Friday 26 February 2016

Worth the diversion

Have you ever had one of those days where, no matter how hard you try, you just can't achieve X, get to Y or meet Z? When everything conspires against you and the only option is to give up on whatever it was and vow to try again another day.

That's exactly what I've had – through no fault of its own – with The White Horse Bookshop in Wiltshire. Only we're not talking a struggle over days, but years. It was worth the wait.

Found in the attractive market town of Marlborough, this bookshop first came to my attention in 2013, when I realised a planned journey along the M4 would take me within worthwhile diversion distance. Many of you have probably already realised what's wrong with that story: gridlock on the motorway saw me going nowhere for hours, meaning even my planned diversion was too much of a break from the journey to be followed.

"It's okay," I reassured myself, "I'll visit on the return journey."

The day of my return saw me starting out in Wales in torrential rain, accompanied by the sound of howling gales and the sight of fallen trees (many of which required me to stop while I waited for people with tractors or chainsaws to clear the road). Clinging to the steering wheel for dear life, once back in England I was too scared to leave the motorway in case I encountered any more such trees. My luck was similarly bad on subsequent trips along the M4.

Then came the end of 2015 and I once again found myself on the M4, headed to Wales. This time, nothing was going to stop me from leaving the motorway (for a diversion only marginally slower, when you consider bad traffic) to visit The White Horse Bookshop.

I left the M4 at Junction 14 and was soon winding through attractive countryside, followed by an equally attractive town. Arriving in the early afternoon, I missed out on the bustle of market day as the stalls were being taken down, but that probably worked in my favour as it meant I was able to find a parking space almost exactly across the road from the bookshop. Being in the middle of a long drive, this was some reward, as I'm sure any distance driver will understand. But the real treat was to come.

From the market place, The White Horse Bookshop is not an obvious destination. It's tucked away in a corner, across the way from what appeared to be the main parade of shops and, if I'm honest, from a distance the shop front isn't overly striking. Then you get closer and take a proper look at the windows and realise what a gem this place is, before stepping inside and understanding the bookshop is nothing like you'd expected from its unassuming exterior.

For a small market town Marlborough has a very big bookshop. Stretching far back beyond the compact shop front, I was particularly impressed by a very long wall of fiction, further supplemented by bookcases of crime and science fiction: no browser is ever going to struggle to find a purchase or five here. The only difficulty will be limiting your purchases to five.

Throw in a large children's section and good variety of non-fiction, along with two further floors – one for art supplies, one for more non-fiction – and I could've easily lost a day to browsing. And should I have tired (unlikely) the first floor opens up into a large bay window with one of the most inviting window seats I've ever seen. Enjoying a view of the market square, it offers heaven for people-watchers while also being the perfect place to sit and review your selection – as the lady pictured in my very rubbish photograph was doing during a day trip to the town.*

Not wishing to intrude too much, I left her to her browsing, returning to that long wall of fiction. Starting at the far end of the alphabet it took me all of five seconds to choose a purchase, The storied life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, before attempting to resist the rest of the treats on offer. Slowly following the shelves, I enjoyed the bookshop conversations of orders collected, recommendations made and general chatter before arriving at the till to join in and buy my book.

It's a shame I didn't manage to visit The White Horse Bookshop sooner, but the extra anticipation and the joy of finding a destination that more than surpassed my hopes meant my visit was all the more fun. And now I know how short a diversion a trip to this bookshop is, I'll be leaving the motorway traffic jams behind more often.

The White Horse Bookshop
136 High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire, SN8 1HN
Tel: 01672 704001

*we paused for a chat and to compare notes on our enjoyment of the bookshop when I asked permission to take her picture.**
** apologies for my rubbish photography skills, the bookshop really is a bright and lovely place. One day I'll buy a decent camera.

Friday 19 February 2016

This is my journey

Several months ago, some of you may remember I went on a bookshop crawl around Hackney in celebration of the 2015 Books are my bag campaign. As is my habit, I wrote about the event the following week and have been gradually sharing more detail about the individual bookshops involved.

Then it came time to write about Stoke Newington Bookshop and I kept getting delayed: First I wanted to finish reading the book purchased on the day; then I deliberately delayed because I wanted to meet their occasional bookseller puppy (still to be done); and finally the randomness of other events got in the way. So, better late than never, and with apologies it's taken me so long, we arrive on the doorstep of this large east London bookshop...

My first thought when stood outside was – I'm ashamed to admit – is that it? But with good reason: Despite my having now participated in several Books are my bag events (see here and here), time and a total lack of organisation mean I'm yet to have attended a bookshop party in progress. Until now. And the party was so much in progress that I'd arrived just as the bookshop's artists in residence for the day had taken down the window display they'd created and were starting work on their next offering. (It looked great when complete, if only I'd had the presence of mind to take a photograph.)

