Tag Archives: fiction

Harbour Books

IMG_3871.JPGHarbour Books, 21 Harbour St, Whitstable, Kent, CT5 1AQ

Late November is an interesting time to go for a walk on the beach.

Whistable Beach in Kent was almost deserted except for a handful of brave dog walkers and particularly persistent joggers. It was raining hard enough to notice and the wind was up, so it was difficult to take in the sights that make this seaside town so beloved. But looking out at the sea is always a worthwhile thing to do, even if it was only for a few minutes before scurrying back into the town.

Sopping wet and shivering, Harbour Books with its elegant storefront and beautiful artwork in the front window was a relief.

With two floors of new books in fiction and non-fiction, Harbour Books is the kind of establishment that makes a small town feel like a place, and not just a collection of houses and cafés. I always feel like an independent bookshop gives a place its soul.

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On the ground floor is fiction, including a selection of contemporary literary fiction and best sellers as well as a quite well-stocked A-Z of novels. There are staff recommendations, a bit of a focus on local authors and a decent range of children’s books.  And there are lots of bookish gifts like notebooks, mugs and tote bags. It’s good all the charms of the very best bookshops, with hard wood floors that creak pleasingly underfoot, inspiring quotes painted on the walls in ornate cursive and friendly booksellers quietly chatting away to customers, recommending Christmas presents.

Upstairs is quieter; people just popping in for a browse don’t always make it to the upstairs of a bookshop. It’s the home of non-fiction including inspiring cook books, politics, local interest, gardening, nature writing, travel and an excellent collection of history books arranged chronologically by subject.

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Perhaps because I don’t often read history books, I often find myself wondering about the people who do. My eyes immediately go to the novels or, failing that, for books that comment on the world as it is now, that look at contemporary issues that affect the world around me and about which I might conceivably be able to do something. I must confess that history books never attract me. But seeing a selection so carefully put together as the one at Harbour Books is cheering because it is a reminder that it takes all types of readers to make the world go round, and that for someone, this thoughtful, organised array of books will be an absolute feast. To those other readers who are getting something that I’m missing, I salute you.

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Harbour Books feels like the kind of place that is all about books and friends.

With a 25 year history in Whistable, it’s like the friend that’s always been there for you. It champions local books by local authors, celebrating them like returning heroes. It introduces new books and reminds you of old friends that pop up from time to time to suprise you. It’s also a place for new friends, whether you’re chatting about books with a friendly bookseller or sharing poetry, prose and prosecco with new friends at their monthly Words on Waves evenings.

I hope to visit the next time I’m in Whistable and the time after that. Situated right near the harbour, perhaps it’s also a little bit like a lighthouse, guiding you out from the cold and the wet and into a safe and friendly place.

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West End Lane Books

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West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London, NW6 1QS

‘Now that we have smart phones and tablets, people are getting more isolated by the day.’

‘People don’t care about the high street any more; we’ve lost our sense of community.’

‘Parents don’t read with their children these days; they just give them iPads and let those do the work.’

‘Bookshops are relics of the past and books are on the way out.’

These are just some of the nasty, ludicrous lies that I hear spat back at me with a little too much pleasure whenever I tell people that I spend much of my time daydreaming about owning a quiet, peaceful, messy little bookshop of my own one day.

I tell them: ‘It will have big comfortable chairs where mums and dads can sit and read while they wait, with their little ones happily sitting in the children’s section for story time’ and they say, ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that.’

I tell them: ‘We’ll have local authors come in the evening to do readings, book-signings and host debates’ and they say, ‘Who would bother when you can watch that on Youtube?’

I tell them: ‘Our staff will know everything about every kind of book, hear about everything that happens in publishing and be able to find the thing you didn’t know you wanted or make the perfect recommendation’ and they say, ‘You mean just like Amazon but I have to leave my house.’

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Yes, some people are doing everything they can to make me believe that my little dream bookshop is nothing more than a fantasy. Unfortunately for them, West End Lane Books is very real. The very fact that it exists gives me hope, because it proves that people do care about their communities, that some things can still excite us enough to make us (god forbid) leave the house now and then, and that there are people who still value coming together – for story time, for a reading, or just to browse in silent solidarity – to celebrate the characters, the stories and the books – those most beautiful of objects – that we love.

West End Lane Books is my dream bookshop, the kind of place that keeps me sane in the midst of a digital nightmare. It is the epitome of everything that has always been great about bookshops and a defiant answer to all the pessimists who think that places like this should be singing their swan songs. I just love it.

