A few months ago, I had a craving to read something by Dickens. It was winter and I was cold and I couldn’t help but think of snowy Christmases in the past when Dickens and a mug of hot chocolate have kept me company. I usually re-read A Tale of Two Cities every year around Christmastime, but this year I decided to branch out. So, one cold day in January, I bought a copy of Our Mutual Friend at the Southbank Book Market in London. But other books got in the way and it took me a while to come to Our Mutual Friend. Then, with other books on the go, it took an embarrassingly long time to finish it. But with Dickens, sometimes it’s good to move slowly. He immerses you so fully in Victorian London that as I walked through Covent Garden, the City and Clerkenwell I didn’t seem very far away at all from Silas Wegg, Jenny Wren or Gaffer Hexam. I love the feeling, when you’re halfway through a book, that you’re living alongside its characters, half in their world and half in your own, carrying them around with you over the days or weeks (or months in the case of this 822 page novel) that it takes to find out how it all ends for them. Fortunately, in Dickens, you tend to get a happy ending, at least for those who deserve one.
I have to admit that I have spent most of my life in that half-state, only just maintaining the distinction between fiction and fact and prone to quiet moments of staring blankly out windows. I truly don’t know how Dickens ever managed a normal conversation while his huge cast of characters (most of them more interesting than real people) were floating through his thoughts all the time.
Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye understands that dream-like, semi-real state which overtakes you when you’re in the middle of a very good book. The shop is quiet and peaceful and decorated like something from your favourite novel. It’s strange and carnivalesque, gaudy and incoherent and somehow, still welcoming and comforting. The front room, full of art books and a couple of lost-looking maps, prints and Penguin classics, feels like an old curiosity shop, populated by lonely-looking chairs, mirrors, chests full of books and miscellaneous bits of furniture. The selection of secondhand books is eclectic. If you’re looking for an easy find, this is not the place to go, but it’s one of the best bookshops for settling down in that I’ve ever seen. Everything, from the decor to the books, is so singular, so curious, that every kind of misfit, outcast or dreamer can find a nook to call home and lots of strange other nooks to explore.
The main fiction section is arranged in a room that looks like an elaborate Victorian puppet theatre, with bright blue and yellow walls and golden columns and decorations. The selection consists mainly of secondhand paperbacks and those ubiquitous orange Penguin classics and covers classic novels, contemporary bestsellers and lots of random books that, I assume, have been donated by some very interesting people over the years.
It’s the perfect place for browsing, since it reassures you with the presence of those orange Penguins, while simultaneously suggesting, like Alice’s white rabbit, that going down the rabbit hole might be worth it. You might just come out with a strange new treasure you couldn’t have found otherwise.
The thing I love about unusual places like this is that they’re so inclusive. They acknowledge the geek or the weirdo in every reader, assuring you that we’re all a bit mad, really, in our different ways, but when there are fantasy worlds to be explored and wild adventures to be had, those different ways don’t matter as much as we might have thought.
The back rooms of the shop house the science fiction and fantasy sections, which, it’s nice to see, are much larger and given much more space than in most other bookshops. Although the two tend to be lumped together, here they have their own sides of the back room, as they should. I had a contemporary literature teacher who explained the critical difference between the genres in a way I’ll never forget. She said science fiction presents an alternative world that we think science could one day produce for us or allow us to find. Fantasy, on the other hand, is an alternative world that no human discovery could ever create. No matter how sophisticated our science becomes, it will never be able to turn you into an elf. Unfortunately. ‘But fear not!’ the bookshop seems to say, ‘We can still pretend!’ It promises that the characters in books, whether they’re hobbits or Mad Hatters or aliens, are never really that different from us, and can be the most loyal companions throughout our lives. Hence, I suppose, the giant cut-outs of Captain Kirk and Gandalf.
Upstairs, in a little room that feels like somebody’s private library, more characters pop up, just as Dickens’ Rogue Riderhood seemed to be lurking around every corner the other day as I walked through a Rotherhithe that’s very different from his. Although the cut-out characters are, I’ll admit, slightly terrifying, this little room in the attic, home to more fiction, rare and antiquarian books, poetry and culture sections, is the quietest and most relaxing part of the shop. The mismatched decorations, the precarious-looking shelves and the two leather armchairs make the room feel a bit like someone’s attic hideaway. Like the one I’m probably going to end up having one day when my books take over all the other rooms. It’s such a homey space that I didn’t linger too long, unwilling to disturb the silence. Instead, I wandered back through the little hideaways that abound in this shop looking at more books. It will come as no surprise, I imagine, that this bookshop has an excellent selection of books about folklore, mythology, the Occult in its ‘Myths, Legends and Fairytales’ alcove. It also has a very good poetry section.
Addyman Books is, by any definition, a strange little place. At times gaudy, often bizarre and usually confusing, it’s actually not that different from most of the books I like. Its charm comes from its sincerity, its insistence that it’s okay to be a little bit different, that convention is overrated anyway. The shop welcomes those overly-keen, overly-excited nerds and weirdos who have always found refuge in books, and gathers them together in one wonderfully different place. It says to those of us who often wish we could escape into the pages of our favourite stories, ‘You’re not alone! We’re with you! Take a seat, pick a book, escape with us!’