Tag Archives: children’s literature


IMG_3563Book-ish, 18 High Street, Crickhowell, Powys, NP8 1BD

Earlier this summer, making my way slowly from Abergavenny to Hay-on-Wye for the Hay Festival, I decided to opt for slow travel, meandering my way through the Brecon Beacons on foot and bicycle, along canals and public footpaths. It was a beautiful and unseasonably warm week at the end of May. One day, I ended up in the town of Crickhowell, buried deep in the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is an oasis of a town, the perfect place to stop mid-hike for a drink in one of its many comfortable pubs. Or perhaps a cream tea; in general the town veers towards the twee. And nothing could be more twee than a little country bookshop, in a beautiful old building in Wales.

IMG_3556The glass windows at the front of the shop are speckled with advertisements for events, readings and classes, and in May, were beautifully decorated with swirling letters, delicate plants and curlicues, which were promoting an upcoming Calligraphy workshop. Whimsical, literary and fun, I can’t imagine who could possibly walk past this shop without stopping.


Inside, Book-ish feels spacious and modern, but is certainly not without charm. Its clientele seems to be a mix of local families hikers or holidayers who are either just stopping in to enjoy the space, or are desperately trying to find their next read, realising they didn’t pack enough books! But what is most noticeable, is that it is a child-friendly IMG_3560space. Normally, the chidren’s section is tucked away at the back, but here, even in the front room, you find that children’s books and grown-up books are given pretty much equal amounts of space, and presented alongside each other, which is probably why there are so many families inside. Unlike the browsers who come and go, many of the families look like they are setting up camp for the day, because turn the corner and there’s even more to discover; a whole children’s room with books from floor to ceiling reveals itself. No adults are allowed, so mums, dads and other guardians will just have to sit and have a coffee and a Welsh cake in the charming cafe at the back.

IMG_3559But of course the kids can’t have all the fun. Aside from this one room to which they lay claim, the rest of the bookshop is ripe for discovery, and encourages the browser to pick up something they’ve never heard of before. With an admirable collection of local and Welsh writers, it’s a great opportunity to delve into a literature you might not be familiar with. There is also a good selection of literary and popular fiction and some fascinating non-fiction titles, mainly in history and culture. I can imagine this would be a boon to anyone headed to Hay but concerned they’ll not look the part without a hefty non-fiction tome.

The selection is good; it’s not the most high-brow and it’s not the most wide-ranging, but there are two things I love about Book-ish. First, there is something for everyone. You could bring the whole family and every person could find something to curl up with,IMG_3557 from toddler to teenager, the fiction-lover to the Welsh-language enthusiast, the home cook to the gardener, from your Corbynista cousin to the Leave-voting great-uncle who you’re starting to wish had decided to skip the family holiday this year. Secondly, it is a genuine delight to spend time here. The kindness of the helpful staff, the smells from the cafe, the beautiful, clean design of the shop and the presence of many species of books combine to make it somewhere that I could gladly have spent hours in. In some bookshops, it’s not about getting in and finding the perfect book for the rest of your holiday, it’s about being in a place that excites, delights and inspires, or perhaps just soothes. On a sunny day in May, the place was beautiful, the sunlight pouring in through the wide glass windows and a soft breeze dancing in through the open door. But I can imagine it would be just as pleasant in proper Welsh wet weather, where it would keep the outside world and the inside world inspiring.

On this occasion I left without a book, perhaps conscious that I was on my way to Hay on Wye where I would undoubtedly see my wishlist double in length and spend a fortune trying to keep up with the onslaught of recommendations. But next time I’m in the Brecon Beacons, I know exactly where I’ll go. You’ll find me in Crickhowell, with a cup of tea and a new book, spending the better part of an afternoon in the cafe at Book-ish. As long as you don’t talk to loudly, please come join!


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.


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.



IMG_2215Filigranes, Avenue des Arts 39-40, 1040 Brussels, Belgium

The entrance to Filigranes, a large bookshop on the Avenue des Arts in Brussels, is decorated like a giant gingerbread house, with snowflakes painted on the windows and beautiful seasonal displays facing the street from warmly-lit windows.  It’s like walking into a fairy tale.

