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Heffers Booksellers

IMG_1811Heffers Booksellers, 20 Trinity Street, Cambridge, CB2 1TY

Heffers: The great Cambridge bookseller since 1876, reads the massive banner in the centre of what is essentially a city of books.  A bibliopolis? With its large size, wide selection and more commercial feel, this bookshop is a departure from the quaint, quiet independents I normally haunt in Cambridge, but it has its benefits.  So bear with me.  They can’t all be quirky and cute.

Heffers has been providing Cambridge with the literature its students and IMG_1810residents no doubt gobble up for 137 years and has only recently been bought by Blackwell’s.  Unfortunately this means that the place has lost a bit of its individuality and come to look a bit more like your average Blackwell’s or Waterstone’s.  But that’s okay. As a literature student I can testify that sometimes creaky floors and yellowed pages just don’t give the selection you need.  And that’s okay too.  Both types of bookshops have their benefits and I thoroughly believe that we need both.

We need places to explore, to wander, to seek and occasionally (though it’s not the most important part) to actually find.  Ideally, we’d live in a world where we have enough variety that you can pick and choose, supporting the best local independent for the cause, moving around freely when what you need out of your bookshop is slightly different.   Making new friends, but keeping the old, as they say.  Why the internet age is so vehemently opposed to giving us choice is a IMG_1809mystery to me, except to suggest (conspiratorially) that maybe they like dictating what we can and can’t find.  I know that that sounds insane, but think about it.  Shouldn’t we be insulted that our intelligence is made so little of that big companies have the audacity to recommend books we may like, to limit our choices to one maketplace, to monopolise our book-buying, book-reading, book-reviewing and book-sharing experiences by eliminating all the competition?

Cambridge, on the other hand, is a city that seems to have it right.  Its narrow cobbled streets house every point on the spectrum, from Waterstone’s at one end, The Angel Bookshop somewhere in the middle and The Haunted Bookshop at the extreme other end.   Heffers is just another point on the spectrum; a place you can feel good about patronising because it’s a bricks and mortar bookshop and still technically an independent, but which has all the convenience of the big chains.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t retained some of its own individuality.  It is a far IMG_1814more specialised bookshop and has a fantastic range of academic books, for which I have no doubt the students at Cambridge are very grateful.  It goes beyond just English students though and has music, art, history, politics and economics sections that stock more than the bestsellers and offer choice, variety and a high quality selection.  It also has an entire section filled with prints, ranging from classic pieces of art to posters of Che Guevara to decorate any pretentious first year student’s walls.  Furthermore, unlike a chain, it also has a small secondhand books section in the basement, providing even more options for skint students and tightly-budgeted families.

The layout of the books is also infinitely more appealing than an ordinary chain bookshop.  These little windows cut into the middle of shelves not only add a bit IMG_1812of fun and playfulness to the shop, but encourage all those trite but nonetheless accurate sentiments about books being windows on the world.  The size of the shop, its selection and its quiet, serious atmosphere make it perfect for Cambridge.  It caters to frazzled undergraduates who desperately need a certain book, as niche or obscure as it may be, while still providing a relaxed environment where any resident or visiting bibliophile could quite happily spend the whole day.

I think it’s appropriate to end this fun little Cambridge mini-series with Heffers.  One of my favourite things about the city of Cambridge is that it’s full not only of books, stories and poetry, but of a range of brilliant independent bookshops.  It is a place that gives back something we’ve been missing these past couple of years: choice.

IMG_1813Because why should a giant company or an impersonal website decide what we read?  Surely books should be the way we express not our conformity, but our originality, or individuality.  Surely they should be the way we show not our laziness, but our adventurous side, our free and independent minds, our unique imaginations and our personalities.  In Cambridge, book lovers have it made.  They can have an adventure amongst yellowed, tea-stained, dog-eared pages and creaky attic stairs, or they can get in and out with the book they’ve been needing.  Heffers may not be my favourite bookshop in the world, but I’m glad it’s there, proving that we actually don’t need worldwide monopolies dictating everything in order to still have convenience and ease.  It shows that we don’t need to bow to the big fish to get the obscure titles or out-of-print classics we love.  All we really need are a couple of dedicated booksellers.

The Haunted Bookshop (Sarah Key Books)

IMG_1827Sarah Key Books The Haunted Bookshop, 9 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

It’s official.  I’ve found the strangest bookshop in the UK.  Congratulations to me.

