Golden Hare Books

photo 5Golden Hare Books, 68 St Stephen Street, Edinburgh, EH3 5AQ

When I was about sixteen, my parents took us all away on a long summer holiday, during which our family of six – featuring a gaggle of young teenagers – careened through several countries over a number of weeks.

About two thirds of the way through our travels, when we had all begun to miss  our friends and our beds and to annoy each other, we arrived in a new city in the late afternoon. My brothers and I were keen to get to our hotel rooms and relax. When we did, I was surprised and delighted to find – the loveliest thing – that each room had a working, log burning fireplace. I was immediately infatuated and became obsessed with the idea of a room full of books and a roaring fire. Owning such a room is a dream I harbour to this day, though London’s housing market teaches us not to expect anything nearly so lovely.

But on a recent trip to Edinburgh, I got to briefly live out that fantasy in a warm little room packed with books where a fire crackles in the hearth.

Golden Hare Books, in Stockbridge, is comfortable and welcoming. The log fire is kept stoked, and free tea and coffee is laid out for your enjoyment.

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The bookshop is a local favourite, with a loyal following, who get their money’s worth through the membership scheme Golden Hare offers, which includes discounts and a free book on your birthday. They run reading and writing groups, author events and book-signings that are regular and well-attended.

Predominantly a literary bookshop, Golden Hare has a great selection of cookbooks,children’s books, contemporary non-fiction & essays, music & media and graphic novels. I’m fairly passive when it comes to discovering new graphic novels; if I come across something interesting or a receive a (trusted) recommendation, I’ll always buy it and think ‘I really must read more graphic novels’, but I don’t follow the genre very closely and don’t often make the effort to explore. A bookshop like this, with a large and intriguing selection, is always useful in balancing my bookshelves.


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As you’d expect, the shop carries an excellent stock of Scottish literature. In pride of place were Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar, and Ali Smith, who, in my opinion, is Britain’s Greatest Living Writer. And just a few days before popping into the shop, I’d had the bucket list experience of meeting Ali Smith, at a reading and signing at Foyles in London. One of the (many) things I love about Ali Smith is how often she lends her considerable heft to promoting the work of other authors, particularly other women writers including Kamila Shamsie and Jackie Kay. I live to think of them as a little coven who all try to smash the patriarchy in their little way by saying nice things about each other’s books. I decided to buy Kay’s Bantam collection (how could I resist, in Edinburgh?) and when I took it to the till the bookseller and I exchanged a knowing smile, then a breathless ‘isn’t she wonderful?!’. I told her all about meeting Ali, of course, unable to contain my excitement, and a little bit boastful.

In total, a spent about an hour in Golden Hare Books, and although I only bought one book, came away with a jotted down list of about five others for my list.

Golden Hare is a brilliant place for every kind of reader in every kind of mood. I would come here again looking for something specific, or looking for just something new, or not looking for anything at all. I’d also come back for the chat with other readers, for their events, or just to be in a quiet house of books. And I’ll certainly be back on a cold day, for the warming fire.

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Librería El Lector

IMG_3388.JPGLibrería El Lector, Calle San Francisco 213, Arequipa, Peru

This is the Matilda Project’s farthest-flung entry to date, taking us all the way to a quiet street in Arequipa, Peru, in early evening as the temperature is plummeting and the white buildings, made of volcanic sillar rock, are tinged pink by the waning light. Between the foreboding El Misti volcano in the backdrop and the stunning colours of the sky, the city dares you not to stop in your tracks to respect and admire the show it’s putting on.

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And so I did, and when I looked up again, I was delighted that it was at the Librería El Lector (The Reader Bookshop) on the other side of the road. It was about twenty minutes to closing time, but with a smile and a promise not to be long, the bookseller graciously agreed to let us in to take a peek.

Librería El Lector sells Spanish and English language books, as well as many works in translation and a small selection books in European languages. Its selection includes works by Peruvian writers (Peru is more than just Vargas Llosa!), as well as books from around the globe, with many of the international works in a section appealingly marked ‘Literatura Universal’.

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Now, my own Spanish is quite rudimentary so I’ve had a little look in a thesaurus and it seems that a lovely quirk of the language is that ‘universal’, whilst it primarily just translates as, well, ‘universal’, also has a secondary meaning of ‘worldwide’. So I don’t know whether the double-meaning is there in Spanish or whether it’s only gained in the translation, but I find it heart-warming that international literature could also be called ‘universal’; it suggests that these are the books we should all read, that should be able to speak to all of us across cultural chasms.

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The bookshop is split over two floors, and up in the mezzanine you can get far away from the street and other customers. Right before closing time, it was quiet up there and felt as safe and pleasing as being hidden under the covers on the top bunk.With a little couch tucked in the corner, I only wished I had more time to sit and look at some of the interesting books I found there. There were also advertisements for the many author visits and other events the bookshop hosts, making me wish I had another few months to spend in Arequipa.

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I hadn’t been planning on buying anything, but couldn’t walk away from one book that caught my eye: Stories from Quechan Oral Literature. We had been travelling in Peru for a couple of weeks and heard a lot of the indigenous languages that are spoken in different parts of the country. Quechua and Aymara are the two most common and I love folk and fairy tales so I thought it would be learn more about the literature in Quechua. I bought the book, got it home and promptly realised that I’d completely misread the title. I had assume that in a country where Quechua is an official language, this would be a book in Quechua. Turns out there’s one extra ‘u’ in there which is quite important; I’d bought a book of Quechan, not Quechuan, oral stories. Quechan, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the native language of the Quechan people of southeastern California and southwestern Arizona in the Lower Colorado River Valley and Sonoran Desert.’ Wrong language, wrong people, wrong continent.

