Tag Archives: cheap books

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

IMG_1928Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, 13/14 High Town, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AE

When I visited this lovely bookshop a few weeks ago, the Hay Festival was kicking off.  On the first weekend of the festival, the sun had come out and the streets of this little Welsh town were full of laughter and music.  Hay-on-Wye Booksellers is perfectly situated on the High Street, right at the centre of the action, making it an indispensable part of the Hay-on-Wye experience.

IMG_1948Street musicians and market stalls filled the square outside this shop and tourists, grateful for a bit of good weather, bared their legs and arms lying on the grass in the shadow of the town’s medieval castle.  The atmosphere was decidedly festive, celebratory even, and even those trying to read didn’t seem too annoyed to be distracted by the sounds of this traditional, Starbucks-free High Street.

IMG_1919Inside, the sunlight filtered in through the shop’s wide front windows, bringing the jovial atmosphere but only a tiny bit of the noise with it.  It was perfect.  The two front rooms on the ground floor are filled with classic and contemporary fiction in hardcovers, cheap paperbacks and old antiquarian tomes.  You’ll also see shelf upon shelf of  poetry and children’s books, which include obscure, rare and out of print titles that you’ve never heard of as well as the favourites.  Standing in the centre of the floor is a tower filled of secondhand Penguin paperback editions of classics, which are the staple of any good used bookshop and are usually quite IMG_1915cheap.  The shelf, a stand-alone cube in the middle of the floor, is a perfect symbol for what it is that I love most about bookshops; as you explore one side of it, you never know what interesting new book or person might be waiting for you on the other side.  As you move further back , you find brilliant history and politics selections as well as books about culture, art and music.   Although I love every book, based on the sheer virtue of its being a bound collection of white paper with black type, I am biased to novels and poetry, so I sometimes tend to skim over other sections.  But the other sections here at Hay-on-Wye Booksellers remind you of how much you might miss by doing that, with selected titles prominently displayed with their covers out, enticing readers with promises of distant times and far-off places, or careful IMG_1918and considered analysis of the not-so-distant.  The more I do learn from non-fiction (when I can get my nose out of an escapist novel and pay attention to the real world, that is) the more I’m able to see the bigger pictures behind the well-known little stories that we tell ourselves.  Reading the stories of nations and populations as well as of individual lives can explain and illuminate a single event.  I have found this particularly when reading Middle Eastern literature in a post-9/11 world.  Whether it’s Peter Tomsen’s epic non-fiction work The Wars of Afghanistan or Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, reading about the world instead of just swallowing media sensationalism gives more depth and breadth to our understanding of the world around us, proving once again, how reading makes us better people.

A few weeks ago I saw this in practice.  I was watching a stage adaptation of To IMG_1927Kill A Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.  As Atticus handed down his now familiar message that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’ I wondered how much they had affected my personality since the first time I read the novel at thirteen years old.  In the intermission, I was stuck in the queue behind a terrible woman who was growing not just frustrated but downright angry at the understaffed team of young baristas who were taking just a little bit too long to get her her tea.  It’s astounding how we can sit and watch a play about the importance of empathising with others and then five minutes later, be completely unable to do so.  My point is that books – fiction or non-fiction – can make us better people by asking us to think about things that lie beyond us as individuals.  But only if we actually read them with open hearts and minds and let them make those transformations in us.  And I’m coming down off my soap-box … now.

IMG_1917I know that I’ve praised the wide selection of every bookshop in Hay and probably sound like I’m recycling the same clichéd compliments for all of them, but the most astounding thing about this town is its ability to delight and impress you over and over again each time you walk into a new bookshop.  In this shop in particular, though, as books spill off the shelves and collect in puddles on the floor,  I was struck by the feeling of possibility that this abundance of bookshops and IMG_1911abundance of books gives to the browser. I could learn anything here, be anyone, go anywhere.  It’s the feeling I had going into my grade one classroom for the first time when I was six, or the first time I ever saw Senate House Library in London.  It’s a feeling of awe at how much there is to see and do and read and feel and think in the world and how lucky we are to have books to help us access even just the tiniest little sliver of all of it for ourselves.  It’s a very, very good feeling.

