Friday 29 July 2016

A new find in old territory

The area around London Bridge is somewhere I'm rather fond of. Thanks to a relative who used to live nearby, it's one of the first parts of the capital where I felt confident to wander around on my own. Meaning I have lots of happy memories from round about and know the streets with all their pubs, shops and tourist attractions pretty well. Or so I thought.

At the start of my Independent Bookshop Week bookshop crawl I found myself by London Bridge Station, searching for a bookshop I'd never visited. Given The Riverside Bookshop has been in situ for more than 25 years – and I was trying to impress my new boyfriend with my high level of bookshop knowledge – this was quite embarrassing.

We arrived outside Hay's Galleria on Tooley Street with me wondering how I was going to recover the situation and him looking forward to kicking off the bookshop crawl.

Thankfully, I spotted a map in the entrance which saved me from too many blushes. To save the rest of you from similar difficulties: head to the Tooley Street exit of London Bridge Station (the one where the London Dungeon is), turn right, cross the road and the bookshop is found on the street-side wall just past the entrance to the mall. Despite my wordy directions, it really is very close to the station.

Even more thankfully, while he was polite enough to not comment on my geographical ignorance, my boyfriend was very impressed by the bookshop we found. Needless to say, I was too.

A small, unassuming space from the outside – I'm ashamed to think of the number of times I must've walked past, head down, in a rush to get to the station – the bookshop opens up into a nice-sized room with a good selection of fiction and a cheery, colourful children's section. It's the kind of room you could happily visit and pick up a book if you find yourself with 20 minutes to wait for a train. Having said that, it's also possible to stay in the bookshop for much longer, especially because it's always a good idea to say hello to the bookseller too.

We enjoyed taking our time over the recommendations table, while the wall of fiction is well-stocked and inviting. If you're not waiting for a train, I suggest you also head upstairs to the non-fiction and sci-fi. We found ourselves particularly taken in by the actual science section, which was intelligent enough for him to appreciate while accessible enough for me to get into. Next time I'm loitering at London Bridge Station, this is the shelf I'll be returning to.

For this visit we went back to the recommendations table, which was especially varied and served us both well. On the lighter side I selected a memoir, The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell (which I paid for with my personalised book token*), while he chose Svetlana Alexievich's Chernobyl Prayer. At the conclusion of our bookshop crawl, these were the books we turned to while in the train on our way home, which is pretty high praise given the amount of bookshopping we'd done that day.

Now I've been, I'm very sorry I missed The Riverside Bookshop when I first came to know the area all those years ago. More importantly, I'm looking forward to making up for lost time.

The Riverside Bookshop
15 Hay's Galleria,
57 Tooley Street,
Tel: 020 7378 1824

*Come back soon for more from me on this gem.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Relaxing in a reading spa

Last week, work and life got the better of me and for the first time in almost three years I missed a blog. To make it up to you, this week I’m combining two in one: a bookshop and a bookshop experience so good it had deserved a blog of its own.

Every now and then I tell you about how I’ve finally met one bookshop or another that’s been particularly high up my ‘must-visit’ list, and today I do the same. The bookshop in question is Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath, and its popularity means it’s among what I’ve affectionately come to think of as the rock stars of the indie bookshop world.

Mr B’s fame is already far-reaching and not just as a bookshop, because it’s also the home of the hugely popular Reading Spa.

Back when I wrote my first blog entry (and before I found out how many of you would read my witterings, for which I thank you) I’d naively planned to dedicate one early post to simply telling readers how great the Reading Spa sounds, and what a brilliant idea it is. Not forgetting hinting to all my family they might like to club together to buy me one for Christmas. Instead I got carried away visiting lots of lovely bookshops and the verbal hints to my family took years to sink in.

Then last Christmas I opened an envelope that made me squeal with excitement and actually shed a tear or two of joy. One of my sisters had very, very generously bought me a voucher for an Extravagant Reading Spa.

Unfortunately it turns out I’m not the only person with a generous relative, because my lack of organisation and Mr B’s popularity meant whenever I phoned up to arrange my spa they were always fully booked. Finally, for the start of July, I set a date for my trip to Bath.

