Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

IMG_2345Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, 14-15 John Street, Bath, BA1 2JL

If you live in England and love bookshops, you already know Mr. B’s. When I started this blog I was asked endless questions about the places I’d been and hadn’t been. Most often, people wanted to know if the bookshop was still at 84 Charing Cross Road (it’s not, sadly), what I thought of Shakespeare and Company in Paris and whether or not I’d been to Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

IMG_2327Although Mr. B’s only popped up in Bath in 2006, it has quickly won the hearts of even the most prickly and become a cult favourite with a global following. Going to Mr. B’s is something of a right of passage for anyone who considers herself a reader.

What makes this bookshop so beloved is, I think, partly that it bucks the trend. It opened up while we were all worrying about independent bookshops but, through ingenious new methods of bookselling – which never lose sight of the bibliophilia that must always be at the heart of it all – it has excelled, being named Independent Bookshop of the Year on two separate occasions. Those of us who love bookshops were delighted to be shown that they can still make it, even ‘these days.’ However, to say that we only love Mr. B’s IMG_2325because it keeps us self-proclaimed Luddites from fretting too much would be to seriously and gravely undermine what it so brilliant about it. Mr. B’s combines everything that is right and good about an old-fashioned bookshop (the smell of books, the impeccably curated selection, the clean, crisp white shelves, the staff recommendations, the quirky decor and the peaceful, quiet bliss) with a barrage of new ideas sure to woo readers back into its arms and away from the clutches of The Great Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

When you walk in, you are met by the Fiction section, where the fun begins. With a board where you can play with magnet poetry and a bathtub full of Young Adult novels, a sense of whimsy that would make a more cynical person IMG_2329scoff delights the naive, romantic bookish types. One of my favourite touches are the little ‘Mr. B’s Thoughts…’ cards that dot the section, guiding browsers to a special treat. I love bookshops that do this. For avid readers who know what they like and can sometimes get in a bit of a rut making only safe choices, these recommendations give a nudge in a new but always good direction. For those less accustomed to browsing the shelves, they make the experience more friendly and less elitist, while ensuring that you find something with a bookseller’s guarantee. As you follow the excellent selection of contemporary and classic fiction from Z to A, you turn the corner and find children’s and Young Adult books. The collection of IMG_2328books gathered at Mr. B’s are the type that will not just grab the attention of a child, but also satisfy even the book-snobbiest parents. They are all fantastic books and there are many really lovely editions of children’s classics to be found in amongst the picture books and longer chapter books. While there are books for every age group and every type of child, there are, I am pleased to report, none of those silly, flimsy little IMG_2326paperback series that are always aimed at one gender only. You know the ones I mean – the forty part ‘Cupcake Fairies’ series that keep little girls entertained for about a day until they need the next one. Surely it’s much better to eschew Waterstone’s and head for Mr. B’s to buy something a bit more substantial? Whether you’re looking for a book for a little one learning to read, a quiet, bookish little boy, a brave, excitable teenage girl or an adult who wants to feel like a kid again, there will be an adventure for anyone on Mr. B’s walls.

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Past the till, passing poetry, drama, cookery, books abIMG_2341out Bath and even a small music section, is the staircase leading down to More Reading Delights. In the basement are the typical basement subjects: Biography, History, Current Affairs, Politics, Economics, Business, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion and Science. I fear that some people miss this basement. Don’t. The selection, as elsewhere in the shop, is inspiring. The booksellers at Mr. B’s have saved us the trouble of wading through the confusing world of publishing. They have picked out only the most intelligent, relevant and beautiful books available so that book hunters really can’t go wrong. Despite knowing next to nothing about the enigmatic Mr. B, I know that I trust IMG_2344him without a doubt. If a book is here, it’s  because someone who knows what (s)he’s talking about has vouched for it. The basement is only a small room but books cover all the walls, the table in the middle and even the fireplace. Down here there is also a modest selection of graphic novels, arranged on the shelves in and around said fireplace. These, like the fiction books, are a mix of the classic stand-bys of the genre and the newest and freshest books. If there is something good going on in publishing, you can trust Mr B’s to be all over it.

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Upstairs, you’ll find books on art and architecture, travel (the ‘Travels with my Book’ IMG_2333section), crafts and design as well as an even larger selection of graphic novels. It is also the space for featured books, sporting colourful and exciting bays labelled ‘Mr B’s Delightful Lists’ and ‘Our Favourites/Your Favourites.’ You have to marvel at the booksellers’ never-ending capacity to pick out a great next read for you. Recommending books new and old, which you’ve always meant to read IMG_2336or never heard of, the good men and women of Mr B’s Emporium provide their most earnest recommendations, all in the interests of ensuring that as many people as possible benefit from as many good books as can possibly be fit into what is not actually that large a bookshop. They also feature books related to or following on from their many events. Mr B’s draws some of Britain’s biggest authors through its doors for readings, signings and debates and you can buy the books they’ve discussed in the shop.  But be warned – being taunted about Our Norse Night by a shelf full of interesting books can be quite frustrating if you’ve missed it.

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And finally, the crème de la crème, Mr B’s Emporium’s crowning jewel and the IMG_2334reason for much of its fame. After wandering through the rest of the shop you finally come to The Bibliotherapy Room. This room is covered in books and very much part of the regular bookshop for regular customers. But so much more can happen here. Seeing as we are in Bath, after all,Mr B’s has styled itself as a spa retreat for the mind rather than the body and offers a variety of luxurious treatments for book-lovers. Please do try not to drool over your keyboard as I describe them.

