Tag Archives: children’s books

Dulwich Books

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Dulwich Books, 6 Croxted Road, London, SE21 8SW

Searching for books is a great way to explore a city you think you know. I’ve lived in London for more than ten years. In that time I’ve lived in six houses in four different areas of this megacity. But that hasn’t stopped me from falling in love with independent bookshops in every corner of London. Even though I now live way South, I still go to visit West End Lane Books in Hampstead and Brick Lane Books in the East End. But that makes it all the more lovely when I get to explore my local area.

I live not too far from West Dulwich, which is the home of the delightful Dulwich Books. Dulwich is a weird place. Most of the land is still own by the Dulwich Estate, a charitable foundation that acquired it over a hundred years ago. Because it’s privately owned it means that the area feels really different to surrounding areas like trendy East Dulwich, Herne Hill and West Norwood. In additional to being very well-heeled, West Dulwich also feels like a rural village. The urban legend is that the original chairs of the Dulwich Estate trust, the plot of private land that West Dulwich sits on, were teetotal way back when, so there are no pubs in the whole of West Dulwich – though there are several great ones just outside the boundaries of the Dulwich Estate. They also apparently had something against double decker buses because all the bus routes that wind through the estate are singles.

On an unassuming street corner in Croxted Road, you’ll find Dulwich Books, as well as a smattering of other little shops including a bakery over the road. Modest and unpretentious from the outside, this little shopfront reveals a fantastic local bookshop, embedded in its community, with a smart and intentional selection of books and a friendly, welcome atmosphere. The staff here take bookselling seriously and every time I pop in I’m impressed with the thoughtful curation of new titles, old classics given a bit of attention, and staff recommendations. The bookshop is great for its extensive fiction selection, but I also like it for the the focus it puts on books about culture, politics and current affairs.

In the back of the bookshop, there is a fantastic children’s section. When I went in most recently it was half term and there were two families who were clearly using the children’s section as entertainment for the morning, with their little ones happily playing with toys and reading while the bookseller patiently chatted to their parents. I particularly like this bookshop because they’ve clearly put a lot of effort into sourcing diverse children’s books. In 2018, Arts Council England and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education published research showing that only 1% of main characters in children’s literature were people of colour. Compared to 32% of schoolchildren in London. This means that the stories children spend their childhoods reading are failing to represent them and their communities, and failing to represent the diversity of the city and country they will grow up in. This has a huge impact on who children think reading is for, and which stories matter. Seeing yourself represented does wonders for self-esteem and aspiration.

There are certainly lots of brilliant initiatives seeking to redress the balance, notably Knights Of publishers who have a pop up in Brixton Market. Dulwich Books shows how bookshops can be an agent for change, by stocking a good selection of children’s books with diverse characters and perspectives. Thank goodness for that.

The bookshop hosts a series of regular events, profiling local authors and hosting an annual literary festival across Dulwich and Balham. I can highly recommend signing up to their email newsletter which is always full of recommendations and events that are enticing enough to tempt you down to this part of London that transport infrastructure forgot.

So how to describe Dulwich Books. Old favourite? Local stalwart? Social hub? Source of inspiration? I think the world benefits from having multiple perspectives. So, all of the above.

Topping and Company Booksellers

Topping & Company Booksellers, The Paragon, Bath, BA1 5LS

Question: When is a bookshop not just a bookshop?

Answer: When you can eat Spanish tapas courtesy of trendy London restaurant Morito among the shelves of an evening, attend a monthly Reading Group where you actually talk about books, take a guided tour through haunted Bath with a mystery writer or listen to the biggest names in contemporary literature (Will Self, Deborah Levy and David Mitchell are coming up) wax philosophical while you have a glass of red wine.

IMG_2318Topping and Company Booksellers, in the beautiful, elegant and quintessentially English city of Bath, has many different incarnations. At times it’s tense, as when it’s hosting a particularly heated debate. At others, it’s  bursting with excitement, as in the moments before a celebrity walks through the door. But most of the the time, it’s just a lovely bookshop, quiet, civilised, refined and full of simple delights.