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But je ne regrette rien. I’ve since learned a bit about the Quechan people and about the World Oral Literature Project, and the book is on my shelf at home, reminding my each time I see it that sometimes we find interesting things when we don’t know we’re looking for them, and that words matter, so it’s worth double-checking you’ve got the right one.

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We left as the bookshop was shutting for the evening. Back in the street, the sunlight was almost gone but as I looked back, a few lights were still on in El Lector, and I could see the books in the window, the bookseller tidying up and the faces of ‘universal’ authors whose photographs decorated one wall. I thought of all those authors and their words in languages I speak and languages I don’t, whose books I may or may not have time enough to read. Knowing I’d probably never be back there again, I was comforted to know that wherever I find myself in the world, so long as there’s a good bookshop, I can catch up with them there.

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Book-ish

IMG_3563Book-ish, 18 High Street, Crickhowell, Powys, NP8 1BD

Earlier this summer, making my way slowly from Abergavenny to Hay-on-Wye for the Hay Festival, I decided to opt for slow travel, meandering my way through the Brecon Beacons on foot and bicycle, along canals and public footpaths. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm week at the end of May. One day, I ended up in the town of Crickhowell, buried deep in the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is an oasis of a town, the perfect place to stop mid-hike for a drink in one of its many comfortable pubs. Or perhaps a cream tea; in general the town veers towards the twee. And nothing could be more twee than a little country bookshop, in a beautiful old building in Wales.

IMG_3556The glass windows at the front of the shop are speckled with advertisements for events, readings and classes, and in May, were beautifully decorated with swirling letters, delicate plants and curlicues, which were promoting an upcoming Calligraphy workshop. Whimsical, literary and fun, I can’t imagine who could possibly walk past this shop without stopping.

 

Inside, Book-ish feels spacious and modern, but is certainly not without charm. Its clientele seems to be a mix of local families hikers or holidayers who are either just stopping in to enjoy the space, or are desperately trying to find their next read, realising they didn’t pack enough books! But what is most noticeable, is that it is a child-friendly IMG_3560space. Normally, the chidren’s section is tucked away at the back, but here, even in the front room, you find that children’s books and grown-up books are given pretty much equal amounts of space, and presented alongside each other, which is probably why there are so many families inside. Unlike the browsers who come and go, many of the families look like they are setting up camp for the day, because turn the corner and there’s even more to discover; a whole children’s room with books from floor to ceiling reveals itself. No adults are allowed, so mums, dads and other guardians will just have to sit and have a coffee and a Welsh cake in the charming cafe at the back.

IMG_3559But of course the kids can’t have all the fun. Aside from this one room to which they lay claim, the rest of the bookshop is ripe for discovery, and encourages the browser to pick up something they’ve never heard of before. With an admirable collection of local and Welsh writers, it’s a great opportunity to delve into a literature you might not be familiar with. There is also a good selection of literary and popular fiction and some fascinating non-fiction titles, mainly in history and culture. I can imagine this would be a boon to anyone headed to Hay but concerned they’ll not look the part without a hefty non-fiction tome.

The selection is good; it’s not the most high-brow and it’s not the most wide-ranging, but there are two things I love about Book-ish. First, there is something for everyone. You could bring the whole family and every person could find something to curl up with,IMG_3557 from toddler to teenager, the fiction-lover to the Welsh-language enthusiast, the home cook to the gardener, from your Corbynista cousin to the Leave-voting great-uncle who you’re starting to wish had decided to skip the family holiday this year. Secondly, it is a genuine delight to spend time here. The kindness of the helpful staff, the smells from the cafe, the beautiful, clean design of the shop and the presence of many species of books combine to make it somewhere that I could gladly have spent hours in. In some bookshops, it’s not about getting in and finding the perfect book for the rest of your holiday, it’s about being in a place that excites, delights and inspires, or perhaps just soothes. On a sunny day in May, the place was beautiful, the sunlight pouring in through the wide glass windows and a soft breeze dancing in through the open door. But I can imagine it would be just as pleasant in proper Welsh wet weather, where it would keep the outside world and the inside world inspiring.

On this occasion I left without a book, perhaps conscious that I was on my way to Hay on Wye where I would undoubtedly see my wishlist double in length and spend a fortune trying to keep up with the onslaught of recommendations. But next time I’m in the Brecon Beacons, I know exactly where I’ll go. You’ll find me in Crickhowell, with a cup of tea and a new book, spending the better part of an afternoon in the cafe at Book-ish. As long as you don’t talk to loudly, please come join!

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Libreria

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Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, London, E1 5JP

Libreria is that rare thing: a new London bookshop! While around the country – indeed, around the world – bookshops are closing down, it’s encouraging to see a new one pop up just around the corner from London’s Brick Lane. I went to visit yesterday, a sunny Sunday afternoon. After seeing a mention of the bookshop in the Guardian a few weeks back, I decided I’d like to see for myself.

What I saw has left me feeling a bit, well, confused.Walking in with very few expectations I was immediately impressed by this bookshop. I then made the mistake of doing an online search for Libreria when I got home, and reading a few things about the bookshop has left me with mixed feelings. But more on that later; there is more than enough to say about a visit to Libreria.

When you walk into Libreria, it takes a second to get your bearings. Because of the gentle curve of the space photo 3and the mirrors on the ceiling, the shelves, which are already packed to capacity with books, seem to carry on forever in every direction, including upwards into the sky. You can only stand there for a moment, stunned, while you take in your surroundings and internally map out the beautiful wooden shelves, painted a welcoming bright yellow. Throughout the shop are little reading nooks where you can sit and admire the books. In some bookshops his would seem a bit gimmicky, but here they are not just helpful, but perhaps even necessary. With every surface – vertical, horizontal and diagonal –  absolutely buried in books, I was often grateful for the ability to sit down in one of these little nooks and take a breath while I examined a book or tried to get my head around the layout of a particular section.