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First comes Mr B’s Sumptuous Reading  Booth, a tiny little nook with a lockable door where you can sit and read in peace. For £3.50 you get 30 minutes in a locked room to sit in a comfortable chair with music, tea, biscuits and a book. Plus a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. It’s really the perfect birthday present if you know a misanthropic bibliophile like mIMG_2338e who considers a day alone in the silence with a book the best gift you could ever be given.  I covet my lunch hour at work, my alone time when I get to go sit in the park or in a cafe and read. I like my co-workers but they just don’t seem to get that I need some time with my book. For anyone who has this same problem, £3.50 is quite a bargain for some time snuggling up in a comfortable chair without any distractions, being able to read quietly and alone without anyone thinking you’re anti-social. Which, to be fair, you probably are, but what’s so wrong with that?

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Finally, if you fancy spending a little more money on your literary R&R, you can buy yourself or a loved one (obviously you’re going to buy it for yourself though) a Reading Spa. It costs £55 for the basic package and you get an hour alone with a bookseller who creates a bespoke stack of IMG_2331book recommendations just for you, time to sit and read with tea and cake and a £40 voucher to spend on the books you pick out. The Reading Spa, in addition to being The Best Idea Ever, is also a reminder to sad, apathetic little people who love the Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-be-Named of everything that you miss when you give up on independent bookshops. But the great thing about Mr B’s is that you can be extravagant if you want to, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy it. Even just strolling through, you’ll still get the incredible service, curated choices of excellent books and the relaxing, welcoming atmosphere that independent bookshops do best.

I spent money at Mr B’s aIMG_2335nd was happy to do it because I was not only paying for two new books that I know I will enjoy, but also for an hour of entertainment and enlightenment and, which is truly priceless, lots and lots of inspiration. I bought two books. The first was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which made me think of the bookshop in Cambridge that I love and was recommended after a Ghost Stories evening at Mr B’s. The second was A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie’s new novel. I had seen this in a Blackwell’s in Bristol a couple of weeks before and fought the urge to buy it. When I got back to London I hunted around the London Review Bookshop and the Islington Waterstone’s after I IMG_2332realised that I couldn’t live without it. When I couldn’t find it anywhere I thought maybe I’d made it up – that I’d read the title or the author’s name wrong and was searching for a book that didn’t exist. I didn’t go to Amazon to immediately gratify my desire. I waited. And it popped up again in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights where finding it again really did delight me.

I have since devoured both books and, unsurprisingly, both were excellent. IMG_2330However, I took away a lot more from my short visit to Mr B’s. I took away a list of other books that I want to buy, including books I don’t have yet by authors I already love and other books I’d never heard of. A trip to Mr B’s is delightful because, like any other good bookshop, it doesn’t end when you walk out the door. The ideas, the yearnings, the questions it brings up stay with you long after. They will influence what you read next. They will form your opinions on a whole range of topics. They will wake you up in the middle of the night and drive you crazy when you can’t remember that name of that book! They will make you want to come back and back and back again for more. A bookshop like Mr B’s can begin an addiction which will stay with you for the rest of your life. It can begin a love affair with reading that will never end. It can reignite a passion for books in the hearts of people who long ago opted for convenience over adventure. Simply put, like a day at the spa, a trip to Mr B’s Emporium just makes things better.

Independent Booksellers’ Week

Dear Readers,

I hope you have all had a lovely Independent Booksellers’ Week. I celebrated by buying books at the London Review Bookshop (including a beautiful edition of Teffi’s short stories published by the independent Pushkin Press) and attending The Big Bookshop Debate at Foyles. I hope you did something equally enjoyable!

Last year I wrote about one independent bookshop every day this week. This year, well, I have a full-time job that involves listening to screaming children all day every day, so I’ve been a bit too tired! However, lots of bookish treats are coming your way in the next little while, including:

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A cult favourite: the beloved Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England;

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trendy little Ocelot, in Berlin;

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and the massive booklovers’ paradise Dussman Das Kulturkaufhaus, also in beautiful Berlin.

You’ll be meeting them all soon. In the meantime, use this week as a chance to visit your regular or explore a new indie. Find a new book you would never know to look for. It will certainly make your day and it might just change your life.

Topping and Company Booksellers

Topping & Company Booksellers, The Paragon, Bath, BA1 5LS

Question: When is a bookshop not just a bookshop?

Answer: When you can eat Spanish tapas courtesy of trendy London restaurant Morito among the shelves of an evening, attend a monthly Reading Group where you actually talk about books, take a guided tour through haunted Bath with a mystery writer or listen to the biggest names in contemporary literature (Will Self, Deborah Levy and David Mitchell are coming up) wax philosophical while you have a glass of red wine.

IMG_2318Topping and Company Booksellers, in the beautiful, elegant and quintessentially English city of Bath, has many different incarnations. At times it’s tense, as when it’s hosting a particularly heated debate. At others, it’s  bursting with excitement, as in the moments before a celebrity walks through the door. But most of the the time, it’s just a lovely bookshop, quiet, civilised, refined and full of simple delights.

On the glorious Sunday morning when I was last in Bath, the sunlight spilled in through the wide front windows and filled the shop’s interior with its brightness. The soft, warm wind came in through the IMG_2320open door so that the shop felt so much like a hidden clearing in a wood that I almost expected rose buds and dandelion fluff to fly in on the breeze. While the hardwood floors and tall wooden shelves undoubtedly make the shop as dark and cozy as it should be in the wintertime, today it was the perfect version of a modern Enchanted Forest. A place where, as beautiful as the sunlit city of Bath is, the magical possibility is much greater in the dappled light of this mysterious place, where adventures and romances crouch on every shelf, waiting for their magical whispers to reach your ear, waiting for you to comply with the fairies’ mischievous requests that you let them come out.