On the glorious Sunday morning when I was last in Bath, the sunlight spilled in through the wide front windows and filled the shop’s interior with its brightness. The soft, warm wind came in through the IMG_2320open door so that the shop felt so much like a hidden clearing in a wood that I almost expected rose buds and dandelion fluff to fly in on the breeze. While the hardwood floors and tall wooden shelves undoubtedly make the shop as dark and cozy as it should be in the wintertime, today it was the perfect version of a modern Enchanted Forest. A place where, as beautiful as the sunlit city of Bath is, the magical possibility is much greater in the dappled light of this mysterious place, where adventures and romances crouch on every shelf, waiting for their magical whispers to reach your ear, waiting for you to comply with the fairies’ mischievous requests that you let them come out.

There were few other travellers wandering through the Enchanted Forest when I IMG_2322began my journey. While most stayed outside in the safety of bright sunlight, I walked straight in and as deep into the forest as I could, unafraid of getting lost. I weaved my way through corners covered with virtually every genre you could ever want: literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, travel guides and literary travel writing, languages, sport, health, games, nature, cookery, humour, media, psychology, history, current events and even a whole bay dedicated to ghost stories, all of which are arranged beautifully on shelves and in attractive displays on tables. In addition to this impressive range of genres, Topping and Company devotes equal space to established classics as it does to forgotten treasures and contemporary books exploring every aspect of modern life. It’s a collection as prolific as nature itself and as diverse as the people who pop in and settle down in the chairs around the shop to admire and decide which books to bring home.

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After spending a good deal of time in fiction, as I always do, I ventured on and into the children’s section near the back of the shop. I know these parts well, but they can be daunting to those unfamiliar to them, those for whom it’s been far too lonIMG_2319g since they took their shoes off and ran barefooted over mossy paths and climbed up gnarled roots. Fortunately, if this is an enchanted forest, it is inhabited by a fairy godmother called Victoria has marked the way for those less able to navigate on their own. Victoria’s Recommendations do the art of bookselling proud. She has hand-picked the finest spoils and presented them for our inspection, giving us her treasures to take home. The books are arranged by age group and go beyond the obvious choices, taking in everything from brand new picture books to a thoughtful range of young adult novels.

Up a couple of stairs, you enter the Arts Room, the heart of the bookshop, IMG_2324announced by a large sign listing off the impressive range of subject matter covered in this small room: Arts, Architecture, Design, Photography, Antiques, Poetry, Drama, Film, Music, Philosophy, Crafts, Literary Criticism, Languages, Reference and Science. Though it is smaller than the rest of the shop, this back room holds beautiful books of art and architecture, pages and pages of theory and criticism, signed copies of famous recent titles and a curated collection of excellent old and new books. I probably found half a dozen new or recent books of poetry and literary IMG_2317theory (I am biased towards literature in my bookish adventuring) that I had never heard of but was dying to read. A new book on oral storytelling in Chaucer, the Collected Poems of Anthony Thwaite, an analysis of the state of the art of letter writing and a book on First World War poetry all had to be left behind, though I haven’t stopped thinking about them and will soon return. This room and I have unfinished business.

The Arts Room is crammed with fascinating books which, gathered together, are IMG_2316simultaneously depressing – in the sense that this one room contains more knowledge than any person can read and absorb in a lifetime – and uplifting in the sense that we belong to the human race, incapable, admittedly, of magic and sorcery, but masters of creativity.  Small and circular, this room encloses you and threatens to swallow you up, lulling you into a deep sleep and confusing you until you don’t remember why you would ever leave. Be wary lest you fall under its spell and stay forever.

