Tag Archives: Angela Carter

Minster Gate Bookshop

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Minster Gate Bookshop, 8 Minster Yard, York, YO1 7HL

In the shadow of the imposing York Minster, a little bit tucked away, you’ll find a quiet, little bookshop. On a cold evening, it radiates a soft yellow light from its front windows, promising warmth and refuge. In European Christian tradition, churches like York Minster have provided a sanctuary for the wretched and afflicted; criminals, orphans, victims of crime or violence and fugitives from the law could enter a church and be given asylum for some time. While York Minster would be a grand place to seek refuge and respite from a cruel world, I personally prefer a bookshop, where one need never fear being turned away or rejected, so long as one stays quiet and is gentle with the books.

I am a traveler in York. At least for now anyway, unless I decide to leave London and its 013extortionate cost of living behind and start again up North. For now, though, I’m just a traveler, dependent on the hospitality of others and, as Blanche DuBois put it, the kindness of strangers. This means that while I’m in York and away from home, I get to take refuge from my everyday life and instead spend some time in someone else’s everyday life. Now, in York, that someone could be anyone a Roman administrator, a Viking settler, an Anglo-Saxon priest, a Victorian writer or a 21st century student. York has had so many lives already, as evidenced by its name. When the Romans first founded the city and built its still-standing walls in71 CE, they called it Eboracum. Under the Anglo-Saxons this became Eoforwic, then Jorvik under the Vikings and finally York, via various Middle English iterations including Yerk, Yourke and Yarke over the years. In this city there are endless possible narratives to slip yourself into as you shed your self for a little while.

I have written before about how reading and traveling are the perfect combination, as 004both are fundamentally about leaving behind what is known and familiar and journeying into a different place and a different self. Sometimes this is quite a terrifying prospect, but it can also be an incredibly comforting one as well. Growing up, one of the things that books were to me was a refuge. When family life was loud, when I didn’t want to answer questions, when I simply wanted to disappear, the best way to do this was to open a book. You see, being a girl with her nose in a book is like having an invisibility cloak. No one seems to see you, the book is your shield and it keeps prying eyes and minds at a distance. Little do they know, inside your cloak, a whole world is being built around you, seen from a new and exciting vantage point. It’s just like walking along the streets of a new city; your anonymity keeps you safe from having to engage, lets you hide out a little longer in the secret adventure you’re having on your own.

I had the same feeling in Minster Gate bookshop. Coming in out of the cold and away from the crowds, a whole world of possible escapes presents itself. Within the quiet space of a little bookshop, worlds open up. And in York, a city with such an improbably rich history to untangle, every new story comes with the promise of magic.

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Minster Gate Bookshop is split over four floors, each a maze of different rooms. It presents the adventurer with dozens of subcategories of books; History is not just History, but: 015British History, Archaeology, Ancient History, Military, European, American and World History and, somewhat oddly, Transport. Fiction dominates the basement, with many classics available for discounted prices. They have every single Neil Gaiman book, all sitting in a pile on the floor and all for £3. There are new books, used books, rare and special edition books, prints and maps and all sorts beyond that! There’s everything from crime and mystery to folklore and fairy tale sections. The shelves seem to scream, ‘You can be anyone in here!’

Minster Gate Bookshop, while it caters for many tastes, has a decidedly literary persuasion. With full sections of Literary Theory and Literary Biography, it also has lots of rooms for those funny books that don’t seem to have a clear classification. In a poky little room up on what I think was the third floor, though I lost count, I found a treasure trove of fascinating clever escapes. Arthurian legend, feminist folktales, little-known classics and scholarly criticism rubbed shoulders. My particular favourites in this difficult-to-classify collection were:

The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm

The Book of Legendary Lands by Umberto Eco

The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology

The Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare

I wanted to buy all of them and hide away forever wandering through far away, long ago 014and never-never lands, but in the end, I bought a hardcover first edition of The Second Virago Book of Fairytales by Angela Carter for £6. Like me, Angela Carter was fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and believed that they have significant insights into why our culture is the way it is, as well as being an excellent example of oral storytelling and quite fun to write and rewrite.

It was only when I walked out of Minster Gate bookshop that I became aware again of the sounds of the city, the crush of the crowd, even what time it was and the stress of knowing I had to get dinner on. Inside, everything was suspended, just like when I used to open a book and hide for a while. When you’re fully engaged in the world of a story – or a world full of stories, which a bookshop should be – everything else seems to disappear. Minster Gate Bookshop, because of its location, probably gets a lot of tourists who poke their heads in, shriek ‘Oh it’s so cute and English! #quaint #janeaustenorwhatever’, take a #geek selfie and then walk out again. And so be it; it’s there for them to do that.

But I think what it’s really there for it to be a refuge that opens its arms to lovers of books, stories and words and lets them leave everything else at the door. Long may it continue to welcome all of us.

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.

