Tag Archives: Amazon

London: We Need to talk about Paris

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Readers, have you been to Paris? And? Isn’t it amazing?

Yes, I know. Everyone loves Paris. Everyone agrees that it’s one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Everyone who didn’t run away to Paris at eighteen feels a pang of regret every time someone quotes Hemingway’s statement that ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ You don’t need me to drive the point home. Well, I apologise, but I’m going to have to put in my two Euro cents.

My favourite thing about visiting Paris – the thing even more dear to me than IMG_1499eating brioche with every meal or walking along the Seine at twilight – is being in a city that looks after its bookshops. Walking around the centre of Paris, I cry out ‘Librairie!’ like a joyful child at least once every sixty seconds, because in parts of Paris, bookshops are everywhere you look.

What astounds me even more than the sheer number of bookshops is that they are all independent. Each and every one of them looks different, feels different and has its own unique character. I’m sorry but DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW IMG_1085WONDERFUL THIS IS? It means that a book-hunter has the whole world at his or her feet and access to all of the world’s languages, literature, knowledge, art and poetry. Whatever you are looking for you’ll find it in Paris because you can spend your whole life looking for it in new bookshops, secondhand bookshops, English bookshops, Polish bookshops, African Studies bookshops, Philosophy, Law and Science bookshops, Art bookshops, Alpine skiing bookshops (honestly), bookshops attached to a tiny little publishing house and bookshops filled with cats. Paris gives the human race what it deserves: options, adventures, new experiences and mountains of books.

But this didn’t just happen. The French government has very actively made sure that independent bookshops, which thrive in the rest of the country as well as Paris, are able to survive in increasingly uncertain times. They have done IMG_1086this with a couple of brilliant bits of legislation. Firstly, in 1981, French lawmakers fixed book prices, which means that the discounting that makes Amazon so successful is effectively banned. Then, in 2013, MPs passed what many called the Anti-Amazon bill. Despite the fact that Amazon later called this ‘discrimination’ against online retailers (cry me a river, Goliath), it was really more about preserving the independents and ensuring that they weren’t bullied out of the market by the online giant. Now, I know that my evidence is largely anecdotal, but I think it’s working because I spent for days in Paris last month and I really did sing out ‘Librairie’ every time I saw a bookshop and I really did do it about 30 times a day. My travelling companion was very annoyed.

So, London, my question is: why aren’t we doing this? And the only good answer I can come up with is that we should be, but I’m not holding my breath. See, Amazon doesn’t even pay its tax in the UK and no one in power seems to be doing anything to keep it in line, let alone to support the character-filled, community-gathering bookshops it’s oh-so-casually threatening.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as people power and as long as you, loyal readers, continue supporting your local independents, we might just be able to IMG_1455turn the tide. Keep going to Skoob for your secondhand books and the London Review Bookshop for new ones… and for cake. If you live in Stoke Newington, go to Stoke Newington Bookshop and Church Street Books. If you live in Dulwich, it’s time to meet Dulwich Books. Next time you’re at Camden Market, check out the Blackgull Bookshop. If you’re up in NW3, try Keith Fawkes. If you’re looking for a Christmas present, go to Hatchards for choice or Persephone for something special. But enough about London. This is a tale of two cities.

IMG_1462I clearly don’t have the time to tell you about all the bookshops I visited in Paris; you’ll have to go and see them for yourselves. But I did take a few photos of a lovely bookshops called Tschann Librairie in Montparnasse. We came across it quite by accident as we wandered through the area vaguely making our way back to the Latin Quarter from the Fondation Cartier. It is a beautiful bookshop full of French books only. Tschann is quiet and warm and in the early evening, gave off a warm and welcoming glow, enticing passersby in to browse through the books and visit the attached children’s bookshop. I made my way through the bookshop, trying to decide whether or not I could justify buying yet IMG_1453another book on holiday when I’ve got such a large pile of ‘to be reads’ sitting at home. Of course, I decided I could. The shop had a great selection of history, biography, poetry and philosophy books but naturally I gravitated towards the novels. I bought Dans la café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I had been meaning to read one of his novels and buying one in French in Paris seemed the perfect way to start. It also seemed perfect because the two books I’d brought with me on holiday were The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing and Dear Life by Alice Munro. I figured you can never go wrong when you’ve got three Nobel Prize winners in your rucksack.

Oh, Paris. I love you. I love Shakespeare and Co, I love the Abbey Bookshop, I love Gibert Joseph and Red Wheelbarrow and all the independents that line your beautiful Haussman-ised boulevards. Long may they live on. Vive la librairie!

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Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

IMG_2345Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, 14-15 John Street, Bath, BA1 2JL

If you live in England and love bookshops, you already know Mr. B’s. When I started this blog I was asked endless questions about the places I’d been and hadn’t been. Most often, people wanted to know if the bookshop was still at 84 Charing Cross Road (it’s not, sadly), what I thought of Shakespeare and Company in Paris and whether or not I’d been to Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

IMG_2327Although Mr. B’s only popped up in Bath in 2006, it has quickly won the hearts of even the most prickly and become a cult favourite with a global following. Going to Mr. B’s is something of a right of passage for anyone who considers herself a reader.

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This is my mate Dom admiring creative magnet poetry. Hi Dom!