However, as we all know, you shouldn't judge a bookshop by its (temporary) cover, and so I stepped inside, full of enthusiasm for what I was about to find. And the first thing I found was that my picture of the front window simply does not do justice to the size of Stoke Newington Bookshop, which is huge.

The wide open space, large number of customers and multicoloured books mean the choice of blue for shelves and tables is soothing and a perfect balance to the brightness of the room. The abundance of recommends tables means progress around that room is slow (and that's before you spot the music section and discount books). I dawdled my way from one table to another, enjoying the bubbly atmosphere around me as I devoured the backs of books.

One table contained hand-written recommendations that ensured I wanted to buy every book on it, while another paired new reads with the earlier titles that had inspired them. It was from here that I was to choose Ben Aitken's Dear Bill Bryson. Given the – in the opinion of some poor souls – strange path my own travels take, I was naturally drawn to another adventurer setting off on a specific but random journey.

The book follows in the footsteps of Bill Bryson's Notes from a small island and more than lives up to expectations with its honest approach to the delights – or lack of – encountered on the journey.

While I shamelessly admit my travels focus only on the good, there was no difficulty in finding good everywhere I looked here: There was a variety of stock to compete with any large chain, and the sense of community and welcome would certainly be unrivalled. The booksellers were chatty and friendly and the party atmosphere had the air of being a standard Saturday, with the fun extras simply an added bonus.

In fact, I was so engrossed in enjoying the bookshop proper, I failed to get a good look at the efforts of the artists in residence scattered around the shop for the day. Away from the shop window, one or two could be seen sitting in out of the way corners, working on what looked to be canvases, but despite my best attempts to be nosy I never quite got near enough to see what they were doing. Then I eventually went to the till to buy my book and spotted a tote bag with me on it: all became clear.

These particular artists were sketching bookshop life as it happened and one – I later heard it was two – had captured me on canvas. It was a wonderful surprise and an extra special memento.

Unlike Ben Aitken, I may not have anyone's footsteps* to follow in, but such random loveliness as that encountered in Stoke Newington Bookshop is an excellent example of why I'm having so much fun on my own journey. It's also a great reminder to anyone who's uncertain: Bookshops will always be my bag.

Stoke Newington Bookshop
159 Stoke Newington High Street,
Stoke Newington, London, N16 0NY
Tel: 020 7249 2808
Also see: @Firsthandinfo

*As Driff's guides appear to have had a slightly different aim to mine – and I still haven't found one to buy – I'm not counting him.

Thursday 11 February 2016

The London Bookshop Crawl 2016

Last week saw London invaded by 30+ Twitterers intent on buying books. I have to admit I wish I'd come up with the idea myself, but what's more important is that I was lucky enough to be a part of the first official #LondonBookshopCrawl.

The event was organised by blogger extraordinaire Bex* and brought together book lovers from places including Oxford, Southampton and the Isle of Wight, making my early start to travel from Kent seem like nothing.

Bex has already written about the day, and this Storify captures some of the highlights, so I’m not about to repeat everything, but I couldn’t let such a fun event pass without sharing it with you.

First up was Foyles. One of the largest bookshops in London, it was a natural place to start and I arrived in the café to find a handful of people breakfasting on tea and cake while the hardcore were already out browsing the shelves. As I'd travelled from such a long way** I opted for the latter, munching my way through a second breakfast while I got to know some of the random assortment of readers I'd be spending my day with.

Making our way down Charing Cross Road, I was particularly excited about the second stop on our itinerary because (I’m a little shamed to admit) I’d not heard of it before I’d signed up for the London Bookshop Crawl. 

Orbital Comics is probably somewhere purists would argue isn’t a bookshop, but I loved the place and given a good proportion of its shelves are graphic novels I’m more than happy to include it here. As an innocent to the genre I was particularly pleased there was a helpful bookseller on hand to advise me. For now all I’ll say is I bought Transmetropolitan, Back on the street by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson – come back soon for a full write-up about what can only be described as comic and graphic novel heaven.

From the new to the old, we next visited Any Amount of Books. A favourite stop on the way to Charing Cross Station, this bookshop is a regular haunt that’s yet to appear on this blog. Packed with secondhand gems, I was thrilled to find Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant, and look forward to telling you more about this visit another time.

Next up was Cecil Court, where a wealth of rare bookshops are to be found, including Goldsboro Books, where I had to stop myself handing over my savings for a first edition of 84 Charing Cross Road (I should start with a paperback).