There were few other travellers wandering through the Enchanted Forest when I IMG_2322began my journey. While most stayed outside in the safety of bright sunlight, I walked straight in and as deep into the forest as I could, unafraid of getting lost. I weaved my way through corners covered with virtually every genre you could ever want: literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, travel guides and literary travel writing, languages, sport, health, games, nature, cookery, humour, media, psychology, history, current events and even a whole bay dedicated to ghost stories, all of which are arranged beautifully on shelves and in attractive displays on tables. In addition to this impressive range of genres, Topping and Company devotes equal space to established classics as it does to forgotten treasures and contemporary books exploring every aspect of modern life. It’s a collection as prolific as nature itself and as diverse as the people who pop in and settle down in the chairs around the shop to admire and decide which books to bring home.

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After spending a good deal of time in fiction, as I always do, I ventured on and into the children’s section near the back of the shop. I know these parts well, but they can be daunting to those unfamiliar to them, those for whom it’s been far too lonIMG_2319g since they took their shoes off and ran barefooted over mossy paths and climbed up gnarled roots. Fortunately, if this is an enchanted forest, it is inhabited by a fairy godmother called Victoria has marked the way for those less able to navigate on their own. Victoria’s Recommendations do the art of bookselling proud. She has hand-picked the finest spoils and presented them for our inspection, giving us her treasures to take home. The books are arranged by age group and go beyond the obvious choices, taking in everything from brand new picture books to a thoughtful range of young adult novels.

Up a couple of stairs, you enter the Arts Room, the heart of the bookshop, IMG_2324announced by a large sign listing off the impressive range of subject matter covered in this small room: Arts, Architecture, Design, Photography, Antiques, Poetry, Drama, Film, Music, Philosophy, Crafts, Literary Criticism, Languages, Reference and Science. Though it is smaller than the rest of the shop, this back room holds beautiful books of art and architecture, pages and pages of theory and criticism, signed copies of famous recent titles and a curated collection of excellent old and new books. I probably found half a dozen new or recent books of poetry and literary IMG_2317theory (I am biased towards literature in my bookish adventuring) that I had never heard of but was dying to read. A new book on oral storytelling in Chaucer, the Collected Poems of Anthony Thwaite, an analysis of the state of the art of letter writing and a book on First World War poetry all had to be left behind, though I haven’t stopped thinking about them and will soon return. This room and I have unfinished business.

The Arts Room is crammed with fascinating books which, gathered together, are IMG_2316simultaneously depressing – in the sense that this one room contains more knowledge than any person can read and absorb in a lifetime – and uplifting in the sense that we belong to the human race, incapable, admittedly, of magic and sorcery, but masters of creativity.  Small and circular, this room encloses you and threatens to swallow you up, lulling you into a deep sleep and confusing you until you don’t remember why you would ever leave. Be wary lest you fall under its spell and stay forever.

 

West End Lane Books

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West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London, NW6 1QS

‘Now that we have smart phones and tablets, people are getting more isolated by the day.’

‘People don’t care about the high street any more; we’ve lost our sense of community.’

‘Parents don’t read with their children these days; they just give them iPads and let those do the work.’

‘Bookshops are relics of the past and books are on the way out.’

These are just some of the nasty, ludicrous lies that I hear spat back at me with a little too much pleasure whenever I tell people that I spend much of my time daydreaming about owning a quiet, peaceful, messy little bookshop of my own one day.

I tell them: ‘It will have big comfortable chairs where mums and dads can sit and read while they wait, with their little ones happily sitting in the children’s section for story time’ and they say, ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that.’

I tell them: ‘We’ll have local authors come in the evening to do readings, book-signings and host debates’ and they say, ‘Who would bother when you can watch that on Youtube?’

I tell them: ‘Our staff will know everything about every kind of book, hear about everything that happens in publishing and be able to find the thing you didn’t know you wanted or make the perfect recommendation’ and they say, ‘You mean just like Amazon but I have to leave my house.’

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Yes, some people are doing everything they can to make me believe that my little dream bookshop is nothing more than a fantasy. Unfortunately for them, West End Lane Books is very real. The very fact that it exists gives me hope, because it proves that people do care about their communities, that some things can still excite us enough to make us (god forbid) leave the house now and then, and that there are people who still value coming together – for story time, for a reading, or just to browse in silent solidarity – to celebrate the characters, the stories and the books – those most beautiful of objects – that we love.

West End Lane Books is my dream bookshop, the kind of place that keeps me sane in the midst of a digital nightmare. It is the epitome of everything that has always been great about bookshops and a defiant answer to all the pessimists who think that places like this should be singing their swan songs. I just love it.

IMG_2287The dark brown wood paneling of the roof, floors and bookshelves is perfect, just how I would want it to be. With the light pouring in from the front window, being inside this bookshop in the late afternoon feels like being inside a treehouse. Everything is a dark, comforting, nutty brown, the covers of books provide little splashes of colour, and the hush in the shop makes you feel like you’re 100 feet up in the air, above the noise and speed of the world below.