Although this first floor alone might seem overwhelming enough, there’s moreIMG_1926.  Just like in the Poetry Bookshop, this shop has a wall full of books that leads you up the stairs, albeit slowly, since the books provide a bit of a distraction.  As you ascend, you have to try not to block the way too much as you examine the books that lead you from one floor to another. Books are the best guides anyway. Upstairs, when you finally make it, the selection becomes more eclectic.  While I may not personally be interested in a book (let alone an entire shelf) on deer management, I am very glad that such a thing exists.  Although I must admit that I find some of the more specialised topics quite amusing, in all seriousness, I’m relieved to see them there.   I’m reminded once again (as I often am these days) of Murakami’s IMG_1922observation that ‘if you only read what everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’ which seems to speak to the homogenizing influence of a certain internet giant that tells us what everyone else is buying and suggests that we must therefore buy it too.  The upper floor of this shop also has an excellent selection of more history and art books, as well as philosophy, psychology and theology books and a selection of comic books and graphic novels.  The little windows, somewhat blocked by books, I’ll admit, provide beautiful views of the green and pleasant lands beyond the town, reminding browsers that the outdoors (on sunny days anyway) is a beautiful place to adventure and to read.

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This bookshop, like most of Hay’s, sells mostly secondhand books, with some rare and antiquarian books sprinkled in.  The nature of secondhand bookshops is that their price range is often quite large.  While a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby printed a few years ago with only a few scuffs might go for as low as 50p, IMG_1912a dog-eared, crumpled first edition with a significant ex-libris would cost thousands.  I think there’s something wonderful about that.  Although both copies contain the exact same story, the history embodied in one copy makes its value greater.  The variety which secondhand bookshops provide offers opportunities for everyone to read whatever they want, regardless of how much money they have to spend, while simultaneously asserting that it’s not the beauty of the thing but the collection of stories it represents which is valuable.  Books might be the only commodity in the world that actually become more valuable as they becomes dated, irrelevant, dusty, unattractive and well-used.

This was a welcome reminder for me, since sometimes I feel just a little bit bad about how much I enjoy buying books.  As much as we like to tell ourselves books are special, they’re still just material objects, aren’t they?  They’re things, products, commodities.   Sometimes I ask myself, is building a beautiful library of books just a more socially acceptable form of hoarding?  Is coveting them, feeling sad when I lose them and not being able to bear to leave them behind nothing more than commodity fetishism?

And then I go somewhere like Hay-on-Wye Booksellers and I’m reminded that, although some books are nothing more than products, designed to fill a demand in the market (cough, cough, Twilight-spin-offs), the really good ones are so much more.  If I were to buy an iPod and then drop it, crack it, spill on it, scratch it up and let it become five years out of date, no one would want it anymore.  But the more we love and use and personalise our books, the more they mean to the people to whom we give, lend and bequeath them.

The lovely booksellers (because aren’t all booksellers always lovely) in this large IMG_1913but intimate bookshop reminded me of why it’s okay that we define ourselves by the books we’ve read and why collecting them is somewhat (if only just somewhat) different from any other kind of consumption.  As I listened to the women behind the till chat to each other about the books they’re reading and watched them spend ages walking around the bookshop helping customers, I couldn’t help but wonder how much money they make.  Booksellers aren’t in it for the money.  They’re in it because they love books and they want to share that love, foster it in others and make sure that their favourite stories never stop being told and told and retold and then maybe lost for a while and rediscovered and told once again.  They’re in it because they believe, like I do, that reading makes you a better person, if you would only just let it.

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.

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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.

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.

Walden Books

IMG_1850Walden Books, 38 Harmood Street, London, NW1 8DP

Covered in beautiful purple flowers and the overspill of vines from the house next door, Walden Books is an inconspicuous fairy tale cottage hiding on a quiet residential street in Chalk Farm, a refuge just moments away from the noise and confusion of Camden Lock Market.

Outside, inexpensive fiction and poetry books draw wanderers in for a quick IMG_1844browse through the books outside on the terrace. The brave or curious venture further, into the bookshop itself.  The little brass bell that announces the entrance of a customer probably only rings a dozen times a day, so the shop attendant will notice you.  He’s a lovely, friendly man who waved me through to the back room without having to surrender my bag. I’m shocked but delighted to learn that I don’t look like the kind of person who’s going to steal books.  Luckily, I got the chance to browse through the small, cramped shop privately, with only one other customer arriving as I was on my way out.

