My dear friend Adair was born and raised in Croydon and is a die-hard Palace supporter. He’s the kind of fan who calls all his friends at midnight and leaves drunken messages on our phones when Crystal Palace qualifies for the Premiership. He is the only reason I know enough about football to tentatively put the preceding sentence together. He has been trying for years now to get our group of friends to venture South with him to go to a match. Naturally I haven’t gone because obviously football is a sport and therefore is stupid and a waste of time. Time I would rather spend reading books or reading the paper or reading magazines or reading poetry or reading articles on Jezebel or cooking or playing with small children or thinking long and hard about feminism, or any of the other important things I do on a daily basis. But today I took the train from Victoria to Crystal Palace. Adair is very annoyed that after all these years, when I finally made it down there it was without him and it was not to see football, but to visit a bookshop.
Crystal Palace, as it turns out, is a really lovely part of London. Like other parts of South London, such as Greenwich, Pechkam or Dulwich, you can still get the sense that the area was once its own little village, outside of London, with its own high street and a self-contained community. Most of the action happens in The Crystal Palace Triangle, made up of three streets full of shops. Encouragingly, these shops are mainly independents. Some are clearly posher new editions (trendly little cafes and brasseries) but others seem like the real deal – family businesses that have probably been there for years. It’s a lovely place to walk around, full of pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, antique dealers, hardware stores, and – since it’s at the top of a hill – a lovely view down over London from St Paul’s Cathedral to Canary Wharf.
The Bookseller Crow embodies everything that’s good about local family-run bookshops. I spent half an hour in the shop and in that time, two people popped in to say hello, chat with the bookseller about their New Year’s celebrations, ask about the new books and chat about the business. If you live in some quaint little village in the countryside you might not realise how notable this is. But this is London. Where people scowl at each other on the street just for daring to walk on the same pavement. Where commuters nudge each other passive aggressively for a tiny bit more space on the tube. A bookseller who can get passersby to pop in and say hello is nothing short of a wizard.
Now, The Crow is probably not your place if you have a really specific idea of what you want. The selection is good but not extensive. It really shines as a place for finding what is new and good, or what is old and unheard of but still delightful. When I walked in, the first display of books was an incredible mix of books I love, books I haven’t read but have been meaning to, books I’ve never heard of but now need to read and delightfully weird and random things. This table included the following amazing titles, which are all on my list of books to read:
1. Wendy Cope’s Life, Love and The Archers, a collection of the poet’s musings, essays and other collected prose.
2. Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women
3. Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale
4. Something bizarre called William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, featuring a wonderful illustration of Jabba the Hutt on the cover
5. Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and his old but newly translated book The Secret Library
6. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s new novel and finally,
7. Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram, a graphic novel about the author’s experience of being diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant.
The shop has great selection of contemporary fiction, science fiction and crime, Local Area books, children’s and teen books, humour and classics. My favourite bay is labelled ‘Sex, Parenting and Health.’ What a funny but oddly appropriate trio of subjects to put together!
There is also have a whole bay full of Hot of the Press books. Some of the books in this section are not stritctly new; they still have I am Malala, Watching the English and Americanah in this section. Incidentally, I got Chimamanda Ngozi Adhiche’s We Should All Be Feminists for Christmas and am on a bit of a kick, so I may have to finally buy Americanah, which I’ve been meaning to read since the day it came out. What can I say? I adore everything about that woman. I would honestly marry her. But I digress. I was being picky about the use of the word ‘new’ but I’ll forgive the Crow for putting out a few 2013 books because there was one new book I had never heard of but (you guessed it!) I now want to read. It was called The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, a Korean novelist.
I discovered so many things today. I love going into bookshops and feeling superior when I’ve read everything, but I really love going in and finding things I’ve never heard of that look inviting and amazing. Have you ever heard of Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler? What about Derelict London and Mindful London, two opposing but equally interesting books spotted in the Local section? Oh! And this is the best one! Have you heard of the Save the Story Series? It’s a series of children’s books commissioned by Pushkin (of course they’re involved – everything they do is amazing!) in which famous authors including Ali Smith, Dave Eggers, Umberto Eco and other international writers retell classic stories like King Lear, Antigone, Gilgamesh and Don Juan for children. The illustrations are gorgeous and the stories look crazy and wonderful.
Discovery, as I’ve said over and over, is what bookshops can give us that Amazon can’t. Of course, I could go online and find a book I’m interested in reading. I could look at book reviews and more often than not just follow a link to order the book and have it appear on my doorstep three days later, requiring no effort from me. But would this make my life better? I dare to say ‘no; it would make my life worse.’ For then I would never be exposed to surprise. I would never be tempted by the exotic or the unfamiliar. I would never find the book that convinced me to reevaluate a whole genre I had previously written off. I would never let my eye by drawn away from the predictable book to settle on the new-found treasure hiding in plain sight right next to it. I would read the same novels by Dead White Western Writers that I’ve been taught and given and seen on lists of books to read before you die for my entire life. Were it not for bookshops like this one, I’d never read Korean novelists or buy Lebanese cookbooks or be interested in Argentinian poetry. I’d never think to buy a graphic novel or science fiction. I’d never bother getting on the train to discover a new part of my city. I would be boring and predictable with a narrow view of the world and little desire to broaden it. Thank you, Bookseller Crow on the Hill, for saving me from that horrible fate.