IMG_2287The dark brown wood paneling of the roof, floors and bookshelves is perfect, just how I would want it to be. With the light pouring in from the front window, being inside this bookshop in the late afternoon feels like being inside a treehouse. Everything is a dark, comforting, nutty brown, the covers of books provide little splashes of colour, and the hush in the shop makes you feel like you’re 100 feet up in the air, above the noise and speed of the world below.

Despite the open plan and the handful of little nooks that make it feel like there’s more space than there is, the bookshop isn’t actually very large, so the booksellers have made the shrewd decision to aim for quality rather than quantity. Naturally this means that you won’t find anything you could ever possibly want in here, but you’ll find a lot, and you’ll probably find something better than what you thought you wanted anyway. Many bookshops this size devote a good half of their space to Fiction, with only small (almost token) sections for art, philosophy, culture, cookery and children’s books. Here, the distribution of space is IMG_2290much more egalitarian. Art, Architecture, Food and Drink, Travel, Philosophy, Television, Drama and Sport all get far more attention than they would in a lesser bookshop and while there may not be as many books in each section as one might like, what is there is the very best available, arranged beautifully and just begging you to pick up book after book and admire each one. The poetry section, while smaller than I’d like, is also impeccably selected, with a particularly international feel and books that span the centuries, from Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Norse Edda to Shakespeare, Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams and all the way up to cutting edge contemporary poetry. It’s impressive how well West End Lane Books has sifted through centuries of poetry to provide a small sampling of only the best. I just wish there were more of it.

IMG_2291The fiction section is, once again, beautifully presented and cleverly curated, with paperback novels lining the shelves in perfect alphabetical order and a display the finest editions of old and new favourites perfect for treasuring and passing on to the next generation.  Independent publishers like Pushkin and Persephone are put in places of honour, just as they should be.  In the fiction section I found the first of the two books I came home with, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, a collection of bizarre and magical Chinese stories written between 1640 and 1715. It is apparently held up as ‘the supreme work of fiction in the classical Chinese language.’ I had never heard of it, but then that’s what good bookshops are for.

The second book I bought was Shaking a Leg, the collected journalism and essays of Angela Carter, covering literature, food, feminism, travel, art and everything in between. It promises to be highly entertaining.

Finally, there is the children’s section, given a huge amount of space and stocked with brilliant books for children who still have to rely on mum and dad for IMG_2289stories to awkward teens like I once was, who will desperately bury their heads in thick Young Adult novels to avoid real life. West End Lane Books does all kinds of different services for children and families, from book donations to local schools to book-based party favours, but the 4 o’clock Story Times on Mondays and Thursdays have to be my favourite. In the children’s section, on the colourful carpet beside the two giant teddy bears, I can imagine groups of children enchanted by fairy tales and laughing with silly poems.

For their parents and other adults, West End Lane Books has a fantastic programme of events in the evenings, including a Book Group and talks by authors. I am signed up to their mailing list and get excited every time it comes through, as it seems that each month there is some cool new thing that I could try. If you live in London it’s definitely worth signing up to the updates, because you never know what amazing thing they’ll do next.

So as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t love West End Lane Books, you haven’t IMG_2288got a heart. For there is some kind of adventure in this small little shop for everyone. If you’re six, it’s as simple as snuggling up, closing your eyes and sailing away on a pirate ship or flying over London like Peter Pan. If you’re a little older, the adventure might be meeting your favourite author, or contributing your insight in front of strangers in a book group. If you’re a little older and a little shyer, you’ll have to do what I do and explore the world by scanning the shelves for a hidden gem you’ve never heard of and trying it out. From my experience, it’s always worth it.

Type Books

IMG_2083Type, 883 Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6J 1G3

Well, North America, I had almost given up on you.

Over the years, I have watched in horror as every time I visit Toronto, one more of the few struggling independent bookshops has closed its doors for good and no one has kicked up any fuss about it.  Long have I shaken my head in dismay, long have I wagged my finger in disapproval, long have I made (possibly unfair) pronouncements about the defects of an entire continent that is more interested in the latest gadget than preserving books, art and music, the little places (bookshops, libraries, museums and galleries) where peaceful spaces open up into a world of adventure.

I was just about to give up, become world-weary before my time and conclude that future generations of weird kids with over-active imaginations and more creativity than social skills will have to go without the comfort and the joys of real books and rooms full of them.