Despite the open plan and the handful of little nooks that make it feel like there’s more space than there is, the bookshop isn’t actually very large, so the booksellers have made the shrewd decision to aim for quality rather than quantity. Naturally this means that you won’t find anything you could ever possibly want in here, but you’ll find a lot, and you’ll probably find something better than what you thought you wanted anyway. Many bookshops this size devote a good half of their space to Fiction, with only small (almost token) sections for art, philosophy, culture, cookery and children’s books. Here, the distribution of space is IMG_2290much more egalitarian. Art, Architecture, Food and Drink, Travel, Philosophy, Television, Drama and Sport all get far more attention than they would in a lesser bookshop and while there may not be as many books in each section as one might like, what is there is the very best available, arranged beautifully and just begging you to pick up book after book and admire each one. The poetry section, while smaller than I’d like, is also impeccably selected, with a particularly international feel and books that span the centuries, from Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Norse Edda to Shakespeare, Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams and all the way up to cutting edge contemporary poetry. It’s impressive how well West End Lane Books has sifted through centuries of poetry to provide a small sampling of only the best. I just wish there were more of it.

IMG_2291The fiction section is, once again, beautifully presented and cleverly curated, with paperback novels lining the shelves in perfect alphabetical order and a display the finest editions of old and new favourites perfect for treasuring and passing on to the next generation.  Independent publishers like Pushkin and Persephone are put in places of honour, just as they should be.  In the fiction section I found the first of the two books I came home with, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, a collection of bizarre and magical Chinese stories written between 1640 and 1715. It is apparently held up as ‘the supreme work of fiction in the classical Chinese language.’ I had never heard of it, but then that’s what good bookshops are for.

The second book I bought was Shaking a Leg, the collected journalism and essays of Angela Carter, covering literature, food, feminism, travel, art and everything in between. It promises to be highly entertaining.

Finally, there is the children’s section, given a huge amount of space and stocked with brilliant books for children who still have to rely on mum and dad for IMG_2289stories to awkward teens like I once was, who will desperately bury their heads in thick Young Adult novels to avoid real life. West End Lane Books does all kinds of different services for children and families, from book donations to local schools to book-based party favours, but the 4 o’clock Story Times on Mondays and Thursdays have to be my favourite. In the children’s section, on the colourful carpet beside the two giant teddy bears, I can imagine groups of children enchanted by fairy tales and laughing with silly poems.

For their parents and other adults, West End Lane Books has a fantastic programme of events in the evenings, including a Book Group and talks by authors. I am signed up to their mailing list and get excited every time it comes through, as it seems that each month there is some cool new thing that I could try. If you live in London it’s definitely worth signing up to the updates, because you never know what amazing thing they’ll do next.

So as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t love West End Lane Books, you haven’t IMG_2288got a heart. For there is some kind of adventure in this small little shop for everyone. If you’re six, it’s as simple as snuggling up, closing your eyes and sailing away on a pirate ship or flying over London like Peter Pan. If you’re a little older, the adventure might be meeting your favourite author, or contributing your insight in front of strangers in a book group. If you’re a little older and a little shyer, you’ll have to do what I do and explore the world by scanning the shelves for a hidden gem you’ve never heard of and trying it out. From my experience, it’s always worth it.

Camden Arts Centre Bookshop

IMG_2276Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London, NW3 6DG

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.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

 

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, IMG_2274just 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

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

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, Lukács, Frederic Jameson, Lefebvre, Theodor Adorno, Bentham, Terry Eagleton, Sartre, Brecht, Derrida and others that I’ve never even heard of but have no doubt are brilliant.  The one that particularly caught my eye was Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World by Sheila Rowbotham. I’m a sucker for a good bit of feminist theory and when it’s got a communist edge, I’m sold.  This beautiful book almost parted me with £7.99 – a bit less than the retail price, slightly more than you can buy it for on the Verso website and probably ten times what it costs on Amazon, but then they don’t have a cafe, a garden, two thought-provoking exhibits upstairs or a shred of atmosphere, now do they?

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.

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

There are little patches of magic everywhere, though it seems they’re always getting harder to find. Yes, somewhere along we decided that what was convenient, clean and simple was better than the messy and impractical, but rather than lamenting this cleaning up of everyday life, I prefer to focus on how it makes us appreciate it all the more when we find things hidden, messy, old or superfluous.

So next time you’re walking along Hampstead High Street (or any high street) and start to resent seeing the same big names no matter where in the country you are, or realise that the reason you can’t find that weird quirky family business any more is that it’s been swallowed up by yet another Top Shop, don’t get upset, just get off the main road.

On Flask Walk, one of the many meandering little back streets that lead you away from the centre of Hampstead Village, individuality particularity, charm and joy are still hiding, waiting for you.  On this little road, locals and tourists alike mill about, popping into the independent florist’s, jeweller’s or antique dealer’s.  At the heart of it is a London legend: Keith Fawkes’ Bookshop.

This small, poky, traditional bookshop, owned and run by a descendent of Guy Fawkes, is a favourite for Hampstead yuppies, couples on their way for a march IMG_2258on the Heath and literature undergraduates looking for cheap copies of everything on the reading list.  It’s a second hand bookshop, yes, but what I love about it is the sense that it’s not there for us.  It’s not an emporium, it’s not a showroom.  Rather, it’s a home for unloved or not-yet loved books. It’s their place, their silent, messy, musty castle, and we’re merely visiting, hoping to fall in love with one and bring it home.

