West End Lane Books

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West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London, NW6 1QS

‘Now that we have smart phones and tablets, people are getting more isolated by the day.’

‘People don’t care about the high street any more; we’ve lost our sense of community.’

‘Parents don’t read with their children these days; they just give them iPads and let those do the work.’

‘Bookshops are relics of the past and books are on the way out.’

These are just some of the nasty, ludicrous lies that I hear spat back at me with a little too much pleasure whenever I tell people that I spend much of my time daydreaming about owning a quiet, peaceful, messy little bookshop of my own one day.

I tell them: ‘It will have big comfortable chairs where mums and dads can sit and read while they wait, with their little ones happily sitting in the children’s section for story time’ and they say, ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that.’

I tell them: ‘We’ll have local authors come in the evening to do readings, book-signings and host debates’ and they say, ‘Who would bother when you can watch that on Youtube?’

I tell them: ‘Our staff will know everything about every kind of book, hear about everything that happens in publishing and be able to find the thing you didn’t know you wanted or make the perfect recommendation’ and they say, ‘You mean just like Amazon but I have to leave my house.’

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Yes, some people are doing everything they can to make me believe that my little dream bookshop is nothing more than a fantasy. Unfortunately for them, West End Lane Books is very real. The very fact that it exists gives me hope, because it proves that people do care about their communities, that some things can still excite us enough to make us (god forbid) leave the house now and then, and that there are people who still value coming together – for story time, for a reading, or just to browse in silent solidarity – to celebrate the characters, the stories and the books – those most beautiful of objects – that we love.

West End Lane Books is my dream bookshop, the kind of place that keeps me sane in the midst of a digital nightmare. It is the epitome of everything that has always been great about bookshops and a defiant answer to all the pessimists who think that places like this should be singing their swan songs. I just love it.

IMG_2287The dark brown wood paneling of the roof, floors and bookshelves is perfect, just how I would want it to be. With the light pouring in from the front window, being inside this bookshop in the late afternoon feels like being inside a treehouse. Everything is a dark, comforting, nutty brown, the covers of books provide little splashes of colour, and the hush in the shop makes you feel like you’re 100 feet up in the air, above the noise and speed of the world below.

Despite the open plan and the handful of little nooks that make it feel like there’s more space than there is, the bookshop isn’t actually very large, so the booksellers have made the shrewd decision to aim for quality rather than quantity. Naturally this means that you won’t find anything you could ever possibly want in here, but you’ll find a lot, and you’ll probably find something better than what you thought you wanted anyway. Many bookshops this size devote a good half of their space to Fiction, with only small (almost token) sections for art, philosophy, culture, cookery and children’s books. Here, the distribution of space is IMG_2290much more egalitarian. Art, Architecture, Food and Drink, Travel, Philosophy, Television, Drama and Sport all get far more attention than they would in a lesser bookshop and while there may not be as many books in each section as one might like, what is there is the very best available, arranged beautifully and just begging you to pick up book after book and admire each one. The poetry section, while smaller than I’d like, is also impeccably selected, with a particularly international feel and books that span the centuries, from Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Norse Edda to Shakespeare, Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams and all the way up to cutting edge contemporary poetry. It’s impressive how well West End Lane Books has sifted through centuries of poetry to provide a small sampling of only the best. I just wish there were more of it.

IMG_2291The fiction section is, once again, beautifully presented and cleverly curated, with paperback novels lining the shelves in perfect alphabetical order and a display the finest editions of old and new favourites perfect for treasuring and passing on to the next generation.  Independent publishers like Pushkin and Persephone are put in places of honour, just as they should be.  In the fiction section I found the first of the two books I came home with, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, a collection of bizarre and magical Chinese stories written between 1640 and 1715. It is apparently held up as ‘the supreme work of fiction in the classical Chinese language.’ I had never heard of it, but then that’s what good bookshops are for.

The second book I bought was Shaking a Leg, the collected journalism and essays of Angela Carter, covering literature, food, feminism, travel, art and everything in between. It promises to be highly entertaining.

Finally, there is the children’s section, given a huge amount of space and stocked with brilliant books for children who still have to rely on mum and dad for IMG_2289stories to awkward teens like I once was, who will desperately bury their heads in thick Young Adult novels to avoid real life. West End Lane Books does all kinds of different services for children and families, from book donations to local schools to book-based party favours, but the 4 o’clock Story Times on Mondays and Thursdays have to be my favourite. In the children’s section, on the colourful carpet beside the two giant teddy bears, I can imagine groups of children enchanted by fairy tales and laughing with silly poems.

