Isn’t it gorgeous outside today, London? Today, the last day of Independent Booksellers’ Week, by the way, I went for a nice long walk in the sunshine and stopped in at two bookshops – Book Mongers in Brixton and Clapham Books, a perfect High Street Bookshop. Clapham High Street, minutes away from the beautiful green space at Clapham Common, is a bright and busy place and on a sunny day like this, locals and visitors fill the pubs, restaurants and cafes and spill out onto the sidewalk, creating a festive atmosphere. As I watched people gather supplies for picnics at the park and bump into friends, also out enjoying the sunshine, I felt relieved to know that even in London – big, grey, nasty, impersonal London – there are places where families and friends can come together to eat, drink, talk, play, sunbathe, browse and read.
Clapham Books, a lovely independent bookshop that’s deeply embedded in the lives of the local community, plays an important role in making sure that this can happen. Clapham Books has edged its way into the hearts and minds of many by hosting readings and events where readers can meet each other and their favourite authors as well as weekly storytimes for young children. Perhaps this is why so many people decided to spend a few minutes of their sunny Saturday visiting the shop.
Browsers and loyal regulars are treated to an excellent fiction section which has a particularly good selection of contemporary fiction that goes so much further than the bestsellers list. Browsing here, reading the little handwritten recommendations that dot the shelves, you can tel that the booksellers have carefully combed through hundreds of titles in order to present you with forgotten treasures, obscure titles that aren’t famous but should be and newer books that aren’t famous yet but will be. There is a small but mighty selection of Poetry and Plays nearby. All the books are arranged neatly and carefully on the walls, making the shop feel tidy and clean.
On the wall opposite, the selection of non-fiction books is wide and varied. The front room of the shop is essentially divided into two halves: fiction and non-fiction. There is also a small shelf that deals with history specifically, but the books are generalised in these terms. If you’re someone who prefers your non-fiction to be carefully organised and delineated by topic and sub-topic, I have to tell you that a) this is not the place for you and b) you’re just a bit dull, really, aren’t you? While you may struggle a bit to find the exact book you want right away, I think that the interesting combinations that this large section makes are worth exploring for their own sake. The juxtoposition between literary biographies with books on science, health and culture not only suggest conclusions you might not have seen if you insisted on separating them all, but also invites you to go beyond the little slice of the selection that would normally hold your attention and try something else.
That something else might be a book on gardening, art, architecture, cooking, travel or history. They’re all there and I simply don’t see how anyone could spend any decent amount of time in this shop without finding something they love. Its inviting and accessible layout, combined with its masterful selection of books makes it the kind of shop that will bring out your obsessive compulsive side; I felt unable to leave until I had looked at every single book. I think I actually did look at every last title in the Fiction and Non-Fiction sections, most of the food books and almost all of the travel ones.
The one section I didn’t explore in its entirety was the children’s section. This is allowed its own room at the back of the shop under a beautiful sign ‘Children’s Books!’ that looks like something out of a Victorian circus. The section is much larger than in other bookshops, which is how it should be, really, since of course it’s children who get the most out of reading, in many ways. They’re the ones whose minds and personalities might be changed forever by the right book or the right character and who are most able to see themselves in a new and fantastical imaginary world. The ability to do this, which all good adult readers have, is something that is most often learned in childhood. The reason I didn’t spend too long looking through the excellent selection of books for children from baby to teen was that it was clearly occupied. One of the two armchairs that provide a quiet reading place for children was being used by a little boy, engrossed in his novel. I felt it would be best not to invade his space with my grown-upness.
This little boy had come in at around the same time I did, with his dad. As the father browsed the fiction and gardening sections, the boy headed straight for his armchair, suggesting that he’s probably a regular. Father and son remained undisturbed by the quiet chatter of the booksellers who were discussing an upcoming author reading by Tom Canty, who has recently written a book called Clapham Lights.
A few minutes later, a group of students came in who were on their way to Clapham Common to see a friend for her birthday. They were looking for presents and as they browsed I heard them reminisce about the ridiculous things this friend Lisa had done (she sounds fun) and laugh, chat and debate about which book she would like best. As book talks always do, their conversation veered away from Lisa and they ended up staying in the shop much longer than I think they intedended, debating the merits of hardcover books, comparing The Great Gastby to the recent (and obviously inferior) film adaptation and trying to get their facts straight about whether Churchill served as PM during the first or second World War. I didn’t say they were the smartest students.
This is what I love about bricks and mortar bookshops. I’m guilty of being grouchy when loud people interrupt my quiet time with books, but today I took a cue from the young reader and just enjoyed being in this book-glorifying space. Because although it’s lovely to read alone in your room, with no distractions and no contact with the outside world, even I find that sometimes it gets a bit lonely. Sometimes you just can’t keep your excitement in! You need to recommend this book to someone! You need to ask someone if they’ve read it, argue over the ending, pull apart every detail and read your favourite lines out loud just to savour the way they sound. This is where bookshops come in, especially vibrant and busy ones like Clapham Books; they give people like us places to gather and be together, silently or vocally understanding each other through our shared love of books.