The first room is large and open, with books and book-related products covering every inch of the walls and crowding tables, displays and even bits of the floor.  The shelves wind their way in and out of IMG_2210corners, creating both wide open spaces and smaller, cozier ones  for the more reclusive.  I personally tend to classify myself in the latter category, so I was pleased to find that there is room enough for everyone to have their own space.  As the rows of books carry you from the front of the shop all the way around the room, there are little nooks where you can dip into the quiet philosophy section for a moment, then dip back out into the jolly noises in the rest of the shop.  In the middle of this first room are not one but two cafes, where book-lovers and coffee-lovers alike can stop, relax and enjoy the lively, festive atmosphere of the shop.  Thankfully, the cafe-goers and the bookshelf browsers never step on each other’s toes: there is enough space in this massive shop for everyone to choose between the quiet retreat of a corner surrounded by pages or the bright and bustling cafe scene.  Indeed, looking at the coffee-sippers, half chatting and half admiring their new purchases, I realised that many of them had probably been quietly browsing only moments ago.  Do you know what this means?  You could spend hours in this shop, arriving first thing in the morning and not feeling that you need to leave until closing time, because in this delightful city of books you’ll have food for the mind (novels, philosophy, history, art),  food for the body (oh those eclairs…) and food for the soul (poetry, god damn it) at your disposal.

Yes, it would make quite a good day trip, spending a whole day wandering around the bookshop, peeking into corners and admiring the smooth white spines of French books and only taking a break to refuel.  But the thing about Filigranes is that you might end up staying for hours even when you certainly IMG_2213hadn’t planned to.  The place is a labyrinth (there’s a map of the shop on their website), a seemingly endless progression of more and more rooms, each one seemingly bigger than the last and each one full of wonderful and exciting things.  It’s a book city, a book palace, a book maze and the perfect place to get lost.  Room after room unfolds and the further you get from the entrance, the quieter the rooms become as the more obscure genres find their homes.  Here, in the suburbs of the book city, are the comics and graphic  novels, children’s books in French and other European languages, a small games and toys section (all very tasteful, don’t worry), humanities, and cooking.  The art section is particularly noteworthy, as it’s larger than many and filled with books which tell the stories of talented artists and reproduce timeless paintings, but are also beautiful objects worth treasuring in their own right.  Brussels is full of art, artistic people and really lovely art bookshops, including the Librairie St Hubert, which I’ll write about soon.  From what I’ve seen, Brussels embraces the most high-brow of art forms, but is equalIMG_2212ly devoted to the quirkiness, randomness and playful side of art.  In fact, in the bookshop of the charmingly weird Museum of Musical Instruments I flipped through a book about art deco masterpieces hidden in the architecture of the city.  It’s fitting that Filigranes, one of its best larger bookshops, should have such a good range of titles. There’s also a champagne and caviar bar in the middle of it all.  In case you get thirsty.

And at the very end of the shop, which, as in any good labyrinth, is right next to the beginning, there is a truly impressive and inspiring collection of international books in English, other European languages and I’m sure many others that I was too overwhelmed to notice. It always strikes me as a bit unfair and a bit embarrassing that most bookshops in the UK never have more than a bay of books in other languages – though places IMG_2214like The European Bookshop, Skoob, Book Mongers and The French Bookshop in London are trying to change that.  Although the quality of these international English bookshops is never guaranteed to be any good, at least it’s an attempt at internationalism.  But at Filigranes, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the foreign language section; like every other genre represented, it is top notch, with a thoughtful mix of canonical favourites and the best of what’s out now. Filigranes makes the best possible use of the vast space it has by ensuring that on its shelves there is no genre, no country, no language and no style which is unrepresented.

As we wandered through the shop last week, marvelling at its size and scope every time we turned a corner and found it opening up into a new room, an announcement came over the loudspeakers and a voice invited browsers to stay a little longer than usual for a pre-Christmas do.  Authors were coming in to sign books, red wine was being passed around, live music would be starting imminently and in every way possible, the party was kicking off.  There was dinner to make and a warm cozy flat to get back to, so after spending entirely too long flipping through the magazines, art books, French poetry and novels in English, I pulled myself away.  But walking out into the dark, cold street I took comfort in the thought that all evening, book-lovers, music-lovers and food-lovers would be reading, laughing, eating and, surrounded by beautiful words and favourite characters, enjoying the company of friends.

Heywood Hill

IMG_2073G. Heywood Hill Ltd, 10 Curzon Street, London, W1J 5HH

This London establishment has been sitting unobtrusively on Curzon Street for 77 years.  It has stayed there as the world around it spins madly on, living through huge changes to London’s West End, a World War, seventeen Prime Ministers and the employment of one Nancy Mitford.  And thank goodness for that.

