Wednesday 30 December 2015

Crossing the bridge

For as long as I can remember my life has involved trips to Wales. From north to south the country is littered with my family and friends, but it's also a great place for a holiday and there's something extra special about finding myself on the right side of the border.

The variety of Welsh destinations I regularly travel to means there's no one road most travelled, but given the choice nothing beats the Severn Bridge for making an entrance to a country. I must've been about seven the first time my Dad drove me across the original suspension bridge, which to me was the biggest, most impressive river crossing in the world. I don't remember that first journey, but I do remember – years later – the first time I crossed the Second Severn Crossing* and was able to enjoy the view of the original bridge: marvelling at its size, the beauty of the river below and being very grateful it was there to shorten our journey.

The second crossing is a cable-stayed bridge, yes, that's probably more information than you needed, but I'm a bit of a fan of bridges so I couldn't resist sharing. In fact, the more I think about this blog post the more I wonder at the influence these two bridges must have had on my consciousness, impressing a young Erica so much that when in later life I looked to end my brief time as a resident of Wales I chose my then new home because of its proximity to another bridge.

Another, more relevant to here, side-effect of all those crossings of the two Severn Bridges is Chepstow's appearance in my consciousness. Regularly driving past signs for the town put it on my 'must-visit one day' list, and yet more than 15 years after that first pass I'd still not left the motorway to find out what I was missing. Which is where a bookshop comes in.

The Chepstow Bookshop managed what general curiosity had failed to achieve: instead of pausing at the nearby service station, I left the motorway for a proper break in a proper community.

My visit took place on the morning of a bank holiday, so I found myself driving through a pleasantly empty town and enjoying the luxury of a half-empty car park within easy reach of the bookshop, which wasn't opening until noon. The plan was to explore a little of the town first, then to round off my visit with books. However things didn't quite work out as planned as roughly three doors away I stumbled across a cafe with a specials menu dedicated to crumpets.

So, for my comments on the town itself I can tell you Tiffin Vintage Tea & Coffee House is the perfect place to stop for a bite, enjoy relaxing surroundings and read a book, and that it's on an interesting street of independent shops. That may sound like a rubbish explanation of a town I've long wanted to visit, but if, like mine, your needs are crumpets and books it's the perfect visitor experience.

And so to the main event. Even if you don't want to make the most of the nearby offering of crumpets, The Chepstow Bookshop is worth a diversion from the motorway. I arrived shorty after opening so it was naturally a little quiet, but not empty, as a mother read to her daughter in the children's section while dad got on with the shopping. There's something extra special about hearing an adult and child enjoying a bookshop in such a way, those two voices filling the room with adventure, laughter and the possibilities of a lifetime of reading.

As the family were tucked away at the back of the bookshop – the children's section is slightly hidden from view by a cleverly placed bookcase – I contented myself with investigating a packed wall of fiction, a fascinating recommends table, areas of non-fiction and a great selection of gifts. Hardbacks run along ledges at the bottom of the main shelves, and occasional markers stand out from among the fiction, drawing attention to a particular Penguin title and listing others to help browsers find their next read.

Both the wall of fiction and assorted recommends grabbed my attention, but in the end I was drawn to Anne Tyler's A spool of blue thread, which has been recommended to me by just about every bookish person I know over the past few weeks.

I'd previously resisted buying the book until, stood in this bookshop near the bridge, the idea of winding through the past caught my attention. Perhaps because I couldn't help but wonder: how different might my own life be if I'd never crossed those bridges?

The Chepstow Bookshop
13 St Mary Street, Chepstow,
Monmouthshire, NP16 5EW
Tel: 01291 625011

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Answering the second question

Whenever I first tell people about this blog there's an inevitable question: Which is your favourite bookshop? It's a question that's impossible to answer, generally leading me to talk about a random selection of highlights from my travels so far and sometimes, but not always, managing to distract them.

A secondary question is whether or not I return to bookshops once I've written about them. Today's post should, in some small way, answer this second question.

