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.