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.

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