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The front room has antiquarian books and a whole bay full of secondhand books about London, ranging from the recent to the antiquarian and covering different IMG_1847areas of the city.  Sneaking past the till, I squeezed into the small back room.  For the limited amount of space, Walden Books has an impressive selection of secondhand books.  Books are everywhere, organised horizontally, vertically and diagonally.  For the most part they are actually in vague alphabetical order (miraculously), but there are some who spill off the shelves and huddle on the floor at their feet.  The large column in the middle (covered by books) makes the room feel more cramped, but provides a little bit of privacy so that browsers can hide in corners surrounded by the smell of paper and imagine that they’re completely alone.  In these quiet corners, the browser will find fiction and poetry as well as a huge selection of plays.  Normally, when you ask to be directed to the drama section, you encounter one shelf.  Fifty percent of it is occupied by William Shakespeare.  He’s absolutely brilliant, of course, and deserves his spot in all of our hearts and on all of our shelves, but has drama not progressed at all in the last 400 years?  Answer me, Waterstones!!  The other half will be filled with various copies of A Streetcar Named Desire, Doctor Faustus, Death of a Salesman and, if you’re lucky, an Ibsen or two.  It’s all very limiting and predictable.  But at Walden Books, the plays – dug up from some very interesting people’s attics, I have no doubt – represent a huge range of time periods, cultures and genres.  Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth going  and browsing around just to get some new ideas in your head.  I have a little red notebook that I carry around with me whenever I go into bookshops to write down the names of books and authors I discover.  The list is so long now that I’ll probably never get through them all, but for some reason writing them down makes me feel one step closer to having read them.

A whole wall of the middle column is dedicated to poetry.  Again, it’s refreshing IMG_1846to see variety rather than the one typical one bay dominated by Keats, Shelley, T.S. Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy.  Again, all are brilliant, but there’s so much more out there!  My favourite discovery in Walden’s today was a copy of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems.  It felt slightly serendipitous since just the other day I almost got sucked into buying a book of Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry for £4 at the Southbank Book Market.  The best thing about it was that someone had tucked a clipping from the Times in April 1970 into the front of the book.  The clipping contained a poem by Pound which I think was called ‘The Pigeons’ which I have mysteriously not been able to find mention of anywhere else.  Is anyone able to illuminate? Whenever see something stuck in a secondhand book, I can’t help but wonder what the thought process of the bookseller is when s/he finds it.  Does it cross his/her mind to throw it in the bin, as the refuse of an older reader, of does it get to stay in because it adds to the value of the book?  I sincerely hope it’s the latter.

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Apologies for blurriness. And my generally terrible photography.

Other areas covered on the shelves of Walden Books are local history, philosophy (and it’s a fantastic selection by the way), fiction, natural history, sociology and anthropology.  I came very close to buying and 1959 edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the anthropological study of mythology and religions upon which T.S. Eliot based many parts of The Waste Land.  For those who aren’t familiar with my obsession with Eliot, suffice it to say that I think of my life in terms of ‘before I read The Waste Land‘ and after.  The book was only £5 and had a lovely inscription on the inside front cover – ‘To Kate, on your 17th birthday.’

Despite the clutter, the confusion, the awkwardness of being one of two strangers in a very small space and the unorthodox collection of books, there is something beautiful about Walden Books.  It’s messy, scattered, dusty and dingy.  It’s madness, yet there is method in’t.  It is full of a chaotic promise, that if you have the patience to sit and look, turn pages and inspect overleaves, you too can be part of something magical.  It doesn’t have the sanitary neatness of a chain bookshop or – worse – of your Kindle’s ‘library’ if we must use the word, but it has something infinitely better.  It reminds us of the simple beauty of a row of old books and the promises they make to anyone brave enough to pick them up.

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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G. David Bookseller

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G. David Bookseller, 16 St.Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

St. Edward’s Passage is a narrow little side street that ducks away off King’s Parade in Cambridge.  It’s the kind of street that you could very easily not notice and pass by without ever realising that it was there.  G. David Booksellers (also referred to as David’s Bookshop) is, remarkably, even easier to miss, as it’s on a narrower bit of street which veers off to the left while the rest of the street carries on forward.  It’s almost as if the bookshop is hiding from the prying eyes of noisy tourists, setting itself apart for those who really want to find it.

Inside is a world where any book-buyer will find something to fall in love with.  IMG_1822To make sure of this, G. David stocks new, secondhand and antiquarian books.  The new books are usually slightly cheaper than retail price, and they fill up the history, fiction, classics (not classic literature, but classical literature – I love that they have an entire section just for that), Shakespeare (again, his own section), poetry and drama.  In amongst these new titles are secondhand books for very cheap prices.  In the children’s section there were £1 Wordsworth Editions copies of all the classic children’s tales and cheap secondhand copies of everything from Harry Potter to Narnia, all for around £2 or 3.