The selection of books is well-informed and interesting. This is not a place to get in and get out with a Le Carre novel, but it’s perfect if you’ve got a bit of time on your hands and want to find something new. Its real skill is in creating excitement about a new book. I love the feeling when I find photo 1something new that I need to snap up immediately, then rush home to turn it over, touch the cover, smell the pages, read and reread every word on the outside and crack it open to start reading as soon as possible. At Libreria, that ability to discover something exciting and inspiring takes precedent – and quite rightly so – over navigability. Rather than a simple ‘Fiction A-Z’, the shelves in Libreria meander in and out of logical order, more in keeping with the way your eye moves along a shelf of books anyway. Every now and then there is a vague sense of alphabetisation for a little while as you scan a row of books, but this can disappear suddenly and inexplicably, morphing into a completely different part of the alphabet or an entirely new system of ordering, so I quite quickly gave up trying to impose my own ideas of what should come next.

photo 2The sections in this bookshop are not titled ‘Fiction’, ‘Non-Fiction’, ‘Art’ and ‘Philosophy’. Instead you’ll find ‘Ways of Seeing’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Mothers, Madness and Whores’ or ‘The Future of Life and Death’. Yes, that does sound a bit pretentious. Of course it does.  But I think it’s always useful to have our notions of genre disrupted, and it’s fascinating to group books together in different and surprising ways. This system also makes it really clear from the outset that there is no point looking for something specific; on this journey you are in the passenger seat, being driven wherever the bookshop wants you to go, rather than where you think you should be going next.

Among the interesting and unexpected places I was taken were:

  • In Gratitude by Jenny Diski. Diski sadly passed away earlier this week, about two years after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. In Gratitude is the collection of the fantastic essays she had been writing for the London Review of Books, about her life, being half-adopted by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing as a teenager and about her experience of dying. I bought it on Thursday, as soon as I heard the sad news, and it was in a prominent position at Libreria.
  • Inflatable Woman, a graphic novel by Rachael Ball that looked intriguing and I’m going to go back to buy next time I’m in the area
  • Women who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. I think this is a stellar title.

There were also displays of books selected by two amazing women – Jeanette Winterson photo 2and Shami Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti’s choices were fascinating and included The Arrival, a beautiful graphic novel about migration by Shaun Tan. We ended up buying two books: The Witches: Salem 1692, a satisfyingly thick history book for £20 and the Selected Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, of whom I hadn’t heard before but whose stories sound irreverent and powerful and focus on ‘the oddities of love.’ This set me back £18, which seems a lot for a paperback. And obviously I’m not comparing that with Amazon, but with other independent bookshops of a similar calibre who provide excellent service and a delightful experience, but without taking the piss on prices. Still, in the scheme of things, this is a small price to pay for an hour spend in Libreria and two amazing books.

When I got home and sat down to write this piece, I decided to find out a bit more about Libreria and how they see themselves. I often do this before writing about a bookshop because I like to know whether a bookshop has a particular speciality or a nice story or an inspiring mission statement that I can include when I write about them. So I googled Libreria. It’s had quite a lot of coverage since opening and the tone of much of it is pretty irritating. For now I’ll give Libreria the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s just the press that’s taken such a frustrating view of this opening. While it’s really heartening that the opening of a new bookshop has been met with any interest, a few articles have described it in a way that makes it sound like it was founded on the whim of its creator who wanted to do something a bit quirky and kooky. It’s described in this particularly wanky article as a ‘concept bookstore in east London’. What does that even mean? Libreria, according to its acolytes, is special because it aims to be a quite space away from information overload and incessant noise and does this by providing a carefully curated selection of excellent books.

I fail to see how this makes Libreria any different from any other good bookshop. I don’t photo 1deny that it’s a brilliant place, because it’s a space in which you can leave behind the noise and information overload of the outside world and instead focus on books alone, in a setting that allows for creativity, spontaneity and discovery. This is wonderful and necessary, but it’s hardly some super creative new hipstery thing that no one’s ever thought of before. It’s just…a bookshop. That’s what a good bookshop is, and what it does. The self-congratulatory tone of a lot of the press coverage makes it sound like they’re the first ones to hit on this totally quirky and twee idea. This feels a bit insulting to bookshops like Brick Lane Books, a few minutes down the road, which has been a stalwart of the community, providing the same service (if not a better one, as they work hard to engage the community in reading and literature) but without banging on about it, for over thirty years. It’s a bit insulting to all the booksellers and booklovers for whom a good bookshop isn’t a novelty or the quirky retro Instragram fad of the week, but a treasured (if underappreciated) part of life. I’m sure the folks at Libreria are aware that they are the latest, but by no means the first, brilliant bookshop in London. So I’ll chose to ignore the pretentious think pieces and just let a good bookshop be a good bookshop.

The idea of a safe, clean, quiet place where you can go inside and have respite from the world around you while getting lost with books is a great one, and one with a long tradition of libraries and bookshops. I applaud anyone setting up a new bookshop like this, particularly one as truly unique as Libreria. This place is a haven and I’m so glad London has another beautiful bookshop, with a bold and creative selection of books that invites you to experiment and learn, and enables the magic of stumbling upon the perfect thing.

