Friday 30 December 2016

Explore another level

When a bookseller tells you to go visit a nearby(ish) competitor you take them at their word, but in the case of this week's bookshop I have to admit I initially – briefly – found myself doubting the recommendee's wisdom.

I'd arrived at the destination but not found the massive room of diverse books promised, instead discovering a large room sparsely filled with art books. The art books were varied and interesting, but not the wealth of titles I'd anticipated. However the praise given to Salts Mill Bookshop, near Bradford, was so convincing I'd driven an hour or so out of my way as part of a seven-ish hour journey and I wasn't going to let my uncomfortable first impression deter me from finding out more.

I persevered with the art room, found a few unexpected gems (it is a very diverse offering) and didn't feel too out of my depth but resolved not to write about the bookshop because I didn't see how I could possibly encourage my readers to visit a place I wasn't able to fully appreciate myself.

Then, just as I was about to give up, I noticed a door to other floors. Whether through tiredness, blindness or a lack of good signage, I'd almost missed this portal to a whole other floor of books awaited me. And it's a really, really good floor.

As it's based in a former mill, the bookshop space is massive* with large windows and the occasional structural detail acting as a reminder of that past life. My first view was of long wavy bookcases which draw the eye in. Tables of book highlights are everywhere (The Chimes by Anna Smaill caught my eye), while gifts and cards also liberally sprinkled around the room.

Importantly, it should also be stressed that this is a proper bookshop. All the usual genres are there and carefully considered recommendations are found hand-written by the booksellers, things that could easily be overlooked if this was a gimmicky tourist destination.

I spent a long time slowly working my way down one side of the bookshop and up the other, wandering from fiction to non-fiction and taking in children's on the way, simply enjoying the buzz of people among the books. It's hard to say if it was the variety of books or people that made the experience so enjoyable as there's a lot to be said for being surrounded by other bookshoppers, but this room of books is definitely worth all the praise it can be given and makes me determined to return to the Bradford area whenever I get the chance.

From wandering around the rest of the building I discovered how much more there is to Salt's Mill, including a restaurant and art gallery, but the large space given over to the bookshop is what makes this conversion really worth a visit.

Salt's Mill Bookshop
Victoria Road, Saltaire,
West Yorkshire, BD18 3LA
Tel: 01274 531163

* Possibly bigger than a floor of Foyles, but I wouldn't like to state that as fact.

Friday 23 December 2016

Be drawn in by the drama

When I was a teenager, my school tried to make us more cultured by arranging the occasional trip to the theatre. These were events I loathed. Hours of Shakespeare, where I'd quickly tire of the story, take issue with the actors and eventually pass the time looking into the wings or working out the technicalities of the set design.

It was generally a torturous way to spend a few hours and means even now I have a slightly difficult relationship with the Bard. Thankfully, one teacher saved the day by finally realising we might be better engaged with the theatre if we were taken to something more lively: The Importance of Being Earnest.

This particular performance had energy unlike anything I'd seen before and was followed-up with a class introduction to the cast. Years later I still have flashbacks to a brown mop of hair flying all over the place as one of the leads told us how many cucumber sandwiches he'd eaten during the course of the show. It's perhaps not the most intelligent, or even useful, piece of information to cling to but it's part of the reason I fell in love with the theatre, especially Oscar Wilde's play.

Which is why, when my Independent Bookshops Week bookshop crawl took me to French's Theatre Bookshop, I knew I had to buy The Importance of Being Earnest. Discovering four different versions of the play to choose from simply made the purchase even more appealing.

I had no clue which was the appropriate copy for a person who's not willingly read a play before, so I enlisted the help of a friendly bookseller. He talked me through the publishers and explained there are actually two different edits of the play, which was a bit of a shock given how many times I've seen performances of this story.

But enough of my obsession with one play, you want to know about the bookshop itself. An A-Z of plays run around the room, with sections for everything else that might come in handy if you're an actor. I was fascinated by the shelves dealing with accents, but other offerings included audition material, education and a general bookcase on acting. Instead of the usual new releases in the doorways of most bookshops, French's offers a bookcase labelled "Now playing", which was an interesting way of finding out what's currently on stage, while biographies are replaced with "Theatre people". These were nice twists on the familiar and an extra reassurance I wouldn't get too lost when trying to decide where to look.

Of course, if you really did just want to buy a novel those were available too, but I defy anyone to enter French's Theatre Bookshop and not be drawn in by the drama.

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

PS. It's completely irrelevant to what French's is like as a bookshop, but if you're on Twitter do give them a follow – the account is highly entertaining.

Friday 16 December 2016

Familiarity at the festival

There's something about the South Bank in London that makes me feel as though I'm on holiday.

Even in the winter, the bright, colourful, noisy area by Royal Festival Hall seems so full of energy and fun it can't possibly be a part of the everyday world. To me it's as though even the passers-by are happier and more full of joy too, making me feel like I'm enjoying a festival atmosphere on even the most ordinary of days.

I think it's for this reason that until Independent Bookshops Week earlier this year I'd never set foot inside the South Bank branch of Foyles, because I'd somehow convinced myself that to do something as ordinary as buying a book would bring me back to reality and be too normal. As if.