IMG_2076Then I met Type.  Hallelujah, I thought, there might just be hope for them yet.  For even in a difficult economic climate, and in a social climate that is wholly disheartening to those who want to live by books, Type has succeeded.  I, for one, am relieved to know that even if other great bookshops in this city (a moment of silence, please, for the late and great Nicholas Hoare Books) are dwindling in numbers and having to close, Type marches on in its quest to bring a bit of colour and a bit of joy back into the lives of Toronto’s bookworms.

IMG_2082That sense of joy hits you before you even enter the shop.  The display in the front window of the bookshop changes regularly, but is always inviting.  In late August when I visited, a back to school display featured pieces of white paper, covered in handwriting whimsically floating through the air, suspended above a selection of relevant books.  The effort put into creating such an inspiring and imaginative display, sure to draw in even the most school-resistant child, suggests that this is a place where the beauty and magic of a book, the miraculous potential of a blank page, does not go unnoticed or uncelebrated.

Inside, the large shop has a spacious layout, which might seem a bit too impersonal  with its cold bare floors, were it not for the stubbornly IMG_2080unfashionable, but comforting and homely decorations on the walls.  Several different colour schemes and loud patterns dominate different parts of the shop and multi-coloured bunting pops up here and there so that the whole place feels a bit like your wacky aunt decorated it.  But at Type, it works. The walls are as colourful as the books themselves, which are the main focus, as they should be.  Type illustrates their understanding of the charm of books themselves – without gimmicks or cross-promotional merchandise – in their creative and stunning video advert called The Joy of Books.  If you have been living under a rock for the past year and still haven’t seen it, watch this video (once, twice or on repeat) to be reminded of the potential for magic that is latent any time a reader is presented with a shelf full of books.  I always feel awe when I enter a bookshop or a library or the house of a particularly accomplished collector and see, standing in front of me, a small sample of mankind’s genius, the creative and intellectual output of our civilisation, expressed in more words than I could evenIMG_2075 hope to read in a lifetime, right there, available, waiting to be opened and for the dance of the words on the page begin.  A Kindle or an Ipad fails to give that impression of greatness, durability and possibility. Even if it contains a million ‘books’ (or files as I call them, since that’s all they are) the Kindle cannot impress the reader in the same way a good bookshop does.  It will never make us realise  – through the sheer presence, the endearing physicality of paper pages you can touch –  the amount of words we have not read, and the possibility that they might all change our lives the way a shelf of unopened books can.

At Type, I could sense the legendary words and timeless expressions of thoughts and emotions around me.   Surrounded by so many beautiful and important books, I could almost hear them whispering, promising to share their secrets if I was willing to pick one up and sit with it for a while.  The collection that the booksellers at Type have accumulated is so brilliantly-curated that browsing through it, you can tell that any book in the selection might change your life.  A well-stocked selection of classics is of course mandatory, but the wide range of fiction titles available is refreshingly contemporary.  The balance between old and new is just right, as if to remind us that we are nothing if we do not know our past, but that that past should no longer define us.  In order to help us break free from it, Type offers novels by the greatest writers of our generation and less famous authors who nonetheless deserve our attention.  The poetry section also IMG_2079mixes old and new in exciting ways and encourages the browser to try something they never would have found on their own.  The selection of graphic novels is large, which is appropriate for a form finally coming into its own and being taken seriously.  Personally, I think it might prove to be an invaluable new genre for the internet generation to express its understanding of its own time.  Despite how new and fresh the genre is, at Type, a small typewriter is nestled in a the base of this section, perhaps so that we don’t get too carried away and forget that all books, no matter how innovative the format, are simply the result of the miraculous combination of black letters on a white page.

There are also superb history, politics, philosophy and religion sections where the range of inspired and significant titles simultaneously excited and IMG_2074intimidated me.  And in the back room, beyond the cook book section and books on all kinds of crafts and activities, there is the children’s section.  It’s a small room and contains a few too many toys and other non-book items for my tastes, but it is cosy and bright, with little child-sized chairs dotted around and a great selection of books for all ages. As a child who spent many hours curled up in the children’s sections of libraries and bookshops, I can tell you that a small and quiet nook at the back of a bookshop is all you need to  bring to life the magic that grown-ups need videos and fancy editing to be reminded of.

