It’s shocking that the Camden Arts Centre, just off busy Finchley Road, isn’t better known. Even on a sunny Sunday morning, there were fairly few people wandering round the galleries, the garden, the cafe and the bookshop – just the way I like it. Camden Arts Centre is a beautiful space with high ceilings, bright white walls and large windows letting in all of the sunshine and none of the noise from the road. It is dedicated to displaying excellent contemporary visual and performing art, but also puts an emphasis on getting the public involved in the arts. In addition to traditional exhibitions, they run courses and events for all ages and have a resident artist who works at the centre, but also works with students and hosts talks and open days with the public. It is a small space, with one studio and only a few rooms of dedicated gallery space, but its size shouldn’t fool you; they manage to cram a lot in.
The galleries are on the first floor, and the bookshop and cafe are on the second floor, and out in the backyard is something lovely – a beautiful garden, much larger than you’d expect in central London, where you can sit and relax, read on the grass or drink your tea and sandwiches from the cafe inside. At the bottom of the garden, just outside the cafe, are little tables where study groups sit and discuss philosophy, and at the top is a green space perfect for lounging with a book or, as on Sunday morning, grabbing a couple of friends for a quick yoga session. It’s a quiet spot, sheltered from the rest of the city, which you would never know was there unless someone very kind let you in on the secret.
After a morning of strolling through the galleries and having tea in the garden, popping into the bookshop is the perfect way to end your visit. The bookshop is deceptively small; it’s one long shelf and a table display, so at first I was somewhat unimpressed. But when you get to looking, you realise that what they’ve done is really quite ingenious. By cramming books in as tightly as possible on only a few surfaces, the Camden Arts Centre bookshop manages to pull off an impressive and far-ranging selection of books on art and culture, all the while keeping the room clean and minimalist and the atmosphere relaxed and manageable.
Although most of the books are serious and philosophical treatises on art for adults, there is also a great and much larger than expected selection of books for children. A lot of these are focussed on various art forms, as you’d imagine, but there are also more general and mainstream titles. Whereas upstairs in the Nina Canell sculpture exhibition, there is a sign specifically warning parents of young children to keep a close eye on their spawn, in the bookshop, they are free to roam around and get their hands on as many picture books as they want. There is a fun and welcoming atmosphere in the bookshop that manages to just about chase away that awkwardness that all but a few afficionados feel in an art bookshop, when looking through sometimes obscure books on a very specific topic.
When it comes to books for adults, Camden Arts Centre’s bookshop is just as fun, just as sincere in extending the invitation to get excited. There are beautiful coffee-table sized books full of colour illustrations and photographs of art and architecture by world-famous artists like Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, a book of the artist’s interviews with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is also in stock) and much more obscure ones, some of whom have been exhibited at the Arts Centre. The books available cover painting, sculpture, photography and architecture, focussing sometimes on a specific artist, and other times about a movement or a phenomenon. Many explore the relationship between art and mainstream culture, something that Camden Arts Centre is clearly interested in. If you need proof of this, you need look no further than the many books that aren’t explicitly about art, but are about culture, society and human nature.
On the shelves of this bookshop, you’ll find everything you need to understand, love, hate, critique and embrace the world around you. You’ll find creative and political manifestos, novels about human nature (as if all novels weren’t), art magazines and the great works of philosophy. You’ll find Penguin’s Great Ideas series with essays by Lenin, Freud, Nitzsche, Orwell, Wollstonecraft, Proust, Benjamin and dozens of other movers and shakers of human thought. You’ll find a series of beautiful, white-covered books by Verso Books in their Radical Thinkers series, which include essays by some of the great minds of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose artistic or political radicalism changed their respective fields: Said (the man-god responsible for Orientalism), Walter Benjamin (my hero), Baudrillard, Althusser,
It’s a very serious, high-brow selection of books, but the Camden Arts Centre Bookshop doesn’t feel pretentious for a second, because of its idyllic setting and its prime location between all the parts of the centre toward which all kinds of different people gravitate. The bookshop and its impressive stock fit perfectly here, where, on a quiet street in North London, they provide a welcome oasis from the everyday, but also encourage you to challenge yourself. The Camden Arts Centre and its bookshop, like books themselves, strike the perfect balance between glorious escapism and the mind-expanding, consciousness-awakening brilliance of a good adventure.