Thursday 26 November 2015

In booksellers we trust

Blackwell's High Holborn has a lot to answer for. It's one of the places where my teenage self fell in love with bookshopping; it's where I first realised how big and wide the world of bookshops is; and it introduced me to John Wyndham.

Taking them one at a time, I've already explained the first in my post about the bookshop's original incarnation, which also included a little about the second (it was thanks to Say What You See that I first found myself wanting to meet so many different bookshops). Which leaves us with John Wyndham.

But as he wasn't even the author I was visiting the bookshop to buy you'll have to be patient. On the occasion of my 'official' visit I was hunting down The Dinner by Herman Koch. Picked out by a book club I'm a member of, instinct had told me it was about time I visited Blackwell's High Holborn to find it. Instinct was correct.

The new incarnation of this bookshop may be smaller than in its previous life, but the quality of books on offer hasn't been diminished. Where in the past there was a round wall of fiction, today we have islands to wander through, the 'more than books section' I've spent a small fortune in over the years also remains and – should you need an energy boost – there's now a Benugo cafe within the bookshop.

Most important of all, Blackwell's High Holborn continues to be a bookshop that's perfectly stocked to meet my needs. I'm sure it wasn't the only place to have had the book I was looking for on that particular day (I'm ashamed to admit the visit in question took place a few months ago), but part of the joy of counting a whole host of bookshops among your 'friends' is knowing their different personalities and who to turn to when.* And as with my everyday friends, such knowledge builds trust.

Which leads us to John Wyndham.

He's not an author I'd previously been interested in, but when the bookseller behind the @BlackwellsHH Twitter account told me I should read three particular books I took him at his tweet. I took the next opportunity to return to the bookshop, where I picked up The Day of the Triffids.

The bookseller was right, it was a brilliant read and swiftly became one of my top ten favourite books. Before I knew it I'd also read The Midwitch Cuckoos and now The Kraken Wakes is at the top of my TBR pile.

Blackwell's High Holborn isn't my local bookshop, but as a result of any number of booky conversations it's long been somewhere I've trusted to understand my reading needs and make recommendations accordingly. Which is what all good bookshops should be – if you take the time to get to know your local you'll understand what I'm talking about.

50-51 High Holborn, Holborn, London, WC1V 6EP
Tel: 020 7292 5100.

*Yes, I'm aware that sentence probably makes me sound a little crazy, but every bookshop is a product of its booksellers and the very nature of their jobs means all booksellers have great personalities. Fact.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Miss Jones lives for a day

Once upon a time in a land not very far away, a woman found herself in a bit of a rut. Her life was reasonably happy, but each day revolved around commuting, working, more commuting, collapsing on the sofa and sleeping. Then she started writing a blog...

Okay, so I'm not much good at writing in the third person and you've probably guessed who the woman is, but hopefully you get the idea. One day I was sleepwalking through life, the next day I'd resumed living it.

I'm not about to go into the 101 things that happened to fall into place to start me writing the blog – it'd be far too self-indulgent and not particularly relevant – because what really matters is the fact I did start writing it, and benefitted from the surprising side effect of a new lust for life. My weeknights became the perfect time to plan and write about bookshop adventures and as for my weekends, a look down the geographical index page shows just how packed they've become.

Where previously I'd use quiet moments in strange places to hide away with my book (admittedly still a common occurrence) nowadays I seek adventures, searching out the nearest bookshop and new experience therein. Which is why when I went to a south coast wedding I used the few hours of down time as an opportunity to hunt out bookshops instead of hiding away with a book.

Badgers Books in Worthing caught my attention because it was almost exactly halfway between the wedding reception and my bed and breakfast. It was an excellent place to pause in my tour of the town before continuing the celebration, and with books piled up on displays outside the shop I defy any reader to walk past without finding a bargain or five.