I admit when walking around the area the big glass windows looking out to the river have always looked attractive, but that's as close as I'd previously got. Today it was time to look beyond those windows.

Having only previously visited the Charing Cross Road branch, the first thing I noticed was the welcoming sentence popular with Foyles fans: Welcome book lover, you are among friends. Even though I was looking for out of the ordinary, there was something startlingly comforting about seeing those words. And yes, I'm aware comforting may seem like an odd choice for such a bright, happy place, but no matter how lively they are all the best bookshops* are like putting on a favourite pair of slippers.

This moment of recognition set me up for the rest of the visit as we explored what I found myself thinking of as Mini Foyles, although mini's not really appropriate here. From outside the bookshop may not appear to be very big but behind that glass front is a space large enough to house at least three or four regular independent bookshops. It's also very bright, so even at the back of the bookshop it was as if I was feeling the effect of the large windows I was hardly able to see.

As I was there with my boyfriend, we lost each other while we browsed, each taking our own route through the maze of shelves. He's a regular of the bookshop so he knew where he was going, while I preferred to wander at random. It took me past a striking Tintin rocket, cuddly dinosaurs, a large children's section and the diverse, well-stocked fiction offering Foyles is known for. There obviously aren't as many books as in their flagship store, but walking around this bookshop it still felt like I might be able to find any title that could pop into my head.

This thought was backed up when I remembered a recommendation to read Neal Stevenson's Seveneves. A huge doorstop of a science fiction novel, I'm not sure how many bookshops would have the shelf space to house this one so was pleased to find it here. At least, I was pleased to find it until several hours (and book purchases) later, when my shoulder was aching from carrying it for so long.

Fortunately, at about the time I was about to break from being so overloaded, our walk home took us back past this very bookshop. Which meant I could pop back in to buy a second tote bag to divide** our purchases up. I'm sure all book lovers have a surfeit of totes, but this one was so sturdy and well made it's now become my designated laptop bag and is greatly loved.

Foyles on the South Bank may have been much more familiar than I'd wanted from a visit to Royal Festival Hall, but during the time of my visits I came to realise that's no bad thing. Yes, I love the carnival atmosphere by the river, but the excitement of buying books means the fun continues once you walk inside.

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

*That's everyone featured on this blog.
**By divide, I mean split 20/80, with him carrying the heavier load. I knew having a boyfriend would come in handy.

Friday 9 December 2016

Relaxing in the fifteenth century

If you live within reach of the south coast, a popular place to visit is Brighton and all the hustle and bustle and atmosphere it's famous for. If calm relaxation is more your thing I suggest cutting your journey short and instead stopping at Lewes.

Apart from the lure of all the bookshops named in a guest post I have to admit the town had largely passed me by before my visit, which may be a sign of my ignorance but could also highlight the genius of its understated appeal.

The visit took place on a warm Sunday when whole swathes of the town were closed, so that might also have skewed my experience somewhat, but the joy of the day was the relaxed, understated pleasure of gentle exploring. We wandered quiet streets, discovered ruins and enjoyed stunning views through gaps in the buildings. We also visited a bookshop that just happens to be an historic landmark.

Fifteenth Century Bookshop is named for the age of the building it's housed in, and even the most dedicated of internet shoppers would surely struggle to walk past without at least pausing to admire this structure.

Outside, the ground floor is lined with either bookcases or windows of books, while look up and ochre yellow walls are interlaced with wooden beams. I'm yet to see another building like it and left my boyfriend out there for some time as he put his camera to good use photographing interesting details.

The first thing I noticed is that the contents are quite a mix, with an initial assessment of it as a standard secondhand bookshop not being entirely accurate. Yes, the stock is secondhand but the majority of those books are collectable, with a selection of standard pre-loved books scattered in between. In their own words, they sell anything from: "From rare and collectable to recent and readable". The shop is also a well organised mix, with clearly arranged sections that occasionally verge ever so slightly on the untidy, inviting browsers to dive in and discover what treats are to be found.

The first room is dominated by the children's books. From standard, relatively modern paperbacks to beautifully bound hardbacks of yesteryear, this area contains all a young child's library could want and more. Prices vary from cheap to amounts you have to think about, but everything felt appropriately valued. Other genres are available in this room, or you can wander through a short corridor to a longer, more modern feeling room where the general fiction mostly lives.

Walkways are narrow and shelves are full, but even with other customers the space never felt cramped or uncomfortable – although you'll have to take my word for it as I forgot to take any photos inside.

As children's books are Fifteenth Century Bookshop's speciality, my purchase came from this section, albeit from among the standard paperbacks. I picked Noel Streatfeild's The Ballet Shoes, while my boyfriend enjoyed the variety of the foreign language offering and chose a French copy of Asterix in Spain. I'm ashamed to admit I could understand very little of his purchase.

We may not have chosen anything pricey or rare, but I can't help feeling these books are a good example of the interesting diversity of the bookshop's shelves. Importantly, the browsing experience was as relaxed and pleasant as the rest of our time in Lewes. Next time I'm looking for a quiet retreat I know where I'll be heading.

Fifteenth Century Bookshop
99-100 High Street, Lewes,
East Sussex, BN7 1XH
Tel: 01273 474160