Just minutes away from Green Park, Heywood Hill is tucked away from the IMG_2069madness of Mayfair, on the more civilized side of Piccadilly. To find it you must wander through roads with names like Half Moon Street and Shepherd Market, where little patisseries, bookbinders and restaurants replace Starbucks and McDonalds and London’s rich and famous drink champagne al fresco at 11 am on Wednesday.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much the area has changed since Heywood and Anne Hill opened shop in 1936.  Fortunately, it seems that despite what goes on in the rest of the world, Heywood Hill, like Narnia, is a place where time works differently.  The years of history spill out from every shelf and are visible in every browser’s wide-eyed awe.  It’s the kind of shop whose regulars aren’t only the local families, but book-collectors who have had accounts set up for decades.

Today, I had the slightly surreal experience of meeting a book-collecting millionaire from Dubai.  And by ‘meeting’, I naturally mean ‘eavesdropping on IMG_2067the conversations of.’  The man wandered around the shop like he’d been coming for years, picking up books to throw onto the pile the already-frazzled bookseller was trying to keep organised.  I had to pity her; it seemed that every time she thought she had his order sorted, he’d pick up three more books to add to the pile.  While he is probably a nightmare of a customer, I couldn’t judge him too much because the earnestness with which he was enjoying himself was really quite adorable.  He was the proverbial kid in a candy store.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all afford to say, ‘Oh I have a copy of this already, I think, but this edition has such a nice cover that I think I’ll have it too.’  For now, we have to fantasise.

Fortunately Heywood Hill is the perfect place for flights of fancy.  The decor of IMG_2070the bookshop reflects its history; located at the bottom of a long and narrow row house, the timeless London style is continued inside, where beautiful gold details decorate the walls and a chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The books are arranged in a way that really encourages browsing; there is a small alcove in the corner where part of the fiction collection is housed, just big enough for one person at a time to duck in and be surrounded on three sides by walls of books.  In the centre of the room are a series of tables, arranged by genre, where piles of books are just waiting for IMG_2065you to dig through them. Heywood Hill has a fantastic selection; it’s one of those bookshops where every single book deserves a look, where you find books you’ve never heard of but which immediately intrigue you, where each new discovery is more exciting than the last.  As I moved around the tables and shelves, the stack of ‘possibles’ I was cradling in my arms like a baby grew taller and, like the original Matilda of Roald Dahl’s novel, I felt like I needed a wheelbarrow.  I ended up leaving with only two books, both of which were new and therefore at retail price.  The first was Fictions, a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and the second was a Penguin Classics collection of Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov.  I’ve never read anything like either of them before, so I can’t wait to tuck in.

The shop’s combination of used, new and antiquarian books provides a truly unique range of options.  The selection of Fiction, Poetry, History, Art and Architecture books is brilliantly curated, with interesting and intelligent choices that reflect the diversity of what’s on offer in contemporary publishing, as well as IMG_2071a really sound knowledge of the classics and more obscure almost-classics that deserve to be returned to the limelight.  I was impressed with the scope of the collection, which went far beyond the canon of white Western males.  I rave a lot about Persephone Books on this blog, but expanding the canon is kind of what they do, so I think I’m justified in noting that Heywood Hill stocks a small selection of their titles.  But they also go even further, displaying the best literature from all over the world.  It’s a great place to go to find an unexpected title from South America, Africa or Asia. Part of the fun of exploring literature from outside your own culture is that you have no idea what you’re going to get or even what you’re looking for.  And an added bonus is that you haven’t already been programmed with popular opinions, prejudices and preconceptions as we all are within our own traditions, so you have total freedom to judge the books on their merit.  Heywood Hill facilitates this kind of free exploration by stocking a great selection – perfect for exploring and discovering – that you can trust to be high quality.  Like the city that gave life to it, Heywood Hill is truly cosmopolitan; a place where misfits from all four corners of the earth can feel at home.

IMG_2072In the basement are the children’s books.  A whole room full of them, where cardboard versions of Madeline and The Twits peek out at young browsers, but no other distractions take their attention away from the books.  Like upstairs, here there is a mix of pricy rare first editions, used editions and new books for retail price.  It’s a bright and happy room, warm and accessible for children and for those of us who just love children’s books.  There is something for everyone here and you can see how a child could grow up in this room, like I did, moving from storybooks to chapter books and all the way up to the confusing and wonderful minefield that is Young Adult literature.  There’s even a small collection of books for children in other languages.  All I can say about this neat, prolific and truly lovely children’s section is that if more bookshops had somewhere like it – where a child can sit and read without being distracted by a million toys and trinkets – the world would be a better place.