IMG_2252When you duck to step down from Flask Walk and into the shop, the bright light of outside, the bustle of Hamstead Village on a Saturday morning is immediately dimmed and silenced.  It feels a bit like entering a church.  Inside, it’s dim and cold in the winter – it’s probably not properly insulated and besides the door stays open all day to lure passersby in, so there’s no protecting against the chill.  Unlike your local branch of Waterstone’s (or the homepage of The-Website-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named), Keith Fawkes is not tidy, open or easy to navigate.  Firstly, there’s the confusion of the entrance, which is also one of the aisles, the narrow space where browsers squeeze in between two shelves of books, unwilling to let new entries barge past until they’re finished looking at the books they want.  Once you manage to get through to the back of the shop, where the till is hidden under books and magazines on the back table, you realise that there is no big open space to gather, nowhere to stand and chat while you sip your mochafrappacinnochailattecano or whatever it is you people drink.  Almost the whole shop, you see, is a series of narrow rows cut off from each other completely by bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling.  This arrangement means that, providing you can find one, you can claim a little spot in a corner somewhere, far away from other browsers, and theres not very much anyone can do about it.  it’s the perfect set up for those of us love to burrow.  And because it’s such a closed-off plan, no one will know if you’ve been there for five minutes or fifty.  It’s the perfect place for secrets.  And what secrets there are!  Vintage children’s books, history of the world, poetry, fiction, history, IMG_2257philosophy!  There are new books that look like they’ve never been touched, modern first editions in their own section – some of them signed – tatty of Penguin paperbacks for a pound or less, beautifully preserved old hardcovers and a whole shelf full of beautiful Folio Society editions of books that you never knew you wanted but might not be able to resist. Oh yes, it’s the perfect place for hearing secrets.

But Keith Fawkes is not, admittedly, the perfect place for finding.  Piles of books fill up all the available floor space, making it nearly impossible to fit more than one person in an already-narrow aisle.  Books also have a way of piling up on IMG_2253every other surface so that no one really knows how many layers deep a shelf may be.  They fall down onto the floor and climb up in spiraling towers toward the windows, which they swallow up almost completely in some places, making the shop feel even dimmer.  They also cover each other up, so that the book you’re looking for may well be sitting a foot from your face, but you’d never find it without releasing an avalanche of words sure to crush your toes if you’re not wearing proper footwear.  Who knew bookshop browsing was such an extreme sport?  I don’t believe it’s possible to exaggerate how messy, how crowded, how cramped and unorganised the shop is or how impossible it is to even know what you’re  looking at.  No, Keith Fawkes is not an organised or a sanatised place.

It is, however, a magical one, because it offers possibility, playfulness, discovery and, most importantly, mess. Mess is underrated these days.  I’m a big fan of mess and madness in places like this, partly because there often is method in’t, IMG_2255but mainly because I think it’s good for us, as human beings, to invent that method.  That’s the only thing we can do that the computers can’t.  It’s up to us to look at a dusty pile of yellowing book overflowing off a shelf and not just see a problem to be dealt with, but a treasure trove of potential out of which we can find or make any meaning we want, and know that no other person could have made the exact same meaning.  I’m a big fan of mess because one day in a November past , as a first year English student, I read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and didn’t understand it.  I puzzled over it, tried to make sense of it, tried to dissect and organise it and made it my mission to clean up Eliot’s mess, and then realised that the mess was the point.  And on that day in November, a poem changed me for ever and for the better, and I realised that the whole world is a mess, but what’s miraculous is that our minds, our imaginations, help us find connections and meanings in piles of random articles.

At Keith Fawkes, in the fiction section, I saw a faded and scuffed hardcover 1976 edition of Sleep it Off Lady by Jean Rhys, published by Andre Deutsch and with a gorgeous once full- and now faded-colour illustration on the cover by someone called – and I love this – Rosemary Honeybourne.  This collection of stories is not one of Rhys’ more famous works and the cover was so faded that it’s nowhere near as beautiful as it must once have been, but for £3.50 I bought it anyway, because I had a hunch that it was from the same series as a copy of Voyage in the Dark that I had bought over a year earlier at Slightly Foxed Books, on the other side of the city.  I got them home and I was right.  I feel like somehow I’ve reunited them.  I also paid £3 for As a Man Grows Older , the English IMG_2254translation of the much more beautifully-titled Italian novel Senilità by Italo Svevo, which I never would have picked up if I hadn’t read Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno several months ago. Which I never would have done if I hadn’t been skimming Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce, who was a kind of mentor to Svevo.  I was only flipping through it I saw it at a friend’s house, returning her copy of Never Let Me Go. These are connections which nothing but the human brain can make.  It doesn’t really make sense that reading a dystopian novel by a Japanese writer a year ago led me to pick up an Italian one in a Hampstead bookshop on a cold Saturday, but I’m glad that it did.  Both books were used and incredibly good value for the condition they’re in.  When I brought them up to the till, a descendent of Britain’s most famous terrorist wrote up the titles and the prices by hand in a yellowing notebook which is probably not nearly as reliable as scanning it, but infinitely more pleasant.

So the next time you’re craving an escape from the imposed order and thoughtless ease of the post-Amazon world (I say post- because the popularity of Keith Fawkes suggests that the resistance is already well underway) wander away from the main road and down the side streets.  These are the places, hidden and quiet, where you can still find mess and chaos and, if you look for it, beauty and truth.

Taschen

IMG_2218Taschen, Rue Lebeau 18, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

If you love art, chances are that you know Taschen.  The German publishers of beautiful and fascinating books on art, architecture, design and photography can be found in libraries, museum shops, and good bookshops the world over.  They publish ‘coffee table’ sized books which are not only full of stunning art and masses of information, but are also wonderful, comforting physical objects in their own right, worth treasuring.