What makes this bookshop so beloved is, I think, partly that it bucks the trend. It opened up while we were all worrying about independent bookshops but, through ingenious new methods of bookselling – which never lose sight of the bibliophilia that must always be at the heart of it all – it has excelled, being named Independent Bookshop of the Year on two separate occasions. Those of us who love bookshops were delighted to be shown that they can still make it, even ‘these days.’ However, to say that we only love Mr. B’s because it keeps us self-proclaimed Luddites from fretting too much would be to seriously and gravely undermine what it so brilliant about it. Mr. B’s combines everything that is right and good about an old-fashioned bookshop (the smell of books, the impeccably curated selection, the clean, crisp white shelves, the staff recommendations, the quirky decor and the peaceful, quiet bliss) with a barrage of new ideas sure to woo readers back into its arms and away from the clutches of The Great Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

When you walk in, you are met by the Fiction section, where the fun begins. With a board where you can play with magnet poetry and a bathtub full of Young Adult novels, a sense of whimsy that would make a more cynical person IMG_2329scoff delights the naive, romantic bookish types. One of my favourite touches are the little ‘Mr. B’s Thoughts…’ cards that dot the section, guiding browsers to a special treat. I love bookshops that do this. For avid readers who know what they like and can sometimes get in a bit of a rut making only safe choices, these recommendations give a nudge in a new but always good direction. For those less accustomed to browsing the shelves, they make the experience more friendly and less elitist, while ensuring that you find something with a bookseller’s guarantee. As you follow the excellent selection of contemporary and classic fiction from Z to A, you turn the corner and find children’s and Young Adult books. The collection of IMG_2328books gathered at Mr. B’s are the type that will not just grab the attention of a child, but also satisfy even the book-snobbiest parents. They are all fantastic books and there are many really lovely editions of children’s classics to be found in amongst the picture books and longer chapter books. While there are books for every age group and every type of child, there are, I am pleased to report, none of those silly, flimsy little IMG_2326paperback series that are always aimed at one gender only. You know the ones I mean – the forty part ‘Cupcake Fairies’ series that keep little girls entertained for about a day until they need the next one. Surely it’s much better to eschew Waterstone’s and head for Mr. B’s to buy something a bit more substantial? Whether you’re looking for a book for a little one learning to read, a quiet, bookish little boy, a brave, excitable teenage girl or an adult who wants to feel like a kid again, there will be an adventure for anyone on Mr. B’s walls.

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Past the till, passing poetry, drama, cookery, books abIMG_2341out Bath and even a small music section, is the staircase leading down to More Reading Delights. In the basement are the typical basement subjects: Biography, History, Current Affairs, Politics, Economics, Business, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion and Science. I fear that some people miss this basement. Don’t. The selection, as elsewhere in the shop, is inspiring. The booksellers at Mr. B’s have saved us the trouble of wading through the confusing world of publishing. They have picked out only the most intelligent, relevant and beautiful books available so that book hunters really can’t go wrong. Despite knowing next to nothing about the enigmatic Mr. B, I know that I trust IMG_2344him without a doubt. If a book is here, it’s  because someone who knows what (s)he’s talking about has vouched for it. The basement is only a small room but books cover all the walls, the table in the middle and even the fireplace. Down here there is also a modest selection of graphic novels, arranged on the shelves in and around said fireplace. These, like the fiction books, are a mix of the classic stand-bys of the genre and the newest and freshest books. If there is something good going on in publishing, you can trust Mr B’s to be all over it.

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Upstairs, you’ll find books on art and architecture, travel (the ‘Travels with my Book’ IMG_2333section), crafts and design as well as an even larger selection of graphic novels. It is also the space for featured books, sporting colourful and exciting bays labelled ‘Mr B’s Delightful Lists’ and ‘Our Favourites/Your Favourites.’ You have to marvel at the booksellers’ never-ending capacity to pick out a great next read for you. Recommending books new and old, which you’ve always meant to read IMG_2336or never heard of, the good men and women of Mr B’s Emporium provide their most earnest recommendations, all in the interests of ensuring that as many people as possible benefit from as many good books as can possibly be fit into what is not actually that large a bookshop. They also feature books related to or following on from their many events. Mr B’s draws some of Britain’s biggest authors through its doors for readings, signings and debates and you can buy the books they’ve discussed in the shop.  But be warned – being taunted about Our Norse Night by a shelf full of interesting books can be quite frustrating if you’ve missed it.

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And finally, the crème de la crème, Mr B’s Emporium’s crowning jewel and the IMG_2334reason for much of its fame. After wandering through the rest of the shop you finally come to The Bibliotherapy Room. This room is covered in books and very much part of the regular bookshop for regular customers. But so much more can happen here. Seeing as we are in Bath, after all,Mr B’s has styled itself as a spa retreat for the mind rather than the body and offers a variety of luxurious treatments for book-lovers. Please do try not to drool over your keyboard as I describe them.

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First comes Mr B’s Sumptuous Reading  Booth, a tiny little nook with a lockable door where you can sit and read in peace. For £3.50 you get 30 minutes in a locked room to sit in a comfortable chair with music, tea, biscuits and a book. Plus a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. It’s really the perfect birthday present if you know a misanthropic bibliophile like mIMG_2338e who considers a day alone in the silence with a book the best gift you could ever be given.  I covet my lunch hour at work, my alone time when I get to go sit in the park or in a cafe and read. I like my co-workers but they just don’t seem to get that I need some time with my book. For anyone who has this same problem, £3.50 is quite a bargain for some time snuggling up in a comfortable chair without any distractions, being able to read quietly and alone without anyone thinking you’re anti-social. Which, to be fair, you probably are, but what’s so wrong with that?

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Finally, if you fancy spending a little more money on your literary R&R, you can buy yourself or a loved one (obviously you’re going to buy it for yourself though) a Reading Spa. It costs £55 for the basic package and you get an hour alone with a bookseller who creates a bespoke stack of IMG_2331book recommendations just for you, time to sit and read with tea and cake and a £40 voucher to spend on the books you pick out. The Reading Spa, in addition to being The Best Idea Ever, is also a reminder to sad, apathetic little people who love the Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-be-Named of everything that you miss when you give up on independent bookshops. But the great thing about Mr B’s is that you can be extravagant if you want to, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy it. Even just strolling through, you’ll still get the incredible service, curated choices of excellent books and the relaxing, welcoming atmosphere that independent bookshops do best.