The question takes a whole blog because it's not as simple as yes or no. I do revisit bookshops, as often as I can, but when it comes to finding a bookshop a week to write about I have to prioritise new visits. Otherwise this website would get very repetitive and a lot of brilliant bookshops would never get the chance to appear (as it is it takes me far too long to write about some of them). There's also the issue of distance, much as I'd love to, it's not so easy to jump in the car and pop to the Big Comfy Bookshop or Wenlock Books for the afternoon. (Both are on my 'must revisit list', along with most of the destinations featured on this blog if I'm honest.)

However in a bid to prove I'm not one for the bookshop equivalent of a one-night stand (a one-shop stand?) here are a few of the places I've revisited since writing.

We'll begin by looking back to the hottest day of the year, when I finally got to meet Baxter the bookshop dog. My visit sadly coincided with his last day at Belgravia Books, but he was an excellent excuse to revisit this excellent bookshop that's only a hop, skip and a jump from Victoria train station in London.

A particular favourite of mine for translated fiction (it's linked with Gallic Books, the people who brought the wonderful 'French romcom' The Red Notebook to English speakers), on the occasion of this visit I must confess to having broken my cardinal rule of never ordering a book. Given the wide variety of great books on offer in Belgravia Books I'm not proud of that confession, but if you're a regular reader you'll know I'd been overwhelmed by a book and simply had to know what happened in Patrick Rothfuss' second, The Wise Man's Fear.

Which leads us nicely to the bookshop where I actually bought The Red Notebook by Antoin Laurain: Much Ado Books in Alfriston. Just an hour away from my home, this is a gorgeous place to spend a day escaping from the world, and as an honorary member of their Friends group I've had the privilege of whiling away many a happy hour in their private room. But if I'm honest, everyone's a friend when greeted by Cate and Nash, the bookselling couple who give this beautiful destination its creative heart.

Closer to my home, we have Little Mouse Books in Maidstone. Once my local, this delightful children's bookshop feels like it's actually hidden away down a mousehole. I may not live near it any more but it continues to play a big part in feeding my comfort reading cravings, because to me that's what children's books are when read by adults, and we should all be proud to be seen reading them. For this blog I'm mentioning When the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo because I've lost track of which other books I've picked up here!

Returning to that boiling hot day in July, another place I've revisited a lot is London Review Bookshop, in particular for tea and cake – I adore the London Review Cakeshop – but also for books. It's one of those bookshops that has a recommends table unlike anything else I've seen and simply can't be compared. On this day I was meeting a friend from The Booksellers Association and she recommended Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. It would've been rude not to feed my book-buying addiction.

Further away, visiting friends on the coast has enabled me to enjoy the odd trip to Tiverton Books in Margate. Limited opening hours alone make this bookshop a treat to explore, throw in the quirkiness of its shelves and a friendly bookselling couple and it's a reason to get up early to ensure you don't miss out. I believe my last purchase here was The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind.

Finally, I've already mentioned a revisit to Blackwell's High Holborn, but that same quest to read more John Wyndham was also rewarded in West Hampstead, during a trip to West End Lane Books. I'd only popped in to say hello to their resident penguin, but their science fiction is so well-stocked I was also lucky enough to take home The Midwich Cuckoos.

Obviously the bookshops named here are all relatively close to home and easy to visit, so in some ways I feel like I'm cheating saying I make return trips to all bookshops, because I can't. But I've enjoyed revisiting them here and hopefully this has helped jog your memories about some of the many great bookshops I've visited.

Perhaps these, or other bookshops I've already visited, are among your favourites too? If so I'd love to hear about them.

Belgravia Books
59 Ebury Street, Belgravia, London, SW1W 0NZ
Tel: 020 7259 9336

8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UX
Tel: 01323 871222 @MuchAdoBooks

Unit 11B The Corn Exchange Market Buildings, Maidstone, Kent, ME14 1HP
Tel: 01622 679826 @littlemousebook

14 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JL
Tel: 020 7269 9030 @LRBbookshop @LRBcakeshop

Down the steps, Smiths Court Hotel, 21-27 Eastern Esplanade, Cliftonville, Margate, Kent, CT9 2HL
Tel: 01843 222319 @Tivertonbooks

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

Thursday 17 December 2015

Growing tomorrow's readers in yesterday's city

As I've previously mentioned, a few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting York. It's a beautiful city, with narrow streets, quirky buildings and a sense of history everywhere you look. It's a place to step back in time, and nowhere is this more apparent than by the Minster.