A secondhand bookshop, rooms of books extend from the front allowing quiet browsing and exploring within easy reach of the friendly booksellers by the till. It's a lovely space, but what really makes this place special is the books. They're organised and sorted while also being just a tiny bit untidy. Not messy, but sort of rough enough around the edges in the way excess stock is piled up, and standing and looking at a wall from a slight distance is like appreciating a work of art.

During the time of my visit the booksellers were politely looking through a selection of books brought in by a customer, who was proudly/ignorantly declaring they no longer need bookshops because they own an e-reader. It made me want to give the booksellers a medal (or hug) for their patience and manners while I quietly browsed and listened and thought "her loss".

Once normality resumed, I ventured back to the fiction in the front room, where the booksellers were chatting books and answering enquiries from much nicer customers. It made for happy, relaxed browsing as I worked my way along the shelves, being rewarded with a copy of Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew lives for a day.

A Persephone book, this story of a woman who leaves her comfort zone and falls into life has swiftly become one of my favourites and – like this bookshop – I can't recommend it enough. The book won't change your life, but it's a lovely reminder of what a difference a little bravery and a lot of hope can achieve.

Badgers Books
8-10 Gratwicke Road, Worthing,
West Sussex, BN11 4BH
Tel: 01903 211816

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Friends in the right places

Given how regularly I can be found inside a bookshop, most of my visits inevitably take place on my own. It's not that I don't want to encourage friends to join me, it's simply the law of averages: think of your favourite past time and then consider how often non-participating friends volunteer to take part. The results are probably comparable for me and accompanied bookshop visits.

Which is how, in the middle of this week's visit, I briefly found myself feeling a little alone (spoiler alert, the loneliness didn't last long).

The momentary loneliness happened when I left the hustle and bustle of a busy London market behind to enter The Broadway Bookshop. Stop number two on my Books are my bag bookshop crawl, it's located almost at the end of the road where the market meets the canal, with the small shop front giving no hint of the atmosphere hidden inside. Even when you first enter, the treat that awaits isn't immediately apparent, as just a small display of books is seen next to a narrow walkway by the till. It's when you squeeze past whichever customers are waiting to pay that you discover the real appeal of this bookshop.

Down a few steps you enter what feels like a sort of secret, private library packed with warmth, friendliness and beautiful books. It's a bright and cheerful place and somewhere to feel at home, which is exactly what one young family was doing during my visit: Curled up in the children's section a mother read to her young child while a man selected books to take home. It was a lovely first experience of The Broadway Bookshop and made me more than a little envious of their cosy enjoyment.

Not wanting to disturb, I got stuck into the books. And what a collection they are. This is quite definitely a literary bookshop, but not in the sense that it should scare off timid readers. It's a place where you can feel confident that no matter what you buy it'll be good. Also, if you fall in love with a particular author found on their shelves, you're almost guaranteed to find the rest of their works there too. Which is how I started dithering over a number of fascinating-sounding titles.

During all this browsing, including a brief inspection down a few more steps to a nook perfect for hiding away in, the bookshop had begun to fill up and I'd naturally been tuning in and out of the quiet reading of the mother to her child. Torn between wanting to sit down with the family and not wanting to intrude on a tender moment, I instead zoned in and out of the other conversations around me.

Conversations varied but included favoured and impossible reads, authors and where people were going for lunch. It was a great experience, made the more so by the layout of the bookshop as chatter was shared over the shelving display. However it was also where my brief moment of loneliness kicked in: here I was, in a crowd of happily chatting book lovers but without the company of a friend of my own for their opinion.

Then sense prevailed and I remembered one of the people in this backroom crowd was a bookseller. I forgot my loneliness and went to say hi to someone I knew would happily talk books without the risk of my showing myself up as a nosy parker. We compared reads (past and present), reviewed my selections and (after consultation with another bookseller) agreed on my choice of Roberto BolaƱo for the author. Next came the title itself, this took a bit more work but eventually saw me pick The Third Reich. (Which isn't a sentence I ever thought I'd write.)

