Church Street Bookshop, 142 Stoke Newington Church Street, London, N16 oJU
Well, fancy that, we’re back in Stoke Newington! And the 73 bus, with its views from the upper deck of the busy, colourful high street, has seduced me once again.
Church Street Bookshop is the perfect bookshop for the strong, silent type. Bookshops like the Stoke Newington Bookshop, just a ten minute’s walk away, are paradises for those who love being social, talking about books and being part of a community of bibliophiles, while its smaller neighbour is for those who prefer nothing but the unobtrusive sound of soft jazz tinkling in the background and the whispers of yellowed pages and black type between wooden shelves. Personally, I think I’m somewhere between these two types of bookhunters, or maybe I change by the day. At times, I quite fancy a chat with the bookseller about how amazing the inscription on an edition of Sula is, but more often I’m happy to browse alone, in my own little world.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a sense of community here; while I was wandering through the small space this morning, two people came in who seemed to be religious devotees of this secondhand shop and one of them was a lovely older lady bearing flowers for the bookseller. Such are the wonderful people-watching opportunities that bookshops foster!
The front windows of the bookshop are filled with colourful children’s books on display and all are secondhand. Inside, the bright front windows let in so much light that it’s a bit like maybe light from the heavens has broken through the clouds to shine down on the very spot where the book that’s going to change your life is hiding. That’s an exaggeration. But it is very well-lit. And I do believe that if a light from heaven was going to shine down on a place where a human life might be changed, it would absolutely have to shine on a secondhand bookshop.
Boxes (presumably of books) block the entire middle section of the back corner, where fiction, poetry, politics and philosophy live, but it works, because it closes an otherwise open space off into more secluded corners; perfect for hiding away from the rest of the world.
Each bookshop’s selection is a little bit different and these differences stem from things like the owner’s taste, location and the local population. Secondhand bookshops, then, are revealing because they rely on the books they’ve received from donors, at least in large part, I assume. Of course this is all completely speculative since I’ve never worked in a used bookshop. I’m just a fan. Anyway, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes (casual Dr. Seuss reference…anyone?), this bookshop has a really brilliant selection of recent and contemporary literature. Almost the entire back wall of the shop is filled with it. Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison…they’re all there and in fine form. Such an emphasis is put on these more modern titles that there is half a bay labelled ‘Pre-Twentieth Century’, with one copy of Pride and Prejudice, one of Bleak House…you get the idea. The classics aren’t that well represented, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. There are loads of editions of the classics that are cheap and most secondhand bookshops have them by the boxfull; it’s the contemporary novels that are harder to get secondhand. Which is why this bookshop is so handy!
The shop also has a very good collection of children’s books, cookery, history, local interest and London-related books. But as always, I gave these only a very cursory one-over before heading back to Poetry and Fiction. I am so predictable and must be very boring to anyone who wishes I would talk more about the history sections of these bookshops. Oopsy.
Aside from the fantastic selection of books, this bookshop is notable for its prices; everything is so ridiculously cheap it feels unfair. Obviously an oversized hardcover edition of a thick book will always be more than a couple of quid, but of all the paperbacks I picked up, the most expensive one I saw was about £2.90, but most were in the £1.60-£2 region. It’s the kind of place that’s very dangerous because you can keep collecting cheap books until all of a sudden you get the till and it’s not so cheap anymore. But personally, I’d argue that it’s more dangerous to never buy books at all, so I’ll leave you to weigh up your chances for survival. Hint: go with the books. Even if you end up with too many.
I made the rounds of the shop several times and on one of these tours I found the book I came away with. It was a copy of the Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas. When I left, I brought it up to the till, which is also covered with books and hides a back room which promises more stacks. I paid £2.50 for it. I surprised myself by buying this. I always think of Dylan Thomas the poet before Dylan Thomas the writer of plays and short stories, but that’s completely unfair to him, I suppose. I like Thomas a lot – I already have a copy of his Collected Poems and one of his plays – but I’d say my interest in him generally is enough to pick up the book and examine in, but usually not enough to buy it.
What changed my mind today was this beautiful inscription:
To Louise – You are a wonderful, extraordinary and amazing woman and it has genuinely been my privilege to work with you these last four years. Now I’m looking forward to knowing you as a friend for all the rest of my life; I’ll be keeping in touch whether you like it or not! Love, Mia x’
I love coming across inscriptions and marginalia like this and will always, categorically always, buy the book when I find something like this written inside. I kind of can’t believe that Louise gave this book away to a secondhand bookshop so soon after receiving it; I wonder if they fell out, if she didn’t like Dylan Thomas anyway or if, tragically, she lost it on a bus or a park bench and it somehow ended up in Stoke Newington. I hope it was the latter.
Whenever I post about marginalia or inscriptions, I have the secret hope that somehow, the person who wrote it or the person to whom it was addressed will find me. In my dream they’d be grateful to me for uncovering their treasure; in my nightmare they’re angry at me for invading their privacy. In both cases, they would want the book back and I would, of course, comply and return it to its rightful owner.
These personal touches are how we go about making books our own. It’s something you’ll never have with an ebook. Long after he’s gone, I’ll still have the copy of The Fountainhead that my dad inscribed with ‘Happy 15th Birthday, sweet pea, etc.’ My mum still faithfully observes the amendments her own mum made to a tortière recipe in the cookbook she passed down. And years from now, when I am dead and my things are sold, those books will show up in a secondhand bookshop somewhere. This ensures that the simple stories – the ones more pedestrian than those told in the books they decorate, about families, generations, lovers, fights and apologies, goodbyes and reunions and what those of us who don’t live in lands far far away get up to – will never be forgotten.
Somewhere, someone will find the books in which we’ve shared something about our humanity and despite space and time, they’ll feel the connection to another human being they’ve never known. It’s an irresistible feeling, one which compels you to by a second copy of a book you already have or something by an author you hate just to hold onto it. It’s the feeling that the little stories about human lives are worth keeping. It’s the certainty that books, the mausoleums that hold those stories and the cathedrals that exalt them, are eternal.