I spent money at Mr B’s aIMG_2335nd was happy to do it because I was not only paying for two new books that I know I will enjoy, but also for an hour of entertainment and enlightenment and, which is truly priceless, lots and lots of inspiration. I bought two books. The first was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which made me think of the bookshop in Cambridge that I love and was recommended after a Ghost Stories evening at Mr B’s. The second was A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie’s new novel. I had seen this in a Blackwell’s in Bristol a couple of weeks before and fought the urge to buy it. When I got back to London I hunted around the London Review Bookshop and the Islington Waterstone’s after I IMG_2332realised that I couldn’t live without it. When I couldn’t find it anywhere I thought maybe I’d made it up – that I’d read the title or the author’s name wrong and was searching for a book that didn’t exist. I didn’t go to Amazon to immediately gratify my desire. I waited. And it popped up again in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights where finding it again really did delight me.

I have since devoured both books and, unsurprisingly, both were excellent. IMG_2330However, I took away a lot more from my short visit to Mr B’s. I took away a list of other books that I want to buy, including books I don’t have yet by authors I already love and other books I’d never heard of. A trip to Mr B’s is delightful because, like any other good bookshop, it doesn’t end when you walk out the door. The ideas, the yearnings, the questions it brings up stay with you long after. They will influence what you read next. They will form your opinions on a whole range of topics. They will wake you up in the middle of the night and drive you crazy when you can’t remember that name of that book! They will make you want to come back and back and back again for more. A bookshop like Mr B’s can begin an addiction which will stay with you for the rest of your life. It can begin a love affair with reading that will never end. It can reignite a passion for books in the hearts of people who long ago opted for convenience over adventure. Simply put, like a day at the spa, a trip to Mr B’s Emporium just makes things better.

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.

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

There are little patches of magic everywhere, though it seems they’re always getting harder to find. Yes, somewhere along we decided that what was convenient, clean and simple was better than the messy and impractical, but rather than lamenting this cleaning up of everyday life, I prefer to focus on how it makes us appreciate it all the more when we find things hidden, messy, old or superfluous.

So next time you’re walking along Hampstead High Street (or any high street) and start to resent seeing the same big names no matter where in the country you are, or realise that the reason you can’t find that weird quirky family business any more is that it’s been swallowed up by yet another Top Shop, don’t get upset, just get off the main road.

On Flask Walk, one of the many meandering little back streets that lead you away from the centre of Hampstead Village, individuality particularity, charm and joy are still hiding, waiting for you.  On this little road, locals and tourists alike mill about, popping into the independent florist’s, jeweller’s or antique dealer’s.  At the heart of it is a London legend: Keith Fawkes’ Bookshop.

This small, poky, traditional bookshop, owned and run by a descendent of Guy Fawkes, is a favourite for Hampstead yuppies, couples on their way for a march IMG_2258on the Heath and literature undergraduates looking for cheap copies of everything on the reading list.  It’s a second hand bookshop, yes, but what I love about it is the sense that it’s not there for us.  It’s not an emporium, it’s not a showroom.  Rather, it’s a home for unloved or not-yet loved books. It’s their place, their silent, messy, musty castle, and we’re merely visiting, hoping to fall in love with one and bring it home.

IMG_2252When you duck to step down from Flask Walk and into the shop, the bright light of outside, the bustle of Hamstead Village on a Saturday morning is immediately dimmed and silenced.  It feels a bit like entering a church.  Inside, it’s dim and cold in the winter – it’s probably not properly insulated and besides the door stays open all day to lure passersby in, so there’s no protecting against the chill.  Unlike your local branch of Waterstone’s (or the homepage of The-Website-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named), Keith Fawkes is not tidy, open or easy to navigate.  Firstly, there’s the confusion of the entrance, which is also one of the aisles, the narrow space where browsers squeeze in between two shelves of books, unwilling to let new entries barge past until they’re finished looking at the books they want.  Once you manage to get through to the back of the shop, where the till is hidden under books and magazines on the back table, you realise that there is no big open space to gather, nowhere to stand and chat while you sip your mochafrappacinnochailattecano or whatever it is you people drink.  Almost the whole shop, you see, is a series of narrow rows cut off from each other completely by bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling.  This arrangement means that, providing you can find one, you can claim a little spot in a corner somewhere, far away from other browsers, and theres not very much anyone can do about it.  it’s the perfect set up for those of us love to burrow.  And because it’s such a closed-off plan, no one will know if you’ve been there for five minutes or fifty.  It’s the perfect place for secrets.  And what secrets there are!  Vintage children’s books, history of the world, poetry, fiction, history, IMG_2257philosophy!  There are new books that look like they’ve never been touched, modern first editions in their own section – some of them signed – tatty of Penguin paperbacks for a pound or less, beautifully preserved old hardcovers and a whole shelf full of beautiful Folio Society editions of books that you never knew you wanted but might not be able to resist. Oh yes, it’s the perfect place for hearing secrets.

But Keith Fawkes is not, admittedly, the perfect place for finding.  Piles of books fill up all the available floor space, making it nearly impossible to fit more than one person in an already-narrow aisle.  Books also have a way of piling up on IMG_2253every other surface so that no one really knows how many layers deep a shelf may be.  They fall down onto the floor and climb up in spiraling towers toward the windows, which they swallow up almost completely in some places, making the shop feel even dimmer.  They also cover each other up, so that the book you’re looking for may well be sitting a foot from your face, but you’d never find it without releasing an avalanche of words sure to crush your toes if you’re not wearing proper footwear.  Who knew bookshop browsing was such an extreme sport?  I don’t believe it’s possible to exaggerate how messy, how crowded, how cramped and unorganised the shop is or how impossible it is to even know what you’re  looking at.  No, Keith Fawkes is not an organised or a sanatised place.