The building towers over its surroundings, catching your eye as you meander through the higgledy-piggledy streets and guiding you to your destination. Which in my case was a bookshop. Now the obvious choice would be the traditional, antiquarian and secondhand bookshop that perfectly matches its historic surroundings. But I didn't hear about that one until after my visit was finished.

Instead I had my sights set on contrast. I wanted to see how the modern fit alongside the historic. The relatively new The Little Apple Bookshop was the perfect place to do just that.

The bookshop is tiny, it's not the smallest I've ever visited, but the front room especially is not a place for swinging a cat. It's also bright and colourful and perfectly filled with everything you could need to inspire young (and old) minds, with youngsters being particularly lucky with the space allocated to the well-stocked children's section at the back.

The thing that stuck with me the most was the sense of fun. Apples sit along the top of bookshelves, cuddly literary characters are everywhere and the mix of books and other stuff is spot on. Wherever you look there's something to admire, pick up, open or investigate, and even the bookshelves offer more than meets the eye as books facing outwards hide other titles by the same author. This last detail was a particular favourite of mine as an invitation to discover extra treats.

This is a bookshop for everyone, but while I was there a stream of children were passing through and it's impossible to miss the appeal of The Little Apple Bookshop to young people. I love the idea of families visiting the historic landmarks and stumbling across the bookshop as a reward to patient children. Or of local youngsters being drawn in by the colour and fun, discovering a love of reading and continuing to visit as they grow into adulthood.

As for me, I took my love of reading and returned to childhood, choosing to buy Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland.* I've long wanted to read these dark children's books and this bright and fun bookshop in the shadow of the Minster seemed the perfect place to start my collection.

The Little Apple Bookshop may not be a dedicated children's bookshop, but to me it's the perfect place to grow young readers.

The Little Apple Bookshop
13 High Petergate, York,
North Yorkshire, YO1 7EN
Tel: 01904 676103

*Yes, I also bought a birthday card. A few months after the visit I need to own up to one of the friends I was visiting York with: Sorry, I forgot your birthday, but at least I still managed to buy you a card before the day itself.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Put your phone down

One of my pet hates is people who walk around bookshops with their phones out. In the general sense I find it rude – if you're in a bookshop you should be looking at the books – but the main thing that bugs me is when people wander around taking photos of the books.

Sure, the odd picture is probably a good reminder for a later bookshopping trip, but when I find myself stood next to a browser who's indiscriminately photographing covers and barcodes like there's no tomorrow I get more than a little annoyed. I'm British, so I obviously quietly fume rather than actually confronting them for their rudeness, but I like to hope my disdainful looks have stopped more than one internet shopper in the middle of a browsing session.

So what does my ineffective rant have to do with this week's bookshop? First up, I'm a bit of a hypocrite. Because I don't want booksellers to know I'm visiting to write about their bookshop I wander around sneakily taking photos with my mobile phone, although in my case the photos are of the shop, rather than the individual books. The main reason for my comments is because they'll hopefully help to explain the state of mental discomfort I was in when I got to the third bookshop on my latest Books are my bag bookshop crawl.

By the time I arrived at Pages of Hackney my phone battery had nearly died. Because I'm used to the poor performance of smart phones I was carrying a spare battery, but a dodgy cable meant the only way I could get it to charge was by holding phone, battery and cable at a certain angle in front of me while I explored. There are worse things to suffer, but at that moment I've never been so uncomfortable in a bookshop.

Fortunately, Pages of Hackney is a friendly place, and as the only passive-aggressive person in the room was the one holding the phone, no one frowned at me or told me off. Instead, everyone was happily browsing and I gradually managed to relax into this boutique bookshop.