So shame on us, the adults.   The ones who have accepted this opinion (whose opinion, again?!) that magic is kids’ stuff, that the closest we can get to it is a touch-screen smartphone or a device that is nothing but a pale shadow of a real book.  What Type reminds its readers is that all that stuff is just a distraction for a distracted age impressed with its own petty party tricks.  The real magic starts when you open a book, and let it open something in you, too.

Broadway Bookshop

IMG_0594Broadway Bookshop, 6 Broadway Market, London, E8 4QJ

Having heard only good things about this small independent bookshop, I set out for a long walk along the canal on Saturday morning to make the pilgrimage to Broadway Market in Hackney.    The walk along the canal, from the City Road Basin to Broadway Market, is beautiful in itself; it’s a quiet oasis right in the middle of the city, where a bewildering mix of people run, walk, cycle, stroll and eat at trendy al fresco bars, or with market food in their laps and their feet dangling over the edge of the canal.  It’s the perfect example of urban living at its best.  Broadway Market, too, is a bright spot of hope against the bleak prospects for the high street we’re constantly hearing.  It’s the quintessential East London street, one of the few places in the city where you can still find a good jellied eel.

Stalls fill the road, making it an atmosphere where regulars or one-time visitors can interact with bakers, butchers, organic farmers, florists, artisans and booksellers.  The independent shops along both sides of the street are busy hubs for the local communities, especially on a Saturday, when the music from street performs and the calls of merchants make it difficult to not want to stay a while.

And it makes me happy that books are a central part of the experience.  In the IMG_0585market itself, Barrow Books, who also pop up at the Goldsmith’s Row, has a stall covered in what is a great range of new and secondhand books, which provide great variety and a thoughtful collection and is very welcoming to browsers.  Donlon Books and ArtWords Bookshop are two art booksellers which keep Broadway Bookshop company.  They are both worth a visit if you find yourself in the area, as they have really interesting selections.  But be warned, both are absolutely crawling with hipsters, whereas Broadway Bookshop attracts a more diverse crowd, including local families and residents of all ages and from all walks of life.

Broadway Bookshop is a central part of the community, as well as a great example of why we still need bookselling in the twenty first century.  It’s a poky little shop with a surprisingly large collection, which stretches out over three floors.  Which makes it sound a lot bigger than it actually is, since each of the floors is actually just one little room, absolutely crammed with books.  But despite the almost overwhelming selection, it still looks neat and accessible.

When you enter the shop on the ground floor (which on a Saturday is full of IMG_0587people), you are surrounded by music, art, architecture and fashion books, as well as a small section about Nature.  This is nice in a way, at least for me, since it prevented me from following my usual routine and heading straight to fiction, never to be seen again. The bookshop stocks an informed and intelligent range of titles, proof once again of a great mind somewhere behind it, dedicated to filtering through what’s out there and bringing you the very best.  It’s a selection that invites exploration and encourages you to think more deeply and more seriously about the world we live in, as it offers you the chance to investigate books that analyse our culture in new ways.

If I was someone who still used Amazon, I can guarantee that it would be to IMG_0589order books by authors I already know, and that my life would be much poorer for it.  But thankfully, I’m someone who goes to places like Broadway Bookshop, where I’m forced to expand my mind and go beyond my usual routine.  In shops like this, with a good selection, well-presented and inviting, I always find myself poring over the most unexpected books: histories of technology, essays on popular culture and feminist treatises that I couldn’t have found otherwise.  My favourite thing about books is the way they make you look at familiar things again and see meaning in them you had never thought to look for.  This makes us smarter people, braver people, more empathetic people.  I have a feeling someone at Broadway Bookshop agrees with me.

IMG_0593The shop is arranged in such an appealing way that it seems to pull you further in before you realise what’s happened, onwards to the next floor down.  Here, you’ll find a great range of travel books, cookbooks, philosophy, fiction and children’s books.  It was in the philosophy section that I found one of the books I came home with, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.  Any regular reader of this blog will know that I adore Walter Benjamin.  He’s one of the most intelligent people to live in the past century and he has a piercing truth or brilliant quotation for every occasion.  I’ve read Illuminations about ten times, but have never had a copy of my own and now I do!  The deciding factor in this decision was that it has an introduction by Hannah Arendt who I love almost as much as Benjamin.  I felt a bit bad buying a book I’ve already read when presented with so many amazing new options, but then, you can’t argue with Book Fate.