IMG_1817The selection is a bit quirky, as it usually is in secondhand bookshops.  Like any good secondhand shop, it’s not the place to go when you know what you want or need immediate results.  But it is the perfect place for browsing.  The new books are clever and well-chosen, so if you do wade through the unorthodoxy that always exists in any good used bookshop and actually buy something, you’re guaranteed to walk out with an actually good book.  The secondhand books reveal some interesting patterns – someone nearby has an obsession with PG Wodehouse and has provided dozens, if not hundreds, of his novels, which take up an entire wall.  There are also, as I mentioned, dozens of editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and piles of secondary criticism about his works.

Downstairs, in the basement, are the sections that always seem to get relegated IMG_1820to the basement.  Isn’t it unfair that fiction is always front and centre, while gardening is always hiding somewhere in a back corner or a dingy cellar?  As someone who’s never bought a gardening book in her life, I have no right to complain, but I must say it gives me much more sympathy with the gardening, nature and pets books that always populate those silent, cobwebbed back corners.  Although if I were a book, I must say those quiet corners are probably where I would set up camp.

IMG_1818If the front rooms and the basement are the areas where browsers are likely to find something they want to flip through, buy, take home and treasure, then the back room is the place to go when you would actually like to be impractical and a little bit decadent, thank you very much.  For it is here that the antiquarian books live.  Modern first editions and early copies of classics line the walls with their leather bindings, gold leaf pages and their red and brown spines facing out to the world.  They are a sight to be seen.  Particularly worth looking at are the many books in the Local Interest shelf, which cover the history of the city of Cambridge, the university and local customs and traditions in Cambridgeshire.  A lot of them have fascinating photographs or illustrations of the city from years ago.

From obscenely beautiful books about mundane things like the UK’s flora and fauna to first editions of Ford Madox Ford and T.S. Eliot, there is something here for everyone to admire and try very hard not to literally drool over.  The best IMG_1819thing I found, though was a first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  Aside from how incredible it is to hold a first edition of any famous book in your hands, this particular copy was absolutely unique because of what other readers from the past had left inside it.  In the front cover was a beautiful ex libris, which I think was issued by the owner’s primary school, which said that it had belonged to a little girl called Caroline and was given to her in 1950.  In addition to this little footprint there was a small yellow sticker on the inside cover referring to a book club operating in Nairobi.  How this book made it from a schoolgirl in England in the fifties to a reading group in Kenya is, I’m sure, a fascinating story which I would love to know, but am happy to imagine. I was sad to leave it behind, but maybe one day I’ll go back for it and add my own story to the – clearly long – list of stories in which this single book has played a part.

My parents, together, have read Narnia out loud 28 times. Seven books times four children, taking up years and years of bedtime stories and years of their lives.  The box set we have, though it’s not a first edition, is worth infinitely more to me because not only did I sit and invest hours of my life reading them, but I know that all of my brothers, with their tiny child hands, did the same and that 28 times my parents read them aloud, providing definitions of hard words, acquiescing to demands for one more chapter, and doing the squeaky mouse voice of Reepicheep.  Beautiful old books have always excited me; medieval manuscripts were my favourite part of every museum, just about beating the IMG_1821dinos for the top spot.  There’s a sense that holding them, you are experiencing some kind of communion with the first scribe who copied out the words in some French monastery all the way down to the little girl who wrote her name and the date inside the front cover.  But you don’t need to be holding the first edition of Ulysses (but oh my god, can you imagine?) for a book to bring you closer to someone else.  Any old book buried in a pile in a shop far away from home can call to mind our own experiences reading, reminding us of the people who’ve shared them with us, the questions they’ve made us ask and memories – private or shared – we’ve made between the pages.  Yes, I want the beautiful first edition, but I’d never trade it for my own tattered copy, infinitely more precious but probably worth only about a hundredth of the price.

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.

Henry Pordes Books

               IMG_1801Henry Pordes Books, 58-60 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0BB

There was a time in my life when I went to this bookshop two or three times a week.  It made sense, really; it was on my way home.  Okay, it was one way home.  Okay, it was twenty minutes out of the way.  I called it the scenic route.

But Henry Pordes was worth the time I ‘wasted’ and the money I spent on it.  It IMG_1796was the first of the Charing Cross Road bookshops that I discovered when I first moved to London and so I think  I subconsciously compare every other shop I enter to this one.