The bookshop itself is found on a side street just above the main shopping centre and ever so slightly down the hill and around the corner from the Jane Austen Centre*, but as Bath’s so compact it shouldn’t take you long to locate.

Its three floors are bright and inviting, while the staff are particularly welcoming. I actually visited (I think/hope anonymously) once a day for four days during the course of my holiday and everyone I met was so friendly it felt like I was meeting up with old friends. They also have a bookshop dog, who’s apparently very infrequent in her trips to work but was in to say hello on the Wednesday afternoon of my final visit. Vlashka sits and surveys the browsers in the fiction section, quietly contemplating the variety of browsers' choices – I couldn’t help but wonder what she made of my haul.

And it was a very large haul. the Reading Spa comes in two flavours, Delightful and Extravagant. As I had the latter, my haul included £75 of books, a Mr B’s tote bag, bookmark and mug and a fully stamped-up loyalty card (worth £5) for my next visit. Best of all though is the conversation.

For the past six moths of me getting excited about this experience friends have been asking why, given my love of books, someone has to be paid to talk books with me. I can now confirm a Reading Spa is so much better than that.

When you make a regular visit to a bookshop, you say hi to the bookseller, ask for a recommendation and after a short while you come away with a book or two. Which is great and an experience I'll never tire of. In a Reading Spa, you sit down with a cup of tea and a piece of cake (I had a chocolate brownie) and enjoy around an hour of dedicated bookseller attention.

I think it probably helps if you go along with a request in mind, so mine was to be taken away from the books everyone has read. Possibly not the easiest or most obvious of requests to fulfill, but Naomi who was hosting my Reading Spa rose to the challenge. We talked books loved, favourite genres, recent reads and my ridiculously large TBR pile. I confessed a few dislikes and prejudices too. None of it phased Naomi.

She made a few notes, asked a few more specifics and then left me in the company of the eminently readable Letters of Note (the one about dam beavers is particularly joyous). A short time later Naomi returned with a pile of between 15 and 20 books, most of which I'd not seen before and only one of which I already owned. Given how many books I buy for this blog I was very impressed by her success rate.

Starting with The Circle by David Eggers, Naomi then talked me through each book she’d selected, telling me a little about it and explaining why she thought I might like it. I was increasingly impressed by the thought that had gone into the selection in front of me as throwaway snippets from our previous conversation caught my attention. It was brilliant.

In fact the only complaint I could make is that the recommendations were too good and it was almost impossible to decide which books to leave behind. Naomi and I talked for around an hour and a half as she helped me choose a few definite purchases, then when I was ready she left me to have a read and a think. I was so comfy in the upstairs bibliotherapy room – enjoying the books and bookshop atmosphere – that in total I spent more than two hours in heaven.

It took me a while to decide, but my eventual choice of purchases was: The Circle by David Eggers; Mr Penumbra's 24-hour boookstore by Robin Sloan; All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr; The city & the city by China Mieville; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer; We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson; The sweetness at the bottom of the pie by Alan Bradley; Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig; and A single swallow by Horatio Clare.

As you can probably imagine, I was thrilled to be taking such a full bag of books away with me, but when I look back at the day the bookshop itself was as important in my experience as was the excellently extravagant Reading Spa. From the striking booky furniture to the thoughtful decorative details (including the Chris Riddell toilet), the shop felt great to be in, but most important were the books. I particularly enjoyed their lists shelves, which ranged from individual recommendations by the booksellers to top fives from other bookshops and people of note – including one from Florence of And The Machine fame.

The prevalence of these recommendations, both on the shelves and in my Reading Spa, meant I really respected the bookshop's confidence in its ability to unite readers with the perfect book(s). Bold book recommendations are a vital bookselling skill, and the staff of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights have that talent in spades – which meant all I had to do was relax and enjoy my spa.

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights
14-15 John Street, Bath, Somerset, BA1 2JL
Tel: 01225 331155

*I try not to complain on the internet - there are already enough people doing that - but if you’re a fan of Jane Austen DO NOT visit this centre. I felt it was frustrating, misleading and a waste of my time and money. Instead, buy yourself a copy of Persuasion, sit in Queen’s Square and read it, then later relive the walk up Union Street and along the gravel drive to the Crescent. It’s a much more rewarding way to spend your time.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Talk to Harry

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that all booksellers are amazing people.