Cambridge’s Haunted Bookshop is one of the few bookshops in the world that is truly unique  – the only one of its kind – and I love it. I’m massively intimidated by it, but I completely love it.  While the Waterstone’s in Cambridge has a great selection and a plethora of inspiring titles, it still looks exactly like my local Waterstone’s in Islington.  And the one in Trafalgar  Square.  And the one at Gower Street.  Even Cambridge’s own independent bookseller, Heffer’s (review forthcoming), looks exactly like every other branch of Blackwell’s, the major chain that now owns it.

There are a lot of up-sides to this gentrification of everyday life; it makes us comfortable enough to go into a bookshop anywhere in the world (or at least the country) because we know it can’t be all that different from the one at home.  And in this day and age, any method towards the end goal of getting people into a bookshop justifies the means.  But I think there’s also a lot that gets lost when the slightly different, thoroughly quirky and downright bizarre are edged out.  Haruki Murakami wrote that ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’  Surely he could just as easily have warned us that if you only get those books from Amazon’s Top Ten List or – worse – the Books section at Tesco (shudder) your bookshelf will look the same as everyone else’s.  And your stories will be the same, too.

That said, I would love to meet someone whose local go-to bookshop is this tiny, cramped little shop in St. Edward’s Passage.  What if this was the place you always went when you fancied a browse, if this the collection of books you had to work with whenever you needed a lit fix?  I’d imagine that the bizarre combinations your bookshelf held and the stories of hunting, finding, losing, sharing, wanting, coveting, considering and surrendering that those books told about you would fill many pages themselves.

But enough of my philosophising. There’s a bookshop to be fawned over.

First of all, it seems like the shop has two names.  Fine.  Why not?  As it turns out, Sarah Key Books (named, no doubt, after a woman called Sarah Key) specialised in secondhand and antiquarian books and particularly in children’s literature for years before it found its current home at what is called The Haunted Bookshop.  Unfortunately I do not have any answers as to how, why or by what it’s haunted.  I mean I could of course go all humanities student on you and say that it’s haunted by the voices IMG_1823and stories of writers and readers past.  Which, you know, I’m pretty much convinced it is.  But I’ve been waxing poetic about dog-eared pages a little too much of late, so I’ll refrain.  The other possible haunting is the palpable presence of the owner, sitting behind her desk, head popping up from between piles of books, who almost seems to wish that you’d leave her alone and let her get on with it.  It’s kind of a Bernard Black situation.  Although once you actually go talk to the staff I promise they’re much lovelier than Bernard Black.

The collection of secondhand and often first editions of classic children’s books is absorbing.  From Matilda to Harry Potter, from Enid Blyton to Hans Christian IMG_1825Andersen, from Alice Liddell to Snow White, every child and every childlike adult is covered.  Beautiful illustrated hardcover copies and tattered paperbacks range from £4 or £5 to roughly £1500, for something like, say, a first edition of Prince Caspian.  For those of us who will probably never have the kind of disposable income required to do more than pick up and maybe sniff these books (if you’re feeling cheeky) it’s like the trials of Tantalus.

Children’s books aren’t all that’s on offer though; the Folio Society editions make their appearance too, as do various editions of classics. I had my eye on a copy of one Sherlock Holmes novel or another, as well as a FS edition of Wuthering Heights.  I refrained from buying anything, to my dismay and my wallet’s satisfaction.

IMG_1826Despite not going home with any of these beautiful books, I still felt glad to have found this strange and wonderful little place today.  Like Alice falling into Wonderland, or Harry landing in Diagon Alley, walking into the Haunted Bookshop is like stepping through a portal.  It’s like being transported back to a time before global monopolies (yes, I’m cross with Amazon for buying Goodreads; I promised not to rant about it), super-chains and clinical, sanitised spaces where no one is ever challenged and nothing new ever happens.  It makes me glad to live in the UK because it seems to me that while so much of the world just steps in line and lets the strange and quirky and unpredictable fade out of their lives, some people here (few and far between as they may be) still put up a fight for their weirdness.  Sarah Key Books: you’re one of a kind and I hope you never stop fighting to stay that way.

The Angel Bookshop

IMG_1806The Angel Bookshop, 2 Bene’t Street, Cambridge CB2 3QN

The last time I was in Cambridge it was summer, the stone chapels and colleges stood out against a bright blue sky and my legs were bare.  I remember sitting out on the grass reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and being in a good mood despite my disappointment with the novel.