It is, however, a magical one, because it offers possibility, playfulness, discovery and, most importantly, mess. Mess is underrated these days.  I’m a big fan of mess and madness in places like this, partly because there often is method in’t, IMG_2255but mainly because I think it’s good for us, as human beings, to invent that method.  That’s the only thing we can do that the computers can’t.  It’s up to us to look at a dusty pile of yellowing book overflowing off a shelf and not just see a problem to be dealt with, but a treasure trove of potential out of which we can find or make any meaning we want, and know that no other person could have made the exact same meaning.  I’m a big fan of mess because one day in a November past , as a first year English student, I read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and didn’t understand it.  I puzzled over it, tried to make sense of it, tried to dissect and organise it and made it my mission to clean up Eliot’s mess, and then realised that the mess was the point.  And on that day in November, a poem changed me for ever and for the better, and I realised that the whole world is a mess, but what’s miraculous is that our minds, our imaginations, help us find connections and meanings in piles of random articles.

At Keith Fawkes, in the fiction section, I saw a faded and scuffed hardcover 1976 edition of Sleep it Off Lady by Jean Rhys, published by Andre Deutsch and with a gorgeous once full- and now faded-colour illustration on the cover by someone called – and I love this – Rosemary Honeybourne.  This collection of stories is not one of Rhys’ more famous works and the cover was so faded that it’s nowhere near as beautiful as it must once have been, but for £3.50 I bought it anyway, because I had a hunch that it was from the same series as a copy of Voyage in the Dark that I had bought over a year earlier at Slightly Foxed Books, on the other side of the city.  I got them home and I was right.  I feel like somehow I’ve reunited them.  I also paid £3 for As a Man Grows Older , the English IMG_2254translation of the much more beautifully-titled Italian novel Senilità by Italo Svevo, which I never would have picked up if I hadn’t read Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno several months ago. Which I never would have done if I hadn’t been skimming Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce, who was a kind of mentor to Svevo.  I was only flipping through it I saw it at a friend’s house, returning her copy of Never Let Me Go. These are connections which nothing but the human brain can make.  It doesn’t really make sense that reading a dystopian novel by a Japanese writer a year ago led me to pick up an Italian one in a Hampstead bookshop on a cold Saturday, but I’m glad that it did.  Both books were used and incredibly good value for the condition they’re in.  When I brought them up to the till, a descendent of Britain’s most famous terrorist wrote up the titles and the prices by hand in a yellowing notebook which is probably not nearly as reliable as scanning it, but infinitely more pleasant.

So the next time you’re craving an escape from the imposed order and thoughtless ease of the post-Amazon world (I say post- because the popularity of Keith Fawkes suggests that the resistance is already well underway) wander away from the main road and down the side streets.  These are the places, hidden and quiet, where you can still find mess and chaos and, if you look for it, beauty and truth.

Here We Go Again…

Over the past couple of weeks, those of us who live in the UK have been subjected to this advert for the Amazon Kindle:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghYDpDaK5ds

In it, young children sit in parks and other lovely outdoor places that children who actually have Kindles probably don’t actually visit any more.  The kids talk about how much they love reading (on their Kindles) and how they love to lose themselves in the book, get to know the characters and all those other lovely things that reading has been for so many children for centuries before Amazon came along.

So, why, I asked myself, did this advert make me so angry?  I love books, I love children and I think that getting young people to feel those very feelings is nothing short of heroic.  So why was I so irrationally angry to see it happening? Sure, I hate that they’re reading Kindles instead of books, and I suspect that in ten years when they see that kids who did it another way can still revisit their childhood memories through yellowed and dog-eared books, the children in the advert might too.  But at the end of the day, if children are reading, even on a Kindle, it’s better than not reading at all.

So I spent weeks trying to figure out exactly why this advert promoted such rage in me.  Then I realised.  It reminded me of a scene from Mad Men when Don Draper tells the executives from Hershey’s Chocolate that he can’t create a cheesy ad for the chocolate bar that signified what it was to be a child.  Don says ‘if it were up to me you wouldn’t advertise.   You shouldn’t have someone like me telling a boy what a Hershey bar is.  He already knows.’

And that’s my problem with this advert.  Though they claim that it is the Kindle that creates the magic feeling of joy and adventure when a child reads, what they’re describing is a story.  And you don’t have to advertise stories because those of us who love them already know.  We get it.

Sure, books are products which are marketed, publishers compete for attention and authors make themselves into brands, but at the end of the day, every author, editor, publisher, literary agent and every reader knows that none of it matters as much as the story itself.

I used to think that there were some things that couldn’t be given a price tag.  Some things that were so precious and unique and intangible that no matter how pervasive capitalism got, no one could ever bottle and brand and market and peddle.  And that feeling the advert describes, that wonderful feeling that we already know was one of them. It’s not the Kindle that creates magic.  It’s the story.  And no one owns stories.

Amazon can sell books.  They can produce books.  They can even control the way we find, access and even read books.  But what you can’t do, what no advertising campaign and no brand can ever capture, is the storytelling. Stories are the antithesis of the giant international conglomerate, the uniform and universal, stale and impersonal company.  Stories are deeply personal.  They are tied to places and things and families and memories.  In my opinion, books and the very impulse to write them are just an attempt to extend the feeling of gathering around the fire to hear the news or snuggling up in bed with a parent to read one more chapter before the lights go out.  That feeling should be sacred.  It doesn’t belong to anyone and no matter how much money you spend on advertising, it’s nobody’s to package and sell and profit from.