For their parents and other adults, West End Lane Books has a fantastic programme of events in the evenings, including a Book Group and talks by authors. I am signed up to their mailing list and get excited every time it comes through, as it seems that each month there is some cool new thing that I could try. If you live in London it’s definitely worth signing up to the updates, because you never know what amazing thing they’ll do next.

So as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t love West End Lane Books, you haven’t IMG_2288got a heart. For there is some kind of adventure in this small little shop for everyone. If you’re six, it’s as simple as snuggling up, closing your eyes and sailing away on a pirate ship or flying over London like Peter Pan. If you’re a little older, the adventure might be meeting your favourite author, or contributing your insight in front of strangers in a book group. If you’re a little older and a little shyer, you’ll have to do what I do and explore the world by scanning the shelves for a hidden gem you’ve never heard of and trying it out. From my experience, it’s always worth it.

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13 responses to “West End Lane Books

  1. That’s already gone here. Some years ago I was part owner in a bookshop just like the one you dream about. We had big cushy chairs and free coffee for the adults. We had a great kids section and I painted things on the walls…big moons and suns, tiny mice by the base boards. It was just two rooms but we loved it and it had two bay windows that I had fun decorating. We had great books. We couldn’t compete with the big stores. We would order five or ten copies of a book and the big chains would order 10,000. They would get deep discounts, because of the size of their order. We did not. We couldn’t lower the prices enough to compete. All the bookstores in our area are gone, except for Barnes. I don’t think they are doing well. If they fall there won’t be any left at all. Not one. It’s so very, very sad.

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    • Your plight breaks my heart, but your bookshop sounds amazing – I wish I could have gone! It is a sad thing indeed. That’s why if I can convince just one person to support an independent instead of running to Amazon (or a chain, the lesser of two evils) I’ll be happy!

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  2. Hooray for real bookshops!!! While we’re at it, can we also save bricks and mortar record/CD stores? They are dying off at an even faster pace.

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    • Agreed! Since HMV closed almost all their shops in London, it’s become incredibly difficult to get your hands on an actual physical CD or DVD in this city,which is insane! We still have Rough Trade and Fopp but independents are disappearing quickly and I’m getting very worried!

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  3. I think the “secret” is to sell used books. You buy them from former owners one by one. To me the real thing, which I don’t see many used bookstores do, is to try to get rather old, unconventional books. For example, I will buy any chessbook that is OLD. I mean really OLD–60, 70, 100 years. The way they played chess then was different, as was the way they analyzed it. Maybe call it “Time Was Bookshop” and in it people can travel back in time. A biography of Cary Grant written in the 1940s? That sort of thing. Could be interesting. Of course you’d have the normal assortment of “regular” used books too but you could emphasize the old, the unusual, the offbeat, stuff you can’t get even on Amazon.

    It would take you a while to build up an inventory, but it’d be worth it. Could scour libraries for old books they want to get rid of.

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  4. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve cycled past West End Lane books just about every weekday for the past four and a bit years, and I’ve yet to step inside. In my defence, this is largely because I’m usually focused on getting to work, or getting home (or wherever I’m heading off to) and browsing through a bookshop is not top of my list of priorities at that moment. But having read this I’ll make an effort to visit them, perhaps on an evening when I have nowhere pressing I need to be and can spend some quality time browsing.

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  5. You share the dream I’ve always had. Some day, a bookstore like the one you have described will be a necessary shop. I will never give up on the importance and value of a ‘real’ bookshop. In Toronto, Canada, we still have a superb bookstore for Children & Young Adults called Mable’s Fables.It is a sanctuary for any parent to share the turning of pages. Unfortunately, pages being turned now are on a screen with no human contact.What a great post!

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  6. Love this bookshop! It has the funniest twitter feed ever! the human touch wins every time – social media and the internet is never a substitute for the real thing tho. MUST VISIT SOON!

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  7. I hear what you are saying about the remarks some people make about bookshops but please don’t condemn all people who use a tablet. When you start to have eye trouble the tablet is one of the things that helps you to continue reading. Daylight is fine and that is when I read my real books, but come the night time I need the assistance of the brightly lit screen. It doesn’t mean we don;t still love our books My next real book to be started today is Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. I can;t always get the ones that I want as an e-book. And….. I still love my local Antiquarian cum used book shop and its cast of interesting staff and customers. Tablets might be isolating younger people but it has the opposite effect at the other end of the scale.`It lightens our isolation Without my computer and tablet I would have never “known” you and your interesting blog. and had the chance occasionally to reply to you. It would never have happened in a non-technological age.My tablet takes me on some amazing journeys. and that is carried over into and enriches my “real” life.

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  8. This looks great. SD

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  9. Pingback: The best things in life aren’t free |

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