Indeed, places like Heywood Hill that make the world better.  With its friendly staff, inviting atmosphere and adventurous selection of books, it invites you to explore the wonderful world inside your own head.  It’s not a lecture; it’s a gentle nudge.  A gentle ‘Why not try something new this time?’ or a cheeky ‘Come on, you know you wanna.’  But adventure is easy here, because the books that you already know, the safe books, are there, but they seem so much less exciting than IMG_2068the thoughtful choice of new ones that are offered.  Yes, we all love Dickens, let’s say, but when he’s surrounded by a Rwandan poet, a book of Russian folk tales and a contemporary award-winner, you feel a bit silly for going down the safe route.  Even if you go in looking for one simple thing, you might find, like my Dubaian millionaire, that you want fifty new books that have nothing to do with the first one in genres you’ve never read before.  ‘Why the hell not?’ Heywood Hill seems to say. When you have all the tools for voyages around the world and back in time, from fantasy novels to thick historical tomes, at your fingertips, it seems an absolute crime not to use them. This bookshop is living proof that, in the immortal words of Dr Seuss, ‘The more that you read, the more things you will know! The more that you learn the more places you’ll go!’

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.


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.

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.

Southbank Book Market

IMG_1724Southbank Book Market, under Waterloo Bridge, London

In a world where few possess the patience for browsing and laziness-enablers are everywhere, I’m worried about a lot of bookshops.  The Southbank Book Market isn’t one of them.

Okay, technically it isn’t so much a bookshop as a bookspace.  But you know what, last week I wrote about a boat with books in its belly where cats like to lounge and everyone talks like a pirate, so the rules have apparently been thrown out the window anyway.

The reason I have no doubts that there is a place in London’s future for the Southbank Book Market is that it is, in every way, so London.   One of the city’s best-kept secrets, it is situated on the south bank of the Thames. Vaguely IMG_1727reminiscent of the world-famous book stalls that line the Seine (my second-favourite European river), the market partakes in the quintessential London tradition of amazing things that just kind of pop up out of nowhere while you’re passing through.  Of course, it is located in one of the best parts of London to idly pass through, with its famous neighbours like the London Eye to the West, the Oxo Tower to the East, Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre and the BFI.  In other words, some pretty good company.

Walking out from Waterloo station towards the river today, I was approached for directions (twice), saw several street performers, cut through the Food Market which smelled delicious, peeked into the windows at Royal Festival Hall to see if any spontaneous afternoon choral performance was going on (it happens!) and IMG_1735got lost in a crowd of clowns.  And I’m not even joking.  The place is always buzzing with life and you never know what you’re going to find there.  One time, I came across a giant vat of soup that some company or another was giving out for free to everyone passing by and despite but also because of the absolute randomness of that moment, it sticks in my head as the quintessential London moment.  Because this city is about the exciting things you don’t go looking for, but which find you anyway. The Book Market is situated in the perfect spot for the serendipitous pass-by and at all times of the day it’s flooded with idle wanderers, readers on their lunch breaks, aspiring photographers, students, tourists and a whole assortment of the other people who wander London’s streets.

There are probably about ten long tables laid out in a row underneath Waterloo Bridge which comprise the book market.  And books cover every inch of all of IMG_1728them.  A ring of books standing up on their sides goes around the edges of each table and in the middle, some books are laid flat, given more of a spotlight.  I’m not actually sure what the logic is in the choice of books that go in the centre; some are antiques or special editions, some are particularly beautiful or unique books and some are just really odd.  For example, an outdated Encyclopedia of the World’s Rivers; useful, I’m sure, but just a bit random.