Fossgate Books

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Fossgate Books, 36 Fossgate, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 9TF

Fossgate, in the city centre of York, was built by the Vikings, as a bridge over the River Foss. It has had a fascinating history, taking on several different iterations. At the present, it is particularly noteworthy for being York’s ‘hidden gem’, which is home to dozens of small independent businesses. A massive banner stretches across the width of the north end of the street, proclaiming Fossgate the undisputed ‘ultimate street of independent businesses.’

I had the good fortune to visit Fossgate in December and happened to coincide with Small Business Saturday on the 5th December. Rambling up and down this vibrant city street, I popped in to many of the little businesses that make it unique, but as my readers know, there is no shop that can tempt me like a good bookshop. So I also dropped in to visit Fossgate Books. This quirky little bookshop is spread over two floors. It’s nowhere near as glossy or fashionable as many of the  London bookshops I haunt, but it’s got an understated, no-nonsense charm about it. And besides, the focus is firmly where it should be: on the books.

It was late afternoon when I went into the shop, but it was back in December and I remember that the sun had set well before 4pm that day, so Fossgate was beautiful in the soft light of the gloaming. There were very few other shoppers at that time; most had already headed back home for the evening, or into a warm pub  somewhere. The few of us in Fossgate Books had the place mostly to ourselves, while the attentive bookseller pottered around finishing a few end of day tasks, popped his head out now and then to greet someone passing by on the street outside and occasionally looked up from his desk and set his eyes benevolently upon his visitors. In the silence, it felt wrong to pull out my camera and notebook, but I made a mental note to remember some of the weird and wonderful titles so I could tell you all about them.

Fossgate Books has a wide selection and seems to specialise in second hand and rare books. I was delighted to find loads of  old children’s books, as well as hardcover modern first editions, varying in price from a couple of quid to £100. Parts of the collection were really quite charming; there was a quite expansive selection of literary biographies, which are always fascinating a whole shelf full of books about York and Yorkshire and an impressive selection of philosophy and religion books.

This is one of those bookshops that contains books you could have gone your whole life without ever seeing elsewhere. I chuckled to myself out loud when I saw a book called ‘The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries.’ I love how coming across a book like this can suddenly draw your attention to an incredibly specific area of study, something you would never think could possibly be very interesting. At first it seems comically niche, but then you realise that there is probably a whole community of people obsessed with this very subject, and a larger group than you might think of people who have made it their life’s work.

Independent bookshops are brilliant because they take us out of our own interests long enough to expose us to absurd books like this. They create those precious moments when something you previously thought was tiny and insignificant opens up to reveal a whole world within it. I have no doubt that if you visited Fossgate Books tomorrow, you would be so lost among the hundreds of books that you’d fail to find this specific one. But you’d find something else that would make you smile, or laugh, or think again, or possibly spark an interest in something you’d never heard of before. You won’t find the same thing I found, but you’ll find something, and I’d love to know what it is.

 

The Little Apple Bookshop

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The Little Apple Bookshop, 13 High Petergate, York, YO1 7EN

APPLE.

Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

A little piece please. Cane again to the presupposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use.

– from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

Little things are not always as simple as their littleness makes them seem. The little finger of a newborn holds all the worry and anxiety and joy in the world to a new parent. William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, and found infinity in an hour. James Joyce saw the eternal struggle for empathy and communion between human beings in one bumbling newspaper man’s wanderings around Dublin on the 16th June. Gertrude Stein saw in an apple a whole rainbow of things that were decidedly not an apple.

Little books, like Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, and more recently, We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, can house world-changing, perception-altering ideas within a few dozen pages.

The Tardis is bigger on the inside.

The Little Apple Bookshop in York is…a little bookshop. It’s almost comically little 028considering that it sits in the shadow of York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. But inside, there are books. Which means that inside, it’s bigger than you could possibly imagine. Inside, it contains more information that you could ever learn, more characters than you’ll ever know, more reasons to laugh, cry, rejoice, despair, be inspired, be depressed and ask questions than you would ever create on your own. And all in a single room not much bigger than my kitchen.

Crammed inside are books for all sorts of people, but mainly for the best sort of people: little children. Picture books, story books and chapter books line the walls and make them satisfyingly colourful. The children’s books at the Little Apple are excellent ones and there are actually enough of them! As an adult, I almost never give up on a book I’ve bought and decided to try, but when I was younger I could read the first paragraph of a book and decide yea or nay for absolutely no logical reason. If it was a no, I wouldn’t read another word. Children like this need lots and lots of choices, and not all bookshops understand this. But never fear; though she be but little, the Apple is fierce. It has books to satisfy the tastes of even the pickiest readers.

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If you’re not a child, I commiserate. But there’s even choice for us grown-ups crammed in there. Classic and modern fiction from around the world is beautifully chosen, as are crime and mystery, graphic novels, cookery and a bit of 027non-fiction. Does the Little Apple have everything? No, stupid; it’s too little. But it’s got far more good stuff than most of us will ever need, let alone deserve. Such is the magic of good books; they expand time and space. They make a tiny, poky little room feel never-ending like a palace. They make an afternoon stretch time back and forth, so it’s like a year and also like 5 seconds at the same time, and then, like an elastic,  when you close the book, it snaps back and it’s just an afternoon again. The Little Apple Bookshop is a place where one could easily get lost in space and time, even if you haven’t much of either.

It’s such a bright, friendly, open, inviting place to be, that just visiting is reward enough. I didn’t even feel the need to bring home any new books for myself. I did, however, buy a present for my youngest brother, who never reads, though I always insist on buying him nothing but books at every gift-giving occasion. This time, the book he’s getting that I hope he might actually read is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A fellow browser noticed me take it down from the shelf and whispered to me that her daughter loves this book, so I knew I had a winner.