I’m posting an abridged version of this as a comment on the video, so if you agree, consider liking it and getting it up to the top for others to read.  Then consider boycotting Amazon if, like me, you don’t want to think about a world that can commoditize the unique and magical feeling of being swept away by a story.

Broadway Bookshop

IMG_0594Broadway Bookshop, 6 Broadway Market, London, E8 4QJ

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 IMG_0585market 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 IMG_0587people), 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 IMG_0589order 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.

IMG_0593The 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.

IMG_0586The 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 IMG_0588unjustified.  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.

IMG_0590Finally, 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.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

IMG_1905Richard Booth’s Bookshop, 44 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AA

If Hay is the kingdom of books, Richard Booth is the king and this is his castle.  And, judging from how excited I got looking at my bag full of spoils, I’m the dirty rascal.

This beautiful, colourful building, which looks a bit like a gingerbread house or IMG_1898something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was one of the highlights of my trip to Hay. When my boyfriend (and fellow book pilgrim) and I are trying to distinguish between the dozens of bookshops we explored during a short trip, we both know what the other means by ‘the epic one.’  This is because it simply is the perfect bookshop; it ticks all the boxes.

The size of this bookshop alone makes it stand apart from many of the small independents that I’ve found in other cities and in Hay.  When you first walk in the front door, you simply don’t get a sense of how far back the rows of book stretch.  This is probably because the front of the shop features shelves and tables filled with a thoughtful selection of new releases and old favourites.  This space, the first one that browsers come to, gives a brilliant first impression as it suggests alternative titles that you would never find if they weren’t recommended to you by a connoisseur.  While many of these are novels, I was also delighted to find a very good selection of non-fiction books about politics, environmental issues and the arts.

Once you move beyond the first room  of the bookshop you discover just how IMG_1893wide the selection is and how large the bookshop is.  In many ways it feels more like a library than a bookshop with an almost encyclopedic list of subject areas, presented in neat rows of wooden bookshelves, whose section titles are illuminated by the kind of beautiful brass lamps with green lampshades that fill prestigious libraries all over the world, evoking a sense of awe and advising the brash and tawdry to please keep their voices down.  The subject areas covered on the ground floor range from a brilliant selection of history and politics books to books about gardening, football and the military.  IMG_1894One of the most original things about this shop is that rather than separating its books into new and used and (as in many London bookshops in particular) relegating used books to the basement while the pretty new ones greet customers, Richard Booth’s lets them rub shoulders.  Which, really, is how it should be, since every new book must surely dream of one day being a dog-eared, tea-stained, cracked-spined favourite on the right reader’s overfilled bookshelf.  The ground floor is also home to a lovely children’s section, with a great selection of contemporary and classic children’s books and poetry.  It features  a small wooden table for young readers to get down to business and beautiful designs of plants and flowers, suns and stars on the floor to get their imaginations running properly.  It’s a very adult-dominated bookshop, you IMG_1895see, so the children might need a bit of help getting back into the zone.  Finally, at the back of the ground floor, there is a cafe, which shows that you could quite literally arrive in the morning when they open and not leave until they kick you out in the evening.

But upstairs is where the fun really starts.  Here you’ll find philosophy, psychology, religion and theology, Occult, poetry, literary criticism and of course fiction.  As a student of literature I think I have a higher tolerance than many for the endless movements, theories and schools that are faithfully represented on these shelves, IMG_1900but my favourite subcategory has to be the section on Postmodernism.  Now, I’m sure it is usually well and thoughtfully stocked, but when I happened to stumble upon it, the books had been moved around in such a way that the bookshop itself seemed to confess complete bafflement.  Don’t you love finding unintentional comedy in unexpected places?  The large windows on this floor let in much more sunlight than there is on the ground floor, making the upstairs feel more open and less den-like.  Of course both aesthetics are good in bookshops, so I can’t really say that one is better than the other.  Here, again, the IMG_1897rows of books stretch back further than you expect them to, providing customers with an extensive selection.  But it isn’t just quantity that matters here; quality is the name of the game.  The till is surrounded by copies of each of the Telegraph’s 100 Best Books, so that readers looking for a classic will be met with 100 suggestions and beautiful new and used copies of all of them.  This bookshop makes it very difficult to go wrong.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Richard Booth’s Bookshop is that it goes one step further than most other bookshops in Hay-on-Wye and about two and a half IMG_1904steps further than most London bookshops by offering not just the occasional wooden stool where you can sit and read or peruse your options, but an entire living room, complete with couches, armchairs and cushions. As you make your way through the intimidatingly large and winding selection of fiction books, you realise that at the end of the row of long bookshelves is a perfect reading nook.  It’s as if Richard Booth reached into my brain, picked out all of my criteria for my dream bookshop and brought them all together in one place.  What an absolute legend.  As I wormed through the rows of fiction books, picking up and reluctantly putting back titles by Dickens, Colette, Flaubert, Faulkner, Isherwood and IMG_1903Thackeray, I noticed that the couches were the centre of the shop.  In the half hour I spent wandering around them looking at the books and the wall full of Folio Society editions, I saw two families come and sit for storytime, a student with his laptop take a break and have a coffee and at least three browsers who stopped to collect their thoughts before heading to the till.  Tucked in at the back of the shop, this is a place where you can sit, relax, read and reflect without feeling like you’ll be kicked out in a moment if you don’t buy something.  It’s so easy to get comfortable that I saw one man clearly struggling to decide whether or not it would be acceptable to take his shoes off.  It took him a couple of tries, but in the end he did and he looked very pleased about it.

