The Blackgull Bookshop and Bindery, 70-71 Camden Lock Place, Camden Lock Market, NW1 8AF
“It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her to new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” – Roald Dahl, Matilda.
In honour of Roald Dahl Day, which was yesterday, I’m resurrecting The Matilda Project. And, in the spirit of that transportative quality of language, let me steal you away to a far less exotic location than Ernest’s or Rudyard’s…Camden Town.
I’ve recently made the move to North London, something I never thought I’d do, but I must confess, it’s nice that no matter where you are and no matter what time it is, there’s always a bus to King’s Cross. And while the South and the East seem to be full of people and shops and sights that feel like they’ve arrived just a minute ago from a million different places, the North is full of things that seem to belong there; I’m sure there are people and shops and whole networks that have lived and thrived and never left the Cally Road in fifty years. Walking along Regent’s Canal from Caledonian Road to Camden Lock Market you’ll see a veritable cross-section of Londoners, but on a cold weekday morning, it’s mainly just homeless people and art students. When I got to Camden, a slightly calmer market place than usual was setting up its food stalls and opening the doors to its vintage shops for the day. The lady at the Blackgull didn’t talk to me as I ducked into her shop; she was busily moving books around, unpacking boxes and setting up for the day. At one point, while I was jealously looking at an old Faber publication of Eliot’s Four Quartets, a woman walked into the shop and up to the little bustling bookseller with a chipper “Hi Barbara!” to which Barbara replied “Morning, Jenny! What have you brought me?” I think this is probably a friendship, or at least a partnership, that goes back a long time; Barbara trusted Jenny’s books enough to buy them off her without making any fuss and seemed genuinely concerned that Jenny had broken her little toe which, the latter insisted, is actually much more important than you’d think it is.
While they were having this conversation, neither of the women paid much mind to me lurking in front of the philosophy books. I didn’t mind, because, despite its busy location and the fact that it probably feels very different on a Sunday afternoon when the market is full, silence suits the Blackgull. The shop is open to the sounds of the market and even inside, there’s no escape from the cold air, ironic sunlight and winds of a London September, so even though you’re inside, it doesn’t feel like it at all. And with the tall shelves full of books that cover every single inch of the walls, it’s less like walking into a shop than it is like stumbling out of a clearing and back into a forest, where all around and overhead you’re surrounded by tall rows. Perhaps this is the kind of urban forest is the kind of place the French were thinking of when they chose the word “feuille” to mean both a sheet of paper and a leaf.
The shop has two sides, separated by the till in between them and in the middle of the first section, where fiction, history and philosophy books stretch up to the roof, there’s a thick stump covered with antique and rare books blocking the way, slightly, and affording the perfect opportunity to hide away from the tourists in the market and that most pesky of irritations in a bookshop – the Other Customer.
On the top of this island of misfit books is a round sign that reads “When I first read a dictionary I thought it was a poem about everything.” It’s a funny thing to think about – especially since before I got on my tip toes to read the bottom line, I thought it said “nothing”, instead of “everything”. But more importantly, it’s just a little bit random, this giant disk suspended above a shelf of books that simply aren’t dictionaries. But that is just the kind of place the Blackgull is; miscellaneous posters about Camden, London, books, music and art are all over the walls and behind the till there is a mint in box Sigmund Freud action figure. Why does such a thing exist? Why display it in a bookshop? These are the kinds of questions there’s simply no point in voicing.
The shop has an impressive collection of second hand books which are organised into the usual Fiction, Poetry, Plays, History, Philosophy, Psychology and Art. There is also the amusing addition of a box sitting on the floor full of music books, ranging from Oboe Solos for Beginners to Bach for the Piano to Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to the music for one of The Darkness’ albums. But my favourite section of this shop was “Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
Sadly, (well, not that sadly, I suppose) all of my book-hunting these days is off a scribbled list in my notebook of books I need for my Masters course, so I didn’t get a chance to buy anything too hilarious or exciting. I did, however, notice two books that I’ll have to come back for at some point. The first was a book about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Ida Baker, who is referred to in Katherine’s letters as L.M. and is characterised as having no aspiration in life other than to cater to Katherine’s needs. Come on, Ida, grow a backbone. One of these days I’ll revisit in the hopes that I can redeem Ida in everyone’s estimation. The second was a book about books with funny names. Tragically and somewhat ironically, I’ve forgotten its name. Instead, I spent a grand total of £7 today and bought Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Not bad.
The Blackgull is a strange little place inhabited by mysterious flora and fauna, where far-off city noises are a little bit softer and there’s always a thick trunk to hide behind when they get too close. As it started to rain outside, the strangeness of everything else in the shop made plausible the fantasy that soon enough, I’d be hit in the head by a gentle shower of black typewritten letters falling down to the ground from the tops of the bookshelves.