IMG_0586The children’s books have their own small but cozy corner, where a child-sized chair faces away from the rest of the room.  It seems antisocial, but for anyone who was the kind of kid I was, this is exactly what you want; to shut out the rest of the adult world (and other loud children), put your feet up and turn some pages.  It’s a perfect little hideaway, a quiet fort which defends the imagination from the cold and dreary world outside of it.

The fiction selection which covers the walls covers all different kinds of genres, in perfect alphabetical order.  Including bestsellers, classics and contemporary novels from smaller publishing houses, the selection has something for every kind of book lover, but it’s presented in such a way that anyone can come in and have a look, no matter who they are and what they read.  There is no snobbery in sight, even though being snobbish about a place like this would hardly be IMG_0588unjustified.  There is a table in the centre of the room which puts the spotlight on some particularly interesting books, no doubt chosen with care.  On it, you’ll find established and undisputed classics, like the complete works of Kafka and Nabokov (we came home with a copy of Pale Fire) as well as lesser-known masters (like Italo Calvino whom I cannot praise enough) and new titles, like May we Be Forgiven, the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and Philip Pullman’s adaptation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a gorgeous hardcover that I’ve wanted for months.

IMG_0590Finally, there is a small little nook that makes  up the third and final floor of the shop, though it’s really only a half-storey.  It’s only big enough for about two people at a time, which is a bit of a shame since it’s the home of the poetry, biographies and beautiful books.  There is a small chair where you can sit and, since it’s such a cramped space, effectively cut off all other visitors, getting exclusive access to the wall full of poetry books from poets ranging from Chaucer to Billy Collins.  A glass chest houses the treasures; a small selection of rare books and literary, political and music biographies are given a small but solid bit of attention.

This bookshop is a special example of good bookselling, with a great and well-curated selection of interesting and inspiring books.  But more importantly, the booksellers are warm and accessible, so it’s not surprising that regulars will have a chat about their latest read and ask for help when they need an expert’s advice.  It’s a bit like an extended family, which welcomes browsers from all over the world to come in, lower their voices and do what they do best.

Clerkenwell Tales

IMG_1997Clerkenwell Tales, 30 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE, London

‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 325.

I started off my Independent Booksellers’ Week with a pilgrimage to Clerkenwell Tales, a small but mighty bookshop on Exmouth Market.  This is one of my favourite bookshops to pop into for a quick browse, just to see what’s new and stand in its welcoming atmosphere for a few minutes, even if I don’t buy anything.  I first started going because it was right across the street from our go-to breakfast place and bakery, Gail’s.  After filling up on their legendary hotcakes (served up with pears and walnuts), a long walk home is appealing and that walk is never complete without a stop at Clerkenwell Tales.  This morning, a sunny if slightly nippy Saturday, the street was busy with people idly strolling, peering into the windows of shops and restaurants.  Here, like on any good London street, a beautiful independent bookshop was the heart of this community: inclusive, inviting and the perfect addition to an already lovely day.

This shop is small, but that’s far from a problem.  With only one room, the booksellers have used impressive ingenuity to create a space which feels like a traditional bookshop, but is actually quite different.  As they’re working with less space, they simply can’t have the same quantity as larger shops and piles of books would ruin the neat and elegant layout of the shop.  Instead of trying to squeeze everything in, they’ve chosen to be selective and offer a carefully curated range of fiction and non-fiction titles. This is clear just from looking at the books on display in the window, a clever and sophisticated mix of contemporary fiction, local interest and thoughtful, relevant non-fiction books.

An excellent taste in and passion for good books is evident, reminding us that quality is always more important than quantity.  The books are divided into several different sections.  Of course the largest one is dedicated to fiction and, while the selection can hardly be called wide, it is thoughtful and inspiring.  I had my eyes on Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (the main character is called Cordelia, a name I’ve adored ever since I first read King Lear) and Jackie Kay’s Reality, Reality which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

The next section is ‘Books We Love,’ an entire bay full of books recommended by the book-loving staff who appear to be well-read people with impeccable taste.  The offerings I saw today mixed contemporary fiction with political biographies and classic novels.  It’s slightly disconcerting but also amusing and refreshing to see Kafka sitting beside Tessa Hadley and I think it encourages us to think about our own diverse tastes in literature and leave behind the silly idea of dividing the books we love into categories.  This only creates a false sense that we, the readers, as well as the writers we love can be pigeon-holed, when really, who gets to decide that a die-hard Jane Austen fan can’t sandwich his/her copy of Pride and Prejudice between A Game of Thrones and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller?  We’re all complex people and, as Clerkenwell Tales’ mix of genres and styles reminds us, our reading habits should be as diverse and idiosyncratic as we are.

