Fossgate Books, 36 Fossgate, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 9TF
Fossgate, in the city centre of York, was built by the Vikings, as a bridge over the River Foss. It has had a fascinating history, taking on several different iterations. At the present, it is particularly noteworthy for being York’s ‘hidden gem’, which is home to dozens of small independent businesses. A massive banner stretches across the width of the north end of the street, proclaiming Fossgate the undisputed ‘ultimate street of independent businesses.’
I had the good fortune to visit Fossgate in December and happened to coincide with Small Business Saturday on the 5th December. Rambling up and down this vibrant city street, I popped in to many of the little businesses that make it unique, but as my readers know, there is no shop that can tempt me like a good bookshop. So I also dropped in to visit Fossgate Books. This quirky little bookshop is spread over two floors. It’s nowhere near as glossy or fashionable as many of the London bookshops I haunt, but it’s got an understated, no-nonsense charm about it. And besides, the focus is firmly where it should be: on the books.
It was late afternoon when I went into the shop, but it was back in December and I remember that the sun had set well before 4pm that day, so Fossgate was beautiful in the soft light of the gloaming. There were very few other shoppers at that time; most had already headed back home for the evening, or into a warm pub somewhere. The few of us in Fossgate Books had the place mostly to ourselves, while the attentive bookseller pottered around finishing a few end of day tasks, popped his head out now and then to greet someone passing by on the street outside and occasionally looked up from his desk and set his eyes benevolently upon his visitors. In the silence, it felt wrong to pull out my camera and notebook, but I made a mental note to remember some of the weird and wonderful titles so I could tell you all about them.
Fossgate Books has a wide selection and seems to specialise in second hand and rare books. I was delighted to find loads of old children’s books, as well as hardcover modern first editions, varying in price from a couple of quid to £100. Parts of the collection were really quite charming; there was a quite expansive selection of literary biographies, which are always fascinating a whole shelf full of books about York and Yorkshire and an impressive selection of philosophy and religion books.
This is one of those bookshops that contains books you could have gone your whole life without ever seeing elsewhere. I chuckled to myself out loud when I saw a book called ‘The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries.’ I love how coming across a book like this can suddenly draw your attention to an incredibly specific area of study, something you would never think could possibly be very interesting. At first it seems comically niche, but then you realise that there is probably a whole community of people obsessed with this very subject, and a larger group than you might think of people who have made it their life’s work.
Independent bookshops are brilliant because they take us out of our own interests long enough to expose us to absurd books like this. They create those precious moments when something you previously thought was tiny and insignificant opens up to reveal a whole world within it. I have no doubt that if you visited Fossgate Books tomorrow, you would be so lost among the hundreds of books that you’d fail to find this specific one. But you’d find something else that would make you smile, or laugh, or think again, or possibly spark an interest in something you’d never heard of before. You won’t find the same thing I found, but you’ll find something, and I’d love to know what it is.