The Brussels shop is in the Sablon district, just off a lovely square that it shares IMG_2225with a beautiful old church, a weekly antiques market and about half a dozen chocolate shops.  Wandering around the shop I saw everything from clothbound editions of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm to The Complete Paintings of Gustav Klimt to the 36 hours series – colourful and creative travel books detailing how to get the most out of 36 hours in locations around the world.  Reflecting the diversity of their subject matter, the books in this shop take many different shapes and sizes.  There are massive five volume guides to the architecture of the twentieth century, small notebooks or pocket-sized books of photography and art books which are coffee-table size but are so expertly and lovingly crafted that they demand far more attention than mere background pieces.  My personal favourite was the Mid-Century Ads: Ads from the Mad Men Era series, with beautiful full-page, full-colour images of adverts from the 1950s and 60s. Just looking around you can tell that Taschen clearly take great pride in their books and make an effort to produce books that will delight all their readers, whether they’re artists looking for inspiration, academics doing research or know-nothings like myself who just like the feel of the thick , fresh pages between their fingers.

The Brussels shop is modern, minimalist and clean; rows of perfectly arranged IMG_2221books fill up the sleek black shelves.  As much as I love disorderly piles and shelves where the alphabet has given up and let anything poke out where it may, there’s something inspiring about a clean wall of uniform books lined up in front of you. It’s a magic, I think, that comes from the knowledge that while they all look so well-behaved, the second you pull one out from the wall it will suck you into an adventure that may well be a lot messier and weirder than the first impression suggested.  There’s also the knowledge, which I always sense when looking at a bookshelf, that every book in the orderly line holds some different secret inside of it.  There’s nothing more exciting to me than a wall of orderly books just waiting for you to pull one out and let it come to life. Fortunately, at Taschen, you don’t even have to take the book home with you to begin; the vibrant illustrations and stunning photographs on these pages come to life all on their own as soon as they’re opened.

FIMG_2222or the books that don’t fit on (or are just too beautiful for) the shelves around the edges, there are big golden blocks dropped all around the middle of the shop.  Books are never piled but always artistically displayed on the top.  There isn’t much inherent logic in the arrangements; 36 Hours in Latin America and the Carribean may well be sandwiched between The Golden Age of DC Comics and The Big Penis Book.  Seriously.  It makes for a unique and very enjoyable browsing experience. Even IMG_2224more books peak out from inside the gold blocks; piles of books lined up perfectly wait in these little nooks, not fussed about being away from the limelight. They’re relaxed about it, because people like me will always be quite happy to hang out on the floor for a bit if it means getting the chance to admire each and every one.  I did leave with dust covering the back of my coat, but I think it was worth it.

The Taschen shop is a great reminder of why we love and need independent bookshops and independent publishers.  Taschen and other publishers like it are the champions not of the faceless masses, but of the passionate weirdos.  They are places where the random, the niche and the IMG_2220obscure are celebrated.  They form communities of readers for the people who need them most; the scholar of Ancient Assyrian sculpture working in isolation in a tiny studio flat, the nature photographer whose family and friends don’t see why she won’t just get a normal job, the weird arty kid in small-town middle America who just wants to know that someone else in the world loves Modigliani this much!  By filling up our museums and galleries and bookshops with their inspiring, life-affirming books, Taschen assures us all that Yes, this is important, and No, you’re not the only one who thinks so.  In this beautiful shop in Brussels and in the countless other places around the world where their books are found, Taschen are succeeding in opening our minds and exciting our curiosity.  And that, I believe, is how you go about making the world a better place.

Filigranes

IMG_2215Filigranes, Avenue des Arts 39-40, 1040 Brussels, Belgium

The entrance to Filigranes, a large bookshop on the Avenue des Arts in Brussels, is decorated like a giant gingerbread house, with snowflakes painted on the windows and beautiful seasonal displays facing the street from warmly-lit windows.  It’s like walking into a fairy tale.

The first room is large and open, with books and book-related products covering every inch of the walls and crowding tables, displays and even bits of the floor.  The shelves wind their way in and out of IMG_2210corners, creating both wide open spaces and smaller, cozier ones  for the more reclusive.  I personally tend to classify myself in the latter category, so I was pleased to find that there is room enough for everyone to have their own space.  As the rows of books carry you from the front of the shop all the way around the room, there are little nooks where you can dip into the quiet philosophy section for a moment, then dip back out into the jolly noises in the rest of the shop.  In the middle of this first room are not one but two cafes, where book-lovers and coffee-lovers alike can stop, relax and enjoy the lively, festive atmosphere of the shop.  Thankfully, the cafe-goers and the bookshelf browsers never step on each other’s toes: there is enough space in this massive shop for everyone to choose between the quiet retreat of a corner surrounded by pages or the bright and bustling cafe scene.  Indeed, looking at the coffee-sippers, half chatting and half admiring their new purchases, I realised that many of them had probably been quietly browsing only moments ago.  Do you know what this means?  You could spend hours in this shop, arriving first thing in the morning and not feeling that you need to leave until closing time, because in this delightful city of books you’ll have food for the mind (novels, philosophy, history, art),  food for the body (oh those eclairs…) and food for the soul (poetry, god damn it) at your disposal.