Okay, so the helpful bookseller may not be my new bosom buddy and he's unlikely to make my Christmas list, but one thing is certain: We're all friends when it comes to bookshops.

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

Thursday 5 November 2015

Who's afraid of France?

Of all the strange things to be afraid of, one of my fears is of being alone in Paris. Not of the loneliness, I'm perfectly happy on my own (and have visited numerous other places by myself), but until two weeks ago this particular city was up there with haunted houses and dark alleyways.

Which is really stupid.

However, like the dark alleyways, there was good reason for my fear – the awareness of my own ignorance. Visiting Paris I had no idea what I'd be encountering and were I to get into difficulty I had no way of getting out of it. Because despite years of French lessons my spoken French is about as good as the average person's spoken Latin. And because I really should know better I'm ashamed, nervous, and generally terrified of being yelled at by an angry Frenchman who's sick of seeing his language murdered by yet another ignorant tourist.

Then I got talking to a bookshop. And spent the next six months or so failing to pluck up the courage to take a trip to Paris.

Thankfully, I have some very good friends, one of whom kindly came to my rescue with the suggestion we both pick an activity* to do and head off for a few days' escape. I was so stunned by the possibility of actually visiting the bookshop that, believe it or not, I dithered over agreeing to the trip. Then sense, and the reassurance I would be in the company of a trusted, seasoned traveller (to whom I'm eternally grateful), won out and before I knew it we were on the Eurostar.

Berkeley Books of Paris first caught my attention the way most far off bookshops do, through Twitter. The bookseller's observations are entertaining and informative, and the occasional exchanged tweet meant it soon became a familiar part of my online readings, so earning a place on the increasingly long bookshops I want to meet list – it may not be the most famous bookshop in the city, but there's a lot to be said for a friendly hello from a stranger.

My visit began with a walk through the Opera region. Not an area I know much about, I soon discovered this was something like the Paris equivalent of Charing Cross Road and enjoyed nosing in the windows we passed. Then, as we drew closer to the bookshop, I spotted The Inevitable, a gorgeous neighbourhood cat who would've been my first ever bookshop cat met if I'd arrived just five minutes earlier. As it was she'd already decided to resume her exploring and miaowed her hellos as she passed. By this point I was getting quite excited.

Then came the bookshop itself. The light blue front makes Berkeley Books easy to spot once you've found the right street, opening into a warm, welcoming secondhand bookshop. An average-sized space, it was just the right size to appeal to my browsing needs without intruding too much on the inevitable tourist trail.

Walls of bookcases give the feel of a personal library, with the company of other customers to remind you you're really in a public place. One wall advertises 'literature', while further back I found shelves labelled 'fiction', it was a decision I struggled to understand until it was pointed out the latter is actually stocked with pocket books, with the shelves built to fit that specific size. I loved this unexpected organisational choice. As for our purchases: I picked Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, while my friend chose Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Of course, I was equally engrossed by the rest of the broad-ranging stock, but it was the realisation I was in a safe haven that hit me the most.

Yes, I'd been carefully guided through Paris by a very considerate friend, but for the duration of my visit to Berkeley Books I realised I was no longer afraid. I was surrounded by books I could understand; bookshopping customers who were surely more interested in their surroundings than my inability to speak their language; and there at the counter was a bookseller, my as yet unmet friend in a foreign land. I went over and said hello.

As you'd expect, the bookseller – an American in Paris – was as lovely as ever, chatting about anything and everything (including other local bookshop recommendations) and generally putting me at ease. Everything about Berkeley Books of Paris made me feel at home in a foreign city, helping prove I'd been wrong to be scared and right to make the journey. This time I travelled to the bookshop with a friend, next time I'll make the trip alone – to visit a friend.

Berkeley Books
8 rue Casimir Delavigne, 
75006 Paris, France
Tel: +33 1 46 34 85 73

*The friend chose football. Go Paris Saint-Germain!