According to Wikipedia, the subject matter of this book is: ‘good and evil, survival, magic.’ All that covered in 180-odd pages.

Next time you’re in York with a little bit of time and a little bit of money, pop in to the Little Apple Bookshop. You’ll want to buy everything, of course. But even if you walk away empty-handed, it’s impossible to leave without feeling like something – the world, your heart, your mind – has been made a little bit bigger.

 

Minster Gate Bookshop

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Minster Gate Bookshop, 8 Minster Yard, York, YO1 7HL

In the shadow of the imposing York Minster, a little bit tucked away, you’ll find a quiet, little bookshop. On a cold evening, it radiates a soft yellow light from its front windows, promising warmth and refuge. In European Christian tradition, churches like York Minster have provided a sanctuary for the wretched and afflicted; criminals, orphans, victims of crime or violence and fugitives from the law could enter a church and be given asylum for some time. While York Minster would be a grand place to seek refuge and respite from a cruel world, I personally prefer a bookshop, where one need never fear being turned away or rejected, so long as one stays quiet and is gentle with the books.

I am a traveler in York. At least for now anyway, unless I decide to leave London and its 013extortionate cost of living behind and start again up North. For now, though, I’m just a traveler, dependent on the hospitality of others and, as Blanche DuBois put it, the kindness of strangers. This means that while I’m in York and away from home, I get to take refuge from my everyday life and instead spend some time in someone else’s everyday life. Now, in York, that someone could be anyone a Roman administrator, a Viking settler, an Anglo-Saxon priest, a Victorian writer or a 21st century student. York has had so many lives already, as evidenced by its name. When the Romans first founded the city and built its still-standing walls in71 CE, they called it Eboracum. Under the Anglo-Saxons this became Eoforwic, then Jorvik under the Vikings and finally York, via various Middle English iterations including Yerk, Yourke and Yarke over the years. In this city there are endless possible narratives to slip yourself into as you shed your self for a little while.

I have written before about how reading and traveling are the perfect combination, as 004both are fundamentally about leaving behind what is known and familiar and journeying into a different place and a different self. Sometimes this is quite a terrifying prospect, but it can also be an incredibly comforting one as well. Growing up, one of the things that books were to me was a refuge. When family life was loud, when I didn’t want to answer questions, when I simply wanted to disappear, the best way to do this was to open a book. You see, being a girl with her nose in a book is like having an invisibility cloak. No one seems to see you, the book is your shield and it keeps prying eyes and minds at a distance. Little do they know, inside your cloak, a whole world is being built around you, seen from a new and exciting vantage point. It’s just like walking along the streets of a new city; your anonymity keeps you safe from having to engage, lets you hide out a little longer in the secret adventure you’re having on your own.

I had the same feeling in Minster Gate bookshop. Coming in out of the cold and away from the crowds, a whole world of possible escapes presents itself. Within the quiet space of a little bookshop, worlds open up. And in York, a city with such an improbably rich history to untangle, every new story comes with the promise of magic.

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Minster Gate Bookshop is split over four floors, each a maze of different rooms. It presents the adventurer with dozens of subcategories of books; History is not just History, but: 015British History, Archaeology, Ancient History, Military, European, American and World History and, somewhat oddly, Transport. Fiction dominates the basement, with many classics available for discounted prices. They have every single Neil Gaiman book, all sitting in a pile on the floor and all for £3. There are new books, used books, rare and special edition books, prints and maps and all sorts beyond that! There’s everything from crime and mystery to folklore and fairy tale sections. The shelves seem to scream, ‘You can be anyone in here!’

Minster Gate Bookshop, while it caters for many tastes, has a decidedly literary persuasion. With full sections of Literary Theory and Literary Biography, it also has lots of rooms for those funny books that don’t seem to have a clear classification. In a poky little room up on what I think was the third floor, though I lost count, I found a treasure trove of fascinating clever escapes. Arthurian legend, feminist folktales, little-known classics and scholarly criticism rubbed shoulders. My particular favourites in this difficult-to-classify collection were:

The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm

The Book of Legendary Lands by Umberto Eco

The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology

The Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare

I wanted to buy all of them and hide away forever wandering through far away, long ago 014and never-never lands, but in the end, I bought a hardcover first edition of The Second Virago Book of Fairytales by Angela Carter for £6. Like me, Angela Carter was fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and believed that they have significant insights into why our culture is the way it is, as well as being an excellent example of oral storytelling and quite fun to write and rewrite.

It was only when I walked out of Minster Gate bookshop that I became aware again of the sounds of the city, the crush of the crowd, even what time it was and the stress of knowing I had to get dinner on. Inside, everything was suspended, just like when I used to open a book and hide for a while. When you’re fully engaged in the world of a story – or a world full of stories, which a bookshop should be – everything else seems to disappear. Minster Gate Bookshop, because of its location, probably gets a lot of tourists who poke their heads in, shriek ‘Oh it’s so cute and English! #quaint #janeaustenorwhatever’, take a #geek selfie and then walk out again. And so be it; it’s there for them to do that.

But I think what it’s really there for it to be a refuge that opens its arms to lovers of books, stories and words and lets them leave everything else at the door. Long may it continue to welcome all of us.