They love books, they're friendly and they have an excellent ability to bring those two things together to create wonderful, welcoming places for readers to indulge their own love of books.

However, as great as booksellers are, every now and then one comes along who still manages to take you by surprise and be even more wonderful. I try not to single people out too much, but today as I write (from a very comfy hotel room in Bath) I'm still overwhelmed by the wonderfully friendly generosity I experienced in this week's bookshop.

What's even more overwhelming about the experience is that the only reason I'd heard of this hidden gem is because of a friend from Twitter. When I made my arrangements to visit Bath Tamzin kindly offered to show me around, and the first stop on our itinerary was a place neither I nor (apparently) Google have heard of.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop is found slightly out of Bath, meaning even while randomly wandering I probably wouldn't have discovered it. It is also, from outside, fairly unremarkable in the world of shop fronts. I don't mean that rudely, it has a very smart front window and you can see lots of books inside, but none of this gives any hint of the joy I was to experience.

Split into two rooms, with the second the size of a large cupboard but definitely worth the effort – especially if you're interested in learning more about graphic novels – the bookshop is incredibly well stocked for the small space it inhabits. But this is an incidental bonus to the experience.

The first thing I spotted was two tables of books, one for recently reviewed and new books, the other for customer reviews and reading group books. I liked the way these two tables had been arranged, but also noticed a lack of bookshop recommendations and so I decided to ask for one. Harry the bookseller who I met (the bookshop is run as a partnership) nicely explained they don't put out specific recommendations because that would be too broad. Instead he asked what I've read recently. I glanced around the nearest table, pointed at two books and Harry began to talk.

So began one of my best bookshop experiences to date.

Harry needed mere seconds to leap from the book I'd indicated to recommend another along the same lines, which happened to be by one of my favourite authors. This meant I was automatically trusting of everything that was to follow, but even if he'd picked out a writer I'd loathed (unlikely) Harry had my attention.

His recommendations were generous, wide-ranging and informed, while also being perfectly suited to my taste – but those are the attributes of all good booksellers while Harry has something extra. I've sat here for a good hour or two trying to find the words to describe it, but nothing comes close to explaining the innocent joy to the way he talks about books. It's happy, infectious, informed, child-like, gleeful, polite and so many other things – his conversation really has to be experienced to be believed.

My purchase ended up being Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I could easily have bought all the titles Harry recommended but this one won my attention for being the book I felt least likely to have picked up if left to my own devices. Perhaps an odd way of coming to a decision, but such is the level of trust I have in Harry's enthusiasm.

I urge people to visit every bookshop I write about, and I always recommend talking to booksellers, but in the case of The Oldfield Park Bookshop I cannot speak highly enough of my conversation with Harry.

Whether you're local to Bath or on holiday, take a trip out of town to The Oldfield Park Bookshop and have a chat with Harry. It's a magical experience.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop
43 Moorland Road, Bath, Somerset, BA2 3PN
Tel: 01225 427722

Friday 1 July 2016

Two go on a bookshop crawl

***This is a brief overview of my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl, to find out more about the individual destinations come back in future weeks.***

Last week was Independent Bookshops Week, which meant seven days of bookshop-related fun, culminating in a day of bookshop crawls. For me it also meant one of the biggest tests I could put my new man through: Would he be able to keep up with my dedication to bookshop crawling?

The event is a brilliant celebration of the variety of independent bookshops and he certainly embraced the moment, joining me on the IBW website as we planned a route of around 15 bookshops.

First stop was The Riverside Bookshop in Hay's Galleria, near London Bridge Station. I say in but technically it's on the outside, which explains why I've not previously spotted this really lovely bookshop. If you're planning to visit (you should) I recommend consulting the map outside, it saved us a lot of time. The bookshop's on two floors and contained so many good titles we ended up spending much longer than planned here. With the help of my personalised book token I picked up The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell, while he chose Svetlana Alexievich's Chernobyl Prayer. At this point I quietly hoped he wouldn't buy any more books and show me up for being so much less intelligent in my reading choices.*

Leaving one railway station behind, our next destination was near Waterloo, on Lower Marsh. Travelling Through... is a small but perfectly formed travel bookshop, with a cafe downstairs. Fiction is arranged geographically along one wall of the main shop, with a few other treats and a secondhand section downstairs. I enjoyed chatting to the bookseller and asking for a recommendation. After some discussion he helped me choose Anne Enright's The Green Road.