Yes, it would make quite a good day trip, spending a whole day wandering around the bookshop, peeking into corners and admiring the smooth white spines of French books and only taking a break to refuel.  But the thing about Filigranes is that you might end up staying for hours even when you certainly IMG_2213hadn’t planned to.  The place is a labyrinth (there’s a map of the shop on their website), a seemingly endless progression of more and more rooms, each one seemingly bigger than the last and each one full of wonderful and exciting things.  It’s a book city, a book palace, a book maze and the perfect place to get lost.  Room after room unfolds and the further you get from the entrance, the quieter the rooms become as the more obscure genres find their homes.  Here, in the suburbs of the book city, are the comics and graphic  novels, children’s books in French and other European languages, a small games and toys section (all very tasteful, don’t worry), humanities, and cooking.  The art section is particularly noteworthy, as it’s larger than many and filled with books which tell the stories of talented artists and reproduce timeless paintings, but are also beautiful objects worth treasuring in their own right.  Brussels is full of art, artistic people and really lovely art bookshops, including the Librairie St Hubert, which I’ll write about soon.  From what I’ve seen, Brussels embraces the most high-brow of art forms, but is equalIMG_2212ly devoted to the quirkiness, randomness and playful side of art.  In fact, in the bookshop of the charmingly weird Museum of Musical Instruments I flipped through a book about art deco masterpieces hidden in the architecture of the city.  It’s fitting that Filigranes, one of its best larger bookshops, should have such a good range of titles. There’s also a champagne and caviar bar in the middle of it all.  In case you get thirsty.

And at the very end of the shop, which, as in any good labyrinth, is right next to the beginning, there is a truly impressive and inspiring collection of international books in English, other European languages and I’m sure many others that I was too overwhelmed to notice. It always strikes me as a bit unfair and a bit embarrassing that most bookshops in the UK never have more than a bay of books in other languages – though places IMG_2214like The European Bookshop, Skoob, Book Mongers and The French Bookshop in London are trying to change that.  Although the quality of these international English bookshops is never guaranteed to be any good, at least it’s an attempt at internationalism.  But at Filigranes, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the foreign language section; like every other genre represented, it is top notch, with a thoughtful mix of canonical favourites and the best of what’s out now. Filigranes makes the best possible use of the vast space it has by ensuring that on its shelves there is no genre, no country, no language and no style which is unrepresented.

As we wandered through the shop last week, marvelling at its size and scope every time we turned a corner and found it opening up into a new room, an announcement came over the loudspeakers and a voice invited browsers to stay a little longer than usual for a pre-Christmas do.  Authors were coming in to sign books, red wine was being passed around, live music would be starting imminently and in every way possible, the party was kicking off.  There was dinner to make and a warm cozy flat to get back to, so after spending entirely too long flipping through the magazines, art books, French poetry and novels in English, I pulled myself away.  But walking out into the dark, cold street I took comfort in the thought that all evening, book-lovers, music-lovers and food-lovers would be reading, laughing, eating and, surrounded by beautiful words and favourite characters, enjoying the company of friends.

Tropismes

IMG_2163Tropismes, Galerie des Princes 11, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

Places like the Galerie du Roi, a covered arcade in the centre of Brussels, near the Grand Place, fascinated Walter Benjamin.  Lined with chocolate shops, bookshops and cafes, the Galerie du Roi is akin to the arcades of Paris, those magical places which Benjamin alternatively described as ‘Dream Cities’ and ‘Catacombs.’  At times, he praised them as places which fostered browsing, people-watching, flâneur-ism and observation while at other times they were dens of consumerism and commodity fetishism.  I can’t enter a place like this without thinking of Benjamin and wondering what he would make of it.  Indeed, sometimes when I go into a bookshop, I can’t help but feel a bit of conflict between the commercial aspect of shops (we are, after all, just buying products for consumption) and the intangible quality which creates so much more meaning: the opportunity they provide for us to expand our minds, embrace serendipity and start a journey.

IMG_2165At Tropismes, a large bookshop just off to the side of the Galerie du Roi (on the Galerie des Princes, no less), the balance is struck perfectly.  The beautiful displays in the window and the clean, modern interior create a palace filled of wonderful, attractive things to buy.  But the books on offer are chosen, curated and presented with so much charm, playfulness and intelligence that it’s hard to see them as just numbers in someone’s inventory or products to push before the Christmas rush.  That, I think, is what makes books different from every other thing we buy: they are not just bought, consumed and thrown away.  Instead, we as individuals bring each and every one to life in a different way and create a completely unique relationship with it.  We carry them through our lives (either on our bookshelves or somewhere at the back of our minds) and we don’t just act on them, but let them act on us.  Books are truly magical and Tropismes, which is whimsical and full of hidden possibilities, is a fitting home for them.

Naturally, the majority of the books are in French.  I don’t know why (perhaps someone can enlighten me) but books in French always seem to have quite plain white spines, so a wall full of them looks particularly refined and calming.  Tropismes has an amazing IMG_2164selection of French fiction, philosophy, poetry and history, as well as a mouth-watering cookery section downstairs which represents cuisines from all over the world, but particularly French and Belgian food.  On the ground floor, little nooks just big enough for a few people give the opportunity to get up close and personal with the books even when the shop is busy. In addition to books in French and books translated into French, there is a good collection of English books, which are always oddly reassuring. Tropismes has an admirably international range of novels and you can read where the books come from on the little labels that poke out from the IMG_2172shelves.  Tropismes takes you on a tour of world literature from every continent.  In one picture alone you can see a selection of Arab, Palestinian, Hebrew, Indian, Russian, Slavic, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Egyptian, Libyan and Iranian literature.  Now, I like to think that I’m quite good at reading books from other parts of the world, but Tropismes puts me (and everyone else I know) to shame.  And yet it never feels intimidating or pretentious because the whole atmosphere of the shop is friendly and inclusive, embracing people from all over the world just as it embraces their books.

