Every Sunday morning, Brick Lane in East London comes to life as vendors sell falafel, bubble tea, vintage denim jackets, used typewriters with Arabic letters (no joke, I almost bought one for £15 one day) and everything in between. The scene is full of the smells of world cuisine, music from boomboxes and voice boxes, the calls of vendors and kids in ripped up jeans sitting on the curb eating a curry. It’s a lively place at the heart of East London’s vibrant and diverse community and attracts all kinds of different people, from hipster kids looking for their next self-indulgent profile picture to tourists and every kind of market enthusiast you can imagine. It’s one of the quirkiest markets in London and has thus far resisted being gentrified and losing its character. The same could be said of the beautiful independent bookshop that sits in the middle of it all.
The front window of the shop invites readers to ‘Take a Walk on the East Side!’ and is filled with books about London, with a special focus on East London and the Spitalfields area. This trend continues inside with an entire wall full of books about London and East London including Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Eddie Johnson’s The Two Puddings, about a pub in Stratford which I’ve heard is both hilarious and touching, and Spitalfields Life, the brilliant book based on the blog of the same name, documenting all the eccentricities of the area and its local stories.
The poetry and fiction sections are excellently-stocked; after a few minutes of browsing I realised this is one of those bookshops where I would not leave until I had inspected every single shelf. In the fiction section I breezed past Calvino, Flaubert, Kafka and Tolstoy (I’ve really been wanting to read more books by European authors lately; English is great, but there’s a whole world out there!) and worked my way through to Z. In the end I bought The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter. Okay, she’s English. Sue me. It was £7 and I was happy to spend the money for a book I can’t wait to start reading.
The selection is wide, varied and most importantly, good quality. No drivel in sight. The books on the shelves are full retail price, but on the ground in front of them are boxes filled with discounted books from £3. And there are some interesting choices in there too! In addition to the discounted books there is a wall full of Wordsworth Classics, which are always about £2. They’re not the greatest editions in the world, but they make great literature accessible to absolutely everyone (they have a children’s selection too), so even if you can’t afford to do more than admire the rest of the books, you have no excuse not to at least support your local independent by buying something when you can do it so cheaply. The Brick Lane Bookshop has struck the perfect balance in many ways, with beautiful books you don’t mind paying a bit extra to own, every kind of literary paraphernalia you can imagine, from mugs to notebooks to cards, and then the deals and cheaper editions for those who can’t always afford the good stuff but still want a fix. In other news, it’s possible that I use metaphors of drugs and addiction to talk about books a little bit too often.
Another thing I love about this bookshop is that it embraces the strangeness, the quirkiness and the niche interests of the community of which it is such a central part. In addition to books about Spitalfields itself, it has books for all the weird and wonderful people who live there. There is a ‘Cult Sci Fi’ section and though I hadn’t heard of a single book or author represented in it, each book looked better than the last. The cookery section reflects the international community of East London. Comic books and graphic novels get a much larger selection than in most other independents or chains, which is brilliant. As this art form becomes more and more mainstream and authors learn ways to make the most of it, we are going to have to start appreciating it as a serious and interesting genre. Unfortunately, chains often have only a small selection of the same old books and most independents don’t bother at all. There’s not anything wrong with that per se, but it’s nice to see an independent that’s fully jumping on board.
With a small red armchair in the front window and another one nestled in the back corner for those less sociable of browsers, the Brick Lane Bookshop creates the kind of ambiance that invites you to stay and browse for a while. But it also invites you to go on an adventure – from your comfortable armchair, of course. Its unusual selection offers the chance to find a new read you would never have known to look for otherwise, and gives you a chance to learn more of the stories that happened not so long ago in the streets and alleys you thought you already knew so well. It is a place of discovery and adventure, where any path can present itself to you when you open the first page of one of their special books. And if you can’t decide what to read, the staff have helpfully recommended some of their favourites. Little white notes pop up now and then between the books recommending a new discovery or an old stand-by. One of these reads: ‘Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – my granny’s favourite book and one of mine. Made my stomach flip.’ I loved reading this because it’s a perfect example of what books and bookshops are really all about – sharing our stories, passing them down, remembering, retelling and preserving them. Whether that means misting up re-reading a classic you shared with a loved one or having a deeper experience of your neighbourhood when you know the names of the ghosts who roam its streets, books connect us to other books and other people. So, really, any time you open a book, you enter an adventure. And on that note, let me finish with my favourite passage from Jane Eyre, about trying new things, going new places and having adventures:
“It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself
quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection,
uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and
prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted.
The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride
And on that note, go forth. Read. Take a walk on the east side.