What I love most about the book market is that there are so many different kinds of books.  Mass-market paperbacks are all over the place and there’s a huge (if eclectic) selection of science fiction, fantasy and crime paperbacks.  There are also the classics in many different forms, ranging from Wordsworth Classics (code among English students for ‘the cheap edition’) to first editions thrown in there somewhere if you’re lucky enough to spot them.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular organisation system either, but trying to figure one out can actually be a lot of (very geeky) fun.  As you make your way around the stalls, craning your neck to read the sideways titles, patterns appear IMG_1726to form.  It will seem, briefly, that maybe all the Penguin classics are in a line here and all the Pelican classics are beside them, sometimes they might even be vaguely in alphabetical order until you find a sequence of books that goes something like “Atwood, Byron, Conrad, Dickens, The Unauthorised Guide to Twilight, Eliot…” and you realise organisation was a foolish dream.  To be honest, it’s a bit disconcerting to see A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man slotted in next to something called From Notting Hill With Love…Actually.  I honestly saw this title and thought it was a parody. Then I hoped desperately that it was a parody and when I realised it wasn’t I fell to the ground and wept.

(A side-note on ‘chick lit’: I seriously resent the implication that this kind of book is literature in any, even an abbreviated, form and doubly resent the assumption that it appeals to the female condition.  Real Women’s Literature is Virgina Woolf.  It’s George Eliot and Sylvia Plath and Katherine Mansfield and Jane Austen but only if you read her for her social commentary and wit instead of her hunky heroes.  And it’s a side-order of Judith Butler and Elaine Showalter. Anyone who says differently is just plain silly.)


Anyway, back to the books.  Some particularly exciting finds today were a 1968 copy of The Adventures of Pip by Enid Blyton going for £6 as well as a couple of other old copies of children’s books, including Blyton’s The Adventures of Binkle and Flip (what a title!), a 1954 novel Jack of the Circus by Frank Richards and another called Tom Merry’s Triumph, also by Richards. They were old books with beautiful covers and illustrations and all so cheap!


I walked away very excited about the two books I bought.  The first was The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and it was a lovely old hardcover edition from 1950.  When I saw that I got really excited because I thought it might be a first edition (I knew it was published shortly after the end of the war), but the first edition was in 1949.  Curses!  But still, a very exciting purchase and for only £3. I was going to resist, but the deciding factor for me was that when I held it up to my nose and sniffed it smelled absolutely delicious and I think once you’ve done something that intimate with a book you can’t really leave it behind.

The other book I bought was Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, another old hardcover from 1956. It was actually part of a set of the complete works of Dickens and they were all only £2.50 each, reduced because there was an ex libris in each one and a bit of scribbling in the corners.  Personally, I’d be willing to pay a bit extra for marginalia, but if they want to charge me less, I won’t argue.  As much as it pained me to separate this beautiful book with gorgeous illustrations from the rest of its family, I convinced myself it would be okay.  With the cold weather in London lately I’ve been feeling the need to read either Dickens or something Russian.  I’m about halfway through Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter at the moment and fabulous as it is, it’s just not fulfilling my snowed-in-feeling quota the way Dickens always does.

So I spent £5.50 on books.  Oops.  But I feel okay about it because my purchases are such precious books that I would gladly have paid a bit more for them.   After paying, I started to wander around a bit more, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed.  After about two minutes of this I realised I was going to have to call it a day and drag myself out of there, because I kept seeing books I wanted to buy and knowing that they were all cheap enough that I could justify it!  It’s a dangerous game, buying books at the Southbank Book Market and, feeling that I hadn’t the required strength of will,  I had to reluctantly withdraw.


Pages of Hackney

Pages of Hackney, 70 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0RN

I’ve always had a bit of a hard time with the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Of course, I know that it’s talking about people, not books, but I still think books are an odd place to look to for this kind of sentiment. Surely, as readers, we do judge books by their covers, because if the individuality of each edition and each individual book and the degree of love and wear it’s had didn’t make any impression on us, we’d all be reading off our Kindles, where every copy of every book looks exactly the same. Thankfully, we’re not.

However I’ll admit that Pages of Hackney is a perfect example of the spirit of this phrase. It doesn’t really look like much from the outside. The shop is small, it’s not immediately evident that it’s a bookshop and, in a sympathetic way, it looks a little bit tired. But on the inside, you see that it has a bit more energy than you thought. The shop hosts book talks, readings, debates, film screenings and the occasional photography exhibit. Who knew?

Despite its small size, the shop manages to cram in an amazing selection of books.  On the ground floor are the new books.  There are many contemporary and classic fiction books, which are all in very good order, although it seems like many have been taken out, admired and put back in odd places, but I think it’s nice that the staff aren’t obsessively trying to straighten up the shelves.  I like a little mess sometimes.  My favourite thing about these shelves though is that in addition to the usual announcement that we are in the “Fiction” section, the chalk writing on the tops of the black bookshelves sometimes labels them “tall tales” and “yarns”.  I wish I knew more about the people who work here because they seem to really enjoy playing with fun and bookish ideas.