Brick Lane Bookshop

IMG_1836Brick Lane Bookshop (formerly Eastside Bookshop), 166 Brick Lane, London, E1 6RU

Every Sunday morning, Brick Lane in East London comes to life as vendors sell falafel, bubble tea, vintage denim jackets, used typewriters with Arabic letters (no joke, I almost bought one for £15 one day) and everything in between.  The scene is full of the smells of world cuisine, music from boomboxes and voice boxes, the calls of vendors and kids in ripped up jeans sitting on the curb eating a curry.  It’s a lively place at the heart of East London’s vibrant and diverse community and attracts all kinds of different people, from hipster kids looking for their next self-indulgent profile picture to tourists and every kind of market enthusiast you can imagine.  It’s one of the quirkiest markets in London and has thus far resisted being gentrified and losing its character.   The same could be said of the beautiful independent bookshop that sits in the middle of it all.

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The front window of the shop invites readers to ‘Take a Walk on the East Side!’ and is filled with books about London, with a special focus on East London and the Spitalfields area.  This trend continues inside with an entire wall full of books about London and East London including Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Eddie Johnson’s The Two Puddings, about a pub in Stratford which I’ve heard is both hilarious and touching, and Spitalfields Life, the brilliant book based on the blog of the same name, documenting all the eccentricities of the area and its local stories.

IMG_1828The poetry and fiction sections are excellently-stocked; after a few minutes of browsing I realised this is one of those bookshops where I would not leave until I had inspected every single shelf.  In the fiction section I breezed past Calvino, Flaubert, Kafka and Tolstoy (I’ve really been wanting to read more books by European authors lately; English is great, but there’s a whole world out there!) and worked my way through to Z.   In the end I bought The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter.  Okay, she’s English.  Sue me.  It was £7 and I was happy to spend the money for a book I can’t wait to start reading.

The selection is wide, varied and most importantly, good quality.  No drivel in sight.  The books on the shelves are full retail price, but on the ground in front of them are boxes filled with discounted books from £3.  And there are some interesting choices in there too!  In addition to the discounted books there is a wall full of Wordsworth Classics, which are always about £2.  IMG_1833They’re not the greatest editions in the world, but they make great literature accessible to absolutely everyone (they have a children’s selection too), so even if you can’t afford to do more than admire the rest of the books, you have no excuse not to at least support your local independent by buying something when you can do it so cheaply.  The Brick Lane Bookshop has struck the perfect balance in many ways, with beautiful books you don’t mind paying a bit extra to own, every kind of literary paraphernalia you can imagine, from mugs to notebooks to cards, and then the deals and cheaper editions for those who can’t always afford the good stuff but still want a fix. In other news, it’s possible that I use metaphors of drugs and addiction to talk about books a little bit too often.

Another thing I love about this bookshop is that it embraces the strangeness, the quirkiness and the niche interests of the community of which it is such a central part.  In addition to books about Spitalfields itself, it has books for all the weird and wonderful people who live there.  There is a ‘Cult Sci Fi’ section and though I hadn’t heard of a single book or author represented in it, each book looked better than the last. IMG_1832The cookery section reflects the international community of East London.  Comic books and graphic novels get a much larger selection than in most other independents or chains, which is brilliant.  As this art form becomes more and more mainstream and authors learn ways to make the most of it, we are going to have to start appreciating it as a serious and interesting genre.  Unfortunately, chains often have only a small selection of the same old books and most independents don’t bother at all.  There’s not anything wrong with that per se, but it’s nice to see an independent that’s fully jumping on board.

IMG_1830With a small red armchair in the front window and another one nestled in the back corner for those less sociable of browsers, the Brick Lane Bookshop creates the kind of ambiance that invites you to stay and browse for a while.  But it also invites you to go on an adventure – from your comfortable armchair, of course.  Its unusual selection offers the chance to find a new read you would never have known to look for otherwise, and gives you a chance to learn more of the stories that happened not so long ago in the streets and alleys you thought you already knew so well.  It is a place of discovery and adventure, where any path can present itself to you when you open the first page of one of their special books. And if you can’t decide what to read, the staff have helpfully recommended some of their favourites.  Little white IMG_1829notes pop up now and then between the books recommending a new discovery or an old stand-by.   One of these reads: ‘Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – my granny’s favourite book and one of mine.  Made my stomach flip.’  I loved reading this because it’s a perfect example of what books and bookshops are really all about  – sharing our stories, passing them down, remembering, retelling and preserving them.  Whether that means misting up re-reading a classic you shared with a loved one or having a deeper experience of your neighbourhood when you know the names of the ghosts who roam its streets, books connect us to other books and other people.  So, really, any time you open a book, you enter an adventure.  And on that note,  let me finish with my favourite passage from Jane Eyre, about trying new things, going new places and having adventures:

“It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself
quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection,
uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and
prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted.
The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride
warms it…”

And on that note, go forth.  Read.  Take a walk on the east side.

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