Having heard only good things about this small independent bookshop, I set out for a long walk along the canal on Saturday morning to make the pilgrimage to Broadway Market in Hackney. The walk along the canal, from the City Road Basin to Broadway Market, is beautiful in itself; it’s a quiet oasis right in the middle of the city, where a bewildering mix of people run, walk, cycle, stroll and eat at trendy al fresco bars, or with market food in their laps and their feet dangling over the edge of the canal. It’s the perfect example of urban living at its best. Broadway Market, too, is a bright spot of hope against the bleak prospects for the high street we’re constantly hearing. It’s the quintessential East London street, one of the few places in the city where you can still find a good jellied eel.
Stalls fill the road, making it an atmosphere where regulars or one-time visitors can interact with bakers, butchers, organic farmers, florists, artisans and booksellers. The independent shops along both sides of the street are busy hubs for the local communities, especially on a Saturday, when the music from street performs and the calls of merchants make it difficult to not want to stay a while.
And it makes me happy that books are a central part of the experience. In the market itself, Barrow Books, who also pop up at the Goldsmith’s Row, has a stall covered in what is a great range of new and secondhand books, which provide great variety and a thoughtful collection and is very welcoming to browsers. Donlon Books and ArtWords Bookshop are two art booksellers which keep Broadway Bookshop company. They are both worth a visit if you find yourself in the area, as they have really interesting selections. But be warned, both are absolutely crawling with hipsters, whereas Broadway Bookshop attracts a more diverse crowd, including local families and residents of all ages and from all walks of life.
Broadway Bookshop is a central part of the community, as well as a great example of why we still need bookselling in the twenty first century. It’s a poky little shop with a surprisingly large collection, which stretches out over three floors. Which makes it sound a lot bigger than it actually is, since each of the floors is actually just one little room, absolutely crammed with books. But despite the almost overwhelming selection, it still looks neat and accessible.
When you enter the shop on the ground floor (which on a Saturday is full of people), you are surrounded by music, art, architecture and fashion books, as well as a small section about Nature. This is nice in a way, at least for me, since it prevented me from following my usual routine and heading straight to fiction, never to be seen again. The bookshop stocks an informed and intelligent range of titles, proof once again of a great mind somewhere behind it, dedicated to filtering through what’s out there and bringing you the very best. It’s a selection that invites exploration and encourages you to think more deeply and more seriously about the world we live in, as it offers you the chance to investigate books that analyse our culture in new ways.
If I was someone who still used Amazon, I can guarantee that it would be to order books by authors I already know, and that my life would be much poorer for it. But thankfully, I’m someone who goes to places like Broadway Bookshop, where I’m forced to expand my mind and go beyond my usual routine. In shops like this, with a good selection, well-presented and inviting, I always find myself poring over the most unexpected books: histories of technology, essays on popular culture and feminist treatises that I couldn’t have found otherwise. My favourite thing about books is the way they make you look at familiar things again and see meaning in them you had never thought to look for. This makes us smarter people, braver people, more empathetic people. I have a feeling someone at Broadway Bookshop agrees with me.
The shop is arranged in such an appealing way that it seems to pull you further in before you realise what’s happened, onwards to the next floor down. Here, you’ll find a great range of travel books, cookbooks, philosophy, fiction and children’s books. It was in the philosophy section that I found one of the books I came home with, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. Any regular reader of this blog will know that I adore Walter Benjamin. He’s one of the most intelligent people to live in the past century and he has a piercing truth or brilliant quotation for every occasion. I’ve read Illuminations about ten times, but have never had a copy of my own and now I do! The deciding factor in this decision was that it has an introduction by Hannah Arendt who I love almost as much as Benjamin. I felt a bit bad buying a book I’ve already read when presented with so many amazing new options, but then, you can’t argue with Book Fate.
The children’s books have their own small but cozy corner, where a child-sized chair faces away from the rest of the room. It seems antisocial, but for anyone who was the kind of kid I was, this is exactly what you want; to shut out the rest of the adult world (and other loud children), put your feet up and turn some pages. It’s a perfect little hideaway, a quiet fort which defends the imagination from the cold and dreary world outside of it.
The fiction selection which covers the walls covers all different kinds of genres, in perfect alphabetical order. Including bestsellers, classics and contemporary novels from smaller publishing houses, the selection has something for every kind of book lover, but it’s presented in such a way that anyone can come in and have a look, no matter who they are and what they read. There is no snobbery in sight, even though being snobbish about a place like this would hardly be unjustified. There is a table in the centre of the room which puts the spotlight on some particularly interesting books, no doubt chosen with care. On it, you’ll find established and undisputed classics, like the complete works of Kafka and Nabokov (we came home with a copy of Pale Fire) as well as lesser-known masters (like Italo Calvino whom I cannot praise enough) and new titles, like May we Be Forgiven, the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and Philip Pullman’s adaptation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a gorgeous hardcover that I’ve wanted for months.
Finally, there is a small little nook that makes up the third and final floor of the shop, though it’s really only a half-storey. It’s only big enough for about two people at a time, which is a bit of a shame since it’s the home of the poetry, biographies and beautiful books. There is a small chair where you can sit and, since it’s such a cramped space, effectively cut off all other visitors, getting exclusive access to the wall full of poetry books from poets ranging from Chaucer to Billy Collins. A glass chest houses the treasures; a small selection of rare books and literary, political and music biographies are given a small but solid bit of attention.
This bookshop is a special example of good bookselling, with a great and well-curated selection of interesting and inspiring books. But more importantly, the booksellers are warm and accessible, so it’s not surprising that regulars will have a chat about their latest read and ask for help when they need an expert’s advice. It’s a bit like an extended family, which welcomes browsers from all over the world to come in, lower their voices and do what they do best.