Charing Cross Road is perhaps one of the most famous book-buying destinations in the world, thanks in large part to Helene Hanff’s brilliant novel about her post-war correspondance with Marks & Co., a bookshop that used to be at 84 Charing Cross Road.  If you haven’t read it, it’s a short epistolary novel that you can get through in a couple of hours and it’s definitely worth it.  I’d offer to lend you my IMG_1786copy, but tragically, I read the entire thing on a plane and then stupidly left it there.  But books never disappear.  No one, upon finding a stray book, would drop it in the bin; something about it wouldn’t let you.  You’d put it in a lost and found, or leave it behind somewhere where it would stay dry, or maybe donate it to a secondhand bookshop.  And if it were lucky, it would end up on Charing Cross Road.

Henry Pordes is busy at IMG_1800almost all times of day and its visitors include: 1. frazzled Arts & Humanities undergraduates, 2. awestruck American tourists, 3. antiquarian book dealers consulting on acquisitions or trying to sell their own books, 4. old men wearing tweed who head straight for the history section and 5. wanderers whose facial expressions indicate that they’ve never been here before and had no idea how good a decision they just made by walking in.

IMG_1799The shop’s front had been undergoing renovation for the past couple of weeks, but when I went yesterday its beautiful front window was once again visible from the street.  In this window are the books that trap you.  First editions of books of poetry, comics, art books, political commentaries, modern classics and not-so-modern classics are displayed proudly in the front window, and continue inside, covering the upper walls of the main room.  It doesn’t surprise me that the more valuable, antiquarian books are kept either high out of reach or behind glass.  I mean, it disappoints me of course, because just to touch them would be more than lowly English students dream of, but I get it.  Fortunately, they are still visible and give the shop an air of gravity; you feel that you’re in the presence of history, of genius and, essentially, of humanity’s greatest achievements.

IMG_1794On the ground floor, there is an entire corner whose three sides are covered with literary theory and literary biography.  I came here once while writing my dissertation on Ezra Pound and found, in this section, a book called Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. I thought it might end up being somehow relevant, and as it wasn’t very expensive I bought it.  It ended up being so useful that it became the central text in that dissertation.  It just goes to show that sometimes we humans don’t really know what we need, and if we were only ever to pursue the exact thing that we want, because we want it, right now, we would miss out on finding the things that we never knew we needed or, as a recent New Yorker article put it, ‘the book beside the book’ that you were looking for.  Also on this floor is a small room in the back full of history and political books, a shelf of big,  hardcover children’s classics and an admirably well-stocked collection of art books.  There was a beautiful hardcover book of full colour paintings by Modigliani that was £16 – much cheaper than the retail price – but still to expensive for me.  What I did buy in the end came from the basement.

IMG_1792Downstairs are the travel, more art, psychology, fiction, poetry and drama sections, as the map of the shop at the top of the stairs indicates.  Yes, there’s a map of this bookshop.  I think there’s something so romantic about the idea that a visitor might need a map to keep him/herself from getting lost in the basement and never coming out.  In the fiction section, I bought a copy of Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence for only £4.  I have read the book before but realised lately that I don’t have a copy and might soon be in a position where I need one so I wanted to invest.  It’s always difficult buying a copy of a book you’ve already read.  You have to weigh up your options and decide whether to go for a cheap copy (you have already read it, so aesthetics shouldn’t be that big a deal the second time round) or spring for a more expensive copy (this is a book you’re going to read twice; surely you want a copy worth a second go-around, right?).  I settled for something in the middle, with a solid, sturdy Penguin classics edition at a third of the retail price.  I also bought a hardcover copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad for £3.50, which is about about a fifth of retail price.

Other highlights of this basement are the bay full of Folio Society editions of IMG_1788classic novels.  As anyone who regularly follows this blog is already aware, I adore the Folio Society.  Their recent tube adverts which read ‘Re-kindle your love of beautiful books’ are delightfully sassy.  And with a whole shelf of these gorgeous editions stretching from floor to ceiling, I feel that I could be perfectly happy without ever leaving this room.

One of the volume’s in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is called Books do Furnish a Room and I think the man is onto something with this statement.  Although many of my arguments against ‘e-books’ are more intellectual and political than ‘But books are pretty!’, sometimes that’s the one that resonates with people most.  And it is the argument that the shelves of Henry Pordes quietly put forwards themselves.  The way we buy books is different from the way we buy any other commodity, whether it’s food or clothes or…what else do normal people spend their money on?   We buy books not only for ourselves, but to put them against the other books we have, in the hopes that our shelves will say something about who we are as people.  We buy them not only for ourselves, but also for the friends who’ll borrow them, the family members who’ll steal and probably never return them, the children who’ll inherit them and the strangers who’ll find them in the basement of a bookshop one day.