After a stop for lunch we reconvened for a walk to Persephone Books, which I have to admit I'm already in love with. It's a bookshop and publisher I always feel safe to turn to, certain that whichever grey-covered book I pick up I'll soon become immersed in its world, so when the bookseller gave us a presentation about Persephone I fell even more in love. Afterwards she chatted to us individually and helped us make our selections, uniting me with The Priory by Dorothy Whipple and a bookmark to accompany another Persephone purchase made elsewhere (each book's endpapers and matching bookmark are a work of art).

Moving on to London Review Bookshop, we made the most of their recommends table – which I still insist is one of the most unusual you'll find in any bookshop – while a few lucky crawlers found space in their cake shop. Sticking with the books, I was thrilled to find a copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which I've vowed to read this year.

The final stop on our crawl was Waterstones Piccadilly. Apparently the largest bookshop in Europe, I have to admit I've not knowingly visited before. While here we paused for cake in one of the bookshop's many cafes before spreading out among the shelves. I'll tell you more about this immense bookshop another time as it could easily fill several blog posts. Here I – like many other crawlers – accepted a recommendation from Katie for my choice of purchase: The long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers.

It was at this point the bookshop part of our day came to an end and I had to say my goodbyes and head back to Kent.

As regular readers will know, I'm no stranger to bookshop crawls and often take myself off for meandering explorations, so I'm used to cramming many more stops into a day when bookish greed gets the better of me. But the joy of sharing the bookshopping experience with such a lovely bunch of people meant the London Bookshop Crawl is my favourite of them all. Who's coming to the next one?

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

8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JA
Tel: 020 7240 0591 @orbitalcomics

56 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0QA
Tel: 020 7836 3697 @AnyAmountBooks

Goldsboro Books
23-25 Cecil Court, London, WC2N 4EZ
Tel: 020 7497 9228 @GoldsboroBooks

Persephone Books
59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
Tel: 020 7242 9292 @PersephoneBooks

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

203-206 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9HD
Tel: 020 7851 2400 @WaterstonesPicc

*you can read Bex's blogs here and here.
**was tired and in need of cake

Friday 5 February 2016

Everyone loves a good character

A few months ago I had the pleasure of being invited to Hampstead. An author had stumbled across the blog and wanted to introduce me to their local. Always pleased to be introduced to a new bookshop, I immediately took them up on their offer.

I got myself on the train to Hampstead station, where I arrived early and stood under the clock waiting for Guy Fraser-Sampson. Admittedly, this is a story of falling in love with a bookshop, rather than a romantic encounter at a train station, but it's love all the same.

But before we got to the main event, Guy took me on a tour of the area picking out some of the sights while we talked books, the universe and everything. He's written a number of books himself, but we 'Twitter met' through talks about his continuation of E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia series and so I enjoyed hearing about his first encounter with the books and subsequent enthusiasm for the characters. It's an enthusiasm that's catching: Guy's a fascinating character himself and as his next book launches in the coming weeks I definitely recommend going along to one of the events to meet him in person.

Before I knew it, Keith Fawkes bookshop appeared out of nowhere as we walked down a delightfully-named side street. If it hadn't been pointed out to me I might possibly have missed it, as it was hidden behind a mass of antiques. Had my car been nearby I could easily have shopped here as well as inside, but that's a shopping trip for another day.

Walking beyond the antiques, the first thing bookshoppers encounter is a wall of books and a corner leading around to a corridor of books. Not one for the claustrophobic, the bookshop's narrow walkways are well worth an investigation for the secondhand gems they hold, and part of the experience of this venue is juggling your way between other browsers. The shop wasn't overly busy when we were there, but space was snug and passing strangers forced to be a little on the friendly side.

Continuing my conversation with Guy, we picked out favoured books and enjoyed the ever so slightly untidy but friendly atmosphere of the shop, which has a great variety of stock if you're willing to take the time to browse. I was particularly taken with the realisation fiction is arranged by century, suddenly appreciating which authors were contemporaries and enjoying the challenge of remembering who wrote not only what but when. It was an unusual way of browsing but one I very much enjoyed.

Naturally, the only book I could buy was E F Benson's first Mapp and Lucia offering, Queen Lucia, so I can begin to work my way through the series. I would've liked to have read one of Guy's books before writing about this visit, but despite my best attempts my to be read pile isn't getting any smaller. Come back another day to find out what I think...

Meantime, if you'd like to know more about Keith Fawkes (and other bookshop-related things), you can't go wrong if you have a read here.

Keith Fawkes
3 Flask Walk, Hampstead Heath, London, NW3 1HJ
Tel: 020 7435 0614