the generally great atmosphere I encountered ensured fun was still had. Because let's face it: Bookshops will always be my bag.

Artwords Bookshop
20-22 Broadway Market, London Fields, London, E8 4QJ.
Tel: 020 7923 7507. @ArtwordsBooks

The Broadway Bookshop
6 Broadway Market, London Fields, London, E8 4QJ.
Tel: 020 7241 1626.

Pages of Hackney
70 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0RN.
Tel: 020 8525 1452. @pagesofhackney

Stoke Newington Bookshop
159 Stoke Newington High Street, Stoke Newington, London, N16 0NY.
Tel: 020 7249 2808. @StokeyBookshop

Camden Lock Books
Old Street Station, 4 Saint Agnes Well, Islington, London, EC1Y 1BE.
Tel: 020 7253 0666. @camdenlockbooks

107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT.
Tel: 020 7434 1574. @Foyles


*I'd love to thank the blogger personally, but I was so busy noting their recommendations I'm afraid I've forgotten who they were.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

The book was better, but there's more to it than that

*** In the following post I briefly talk about scenes within The Martian book and film. As far as I'm aware the references are innocent and they are not spoilers, but read at your own peril ***

We can't all live close to an independent bookshop, but many of us do still have a bookshop around the corner.*

In my case it's part of a chain, but in the year or so I've known it Waterstone's in Tunbridge Wells has become one of my regular hangouts. Particularly at around 1.30pm on a weekday, when I find myself in need of an escape from the office, and a moment to stop thinking and sort of re-set my brain.

At these moments I like to dawdle through the shop, enjoying the temptations on the recommends tables before heading upstairs to a large, quiet area crammed with fiction. Here, I start at the wall of bookseller recommendations (reminiscent of the days of Ottakar's) then move on to browse each table as I randomly gravitate towards the crime, sci fi or general fiction shelves as the mood takes me. This inevitably leads to some relaxed reading – followed by rushed buying as I hurry to return to the office, unable to leave the book behind. It's a lovely way to spend a lunch break and always sets me right.

It's also very handy when I suddenly get it into my head that I absolutely must read a particular book, for instance The Martian by Andy Weir.

Seeing the trailers for the film, I asked Twitter if I should read the book first and in a break with tradition opinions were split. Half of you said yes, it's brilliant. Half of you said no, the science is too much. And a few more of you** said other clever things that I can't remember right now. The general outcome being that I wanted to read the book more than ever. Most importantly, I wanted to read it before the weekend as that was when I planned to watch the film.

And so I made the most of the excuse to visit my local bookshop. As Waterstone's is running a Books for Syria campaign I also felt compelled to break my one book per visit rule and buy We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

But back to The Martian. The moment I got home I sat down to read, finally resurfacing for a break six hours later. The easy-to-read book fascinated me and the science had me hooked. It was no trouble to finish before my self-imposed Saturday night deadline and before I knew it my 3D glasses and I were at the cinema.

Having read John Irving's book My Movie Business, I like to think I've become sympathetic to the adaptation of books into films, accepting omissions and changes as a necessary evil (although why the film has to start on Sol 18, when the book starts on Sol 6 is beyond me, and don't get me started on Venkat/Vincent Kapoor). Basically, as long as the essence of the book is captured I'm happy, which is pretty much what happened here. However that doesn't mean I'd be happy to watch the film without having read the book.

You see, the joy of going to see a film adaptation of a favoured book is that you get so much more from the scene you're watching than just the action in front of you: When Mark Watney starts growing potatoes in the film I also understood how much effort his character had gone to to get to that point – because I had read the book. And when Rich Purnell is introduced I was quietly sniggering about his awkward character before the person sat next to me had even worked out what was going on. There are many more instances where my enjoyment of the film was heightened because of such extra knowledge, with the inevitable divergent annoyances thankfully at a minimum, meaning I'm now praising both book and film to anyone who's willing to listen.

And all this enjoyment is thanks to my local chain bookshop, which may not be an original independent but certainly captures the essence of the book-buying experience.

Waterstone's Tunbridge Wells
32-40 Calverley Road,
Tunbridge Wells,
Kent, TN1 2TD

* I've already written about my thoughts on chain bookshops, so to avoid repetition have a click here.
** I like science, but I don't pretend to be any good at maths.