IMG_1795The sight of straight lines of books, standing proudly spine to spine, row upon row like soldiers, resolute in the battle against their obsolescence, warm a bibliophile’s heart.  More than any list on a screen, these rows of books remind us not only of the books we’ve read and through them the things we’ve learned and the journeys we’ve taken, but also of the many books we haven’t read.  They are the ones we want to read, the ones sitting on our shelves waiting and burning with the need for recognition in the backs of our minds.  They speak to the ingenuity and creativity of all those writers who came before us and all those readers who treasured their books as long as they lived, until those hallowed volumes ended up here.  In a way, Charing Cross Road is book-heaven.

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Camden Lock Books

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Camden Lock Books, Old Street Station, 4 St. Agnes Well, London, EC1Y 1BE

Old Street Station, at rush hour on a weeknight, is not the most pleasant place to be. A steady flow of passengers, grumpy from their days at work and desperate to get onto the tube and home to their families pushes through the narrow concourse, queues interminably for the one Oyster top-up machine (where a clueless tourist is inspiring the wrath of the 20 people behind him while trying to decide if they’re still in Zone 1) and grumbles collectively at the cheek the other travelers are showing just by being alive at this moment.

IMG_1775And perhaps that’s why the world needs Camden Lock Books in the midst of all of it.  When you push the door open and enter this small underground shop, the world goes quiet, like when you jump into a lake and all the noise around you immediately hushes as you hit the water.  One of my favourite things about bookshops is the way they smell, but I find I usually have to sniff around the books themselves to get my fix.  In this bookshop, though, it’s as if that smell exudes from the very walls of the place.  I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a room that smells quite so good.

The location of this shop is strange, considering it’s not only underground in the tube, but also bears the name Camden Lock Books, despite being miles away from Camden Lock.  On the bookshop’s website, the owner describes how the shop used to be located in Camden and in a few other locations across London before moving to Old Street.  The explanation of its name seems a bit apologetic, but I think it needn’t be – the anomalous lost-ness of this shop is nothing but charming.  Speaking of the shop’s online presence, their twitter feed is hilarious; someone there seriously hates Amazon.  I approve.

The Fiction section, my first port of call in any bookshop, is admirably IMG_1772well-stocked.  The books cover all the walls and slither down onto the floor as well, waiting, still perfectly alphabetised, for a browser who doesn’t mind looking like a toddler by slumping down on the floor.  But Camden Lock Books has also made an innovation to the conventional bookshelves which I think is absolutely brilliant; hanging off different sections of the shelf are little cardboard boxes which have in them a few of the classic, or best, novels by the author whose place on the shelf  they occupy.  For example, when the alphabet marches on towards E, there is a box full of ‘The Best Novels of Umberto Eco.’  I adore this system because it makes good literature so accessible.  With a writer as prolific as, say Eco, or Margaret Atwood, who also has a box, it’s hard to know where to start and when a jIMG_1773udgmental bookseller or fellow customer is looking over your shoulder (I’m definitely guilty of spying on other browsers) it can be so intimidating trying to make your way through a writer’s oeuvre that you just give up.  But this box idea is fantastic because no matter which book you pick, you can trust that it has been put there because it is a classic or a good place to start or particularly indicative of a writer’s style.  It’s an idea I’ll store at the back of my mind for the day I have my own bookshop.  The collection of novels is a good balance between classics and contemporary fiction, with all the books in perfect condition.

Most of the new books are retail price, but in the centre of the shop there is a big table of books on sale.  It was there that I bought today’s purchases, a good-as-new (if not new) copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers for £2.99.  I never can decide how I feel about Lawrence; every time I read something of his I go through a series of flip-flops, alternatively hating his guts and wanting to throw myself at his feet and worship.  While someone like, for example, Ezra Pound is a love him or hate him kind of guy, I feel like Lawrence is of the love him and hate him variety.  But I digress.

In the back corner of the shop there is a small passage into a quiet little back room where art, fashion and architecture books live.  The room is the size of a large closet and covered from floor to ceiling in books and, since it’s hidden in the corner, it affords a quiet place to hide from the humans and be alone with beautiful books.

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The rest of the shop’s shelves are filled with other treasures: cook books, humour and comics, books about religion, philosophy and psychology, politics and economics and a good selection of history books.  There is a music section with music biographies, IMG_1776theory and music books.  I was excited to spot a Best of Joni Mitchell music book which was for the guitar, an instrument I would love to but unfortunately don’t currently know how to play, but I still pulled it out and fondled it for a minute before accepting defeat.  A biography section was well-stocked as well, with literary, historical and political biographies.