 

Tropismes

IMG_2163Tropismes, Galerie des Princes 11, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

Places like the Galerie du Roi, a covered arcade in the centre of Brussels, near the Grand Place, fascinated Walter Benjamin.  Lined with chocolate shops, bookshops and cafes, the Galerie du Roi is akin to the arcades of Paris, those magical places which Benjamin alternatively described as ‘Dream Cities’ and ‘Catacombs.’  At times, he praised them as places which fostered browsing, people-watching, flâneur-ism and observation while at other times they were dens of consumerism and commodity fetishism.  I can’t enter a place like this without thinking of Benjamin and wondering what he would make of it.  Indeed, sometimes when I go into a bookshop, I can’t help but feel a bit of conflict between the commercial aspect of shops (we are, after all, just buying products for consumption) and the intangible quality which creates so much more meaning: the opportunity they provide for us to expand our minds, embrace serendipity and start a journey.

IMG_2165At Tropismes, a large bookshop just off to the side of the Galerie du Roi (on the Galerie des Princes, no less), the balance is struck perfectly.  The beautiful displays in the window and the clean, modern interior create a palace filled of wonderful, attractive things to buy.  But the books on offer are chosen, curated and presented with so much charm, playfulness and intelligence that it’s hard to see them as just numbers in someone’s inventory or products to push before the Christmas rush.  That, I think, is what makes books different from every other thing we buy: they are not just bought, consumed and thrown away.  Instead, we as individuals bring each and every one to life in a different way and create a completely unique relationship with it.  We carry them through our lives (either on our bookshelves or somewhere at the back of our minds) and we don’t just act on them, but let them act on us.  Books are truly magical and Tropismes, which is whimsical and full of hidden possibilities, is a fitting home for them.

Naturally, the majority of the books are in French.  I don’t know why (perhaps someone can enlighten me) but books in French always seem to have quite plain white spines, so a wall full of them looks particularly refined and calming.  Tropismes has an amazing IMG_2164selection of French fiction, philosophy, poetry and history, as well as a mouth-watering cookery section downstairs which represents cuisines from all over the world, but particularly French and Belgian food.  On the ground floor, little nooks just big enough for a few people give the opportunity to get up close and personal with the books even when the shop is busy. In addition to books in French and books translated into French, there is a good collection of English books, which are always oddly reassuring. Tropismes has an admirably international range of novels and you can read where the books come from on the little labels that poke out from the IMG_2172shelves.  Tropismes takes you on a tour of world literature from every continent.  In one picture alone you can see a selection of Arab, Palestinian, Hebrew, Indian, Russian, Slavic, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Egyptian, Libyan and Iranian literature.  Now, I like to think that I’m quite good at reading books from other parts of the world, but Tropismes puts me (and everyone else I know) to shame.  And yet it never feels intimidating or pretentious because the whole atmosphere of the shop is friendly and inclusive, embracing people from all over the world just as it embraces their books.

When I went in, there was a pleasant level of chatter all throughout the bookshop which made it feel warm and inviting.  The shop is open, with bright lights illuminating what is in fact a beautiful old building.  The sleek and modern mirrors (which reflect the Christmas lights outside) work well against the older decorative features of the building, particularly the ornate columns and the beautiful roof.  The combination makes people feel happy, and that’s all there is to it. IMG_2169One of the things I truly love about bookshops (and people) in England is that they understand the value of peace and quiet and know how to be silent and let a person think, but this happy, community bookshop reminded me of how nice it can be to have a chat as well.  The booksellers were all lovely and (from what I could understand) very well-informed about everything they had in stock as well as about books from all over the world that they didn’t.  On a couple of separate occasions I heard a bookseller talking to a customer about just how they were going to manage to get their hands on that new novel from Burkina-Faso or somewhere equally random.  One thing I noticed is that the booksellers here were quite a lot older than the majority of booksellers in the UK.  Waterstones and London independents tend to be populated with twenty-something English graduates (like yours truly) and IMG_2171struggling playwrights  because there’s some kind of cultural idea that it’s okay to ‘just’ work in a bookshop when you’re twenty-three but by the time you’re forty-five you really ought to have a ‘proper job.’  I may be inferring too much from this, but it seems to suggest that in Brussels, they take their bookselling as seriously as they take their chocolate.  (I’m still smarting a bit from being told off by a chocolate seller for getting too close to the merchandise.)