When I went in, there was a pleasant level of chatter all throughout the bookshop which made it feel warm and inviting.  The shop is open, with bright lights illuminating what is in fact a beautiful old building.  The sleek and modern mirrors (which reflect the Christmas lights outside) work well against the older decorative features of the building, particularly the ornate columns and the beautiful roof.  The combination makes people feel happy, and that’s all there is to it. IMG_2169One of the things I truly love about bookshops (and people) in England is that they understand the value of peace and quiet and know how to be silent and let a person think, but this happy, community bookshop reminded me of how nice it can be to have a chat as well.  The booksellers were all lovely and (from what I could understand) very well-informed about everything they had in stock as well as about books from all over the world that they didn’t.  On a couple of separate occasions I heard a bookseller talking to a customer about just how they were going to manage to get their hands on that new novel from Burkina-Faso or somewhere equally random.  One thing I noticed is that the booksellers here were quite a lot older than the majority of booksellers in the UK.  Waterstones and London independents tend to be populated with twenty-something English graduates (like yours truly) and IMG_2171struggling playwrights  because there’s some kind of cultural idea that it’s okay to ‘just’ work in a bookshop when you’re twenty-three but by the time you’re forty-five you really ought to have a ‘proper job.’  I may be inferring too much from this, but it seems to suggest that in Brussels, they take their bookselling as seriously as they take their chocolate.  (I’m still smarting a bit from being told off by a chocolate seller for getting too close to the merchandise.)

Down in the basement, in addition to the cookery section, you’ll find books on pretty much everything under the sun.  There’s psychology, music, cinema, IMG_2170sociology, anthropology, science, nature, art and architecture, all of which are arranged impeccably in beautiful displays on the shelves and tables.  Although the basement doesn’t have the same light, airy, open feel as the ground floor, it’s still a place where you could easily spend hours if you had the time.  In fact, I think it would take that long just to get your head around the selection.

IMG_2166Finally, there is a large children’s section up on the first floor, which is a balcony looking down over the rest of the shop.  Here you’ll find children’s books for all ages and all types of children.  What was brilliant about this selection was that they weren’t just French translations of American children’s books, but new and innovative picture books, novels and comics from the country that brought us Tintin.  The graphic novels available all looked excellent, which I suppose is to be expected in a city that has a Comic Strip Museum and an apparent love affair with the genre.  It also seemed to me that a lot of the children’s books were much edgier than their Anglophone equivalents; I saw a lot of books and graphic novels that dealt IMG_2167with adult themes in understandable ways, rather than sheltering children in fairy-tale worlds.  I was particularly happy to see that small Belgian children are being exposed to great literature – there was a A La Recherche du Temps Perdu  comic book, which I now really really want.  I can’t say whether that’s indicative of a difference between the UK and continental Europe, but it is interesting how much you can learn about a culture just by looking at the books their children read, isn’t it?

Which, in a way, brings me back to where I started, with Walter Benjamin (can you tell that I love him?) and his marvelous exclamation: ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” As I examined books at Tropismes, I thought of him sitting in a new flat unpacking his library of books, picking up each one and letting it flood him with memories of the city where it was bought and the stories it carries on and between its pages.  I’m sure that the books I buy in Belgium will serve the same purpose, guarding my memories and my stories until the next time I pick them up again, in whatever city I find myself in.  For now, exploring the world at Tropismes has been adventure enough.

Small Business Saturday

IMG_2154

Today is Small Business Saturday in the UK, where we are all encouraged to pry ourselves away from the computer, stop being so apathetic and support local businesses.  They keep the high street vibrant, they bring a bit of variety to our all-too-generic world and they stick up for us, loyally taking care of their customers and going out of their way to make sure we get exactly what we need. It’s only fair that in the midst of all the Christmas craziness, we stick up for them too.  Naturally, for me, this is an excuse to go shopping for books.

I had Christmas presents to buy for my family and, like every year, opted for books.  At this time of year they’ve learned to expect the small rectangular packages wrapped in newspaper under the tree.  Although none of my brothers read, they get books every year and I’m convinced that each of them has a pile of unread books from me stacked up somewhere that remains untouched.

I popped into Skoob, Judd Books and Persephone Books and bought books for mum, dad and each of my three brothers.  The most expensive (but also the classiest) was £12 from Persephone books, whereas the cheapest was a £3 book of poetry from Skoob. I’ve now tucked bookmarks into each book from the bookshop where I got it, lovingly inscribed the front inside leaf with the date and a personal message and wrapped them up to be posted off.  Hunting around for these books forced me to think really hard about the personality and interests of each member of my family and encouraged me to spend the time it took to get them something unique, something just right for each of them, rather than the first thing that caught my eye online.

As you do your Christmas shopping for your loved ones, remember that books are the gift that never gets old. Buy books for the people you care about and, if you can manage it, do it in a small business where your money will go toward making sure that the dusty basements and cranky booksellers who yield those completely perfect gifts stay exactly where they are.

If you need a bit of help figuring out where your nearest independent bookshop is, have a look at the Matilda Project Map.  If your city is not one of the few represented on the map, send me a comment to let me know which local business you’ll be supporting and where I should go next time I’m in your corner of the world.