Being in this bookshop today got me thinking.  I grew up with three younger brothers, who loved sports, rough-housing and yelling. That description is slightly unfair to their adult selves; all three are clever, interesting and insightful people now that they’re IMG_1777grown up a bit, but as children, I couldn’t help thinking of them as cretins whose only reason for being was to disrupt my peace and quiet.  When their little boy games became too much and there was nowhere to go to be alone, books gave me another place, one that no one else could access.  While the noise raged on all around me, I could completely tune it out and find myself in a place where I was alone and where no one bothered me.  For the many millions of young misfits who grew up with books as their refuge, the world inside the pages was one where they could be bigger, stronger, braver or cooler.  For me it was all these things – a place of adventure, discovery and excitement – but also and perhaps most of all, a place of peace, a stronghold against the loud brutality of the outside world.  Walking into Camden Lock Books reminded me of what it was that books always meant to me growing up.  No matter how chaotic, crazy, brutal or unforgiving the outside gets, there is a placid place in all of us and books help us get there.

While the majority of people rushed past the shop without even glancing in, aIMG_1771 handful stopped to have a break from the manic of the tube at rush-hour.  A few of them seemed to be regulars, which is not surprising because if I had to battle my way through the station every day I would probably develop a habit of retreating into this one quite, sane place as often as possible.  Some customers chatted quietly, but most got right to browsing, making no noise louder than the soft instrumental music, the turning of pages, the creaking of floor boards and the quiet conversation between the two employees about Alfred Jarry.  There is no question in my mind as to which side of the door is the place to be.

South Kensington Books

southkenSouth Kensington Books, 22 Thurloe Street, London, SW7 2LT

The other day I had to go to Knightsbridge and it was awful.  The crowds of tourists milling in and out of Harrod’s, the rows upon rows of astronomically expensive designer shops and the worship of consumerism and materialism for its own sake sicken me.  Did you know that Harrod’s has a bookshop?  It’s filled with screaming children, smells overwhelmingly of perfume and has Celebrations, the book about nothing by Pippa Middleton, on display. After about five minutes in there, I decided to take the long way home and go via South Kensington for a little bit of sanity.

The streets of South Ken are pristine, elegant and sweet and there are quaint little cobbled roads with small cafes and boutiques and little families who walk all in a line behind mother duck on their way to the Museums.  And right outside the tube, in Thurloe Street, is a beautiful little bookshop I can never resist popping into every time I’m in the area.  (For the record, on the rare occasion I’m in the area, it’s almost always because I’ve been at the V&A, which you’ll be pleased to know has an absolutely stunning library.)

After the madness I had to walk through to get to it, I don’t think I can put in words how much of a relief it was to come to this quiet little street and a bookshop that has real class.  If the future of book-buying is a loud, chaotic, overly-perfumed room sandwiched between the Luxury Gifts section and a toy shop, I want no part in it.  Give me South Kensington Books any day.  I would gladly forsake the company of the rest of human kind and even pay a bit more to buy my books here, where the money spent is so much less important than the experience of book-hunting.

But this little bookshop warrants so much more than a comparison with Harrod’s, so I’ll stop my griping now and give it the attention it doesn’t demand, but nonetheless deserves.

South Kensington Books blends perfectly into its surroundings; it’s elegant, understated, quiet and absolutely lovely. Its front window display is one of the most inviting I’ve ever seen with big beautiful cookbooks, children’s books, history books, novels, maps and postcards.  Above the books you can just about glimpse a preview of what’s inside; dim lights, wooden shelves and rows and rows of new friends to meet.  I blame this window for drawing me in one too many times and taking altogether too much money from me over the years.

IMG_1756The first room is full of your usual bookshop fare.  On one wall is its very well-stocked fiction section, where you’ll find most of the classics, contemporary fiction, the current bestsellers and all the award-winners.  All the books are brand new and ever so slightly cheaper than retail price.  For example, the retail price on Within a Budding Grove, which I bought and am now dying to read, was £9.99, but I got it for £7.99.  So, no, not a competitor with Amazon on price, I’m afraid, but they certainly undercut Waterstone’s.  There’s also a fantastic selection of beautiful art books, which I’m afraid I don’t have the intellect to appreciate nearly as much as they deserve, but still love to admire. The travel book section is wonderful (if a bit Lonely Planet-heavy, but what can you do?) and I nearly bought myself a guide book for my upcoming trip to Copenhagen, but decided I’d rather wander the streets without guidance or expectations this time around.  Don’t worry, if there’s a bookshop, I will gladly offer up the Matilda Project’s first Danish entry.

