Church Street Bookshop

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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!

IMG_1749The 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 IMG_1752reference…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.

IMG_1750I 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:

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‘December 2006

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 IMG_1751something 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.

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13 responses to “Church Street Bookshop

  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

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  2. You consistently describe a bibliophiles dreams with such engaging prose. Please never stop informing ’cause what you say resonates with my heart. I sometimes wonder what will happen to my collection and if anyone will take the time to go through the books that contain my marginal or underlined messages. Indeed we are the store houses of the meaning, relevance and importance of books treasured. Stories within stories that indicate and tell volumes about the reader, the recipient and the purchaser.

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  3. I am continually amazed at the number of shops that you have there. Now I live in a town of 10,000 here in the states and we have one on our Main street that has recently downsized and merged with the nearby coffee shop. A town of 250,000 plus is nearby and has only six indies ! Our state capital, Indianapolis has many more, of course, but it is under 1 million. I appreciate your posts!

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  4. Pingback: Wonderful stuff for booklovers | The Tree House Bookshop

  5. I used to live a stone’s throw away from Church Street. One of my favourite ‘streets’! Lovely little bookshop – the shops in general on Church Street are so quaint and quirky and utterly charming. Fond memories of the no. 73 bus, too. Lovely post, much enjoyed! Thank you for sharing xx

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  6. I too love inscriptions and marginalia in old books. One of my retirement projects is to catalog our library. Picking up each book to put it on Librarything is sometimes like a walk into the past. Books that belonged to my grandfather, my husband’s grandfather, our parents, aunts and uncles lead me to not only read through them, but also bring back memories. It is slow going because of that, but I love it. We have some very old books picked up at second hand shops that people used in the 1800’s as textbooks at Harvard for another example. Keep writing about books and bookshops!

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  7. I hope you don’t mind but as you are one of my favourite blog sites to visit I have nominated you for a Liebster Award. Details are on my lazycoffees blog at http://lazycoffees.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/mainly-me-me-me-and-liebster/

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  8. Pingback: The Bloghood « The Search

  9. I love those boxes that you think may hold treasures but never explore, it’s like keeping the mystery alive for another time. Sends a shiver down my spine.

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  10. Absolutely loved this. I feel the same way about inscriptions in secondhand books–there’s always something so lovely yet melancholy about the fact that it has fallen into your hands.

    Also, more generally, I love your blog. Thank you for finding mine, because I am so glad to have discovered yours!

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  11. Your talk of returning books to their owners makes me want to tell you about a different version of that story. In 1976 an Englishman transcribed the parish registers of a village in middle England and added a bit of history. I bought a copy and had it sent to me in Australia. Three or four years ago I sold it on e-bay to someone in America. Noticing that the purchaser had the same surname as the author I enquired and it turned out it WAS the author. After all that time he had no copies left and wanted one for a family member ! I was tickled pink to have the book go full circle.

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  12. I was born in Stoke Newington, lived with my mum, dad and grandparents. Went to school in William Patten. My mums side of the family also lived there and I have relatives still living there. My question is have you any old photos of Stoke Newington 1950 to 1970’s please

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    • Hi Linda,
      Unfortunately I don’t have any old photos of the area; I’ve only been living in London for a few years, so I have nothing to offer I’m afraid! Thanks for your comment though, it’s lovely to hear your memories of this wonderful part of London.

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