Highgate Bookshop

IMG_2926Highgate Bookshop, 9 Highgate High Street, London, N6 5JR 

It’s possible that it’s summertime in England at last! Knock on wood. Last week, on the warmest day of the year so far, I took a long walk in the sunshine from Caledonian Road all the way up to Highgate, a beautiful and vaguely literary area in North London. David Copperfield visits his friend Steerforth at his family home in Highgate and on the walk I passed the Whittington Stone, named after Dick Whittington who, having failed to make his fortunes in London, headed back for his Gloucestershire home with his cat in tow, then stopped in Highgate when he heard church bells ringing in Bow and decided to turn around and have another go at it. Furthermore, whenever I’m in Highgate amongst the yummy mummies and organic cafés, I can’t help but think of Ralph Denham from

Nearby Waterlow Park is a great place to lie in the sunshine and read! I finished Eleanor Catton's 'The Luminaries' lying in the grass.

Nearby Waterlow Park is a great place to lie in the sunshine and read! I finished Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ lying in the grass.

Virginia Woolf’s underapreciated Night and Day, who comes from ‘a respectable middle-class family living at Highgate.’ Like nearby Hampstead, it’s a place of tranquil parks (Waterlow Park is a beautiful place to read in the sun and dogs have to be on leads which is ace!), leafy squares, Georgian townhouses and independent shops in Highgate Village. One of these is the excellent little Highgate Bookshop.

When I visited, the door to the shop was open, which let a warm breeze in, making for a very pleasant browsing experience. A few members of staff were scattered around the shop getting on with their work. They offered knowledgeable advice to browsers who looked confused but seemed able to tell who just wanted to look at books in silence. That discerning nature, in my opinion, is one of the most important qualities of a bookseller. It makes me feel comfortable enough to stick around for a while, to go back and forth between sections as much as I choose.

The shop has a small but well-curated selection of books in all the major IMG_2924categories. There is a good poetry section, a small drama section and shelves full of books on History, Philosophy, Psychology and Politics, as well as lots of beautiful cookery books. It also has lots of books on slightly more niche subjects, like Nature, Animals and Gardening. Its New and Bestselling displays are great because they include lots of different genres; I have to admit that I tend to forsake politics, culture, history and even literary criticism in favour of a good thick novel. While I will always believe that the novel is the perfect art form and by far my favourite, there are brilliant books coming out every day, about art, philosophy, feminism, music, society and technology that I know I would find fascinating if I gave them a chance. The Highgate Bookshop is a great place to remember that and dare yourself to pick something up that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to you.

Its fiction section, though, is still where I spent most of my time. It is an excellent fiction section, where you can find all the classics, a very thoughtful and outward-looking selection of English and international contemporary fiction and lots of lesser-known novels to try. It is also a selection you can trust; under J for James, you’ll find not Fifty Shades of Grey, but rather The Portrait of a Lady, IMG_2923What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw. At least there is order and propriety somewhere in this mixed-up world!

I bought two novels at Highgate Bookshop. The first was by a familiar face on my bookshelf; it was Lives of Girls and Women by The Great Alice Munro, which is her only novel. The second was more of a gamble: Ladies Coupé by the Indian writer Anita Nair. I had never read anything by her before and the cover of the book was halfway between serious world literature and chick lit (it annoys me how often novels by female writers suffer that fate), but the Daily Telegraph described it as ‘one of the most important feminist novels to come out of South Asia’ so I thought it was worth a punt. For anyone curious, I have now finished it and would recommend trying it. It’s not a perfect novel; the prose is good but not great. There are moments when it absolutely soars, and other moments where it feels clunky, contrived and cliché. But overall, it’s good, and the story is incredibly engaging, the characters are three-dimensional and memorable and the main messages – that women can be happy on their own, that women must be happy on their own and that storytelling should be a crucial part of any social movement – will stay with you long after the end of the book. It was one of Nair’s earlier novels so the next time I visit a bookshop I’ll have to look into what she’s done since.

Like all good bookshops (or record shops, galleries or museums…) the Highgate IMG_2925Bookshop is a central part of its community because it provides a place for people to explore things that are decidedly outside of their daily routines. To be in the presence of books and bookish people is always exhilirating and challenging. I love it because I think it is important for know-it-alls like me to be reminded that there is a whole world of knowledge, experience and art out there, and that I’m only familiar with a tiny fraction of it. The Highgate Bookshop, with its thousands of choices, each providing a new window on a different world, is a very important place to me. It challenges me by asking me to look at what I don’t know, and it inspires me to never stop learning and exploring through the pages of books.

Nomad Books

IMG_2837Nomad Books, 781 Fulham Road, London, SW6 5HA

Like many of you, I am, for all intents and purposes, a ‘grown up.’ I live in a flat, where I pay rent and bills and spend time between coming home from work and going back again. I have an alarm set for 7:20 every weekday morning. I leave the house at around 8:20 and take the Victoria line to work. I work until 6pm, when I walk back to the station and take the tube home. I worry about horrible colleagues, unmet targets and the damp in the corner of the bedroom. In other words, I have a routine. Most days, I do pretty much exactly the same thing. But some days, I do something different.

It seems to me there are two modes of everyday living. You can live in your little bubble or box, going back and forth between work and home and doing more or less the same thing. Alternatively, you can do something new every day, live a life of individual days, each one unique and exciting and new and full of adventure. Sadly, the world we live in makes it all too apparent that we are supposed to opt for the former – that this is a sign of success and normality. Sanity, even. So, most of us spend about 90% of our time in the box. The internet makes it easier, of course, by making our lives more uniform. It’s a shame, given the potential of the worldwide web to help us reach outwards, but sadly we never use it that way. The internet could take us to Maui, Malawi or Mexico, or let us see the Andes, the Aztecs or the Arctic. But the reality is that the vast majority of people, when they open Google Earth, look first for their own house. Yes, the internet, despite giving us delusions of grandeur, actually just seals the lids of our boxes ever more firmly. This isn’t the end of the world; very few of us have the energy or the funds required for a purely nomadic lifestyle.