By this time we'd spent far more time browsing than we'd allowed for – bookshops are great on your own, but when there's someone with you to share the joy they're even more fun – and so it was time to revise our list of destinations down (apologies to those bookshops we didn't visit this time).

Heading off to the South Bank, he took us to a new-to-me Foyles. Given its location I'd always assumed this would be a small outlet. I was wrong. We briefly lost each other among the shelves of this bright and airy bookshop by the river, which was filled with browsing passers-by. Here I made the mistake of picking up a heavy doorstop, but I'm very much looking forward to reading Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.

Stop four was only a flying visit because we were short on time but I needed to introduce him to the wonder of London Review Bookshop and its accompanying cake shop. I allowed him long enough to be impressed before insisting we keep going. As I've previously visited this bookshop many times I hope they'll forgive me my lack of purchase this time.

Leaving my comfort zone behind, it was time to head to Bloomsbury, and the atmospheric (and esoteric) Treadwell's Books. I have to admit when I first walked in my thought was to run away, but a friend of his recommends the bookshop so I was determined to stay and find my comfort zone in very unfamiliar territory. Patience pays off and I'll look forward to telling you more about this one and the interesting selection of books and friendly welcome I discovered. For now I'll simply say I bought A More Perfect Heaven by Dava Sobel.

A mere ten-minute walk away, our next stop was French's Theatre Bookshop. Packed with scripts, acting tips, theatre biographies and more, it even includes a section for plays currently being performed. Surely a great place to visit if you're unsure what to see at the theatre? I was thrilled to find several different publications of my favourite play and a very patient bookseller to talk me through them. I'm now looking forward to reading Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

For number seven I was the one being introduced to another new-to-me place, as he took me to a bookshop he knows and loves: Daunt on Marylebone High Street. When we were outside I confess to being a bit disappointed by its small shop front, but we all know appearances can be deceiving and I'm still in shock over the beauty and space hidden behind that tiny front. As this is a travel bookshop we bought from different areas of the globe, with him selecting Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and me Jose Saramago's Skylight. I also picked up Book Lovers' London by Andrew Kershman, which should become a handy travel companion.

Finally, we headed off to our eighth and last bookshop: Alef Bookstore on Baker Street. I have to be honest, at the time of visiting I didn't realise this one was part of a chain, but as I believe it to be the only outlet in Britain and it was included on the IBW events page I still think this friendly Egyptian bookshop counts for the day.

Carefully balancing a mix of English and Arabic language shelves, Alef is a friendly, welcoming place of multiculturalism. I wanted to embrace my surroundings but faced with a broad selection of fiction by authors I don't know – and tired after walking across half of London – I decided the best way to get the most from the bookshop was to ask for advice. The bookseller suggested one of his favourites and so I bought Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali.

At this point it was almost closing time so we retired to a nearby pub to recover. If I'm honest, I was the one suffering the most. I may have been the one who's used to travelling across London visiting bookshops, but he was the one more able to keep going at the end.

Which came in handy for him having the strength to carry all our shopping.

The Riverside Bookshop
Unit 15, Hay's Galleria, Tooley Street,
London, SE1 2QN
Tel: 020 7378 1824

Travelling Through…
131 Lower Marsh, Waterloo,
London, SE1 7AE
Tel: 020 7633 9279 @Trvllng_Thrgh

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX
Tel: 020 7440 3212 @Foyles

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

Treadwell's Books
33 Store Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1E 7BS
Tel: 020 7419 8507 @treadwells

French's Theatre Bookshop
52 Fitzroy Street, Bloomsbury, London, W1T 5JR
Tel: 020 7255 4300 @SamuelFrenchLtd

83-84 Marylebone High Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 4QW
Tel: 020 7224 2295 @Dauntbooks

Alef Bookstore
219 Baker Street, London, NW1 6XE
Tel: 020 7935 4311 @Alef_UK

*I'm joking of course. We read the first few pages of Chernobyl Prayer on the train home and I reckon it was the purchase of the day. He needs to hurry up and finish reading so I can borrow it.