But this time around, I find myself scurrying from bookshop to coffee shop and back out again only when I’ve read a bit of poetry or had a bit of tea to steel me against the snow.  Yes, snow.  In March.  This time around, I’m sitting in Cafe Nero’s (don’t judge me, the independents here are all expensive) and reading Toni Morrison’s Sula.  The bleak weather of England and the hot American South of the novel make a surprisingly good combination.  And the tea doesn’t hurt.

When the weather in England does this to us, we let out a collective sigh of ‘Why the hell do people still live here?’ That said, days like this are as perfect for some activities as they are preventative for others.  I’ve heard this called ‘museum weather’ and ‘cinema weather’ and the general consensus seems to be that on days like this, staying somewhere warm and comfortable is the only thing to do.  Hence my pattern of bookshops and coffee shops.

Cambridge’s Angel Bookshop in a way seems to be at its best on days like this,IMG_1802 when the only thing anyone can think about is coming in from the cold.  When winters got cold in my childhood, the most wonderful feeling in the world was to come home, take off my boots and wet socks, be wrapped up in a blanket and read a story. In many ways, it still is.  Although nothing can compare to your mum’s hot chocolate and her storytelling (my own mum has the best troll/goblin voice in the world), walking off the road and into The Angel Bookshop comes pretty damn close.

Run by the same bookseller who owns The Lamb Bookshop back in Bloomsbury, The Angel shows evidence of the same careful selection of books, dedication to good quality children’s literature and incomprehensible ability to provide browsers with discount prices, undercutting Waterstone’s, if not Amazon.

IMG_1805A large portion of the ground floor is taken up by children’s books and the entire floor feels like it is, with colourful mobiles hanging from the roof and The Gruffalo staring at you from almost everywhere.  Already feeling nostalgic for the warm insides of my childhood, this bookshop reminded me of another one half a world away where my love affair with reading began in the mid-90s.  It was called Mable’s Fables and like The Angel Bookshop, it had a brilliant selection of children’s books arranged by age group.  If only Twilight hadn’t been present in the Angel’s 11+ section, it would have been perfection. But I guess even the best of bookshops are subject to the ridiculous whims of the market.

Also on the ground floor are some fiction books with a sign promising more downstairs and shelves filled with cookbooks, travel literature and a table of miscellaneous recommendations.  The most interesting one was called The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm.  It is, sure enough, a book about the IMG_1803history of magic and the literature of magic in the British Isles.  I mean, come on, how cool is that?  I spied a chapter called ‘Star-cunning and Wyrd-craft: The World of the Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer’.  I am a massive geek about Old English and about Anglo-Saxon literature and one of my favourite OE words is wyrd which means something like fate or destiny – the modern English word ‘weird’ is descended from it.  My second favourite is wordhord, literally ‘word hoard’ which is basically the words that you store up and keep, waiting to be used, in your mind.  When Beowulf says he is opening his wordhord, he means he is unleashing his words; he is storytelling.  My completely unacademic theory is that wyrd and word sound similar because words and stories and poetry have the power to not only tell, but decide our own stories and our fates.  But enough of my geekery.

Downstairs is a basement full of bargains.  There are, of course, Wordsworth Classics for £2 each, but there are also contemporary fiction, biography and autobiography, literary theory, travel and history sections.  The majority of the books are massively discounted, most are half the retail price.  I bought a IMG_1804hardcover copy of the massive The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous and unfinished 2011 novel.  It was discounted from £20 to £8 and more than worth having to carry the thing around with me for the rest of the day.  I think.  I was also delighted to discover a large hardcover book on the central table (which incidentally is absolutely covered in beautiful and interesting books – seriously, a treasure trove) which was a complete and full-colour facsimile of the 1660 Harmonica Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius. Guess what it is.  It’s a star atlas.  A star atlas.  How very romantic is that? The book was absolutely giant and cost £40 (though that was a discount too) so I didn’t buy it.  It is also the least practical purchase I could possibly imagine, but I still kind of regret the decision.

On my way back out of the basement (where I spent a very long time), I passed back through the children’s section again. As I lovingly admired books by my old friends Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and Judy Blume, I relived that bittersweet moment from childhood when you realise that even if you read all day every day for the rest of your life, you’d still never get to the end of all the books.  Though the thought almost certainly depressed me the first time I had it years ago, when it has returned over the years I’ve been struck also by the positive side of it – you could read all day every day for the rest of your life, but you’d still never run out of books.