There are poetry, travel and culture sections, as you’d expect, and a relatively small but very good selection of children’s books.  I truly believe that children’s books are just as important as adult ones and possibly more so, since they shape not only the kind of adult books we’ll read, but the kind of adults we’ll be.  So, I’m always glad to see a bookshop that replaces the litany of silly, money-grabbing children’s books like “Candy: The Magical Make-up Fairy” (don’t worry, I made that up to prove my point) with books like Inkheart and The Chronicles of Narnia.

After a nice long look through the novels (and an envious flip through the hardcover edition of Philip Pullman’s new Grimms’ Fairytales which is so beautiful but so expensive!) I migrated down to the basement and its incredible collection of second hand books.

Walking down into the basement, my first thought was “Well, this is a bit odd.”  The centre of the room is mostly empty but the walls are absolutely crammed with books.  When you move further down into the basement, there’s a couch and an armchair, as well as a tiny child-sized piano (the keys don’t work, I tried), which makes you feel a bit like you’ve accidentally wandered into Alice Liddell’s living room.  Once I got over the strangeness and started to peruse the shelves, I realised that there was something magical about this poky little basement.  There are just so many books!  Just when you think you’ve come to the end of them, you notice there’s a table in the corner covered with them and under it another box-full and behind it yet another.

But it’s not just the number of books that’s amazing.  The books on offer are beautiful and interesting.  I found a Chinese novel (I hate that I can’t remember the name!) written in English for the Peking Foreign Language Press.  Inside it was tucked a little brochure with a family tree of the main characters and a beautiful Ex Libris label on the front leaf with a hand-written name.  It came in its own case and cost only £3.  I wanted it so much, but had a hard time justifying the purchase, so I had to leave it.  There was also a lovely old edition of Middlemarch with beautiful illustrations and the smallest print you could imagine and loads and loads of vintage children’s books.  One of the walls was entirely covered by Penguin and Puffin Classics paperbacks.  A huge variety of titles were represented.  In this section there was, by coincidence or design I don’t know, a huge number of D.H. Lawrence novels.  I bought The Rainbow, one of Lawrence’s earlier novels, for £4. I haven’t read it before and I seem to vaguely remember it having some kind of connection to Women in Love.  I’ll read it and let you know.  I also dragged my boyfriend along with me today (not that it was that hard) and he bought a £3 collection of essays by Jon Stewart.  Brilliant. Anyway, what amazed me most about this bookshop was just how inexpensive all the second hand books were; some were so beautiful that paying a measly £3 or 4 felt like stealing. I think Pages has struck a perfect balance between the modern publishing industry upstairs and the joy of used books in the basement.

In addition to The Rainbow, I also picked up something very exciting; a map of London’s independent bookshops!  Some I’ve already written about , others I’ve been to and want to write about, but there were many I had never heard of, which means that now I have even more ammunition to throw into my anti-Amazon revolution!

And boy do we need a revolution.  In the bookshop today, there was a little girl, probably four years old.  She had picked up one of the second hand children’s books and was holding it softly, like the treasure it was.  She asked her parents if she could buy it and I think her heart and mine broke when they said no.  It reminded me of a time when I was working in a bookshop and a little girl dropped her fuzzy pink purse on the ground because she was walking around with her face buried in her book.  Her mother scolded her for not taking better care of the purse and said “It’s like all you care about is that book.”  I couldn’t believe it; that kind of behaviour from little children – especially little girls – should be praised and encouraged, not criticised!

I know that sometimes books can be expensive.  But isn’t that all the more reason that we have to make sure that we protect not only bookshops like this, but also our public libraries?  I’ve been  told that digital readers are a good thing because ebooks are cheaper and thus, by some kind of logic, an equalising force.  I can’t believe someone is trying to defend ebooks by this kind of weak moral argument.  The truth is, in this day and age, it’s not difficult for children to get their hands on books.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like teachers and librarians and parents and siblings and every adult in their lives wants children to read more.  The issue is inspiring the children, and from personal experience, being the keeper of a book is the best way to learn to love them.  Being given the responsibility to care for a beautiful book, whether borrowed or bought, teaches a little girl that books are important, sacred, but most importantly hers.  It shows that she has the ability and the right to access this magical world of knowledge and imagination and creativity. I truly don’t believe that there’s any greater educator than that.