Word on the Water, Regent’s Canal, London
“So close your eyes while mother sings of the wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see those beautiful things as you sail on the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three – Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod.“
- From Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod, a Nursery Rhyme.
I’ve been in a lot of bookshops and sung their praises, but this one takes the cake. To be fair to them all, those very worthy other bookshops are often just as good as this one in terms of selection, decor and price, but all of them are lacking one essential ingredient that makes this competition not even close to a fair fight. While every other bookshop I’ve been in has been firmly planted on solid ground, today I set foot inside a floating bookshop on the inside of a London Canal Boat. You just can’t beat that.
I heard about this mystical creature some time ago and have been trying to track it down for ages. It moves along Regent’s Canal which cuts through North London from Harrow in the West all the way to the Thames River Basin at Limehouse in the East. On their facebook and twitter pages, Word on the Water post where on the canal they’re going to be and for how long. Once or twice I’ve gone to City Road Basin in Angel to try to find them, but always seem to miss the canal boat. However this time, I just happened upon them by accident. When I saw the “Floating Book Sale” sign I had a feeling I had accidentally stumbled upon this thing I’d been wanting to find for so long. This week, the boat is stationed just west of Camden Market on the canal, and a two minute walk from The Blackgull, another amazing Camden bookshop which works brilliantly as the second half of a double feature. If you’re in that area at all this weekend, you should visit both of them and support two amazing businesses for less than you’d expect.
You might find that you hear the boat before you see the grey plume of smoke rising out from its chimney, as music always seems to be playing from the deck. If you catch them at the right time, you might be lucky enough to hear one of their live music shows or the poetry readings for which they’re famous. I’ve never been to one but I hear that music and poetry are shouted out from the deck of the boat to listeners down below and I can only imagine that it must be magical. But on a weekday at lunch hour, classical music from speakers is perfect. After examining the paperbacks on sale for £1 or £3 on the deck of the boat (bargain!) and the small selection at the helm, I crouched down and crawled into the cabin, where the magic happens. The shop’s inside is warmed by the heat of the wood-burning oven in the corner and the couches around it are inviting and cozy. To live in the cabin of this boat would be a dream come true. You might be able to grab a spot on the couch and sit for a bit with a book if the cats aren’t monopolising the space. Yes, there are two little cats (although perhaps there are more, but I only saw two) who live onboard and on this chilly January day they were huddled up on the couch close to the fire. They must be used to visitors because they didn’t seem to notice me rummaging around the shelves of books that cover the walls. For such a small space, there is a decent selection of secondhand books, all for very reasonable prices. I bought Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood for £3. As with most of the bookshops I frequent, you’re in a real-live establishment, not on Amazon, so they don’t have everything, but I think that forces you to really look at what’s there and invites you to try a book you might not have thought of before. If you’re not up for these more bookish of adventures, you’ll just have to settle for the charming ambiance and the original idea, which are reason enough to pay the barge a visit, if you can find it.
While I’m on the subject of adventures, despite the frustration of a few failed attempts, I’m very glad to have found this bookshop today by accident. It goes to show that you can search and search as long as you like for exactly what you want, trying to plan every detail of each day of your life, but in the end, life surprises you. The plans you made might fall through and one day you might just be glad they did, because the things you never even imagined would happen will come to be the most important moments of your life. I harp on a lot on this blog about how bookshops are worth saving because they privilege the act of searching over instantaneous finding. But I think this bookshop doesn’t need to preach that lesson at you because it’s the living proof of it. You might not find exactly what you’re looking for in such a tiny little bookshop, but the experience is worth so much more than what you come out with. To walk along the canal like you do every day and then to come across a boat you’ve never seen which has been styled a “book barge” moored at the side sounds like the beginning of a pirate novel and reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in a way. And I think we all need a little adventure in our lives.
For example. I recently had to track down a copy of Home to India by Santha Rama Rau for a class I was taking. There were no copies at Waterstone’s, Foyles, any of my usual local independents, my uni’s library or the University of London and the British Library’s copy was off-site. I tried all of these places and finally found a copy at SOAS. After weeks, I finally got my hands on a tiny, weathered red copy of the 1936 edition published by the Left Reading Club, an organisation which operated in the 30s and 40s, disseminating quality literature about leftist ideology among the British intelligentsia and which I had never even heard of before. Everyone else in my class had ordered the reprinted version from Amazon instead of bothering to look for it. So, sadly, none of them really got the sense that a text like this, by an Indian woman writing in the 30s about nationalist politics, was not exactly floating around freely. The experience of tracking down that novel added something to my experience of reading it; its evident rarity really made its revolutionary aspect and its profound modernness (which of course becomes so relativised over time that it’s well-nigh invisible to recognise if you’re not looking for it) all the more real.
The point of that story, which somehow became a very long anecdote, is that oftentimes the adventures we have while looking for books add something special to our experience of them that wouldn’t be there otherwise. And it’s the sense of discovery, adventure and the fanciful that Word on the Water is bringing back to the book-hunting experience.
On the barge with me today there was a little boy, probably about three years old, admiring a picture book about dinosaurs, which his parents were reading to him (bless them) even though they clearly needed to be on their way. When they finally managed to get the book out of his hands, the little boy asked if he could drive the boat away. His parents and another adult in the shop smiled and laughed, in that dismissive way adults do when they’re conspiring to ruin a child’s fun. I found myself laughing too, but in my heart I thought this little boy is on to something. For what a perfect fairytale ending would it be to motor off along the partly-frozen canal, into the Thames and out to sea, never to be seen again in a boat full of books? It reminded me of the nights I feel asleep dreaming of drifting away in a shoe with Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod who ‘sailed off on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew.’