Nonetheless, it’s in that 10% that most of us create our most treasured memories, so it’s that 10% I want to talk about. We all find ways of bringing that lifestyle into our daily lives and for me the main ones are reading, travel and buying books. Going to Nomad Books in Fulham is one little thing I can do to get a bit of adventure in my life. It is the perfect place for reading (and planning what I’ll read next), travelling (I take a long trip on the District line to get to their travel books) and buying beautiful books.

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Nomad Books has been on Fulham Road for over 20 years. It’s a lovely little building on the corner of a lovely little street. It is particularly popular for its large selection of travel books and travel guides, which are housed in a room towards the back of the shop, along withIMG_2830 the art, architecture, design and photography books. There is a small couch and table here, away from other browsers and staff. In some bookshops, sitting areas like this look a bit forced, but at Nomad Books, I really did feel that I could sit down with a book, get comfortable and read undisturbed for the rest of the afternoon. I might even plan my next trip away from the box while sitting in that comfortable seat and looking at photos of Peru.

Nomad Books also has a good classic fiction section and a very thorough display IMG_2833of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, prominently on display at the front of the shop. Bays full of recent publications, both the bestsellers and the more obscure, are dotted with insightful staff recommendations, so you’ll never be short of good suggestions if you’re overwhelmed by the selection. The fiction selection is by no means extensive; it’s eclectic. This is not Amazon and you will not be able to find anything you want. Embrace that and find something you weren’t looking for. Finding what you’re looking for belongs to the 90% realm. Finding something exotic and tempting and buying it on a whim belongs to the 10%. This eclectic fiction selection, such that it is, covers the walls on the side of the shop that is also a coffee, where you can buy tea and coffee and tasty treats and sit for as long as you like and admire the books or get a head start on the one you’ve just purchased.

At the back of the shop are the children’s books, with more comfortable chairs, IMG_2836couches and tables in amongst them. It’s perfect for an impromptu story time if you can’t make it to one of the shop’s weekly story circles. When I went in last week, during the schools’ Easter holidays, two mums with 4 children between them in tow where chatting away happily in the back of the shop about what books they’d buy. Nomad Books feels like it’s part of the community. These families passing through on their day off were not the only ones giving me that impression; when I walked in a very elegant older lady was sitting in the café reading. About fifteen minutes later, an elegant little old man walked in, gallantly took his hat off and sat down across from her. Eavesdropping told me that they both live in the area and often bump into each other here.

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I’ve spent a lot of money on books lately, but it was my day off, I was on the other side of the city and I was on an adventure, so I bought Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant. It is still in a beautiful hardcover edition that won’t be around forever so if you’re thinking of buying it, do it now. It cost £20 but if the first 100 pages are anythingIMG_2831 to go by, it was more than worth it. On the back of this lovely hardcover is written a quotation from the first chapter, written in large gold writing, which captures the feeling I got in the shop. It was the feeling that there are infinite worlds out there, in the world and in books, waiting to be explored. It was the feeling that life is too short to spend only 10% of your time on adventures. It’s the feeling we get at airports and train stations at the beginning of a journey. It’s the feeling readers get when they hold a heavy hardcover in their hands, or turn the brittle first page of a favourite old paper back or read a great opening line:

‘There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…’

Foyles

IMG_2826Foyles, 107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT  

For many years, Foyles was at 119 Charing Cross Road. Founded in 1903 when the brothers Foyle sold their textbooks after failing their civil service entrance exams, it moved to the heart of the West End and the street of books in 1906. It took off and the brothers went from selling books out of their mother’s kitchen to owning one of the world’ most famous bookshops. Charing Cross Road is a very special place for books and book-lovers and Foyles has long been the jewel in its crown. With its erratic shelving, its labyrinthine corridors, Christina Foyle’s Literary Lunches and Ray’s Jazz cafe, this bookshop has become a London favourite a second home to many a frazzled Literature undergraduate. Its history is so long, illustrious, confusing and entertaining that I won’t try to tell it here. But if you’re interested in how 119 Charing Cross Road came to be, you can read more on the Foyles website. If, like me, you have a soft spot for misanthropic Luddites, give Christina Foyle’s obituary a try.

When I first went to Foyles, it had largely modernised, leaving behind its days as the world’s most infuriating bookshop. It was still a higgledy-piggledy mess of genres and a maze of floors and stairs and lifts, but they had abolished the now-infamous system whereby, for many years, you had to queue twice to buy a book: you’d queue for a hand-written note in the section where the book belonged (not necessarily the section where you’d find it, of course) then again when you brought the note and the book down to the main IMG_2820till. If you mixed things up you’d have to go back upstairs with your book and do the whole thing over again. While I may have missed the glory days of disorganisation, Foyles was still a place that marched to the beat of its own drum. The staff were always a little bit quirky. Some quiet corners were so isolated that you’d suddenly look up from a book and realise that you hadn’t seen or heard a human for 20 minutes and anxiously poke your head out to make sure the rest of the shop was still there. The segues between different subjects never quite made sense (you’d walk along rows of shelves on 20th century Middle Eastern history and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by books about Alchemy) and the books on display were consistently, even stubbornly, alternative. As a student, I spent many hours in Foyles, partly for the atmosphere and partly because its selection of academic books and obscure novels made it absolutely necessary to anyone trying to avoid buying books on Amazon. I remember rushing around London trying to find books in Waterstone’s branches, secondhand bookshops and university libraries, all the while knowing that the only place that would have them would be Foyles. Some of the books I found at Foyles and nowhere else were: Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo, Cane by Jean Toomer, Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog and Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. Yes, Foyles was a lifesaver for me countless times, but it was also one of my favourite places in the world.