At the time of my visit the downstairs was closed for renovation so I can only comment on the main bookshop space, but even with reduced shelving I liked what I saw. Pages of Hackney is a small and modern new bookshop, and what it lacks in quantity it definitely makes up for in quality.

Eclectic is the word I'd probably use for this bookshop, because there must surely be something for everyone as classics sit near modern fiction, with even a shelf of science fiction to keep me happy, not forgetting a children's corner, young adult and all the usual non-fiction too. I really don't know how they fit it all in while still keeping the bookshop feeling light and airy.

It was the recommends table that really caught my attention. Initially for the quality of books, but then also because I realised I could put my phone and charger down without getting in anyone's way. At the time of my visit I'd previously encountered very few of the books displayed, which is an increasingly rare occurrence for me and one that has to be savoured. I loitered by the table, enjoying sampling the books on offer and wishing I didn't have a one-book-per-shop rule. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline kept my attention the longest, and so it was this novel that came to the till with me.

The bookseller was as friendly as all the recommendations* had told me she would be, praising my choice of purchase and – as a true hero – giving me directions to the nearest phone shop to replace the cable that had been giving me a headache.

Pages of Hackney may only look small, but from my visit I could see it was a great little shop. Throw in events, great stock** and a friendly bookseller and this little shop appears to be a big part of its community. It's also welcoming to all, even those of us rude enough to be browsing while attached to our mobile phones.

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

* I've lost track of the number of times Pages of Hackney has been recommended to me by Londoners.
** I believe the basement has now opened as a 'vintage' section, I must re-visit soon to find out.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Fiction and fizz on Civilised Saturday

When I realised I'd accidentally booked Black Friday off work I did the only thing any sensible person would do: I hibernated with a good book. Money may not be in abundance in my household, but sanity is much more valuable and the last thing I wanted to do was lose it fighting my way through a crowd of 'bargain-hunters' buying things they don't need simply because they're on sale.

But enough ranting, this week's post is actually about the following day on the calendar: Civilised Saturday. The book world's antidote to a day of shopping hell, this event is all about popping along to a good bookshop, enjoying the atmosphere and being generally relaxed, happy and more socially advanced than the day before.

Okay, so bookshops are always more civilised than everywhere else, but on this particular day they were even more so.

For instance, although this was my first visit to Wenlock Books in Shropshire I'm pretty certain it's not every day the bookseller greets visitors with a: "Hello, would you like a glass of Prosecco?" Although I can be certain they'll always offer a warm welcome and friendly atmosphere.

Free fizz was a nice surprise and although I limited myself to a half glass, it was lovely to wander around the bookshop, nursing my drink and feeling like I was at a high class drinks party (only much more fun).

The bookshop itself is split across two floors. The ground floor is dedicated to new books, including a small but considered fiction section, while upstairs is secondhand. At the time of my visit this floor was also home to a selection of free hot drinks*, biscuits and cakes. All were homemade and I can confirm they were delicious.

The nature of the old building means neither floor is strictly one level, with steps and beams and period features vying for your attention in between the books. In among all of this are quirky details such as interesting bookends and a selection of thought-provoking (and useful when it comes to the random steps) signs. It's a beautiful setting and the more I explored and observed the more I found myself longing for Wenlock Books to be my local. I'd like to say this was due to one specific magic ingredient (not the fizz, I only had half a glass), but really it was the combination of people, place and all those individual things that mix together to make bookshops such welcoming destinations.

The bookshop may not be near my home, but I consoled myself with the knowledge it's at least somewhere to visit as often as I can and set about choosing a book as a reminder of this first encounter (Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend).

I may have visited on a specially designated day, but I'm certain the relaxed friendliness I encountered was pretty much the bookshop experience – minus the fizz – on any day of the week. Which could be something to remember when you next find yourself looking for an escape (from the Christmas shopping).

Wenlock Books
12 High Street, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, TF13 6AA
Tel: 01952 727877

*a nearby kettle and cups indicate free tea and coffee are a regular thing for browsers to enjoy.