(Look at what’s just happened! Once again, a bookshop in London has had the power to transport me somewhere completely different, putting meddlesome ideas in my head.)

But back to South Kensington.

In the back room is the bookshop’s really amazing selection of history books.  This is my new go-to bookshop when looking for presents for my dad.  The man is obsessed with history.  For Christmas I got him Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  It’s probably 700 pages but he was so excited and I IMG_1754know the enormous tomes on display here would make him very happy. British and American history and politics are very well-represented, but the selection is not quite as Western-biased as a lot of bookshops I’ve been in; the rest of the world gets its say too.  The back room also has a small selection of children’s books and a wall full of beautiful books of poetry.  They had the selected poems of Keats, Byron, Blake and Wordsworth in the lovely hardcover collections with beautiful covers that Faber & Faber released recently, where a contemporary poet selects the poems and writes the introduction.  Have you seen them yet? They’re gorgeous.  I almost bought Memorial by Alice Oswald, which is a brilliant collection of poems that’s sort of a re-writing of the Iliad.  She explains it much more eloquently than that though. I wanted it, but two books in one day seemed a bit decadent.

Oh, and the entire back wall was covered in cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, ranging from your conventional recipe book to a guide to what flavours work well together.

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The last time I was in here, they also had a whole shelf of Folio Society editions of some classic and some contemporary novels.  If you’re not familiar with them, the Folio Society produce beautiful hardcover copies of books, working on the ethos that ‘Some books are worth treasuring.’  Their books are the kind that you use to build your perfect library, and then pass on to your children. I went in once and saw a really wonderful Folio Society edition of the Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and from then on have been pretty much sold.  Another time, I found their copy of Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee which had amazing colour illustrations by Andrew Gibson.

On my most recent visit, though, they were conspicuously missing. I asked the bookseller what had happened to them and he’d told me that since the last time I’d been in there, maybe a month earlier, the majority of them had been sold.  This is a good thing, I suppose, since it means the bookshop must be doing all right and that people still care about having books that are more than just a file and still feel the need to treasure them, share them and pass them on.  I’m not going to pretend I didn’t miss admiring them though.

A quick note on the Folio Society.  They earned my eternal love and devotion the day I first saw this advert on the tube:

‘Rekindle your love of Beautiful Books’ is obviously a not-so-subtle jab at Amazon and their Kindle and I think it’s brilliant.  Wake up, humans, your Kindles aren’t special!

And here we go, time for another one of Emily’s rants.  I get a lot of comments on this blog saying things like ‘I have and Kindle and I love it, but I still love paper books!’ I have a friend who owns one and says as useful as it is, she’ll never stop buying real books.  Well I’ve got news for you, guys.  Sorry if it offends, but you can’t have both.

If you want to own a Kindle, knowing that it threatens to put bookshops and publishers out of business and stifle high-quality creative output by letting it get lost in a sea of self-publishing and digital ‘files’, you are not allowed to complain.

You’re not allowed to moan when your favourite newspaper stops producing print copies.  You’re not allowed to grieve when your local independent goes out of business.  Because you know what?  It will be your fault.  If you stop going to libraries and bookshops and buying from small publishers and supporting authors at events in real life, you’re not allowed to complain when those things disappear.  If you buy more ebooks than print books, whether you like it or not, you’ll play a part in putting amazing places like South Kensington Books out of business.

When HMV went into administration, I listened to my friends complain about how there would be nowhere on the high street to browse, to fondle physical copies of the music and film they love, to talk to humans about them.  Finally, I got fed up and asked them how many of them had actually gone to HMV in the last year and was met with silence. If you say you love something but don’t support it, what kind of love is that?  It’s like not voting and then complaining when the candidate you wanted doesn’t win.

So listen to the Folio Society and take the lead from this gorgeous bookshop.  If you love books, please, I beg of you, support the independents who really care.  Support the man behind the till at the South Kensington bookshop who spent twenty minutes trying to locate the book a woman wanted, working from the single clue ‘They were talking about it on Radio 4 yesterday.’  Support my wonderful friend and former bookshop co-worker Wendy, whom I  once watched patiently talk to a family for 30 minutes trying to find a perfect book for each of their three children.  And support the values that made my dad come home from work every night just to turn the pages with his five-year-old, trace the words and letters with his finger and tuck her into bed before going back to work, just because he knew that those moments would be what mattered.

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