Down in the basement, in addition to the cookery section, you’ll find books on pretty much everything under the sun.  There’s psychology, music, cinema, IMG_2170sociology, anthropology, science, nature, art and architecture, all of which are arranged impeccably in beautiful displays on the shelves and tables.  Although the basement doesn’t have the same light, airy, open feel as the ground floor, it’s still a place where you could easily spend hours if you had the time.  In fact, I think it would take that long just to get your head around the selection.

IMG_2166Finally, there is a large children’s section up on the first floor, which is a balcony looking down over the rest of the shop.  Here you’ll find children’s books for all ages and all types of children.  What was brilliant about this selection was that they weren’t just French translations of American children’s books, but new and innovative picture books, novels and comics from the country that brought us Tintin.  The graphic novels available all looked excellent, which I suppose is to be expected in a city that has a Comic Strip Museum and an apparent love affair with the genre.  It also seemed to me that a lot of the children’s books were much edgier than their Anglophone equivalents; I saw a lot of books and graphic novels that dealt IMG_2167with adult themes in understandable ways, rather than sheltering children in fairy-tale worlds.  I was particularly happy to see that small Belgian children are being exposed to great literature – there was a A La Recherche du Temps Perdu  comic book, which I now really really want.  I can’t say whether that’s indicative of a difference between the UK and continental Europe, but it is interesting how much you can learn about a culture just by looking at the books their children read, isn’t it?

Which, in a way, brings me back to where I started, with Walter Benjamin (can you tell that I love him?) and his marvelous exclamation: ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” As I examined books at Tropismes, I thought of him sitting in a new flat unpacking his library of books, picking up each one and letting it flood him with memories of the city where it was bought and the stories it carries on and between its pages.  I’m sure that the books I buy in Belgium will serve the same purpose, guarding my memories and my stories until the next time I pick them up again, in whatever city I find myself in.  For now, exploring the world at Tropismes has been adventure enough.

John Sandoe Books

IMG_2108John Sandoe Books, 10 Blacklands Terrace, London, SW3 2SR

I remember the first time I realised that not everyone enjoys a bookshop the way I do.  I was with some friends of friends walking on Hampstead Heath and when we came out near Keats House, Daunt Books’ glowing green and gold worked their magic.  The girls cooed, ‘Oh a bookshop, I looooove bookshops!’ Oh good, I thought, I’ve found some kindred spirits!  I was thrilled to leave behind the awkward small talk and bond over books.  So I felt cheated when, after five minutes in the fiction section, they were ready to go.  Muggles.

IMG_2101I’ve since become aware of the two different types of browsers.  There are those who pop in for a few minutes to enjoy the quiet or the warmth and give a cursory glance to a few books before quietly wandering out.  Despite my ‘muggles’ comment, there’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of browsing.  I think it’s lovely when someone on the way to do something else decides to spare a few moments to be with books.

But then there’s the second kind of browser.  The kind who does not just pop in, but rather plans her entire day around the outing.  The kind who looks at the spine of every single book, reads IMG_2103the backs of hundreds and flips through the pages of dozens, collecting a pile of ‘possibles’ as she goes along and keeping a wish list.  This browser can spend hours walking around in circles, squatting as she reads the first chapter of a book on the bottom shelf and getting comfortable in chairs, stairways or doorframes.  John Sandoe Books, which has been located on Blacklands Terrace, just off the King’s Road for over 40 years, is the ideal place for this kind of reader.

The shop spreads over the three floors, and on the busy ground floor you may have to squeeze through a wall of other browsers to view the IMG_2095shelves.  It’s a popular shop and you sometimes have to share the space.  It’s worth it.  On the ground floor is a superb collection of fiction, classic and contemporary, history, cookery, gardening, art, architecture and, covering the staircase to the basement, philosophy, psychology and popular culture.  There is also a bay of books from independent publishers – including Persephone Books and Slightly Foxed.  The selection is extensive; anyone who’s anyone is represented and there is simply no room for the mediocre.  The booksellers have chosen beautiful editions of old and new favourites that are made to be cherished, read, reread and passed along.  It’s yet another reminder of why we still need booksellers, dedicated and passionate people who know books and want to share their favourites with the world.

