Wednesday 30 November 2016

Three is the magic number

It was freezing in Cambridge this Sunday, so when accosted in the street by a student intent on selling us tickets for a punt trip the last thing I wanted to do was say yes.

Having bought the tickets and found ourselves with half an hour to spare, the next last thing I wanted to do was leave the sanctuary of the unexpected bookshop we'd stumbled into for shelter.

We arrived in Cambridge late on Saturday evening, having done no research and barely able to find our hastily-booked cheap hotel (which was accidentally/fortunately almost in the centre of the university district). We wandered around until we had the luck to find a (fortunately very good) restaurant with a table and then shivered our way home, still none the wiser as to where anything was.

Sunday started a little better as daylight meant we were better able to spot landmarks and enjoy the atmosphere of the city, with every corner revealing something new and interesting to discover. It may have been cold, but the beauty of our surroundings meant it was an enjoyable experience.

Then we booked the punt. And stumbled across Heffers. Which turns out to be massive. We were in and out in roughly ten minutes and if you've ever managed to prevent yourself from throwing a strop after such a brief encounter with a large bookshop then you'll appreciate the remarkable self-restraint I demonstrated. Admittedly, I had been promised a return after our journey along the water, but I was being taken out of the warmth of a bookshop to sit on a piece of wood on an icy river. I was not happy.

Fortunately I love both water and boats of all shapes and sizes, so once I'd got over the wobbles of climbing aboard and realised our low level and full punt meant we were relatively warm and sheltered from the wind I was able to relax and enjoy myself, but it was a close thing when a few spots of rain threatened us just before cast off. The boat trip was fun and – I'm happy to admit – a pleasant way to see and hear more about Cambridge than we'd ever have managed with our wanderings.

Also, once we returned to dry land we returned to Heffers Bookshop. The place is huge, with a central board games section overlooked by the upper levels of the bookshop. This was the area we'd explored during our brief earlier visit, when we'd scampered in through the back door and briefly viewed a gorgeously colourful children's section. As a wannabe board game geek, I loved this addition to the bookshop and made sure I returned for a second look and to appreciate the diversity of good quality games available.

During our first visit we'd picked up Loot Letter, a mini Munchkin card game, so this time the priority was books.

We split up to better cover the ground, with me gradually making my way along the side of the bookshop dedicated to fiction. Raised above the rest of the shop, this long row of shelves arranged into cubbies was both small and intimate while also being open to view the rest of my surroundings. I'm yet to experience a bookshop like it but I definitely recommend this contrasting experience. It really enabled me to appreciate my surroundings and the efforts of the booksellers, with one man in particular standing out as somehow being everywhere and appearing to successfully answer the questions of pretty much every customer in the shop. I didn't catch his name but I feel certain the bookshop must know who he is.

Halfway around this level/layer/floor of bookshop (each word could be equally appropriate), somewhere between general fiction and sci fi, I paused to look out at my surroundings and spotted what became my main purchase of the day: Instructions to the young bookseller, a transcript of a 1933 speech made by Ernest Heffer. It's a wonderful read. However this hadn't been my intended book as I'd already found a copy of my favourite book, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. This was one of four different versions available – Heffers is very well stocked – and seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up another copy to share with an unsuspecting friend (I give this book as often as possible).

Then, once again, it was time to leave because we had a table booked for lunch. I hadn't seen all of the bookshop, but I'd at least managed to enjoy a good hour or so's browsing, which meant leaving was a little less painful this time. Fortunately, during our time of browsing apart my boyfriend had become so engrossed in the books he'd put his gloves down and forgotten them.

Returning to a bookshop a third time in one – short – day might seem a little excessive, but given there was still shelf space to be explored I wasn't about to complain. First of all though, a trip to the customer service desk where the all pervasive bookseller spotted earlier reunited us with the lost gloves.

This time we retreated beyond children's books (still welcoming and colourful), past a music section that even stocked a limited selection of instruments alongside its CDs and DVDs and into the basement. Here much of the non-fiction can be found, as well as a few unexpected treats. For example, as Heffers is now owned by Blackwells it stocks a random gift I've long heard about but not yet seen: cuddly germs. My excitement at this encounter led to my accidentally influencing the purchase of one student, who heard me gleefully exclaim "I've found syphilis" and went on to buy his own choice of microbe as a birthday present for a friend.

Finally, for a third time, we made our way to the exit. Only this time we were in less of a hurry and got caught by one of the various recommends stands. Before we knew it I'd found His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and my boyfriend had chosen a birthday present for his own friend (who I'm sure will be disappointed to discover he missed out on a cuddly microbe): Stephen King's The bazar of bad dreams. As these books were part of a three for two offer he also selected a title for himself: The price of inequality by Joseph E Stiglitz.

My one book per shop rule may have been spectacularly broken, but as I personally only ended up with one book per visit I'm not being too hard on myself. Especially because while everything about our encounter with Heffers Bookshop was accidental, there isn't a thing about it that I'd change.

The punts, the restaurants and all the history of Cambridge were impressive, but for me the highlight of the visit will always be Heffers.

Heffers Bookshop
20 Trinity Street, Cambridge,
Cambridgeshire, CB2 1TY
Tel: 01223 463200


  1. Heffers is one of my favourite bookshops in the world. I lived in Cambridge for a few years, and have visited the city regularly throughout my adult life, and Heffers is a home from home.

    1. High praise! I'd happily make Heffers my home away from home too.


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