The book I came home with at the end of a very long visit was from the poetry selection.  And for once, I didn’t just buy it on a whim; there’s a story involved, as there always should be.  A few months ago, I found myself in a lovely bookshop in Copenhagen, exploring the English language section.  IMG_1901There, I found a slim green paperback of poetry by Ruth Padel called Charles Darwin – A Life in Poems.   The poet, a descendent of Darwin’s, has written a collection of poems about his life from early childhood to death, which incorporate  Padel’s brilliant lines with quotations from Darwin’s books and letters and those of his family and friends.  I really wanted to buy it in Copenhagen but, confused by the currency and concerned about overspending on holiday, I decided to refrain and try to track the book down back in England.  Of course, I promptly forgot the author’s name and the book’s title and, disappointed, let it slip from my mind.  Until I saw it here again, waiting on a bottom shelf. It was book fate.   When I brought it to the friendly bookseller at the till, he raised his eyebrows and gave it a once-over.  ‘I’d never noticed this one before,’ he said, ‘it looks interesting.’  I told him (and he politely pretended to care) about how this book had narrowly escaped me once already and this time it was fate and I wouldn’t let it pass me by.  This book wanted to find me.

In a world where we can search and instantaneously find, we forget that sometimes it’s nice not to have all the control.  Places like Richard Booth’s Bookshop, with its inviting atmosphere, surprisingly large area and quirky collection of books, is a reminder that sometimes if you let things be, something amazing that you were never looking for might just find you.

Broad Street Book Centre

IMG_1878Broad Street Book Centre, 6 Broad Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5DB

Now this, my friends, is a proper bookshop.  Housed inside a beautiful Tudor building (or maybe Tudor revival, but I’m not fussy), The Broad Street Book Centre is at the centre of Hay and its dimly-lit windows, wooden floorboards and IMG_1867display of books in the front window draw in many aimless wanderers off the street.  Each inch of wall space and lots of the floor space too is covered with beautiful rare and secondhand books, just waiting for you to come and pick them up.  Many of them are so old and frail, with thin pages, crumbling spines and delicate gold-leaf, that it almost feels unfair to disturb their rest on the walls by picking them up.  But fortunately, the overwhelming message that the shop sends is that this is a place where adventure is allowed, so explore on!

IMG_1876The shop basically consists of what feels like a never-ending string of rooms, which are labelled in the most mystifying system I have ever seen.  I’m sure it makes sense for the owner of the bookshop to say ‘Ah yes, this book needs to go to section A in Room 8b’, but to the average browser, it’s not very helpful.  It is however, charming, so I’ll allow it. And it makes the shop feel a bit like a labyrinth, one where an alternatively benevolent and sadistic overlord gives you hints on how to leave which you never know if you should trust or not.  But the joke’s on him because I’m not trying to leave.  I had to be dragged out in the end, with the gentle admonition that if I spent as much time in every bookshop in Hay as I did in this one, I’d never get through all of them.  Which, in the end, I didn’t.

But if you find yourself scratching your head as  you try to get your head around the somewhat chaotic collection of rooms and books as you make your way through the labyrinth, try to enjoy being lost.  Wandering, in shops like this one, invites a certain wonderful phenomenon: serendipity.  SecondhandIMG_1869 bookshops are one of the best places in  the world for serendipitous moments to happen; indeed, I don’t think any other kind of place is better suited to creating that ‘Well would you look at that!’ feeling.  And that feeling is one of the best feelings we can ever have; it reminds us that despite our efforts to micromanage and control every moment of our days, the world and all its magical possibilities still have the power to surprise us.  It’s a feeling that sadly is becoming less and less common as we not just lose, but freely give up, our ability to accept the random, the unplanned and the unexpected.  Fortunately it is still allowed and even fostered in secondhand bookshops like this one.

IMG_1872One of my favourite rooms in the shop to rummage around in held the children’s section, Folio Society Editions and modern novels. The children’s selection had lots of the contemporary favourites – Harry Potter, Narnia and other secondhand copies of our favourites – but also had many beautiful hardcover children’s books from the 30s and 40s that have been forgotten, including some titles by Enid Blyton that I had never heard of (although I also heard lately that the wrote over 600 children’s books – can you imagine?!) and some very dated storybooks for girls and boys.  The section was colourful and the light from the window just above it made for a bright and pleasant reading area, with a little wooden chair perfect for storytime gatherings, should some ambitious parent decide to try.  On the IMG_1873opposite wall was a brilliant collection of modern first editions, featuring books by writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and all the other darlings of contemporary fiction.  A small selection of these first editions were actually signed by the authors, so they will have been much more expensive, but the rest of the books were affordable.  I would say that for the average paperback novel, you could expect to pay about £5, though many were cheaper than that and a great many of the beautiful rare books were much more expensive.  IMG_1871The final wall of this room was covered in Folio Society Editions of everything from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Arthur Conan Doyle to Emily Bronte.  Some were more expensive than others, again, but most were around £20, making them the perfect gift even if buying one for yourself feels a bit extravagant.  As regular readers know, I love the Folio Society and should probably not go on about them as much as I do, but I will say once again, that they are perfect as presents, particularly if you want to give someone a special copy of a book they love to be kept in a place of honour on their bookshelf.

IMG_1877The shop also has a brilliant collection of CDs, sheet music, history, politics and poetry books and a room that is full of books about the railways.  Because why not, I guess.  I very much doubt that there is anything you couldn’t find in this bookshop, that there is any booklover whose ideal birthday present isn’t lurking at the back of one of its shelves.  And if you’re looking for serendipity or book fate (something I had a great chat about with a bookseller at Richard Booth’s Bookshop – coming up!) this is the place to go.  You’re sure to find a new book, or author, or even genre that you’d never heard of before but won’t be able to get out of your head.