So, imagine my anxiety when I learned that it would be leaving 119 Charing Cross Road, closing up the old shop and moving down the road to number 107. I admit that to most people, this was barely news. To me, it hinted of catastrophe. The idea of Foyles being anything other than the place I knew and loved activated those human fears of loss and change and for about a year I mostly pretended it wasn’t going to happen. At the Hay Festival in 2013, we went to listen to Miriam Robinson (then Head of Marketing) and Alex Lifschutz, the architect of the new Foyles. They talked about the changing industry and the importance of making bookshops cultural destinations in their own right and about finding the balance between tradition and innovation. I was reassured but unconvinced. When the new Foyles opened up in the summer, I was anxious. The first time we went I tried to be balanced and to reserve judgement. The second and third times it felt really strange. I’ve now been in about ten times since it reopened. It was on about the 8th visit that I admitted to myself, ‘Okay, I really love this place.’ When I went again this weekend, I realised I might love it even more than the old Foyles.

IMG_2825When you walk in, you are greeted with a huge sign that announces, ‘Welcome book-lover, you are among friends.’ While I don’t love the way this is punctuated, the sentiment is one that fills my heart with good will. Here is a place where we belong! The people who come to the new Foyles are, honestly, the loveliest bunch. Where are the arrogant philistines expounding all the reasons that Toni Morrison is actually overrated? Where are the giggling couples hiding in corners and the creepy old men loitering around the books about sex? Where are the talkative hipsters who think a peaceful bookshop is the perfect place to impose their reading of Proust upon innocent passersby? Here there are only quiet hipsters and real book-lovers. It’s as if this temple of books and reading casts a spell on browsers and makes them act like decent human beings. It’s like heaven!

Foyles, Foyles, Foyles! It makes me so happy that this place exists! The ground floor has bestsellers and hot of the press books, as well as magazines, art IMG_2824and architecture books and gifts. The lower ground floor has a huge children’s book section with expertly-chosen books and knowledgeable staff. It is also home to cookery, travel and craft books. At Foyles, none of these are token one-shelf sections but comprehensive overviews of a whole genre. Then there is the amazing fiction section that takes up most of the first floor. Here you’ll find the Highlights section which draws attention to some amazing contemporary books you might have missed and the staff recommendations which are wonderful. It is global in its scope and the books on display are impeccably selected. This floor houses literary fiction, graphic novels, crime, fantasy, science fiction and a huge poetry section. There are also plenty of beautiful editions of classics, IMG_2818including my favourites, the Folio Society editions. Upstairs, on floors 2,3 and 4, you will find books on every subject under the sun. Foyles has books on all of the major subjects: History and Politics broken down by geographical region, biography, religions, philosophy, science, maths, sport, travel, music, law, medical, business, economics, film, drama, nature, health, Women’s studies, Culture, LGBT studies and a tiny section about Transport for London where I found a geeky but very interesting book about the history of the names of all the London Underground Stations. Flipping through it, I learned that my area of London used to be called Battlebridge because it was the site of a IMG_2819bridge over the River Fleet where the battle between Boudicca and the Romans was fought. I think that’s far more interesting than ‘King’s Cross’ and I’m glad that I know it. Foyles also has a world-class selection of Foreign Language books and a great music section, where you can find CDs, books about music and sheet music. Can you believe all of this is in one shop?!

On the fifth floor you’ll find the Foyles cafe, the perfect place to have tea and cake and admire your purchases. It’s a bright and lovely cafe full of almost entirely bright and lovely people and it’s quite an ideal place to re-energise after IMG_2822you’ve climbed your way up to the fifth floor and spent ages looking at books. At Hay, Miriam Robinson talked about how going to bookshops in the 21st century has to be an event. Well, in my household, ‘going to Foyles’ has become a perfectly acceptable thing to say that you’re doing this weekend. (Disclaimer: this may not be the case across the board; we are very bookish people and don’t get out much). Nevertheless, we can spend hours there, particularly if after our browse and our tea and cake, we’re going to one of the many events and talks that Foyles hosts. Foyles really is a place where you might go for a day out, the way you would go to a museum or gallery. In my eyes, it’s a complete success.

And now it’s time to tell you about my spoils. I bought A Tale for the Time Being IMG_2816by Ruth Ozeki. When it first came out, Foyles (the old Foyles!) had a beautiful limited edition hardcover that I never got around to buying and now they don’t make them any more. I have finally accepted this and bought the paperback edition. I started reading it the same day and it’s great so far. I also bought The Vegetarian by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and The Hen who Dreamed she Could Fly by another female Korean writer, Sun-Mi Hwang translated by Chi-Young Kim. I should also mention that when I was in the shop 2 weeks ago, I bought another lovely Pushkin Press edition of Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix. I have since finished it and it is beautiful – ironic, playful, emotional but not melodramatic, and highly intellectual. I definitely recommend it. Foyles, like any good bookshop, is a great place for discovering international writers you might not have heard of and giving them a try. In my experience, it’s almost always worth it.

So go and visit! It doesn’t matter when! There will always be knowledgeable staff IMG_2823who recommend excellent books. There will always be books on display that make you think and feel and want to act. At the moment, the Penguin Little Black Classics line the stairwells all the way up to the fifth floor. It may not be number 119, but the new Foyles will make you fall in love with books and bookselling all over again. I wasn’t sure at first. I missed its old home and mourned my student days getting lost in those meandering shelves. But I promise you, 107 Charing Cross Road is a very good place. The spirit of Foyles is still here and this new home is one of my favourite places in the world.