Sunday 19 August 2018

Annual review #5: Still loving every moment of bookshopping

It's August, which can only mean one thing: The bookshop blog is five.

The time has flown, but looking back over those five years (and possibly influenced by my current read*) is a realisation not of years racing by but of roots growing, anchoring me deeper to my love of books, bookshops and booksellers. Of branches expanding my life in all manner of different directions and of leaves unfurling, turning to the sun as my life has become brighter and more filled with experiences with every passing year of bookshop blogging.

Yes, that's possibly the strangest and most ill-explained metaphor I've ever inflicted on anyone, but it really is what came to mind as I sat down to type.

After five years I feel remarkably lucky that I ever sat at my laptop and decided to embark on this barmy adventure that even now prompts looks of bewilderment and raised eyebrows on a regular basis. But instead of returning to the explanation of everyone needs a hobby, I tell the bewildered some of the wonderful, unexpected ways my life has changed as a result of this adventure, or of some of the adventures themselves. People are often still bemused, but they're also coming around to the understanding that a bookshop is more than four walls and a load of shelves. Each individual bookshop is a community unlike any other, and if they can influence the course of one life, they can do so to others.

I can still see myself five years ago, sat on the sofa in my old home, a Victorian terrace at the dodgy end of town. The neighbours rowing through the wall, a draft through the fireplace and my best friend and housemate about to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend**. I had a job I liked but hindsight tells me I was aware it wasn't going to last forever, minimal social life and next to no friends in the same town as me. Life was okay, but it wasn't going to win any prizes if turned into a book or film.

Starting the bookshop blog gave me a sense of purpose, it was an excuse to travel, to buy books and to meet in the real world the many bookshops I'd met online through the magic of Twitter. I was quite naive when I started writing – I hadn't really grasped the challenge of keeping to a weekly schedule of writing a blog – but it was a fun learning curve and even though I know bookshops are amazing I still can't believe just how many of you take the time to regularly read this blog. Knowing how much support I have for this adventure really makes my day, and when I hear of people being inspired to visit their local bookshop as a result of one of my blogs I do a little leap of joy. I don't pretend to think I can change the world, but to know I've changed a few individual worlds is brilliant.

That said, when the Booksellers Association included me as a Bookshop Hero and invited me to go on a bookshop crawl for Independent Bookshops Week I certainly wasn't going to tell them they'd got the wrong person. I embraced the opportunity, occasionally wore a cape in public and mostly marvelled at my luck at getting to meet so many more lovely bookshops. I've already told you about some of them, the rest are following in the coming weeks, then I'll return to the randomness of telling you about bookshops from wherever I've found myself.

The list of visited bookshops I've not yet written about continues to grow – as does the size of my book collection. I may not always be managing to write about one bookshop a week, but I'm definitely still visiting them and my rule of spending money in each bookshop I write about stands firm: If I can't find something I want to buy in a bookshop then why should I be encouraging you to do so?***

The expanding bookcases now look like this:

The bookshop blog takes up the two bookcases on the left and all the unsorted books on the top (and 'one or two' more out of picture). Before you all start commenting in horror, there is an order to the top books, they're in groups according to where and when they were bought and if I've already written about the bookshop they are from. As usual, the rest of the books are ordered according to when their bookshop appears on this blog. The bookcase on the right is one I've given over to the boy (more elsewhere) and yes, that is two boxes of books in front. We're still trying to work out where to fit more bookcases in...

Anyway, what about my highlights for the past year? It's always tough to pick bookshops out to mention here, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you my highlight of the year (decade) occurred when a bookseller sent me to meet a boat.

I've also met an unusual bookshop pet, dined in, gone wild and got the t-shirt (although The Edge of the World Bookshop is still waiting to be written up. The delightful little Imagined Things is also on the must-write list, famous for its bad day tweet, loved for its excellent books). Not forgetting losing myself, meeting a new indie and the personality of a 'chain'. Even the boy fell in love.

It's been another great year of bookshopping, and while the rest of the world may feel like it's going to pot whenever you turn on the news, it's good to know we always have bookshops as a place of sanctuary.

Happy bookshopping,
Erica x

* The Overstory by Richard Powers, bought from Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton.
** Reader, she married him. And she didn't manage to move far enough away to escape me.
*** It is incredibly rare that I visit a bookshop and choose not to write about it, but when that happens I keep quiet and give them another chance at a later date. Everyone's allowed a bad day every now and then and there are already more than enough people complaining on the internet.

Monday 13 August 2018

Erica in wonderland

Bookshopping can be a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. From the outside I'm visiting a shop on a high street, which is a really rather unremarkable experience, but from the inside it leads to all manner of possibilities, encounters with weird and wonderful people and the potential for more adventures than a trip to your local newsagents can offer.