IMG_1870

Which brings me to ‘the one that got away.’  In the fiction section near the front of the shop, I gasped out loud when I discovered a small early edition of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.  This is the first in the Scottish writer’s series of twelve books of fairy tales, which collect famous stories like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty with more obscure ones from all over the world.  This book had IMG_1868a blue hard cover, gold  leaf pages, and a Happy Birthday inscription on the front cover.  And it only cost £6.  Unfortunately, knowing that I had already spent too much money on books on my little trip to Hay, I decided to leave it.  For now.  In a way, seeing it there was more precious to me than actually taking it home.  When I was a little girl I used to take Lang’s Fairy Books out of the library at school after our kind  school librarian suggested one to me and I became completely hooked.  I would borrow them week after week until I had read all of the ones we had in the library several times. And I hadn’t thought about that in about ten years.  Like so many other childhood memories, reading those books has probably formed my personality in many ways and I doubt I would be the person I am without them, but they had slipped into the dark recesses at the back of my mind.  Until, as if a bit of fate or serendipity had followed me all the way to Wales, I saw them sitting on a shelf in the Broad Street Book Centre, and precious memories from years ago came flooding back.

The Poetry Bookshop

IMG_1890The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5BQ.

In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section.  This is hardly fair.

Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls,  but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them.  It is an art form that can express the complexities and inconsistencies of the human heart and mind in a way that – I don’t believe – any other art form can.

It deserves more than a few anthologies in the back corner of Waterstones.  And yet, shockingly,  Hay-on-Wye’s Poetry Bookshop is the only bookshop in the UK dedicated solely to poetry.  Londoners are lucky enough to have the Poetry Library at the South Bank – a fantastic resource and a quiet place to read – but we rarely have the opportunity to go somewhere where poetry is more than an afterthought, where we can find volumes of poetry to bring home and keep, stain and spill on and dog-ear and write in and defer to in times of need.  It seems a shame, to me.

Thankfully, one poetry bookshop exists, good enough while we wait for IMG_1883the idea to spread.  The couple who own the bookshop are friendly and helpful.  They will let you browse quietly on your own but I have no doubt of their impeccable taste in and knowledge of poetry, should an idle browser need a recommendation.  As I moved slowly around the A-Z collection of English poetry in the main room, the bookshop’s popularity became clear.  Regulars came in to chat with the owners, including the  owner of one of Hay’s other bookshops who came bearing gossip about the Festival.  At one point the owners’ springer spaniel came bounding in and everybody seemed to be used to this.

IMG_1889Around the walls of the main room, poets great and modest are represented.  Ezra Pound has a disproportionately large section, as does Seamus Heaney, but they by no means dominate the selection.  Places of prominence are returned to other poets, whether they’re literary heavyweights like Chaucer and Tennyson or relative newcomers.  It was here that I found the books I came home with.  I bought U.A. Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems, including the brilliant ‘Not My Best Side’ and many other amazing poems for £7.  I also bought a small green edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music from the 1950s for £8.

The selection continues on the shelves in the centre of the room.  On top of them, beautiful and rare collections of poetry are displayed for our admiration.  Their shelves are full of more books and anthologies and one is dedicated to Old English poetry.   And I mean Old English poetry that’s not Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which my absolutely legendary Old English teacher dubbed ‘The Heaneywulf’), but translations of other poems like ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and my personal favourite ‘Deor.’

There’s a line in ‘Deor’ which goes ‘þæt ofereod, þisses swa mæg’ or ‘That passed over, so may this.’  This one line, coming to us from a thousand years in the past, is a perfect example of how we can carry poetry with us through our lives. I have kept it in my mind as a refrain, almost like a mantra, when I am going through hard times, as a reminder that we have come out all right in hard times before, and can do so again.

IMG_1882But enough of English poetry, modern or ancient.  Downstairs, in what feels like a cellar, is the shop’s collection of international poetry in translation.  This basement brings poetry in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu, Belarusian, Hungarian, German, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Gaelic, Welsh, various Native American languages and I have no doubt many others that I’ve forgotten to curious readers.  As you duck down to fit through the door, you can’t help but feel that you’re complicit in something.  Rummaging through the shelves full of new and mysterious poetry feels a bit like reading under the blankets with a torch after bedtime, or whatever it was that normal children did to rebel.  Whenever I visit my grandparents, I IMG_1879love exploring the photo albums, old books and boxes full of toys and clothes that fill their basement, in the hopes that I’ll find some treasure from the past and uncover the story is carries with it.  That poking-around-in-grandma’s-trunk feeling is exactly what this basement recreates.  It’s the distinct feeling that you have stumbled upon something that has the potential to be magical.  Of course, poetry in translation is never quite as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly a start.  And if you’ve ever felt the urge to learn Ukrainian, discovering that your new favourite poet wrote in it is a pretty good motivator.

IMG_1887The final part of the shop is the little space upstairs.   On the walls in this little mezzanine are more books of poetry, as well as books about poetry and poets and other miscellaneous works.   There are some interesting titles, but perhaps my favourite thing about it is that the books cover the walls on either side of the staircase, creating a wall full of books that carries the reader all the way from top to bottom without having to look at an inch of dull, uninteresting wall.  I never realised that the boringness of a wall was a major problem until I saw this bookcase, but now that the book wall is in my mind, nothing will ever be the same again.  I want one.