IMG_2094The ground floor is busy; readers awkwardly dance around each other for a bit of floor space and the booksellers handle telephone enquiries and customers’ questions with expertise while running back and forth to put books on hold for loyal customers.  It’s full of casual short-term browsers and the dedicated I-could-literally-spend-hours-here type. But the patient browser is rewarded with the luxury of space and privacy in the basement and the first floor, where those just popping in rarely make it. I was lucky enough to have both other floors to myself and was glad of the privacy.

I first made my way down to the basement, down a staircase covered in books for IMG_2096adults and children.  I was particularly excited to see Kay Thompson’s Eloise books about a little girl who lives in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in New York City and causes all kinds of trouble and headaches for adults.  Thomspon was American so while her books are quite popular there, but they’re a bit less common over here.  Which is a shame because they’re delightful.  You can also see Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand  – about a pacifist bull who prefers prancing in meadows to fighting in rings – peeking out.  The staircase alone (which, like every other surface at John Sandoe is absolutely covered with books) indicates that this is a good place for children’s books.

IMG_2097And down in the basement, even the greatest poetry enthusiast will brush past the poetry section and head towards the beautiful, colourful and inviting children’s section.  Once again, the shelves, the tabletops and the little chair are all covered in books and there is not a mediocre one in the bunch.  It’s the kind of children’s section parents and children alike must dream of, where whether you’re seven or sixty-two you could pick up any  book and IMG_2100trust it to be a winner.  In the end, I came home with Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline.  I don’t often buy children’s books, especially not when I know there must be a copy lying in some box or hidden on some shelf at my parents’ house.  But I just couldn’t resist little Madeline because I happened to have been thinking about her just a few days earlier and remembering the original book’s legendary beginning: ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.’  It’s a simple and perfect beginning to a sweet and timeless story.

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I also gave in to temptation in the much larger than average poetry section in the basement.  I decided to buy two books of poetry: one by a giant and one by a rising star.  The first was Seamus Heaney’s Death of a NatuIMG_2099ralist which contains his moving poem ‘Digging,’ which many journalists quoted in the wake of his death about a month ago.  In many ways it is a statement of Heaney’s goals and intentions as a poet and I wanted to have a copy of it.  When I heard that Heaney had died I was surprised at how upset I was.  I didn’t even know him!  But then, I had read his poetry, so in a way, I did.  The second was Memorial by Alice Oswald, a creative re-writing of The Iliad which has recently made her the first poet to win the Warwick Prize.

And finally, I headed to the first floor, where I was surrounded by paperback fiction and biography.  The names of authors marched around the four walls in IMG_2105alphabetical order, while biographies of writers, philosophers, politicians, composers and other important and interesting figures filled the shelves in the middle.  Ever since I read Ulysses, I have had my eye on Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce.  Unfortunately it’s massive and I already had three books under my arm so it will remain on my wish list.

But I could still enjoy standing in the middle of that room with bookshelves full IMG_2104to bursting and books everywhere else.  Now, readers, when I get left alone in a room full of books, I get weird.  I stroke their spines and spread my arms out across the shelves to gather them in.  I sniff their pages and I whisper to the authors.  ‘No no, you’re much too conventional, I’m in the mood for someone like…her!  Yes, you, you’re great.’  I must have become so involved in the books that I didn’t hear as one of the booksellers came upstairs.  As I looked up at the wall of books behind me I let out a loud sigh of contentment.  And heard a woman’s soft chuckle behind me.  I turned around, embarrassed, but the bookseller just looked and me and smiled.  I knew she was like me.  The kind of reader who will structure her day around a bookshop, spend hours hiding in a quiet corner or whisper to a long-dead poet.  In a place like John Sandoe Books, the weird ones like us are right at home.

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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.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Street Book Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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.