Even in the most ordinary of bookshops you never know what you're going to get if you open your mind to the possibility of all the offerings hidden behind simple paperback covers, but let's be honest, there's no such thing as an ordinary bookshop.

The second day of my IBW 2018 bookshop crawl began with a different Lewis Carroll reference, as we visited Madhatter Bookshop in Burford. You enter this bookshop not through a rabbit hole but a delightfully quirky door, and the first thing you see is books. Lots of them. There's also a large selection of hats, but we'll come to those later.

To the right of the door is the wall of general fiction, next to the till so it's in the perfect place to chat with the bookseller while you browse. Which is exactly what I did, learning about the bookshop, the books, hats and enjoying a great selection of recommendations. This latter point was very welcome but also challenging, because even without the good advice I'd found a good five or six titles I couldn't imagine leaving behind. You see, Madhatter Bookshop's shelves are among the most unusually stocked I've visited.

Four booksellers choose the stock, each with their own reading preferences and areas of expertise, and it really shows here. Sure there were a few must-have titles that every bookshop needs to stock, but otherwise the range and diversity of the books was remarkable. These observations aren't just limited to general fiction.

Intelligent non-fiction is cleverly placed among the hats and walk into the back room and the children's section is brilliant. I also further lost myself in the classics (where I was pleased to spot the odd classic science fiction title alongside their contemporaries) and crime, which is usually my least favourite section to browse. In every instance I'd spot unexpected stand out titles generally only found in the largest of bookshops. Independent bookshops are often limited for space and therefore have to stock books accordingly, so to find such a large number of unexpected titles and authors was a treat.

Returning to the front room, I'd chosen my book (Money by Emile Zola, while the boy picked David Bellos’ The Novel of the Century) and now I couldn't leave without trying on a hat or two. I admit this isn't my area of expertise, but there was quite a mix of styles and at least two happy hat buyers visited the shop while we were there. I also enjoyed the opportunity to pose with my bookshop hero cape and a hat, while I'd never encourage anyone to visit any shop purely for the fun of trying out the stock the bookseller embraced my adventure and encouraged me to find my superhero style!

With books and hats and beautiful details everywhere there's lots to enjoy in Madhatter Bookshop, which is actually one half of a pair. We didn't have the time to venture to the second outlet on this visit – that will be a treat for another day.

Madhatter Bookshop
122 High Street, Burford,
Oxfordshire OX18 4QJ
Tel: 01993 822539

Sunday 5 August 2018

Buzzing for books

When I think back to my encounter with Octavia's Bookshop in Cirencester – visited during my IBW2018 bookshop crawl – my immediate memory is of the joyful buzz of happy children.

They were noisy, chattering, enthusiastic, boisterous, happy, excited and any number of other words that convey a sense of positive noise. Some were loud, some were more mellow, but for the entire time of our visit there was an infectious buzz of chatter coming from the young readers this bookshop is aimed at. There were no piercing shrieks or angry voices, no one needed to be told off and there was certainly no bad behaviour, just a room full of children and their accompanying adults in search of their next favourite book. It was a wonderful sound and incredibly infectious.

Not that there needed to be any children in this gorgeous purple surrounding for me to enjoy it. Even empty the bookshop is a luxurious delight, with sumptuous decorations so that the Moomins scattered around the room (and flying in the window) looked like works of art in their custom-made outfits.

A large L-shaped space, Octavia's Bookshop follows the usual style of fiction and recommendations at the front, then reference then – where children's would usually be – a dedicated corner for adults. It was a nice touch and yet another reason for me to smile. I didn't see any adults in this section during our visit, but they definitely appeared to be enjoying themselves as they joined in the browsing with their youngsters. My favourites were the adults reading picture books to their children, but there's also a lot to be said for the middle grade youngsters who marched determinedly to the shelf of their favoured author to see if a new title might be available.

The thing all the children had in common was their apparent love of reading and a willingness to share it as they loudly told whoever was willing to listen just why X was their favourite author, or what they hope will happen to Y character during their next adventure. I challenge even the grumpiest of adults to not enjoy such sounds as they browse shelves holding books from a genre they're less familiar with.

We didn't get to meet Octavia herself during our visit, but the bookseller in charge was obviously as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the books as the young customers he was serving. He also took the time to talk to us, telling me the story behind the custom-clothed Moomins and the bookshop in general.

Ordinarily in a children's bookshop I'd make a point of asking for a recommendation but this time I resisted because I'd already spotted a series that's long appealed: I chose Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens.

I'm conscious I've not described the bookshop itself in any great detail and this isn't down to any failing on its part, it really was a stunning space, but I was so taken by that buzz of children and the joy they exuded that I feel their excitement is the thing to be focused on here. Youngsters aren't shy with their opinions, and the noise about Octavia's Bookshop was 100 per cent positive.

Octavia’s Bookshop
24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2AA
Tel: 01285 650677