Charmingly, one of the walls on the top floor is covered in penciled height measurements of several different children.  Whether these are the owners’ children, nieces and nephews, friends of the family or loyal customers is left for the browser to imagine, but in the end it doesn’t actually matter.  The most IMG_1884important thing this suggests is the way in which all of us, not just those whose parents sell them, grow up with books and with poetry in particular.  From nursery rhymes to lullabies, silly limericks to advertising jingles, poetry is all around us and it defines us in the years that we grow up.  I heard a speaker at the Hay Festival talking about the way we live in a world filled with poetry and was completely convinced by his argument.  Long after we’ve forgotten exactly what the difference is between an scalene and an isosceles triangle, or whether a motion is centripetal or centrifugal, we remember every word of something as seemingly trivial as ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.’ A poem from Mother Goose or something as silly as a radio jingle has the transportative power that all good writing always has, recalling worlds and lives we thought we’d left behind and reminding us that the deep and personal emotions to which poetry gives voice are never forgotten.

Owl Bookshop

IMG_1842Owl Bookshop, 207-209 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU

Last week I got myself very lost in Kentish Town, looking for Walden Books.  Fortunately, most good stories get started when the heroine stumbles off the path. As I wandered up Kentish Town Road, growing more and more certain that I had gone too far, I became aware of golden light glowing out from the windows of this beautiful green shopfront.

IMG_1839The first thing I noticed about the Owl Bookshop is how ‘local’ it is; sitting on the high street, it is an integral part of the community.  It’s the kind of place that probably has regulars.  It’s the kind of place where a child can grow up, returning every week like a ritual, just like I did in another local bookshop far far away.  The little chairs scattered around the shop invite you to sit down and read or sort out which books you’re actually going to take home.  The majority of the books are retail price, but there are a few tables throughout the shop filled with books on sale for £3, £4 and £5, so a lack of money needn’t stop you from browsing.

It reminded me a lot of the Stoke Newington Bookshop and not just because the layout of the shop similar – indeed you could almost substitute Stoke Newington’s blue shelves for the Owl’s green ones and have the same shop. But more importantly, both have an almost tangible sense of community, and the booksellers who foster those communities are friendly, lively, energetic and more than competent.

When I walked into Owl Bookshop, one of the booksellers was patiently helping a woman decide what to buy for her friend who ‘likes good novels.’  Unbelievably, this was the only criteria she was able to give the bookseller, but instead of being annoyed, he seemed to enjoy the challenge, happily bouncing around the shelves suggesting books.  She left with three so I think he must have done all right.  As I skulked around the poetry section eavesdropping on other customers (my usual routine) I heard them talk to customers with complete ease about authors I’ve never heard of, being helpful and obliging and more than willing to spend as long as it took to make sure each customer left with the perfect book.  I don’t normally ramble on about staff, but I’m making an exception because the good people at the Owl were truly impressive.

As they chattered away with customers, I was busily exploring the fiction section.  In addition to a wall full of A-Z Fiction, there was a bay of bestsellers and new releases.  I always love this in a bookshop; I think it’s a sign that the IMG_1841people who run it love, care about and pay attention to books.  I was even more impressed to realise that these bays contained so much more than the mundane chart-toppers.  It gets old to see the same books on display week after week in every bookshop, so it’s very refreshing to see a display of books that demonstrates a real knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as an understanding of what’s good, not just what’s popular.  Not that those can’t be the same thing, it’s just that…well, come on. In a post-50 shades world, do I really need to qualify that statement?

Even the Classics section was better than average, redefining what we deem ‘classics’ by including books from all over the world.  Some of these may not be canonical in the world of British academia, but they have stood the test of time nonetheless and gave me lots of new ideas for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.

The rest of the bookshop is really brilliant; I truly can’t say enough good things IMG_1840about it.  And I’m stumped for clever ways of phrasing my praising.  I’m just in love with the Owl, okay?  A whole wall is full of travel books. The history and politics sections are relevant and well-stocked.  The corner full of cookbooks is colourful and appealing.  Beautiful art and architecture books have an entire section to themselves.  I could have spent hours there looking through the interesting selection of interesting books I never knew I wanted to read until I saw them and then could not pull myself away.

The only small stain on my otherwise brilliant visit fame from another customer.  He walked in with his sons and before he even looked around went immediately to the desk.  He told one of the aforementioned brilliant booksellers that he was taking his son to a girl’s fourth birthday party.  ‘I know nothing about girls and girly stuff’ he snapped, making every woman in the shop glad not to be the mother of his spawn.  Each time one of his boys suggested something like Thomas the Tank Engine or a Scooby Doo book, he snarled ‘We’re not looking for a book you like, we’re looking for something a girl would like.’  I think he spent the entire time trying (and failing) to avoid sneering every time he said the world ‘girl.’    I stood there fuming as he indoctrinated his impressionable sons with some idiotic ideology about how girls like princesses and boys like trains, dinosaurs are for boys, sparkles are for girls.  I wanted to explain to him that if he continued with his behaviour he would be guilty of unleashing two first class neanderthals upon a world that thought it was rid of this type of person.

This ridiculous dividing of literature into categories happens in academia too, IMG_1837where Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are studied by women but their male contemporaries, like, say, Dickens and Carlyle, are for the boys.  Don’t people realise that Austen could be just as observant as (and even more bitingly clever than) Dickens?  It’s worrying that we still allow artists to be pigeon-holed in any way, but gender-based judgements are the worst.  The power of literature is that it allows us to transcend silly little differences like gender, class, nationality, race and see ourselves as human beings.  Anyone who tries to pervert that noblest of goals is, in my humble opinion, a mere subspecies.

But what bothered me most was that he completely missed the point of this bookshop.  By offering its readers an unconventional selection of titles, which are good regardless of whether they’re popular or well-known, the Owl asks us to go beyond our normal habits and discover something new.  IMG_1838It asks us to try out books we would never have found ourselves, by authors we’d never heard of but probably should have.  It invites us to open our minds and it reminds us that this openness, this ability to see beyond our own tiny little lives and experience the world in a new way, is the reason we loved reading to begin with.  So here’s to the Owl Bookshop; the world needs more places like it.