The shop also has a wide selection of books about politics and culture, as well as some about food and the arts, most of which are clustered around the table in the middle and arranged beautifully.  The smaller number of books works well in this shop, as each one is given more of a spotlight.  This means, of course, that they all have to be the kind of book that will shine.  Judging from how long I spent wandering around this central table, that mission has been accomplished.

Other interesting sections include ‘London’  – which features books about the city, famous literary Londoners and the history of the Clerkenwell and Farrindgon areas – and ‘Great Gift Ideas’ where you can find biographies of famous authors and artists, beautiful books of poetry and Penguin’s fantastic ‘Great Loves’ series of short stories and novellas about romance in beautiful pocket-sized editions.  Finally, there’s the ‘New and Recently Reviewed’ bay.  In the past year, as I’ve visited and written about dozens of bookshops, I’ve learned that a section dedicated solely to new books always indicates a good bookshop, one where the staff are knowledgeable and literature is taken seriously.

Perhaps my favourite section is ‘Great Ideas’ where a varied and – to some eyes – random collection of books invites the reader to pick up something new and unexpected that if you let it, might teach you something new or make you see old things in a new light.  Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays caught my eye in particular, but it was surrounded by shelves full of other though-provoking collections of essays, biographies and works of non-fiction that encourage us – yes, us, who ‘google’ the answer to everything before we’ve even thought about it – to actually use our brains for a change.  And, in a way, that’s what Clerkenwell Tales is there for.  In its own quiet, unassuming way, it asks us to  look inwards and examine our lives and to reflect on our world and the way we live in it, encouraging us to think critically, cross boundaries and surprise ourselves.  Just like the best books always do.

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Street Book Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which brings me to ‘the one that got away.’  In the fiction section near the front of the shop, I gasped out loud when I discovered a small early edition of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.  This is the first in the Scottish writer’s series of twelve books of fairy tales, which collect famous stories like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty with more obscure ones from all over the world.  This book had IMG_1868a blue hard cover, gold  leaf pages, and a Happy Birthday inscription on the front cover.  And it only cost £6.  Unfortunately, knowing that I had already spent too much money on books on my little trip to Hay, I decided to leave it.  For now.  In a way, seeing it there was more precious to me than actually taking it home.  When I was a little girl I used to take Lang’s Fairy Books out of the library at school after our kind  school librarian suggested one to me and I became completely hooked.  I would borrow them week after week until I had read all of the ones we had in the library several times. And I hadn’t thought about that in about ten years.  Like so many other childhood memories, reading those books has probably formed my personality in many ways and I doubt I would be the person I am without them, but they had slipped into the dark recesses at the back of my mind.  Until, as if a bit of fate or serendipity had followed me all the way to Wales, I saw them sitting on a shelf in the Broad Street Book Centre, and precious memories from years ago came flooding back.

Owl Bookshop

IMG_1842Owl Bookshop, 207-209 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU

Last week I got myself very lost in Kentish Town, looking for Walden Books.  Fortunately, most good stories get started when the heroine stumbles off the path. As I wandered up Kentish Town Road, growing more and more certain that I had gone too far, I became aware of golden light glowing out from the windows of this beautiful green shopfront.

IMG_1839The first thing I noticed about the Owl Bookshop is how ‘local’ it is; sitting on the high street, it is an integral part of the community.  It’s the kind of place that probably has regulars.  It’s the kind of place where a child can grow up, returning every week like a ritual, just like I did in another local bookshop far far away.  The little chairs scattered around the shop invite you to sit down and read or sort out which books you’re actually going to take home.  The majority of the books are retail price, but there are a few tables throughout the shop filled with books on sale for £3, £4 and £5, so a lack of money needn’t stop you from browsing.

It reminded me a lot of the Stoke Newington Bookshop and not just because the layout of the shop similar – indeed you could almost substitute Stoke Newington’s blue shelves for the Owl’s green ones and have the same shop. But more importantly, both have an almost tangible sense of community, and the booksellers who foster those communities are friendly, lively, energetic and more than competent.

When I walked into Owl Bookshop, one of the booksellers was patiently helping a woman decide what to buy for her friend who ‘likes good novels.’  Unbelievably, this was the only criteria she was able to give the bookseller, but instead of being annoyed, he seemed to enjoy the challenge, happily bouncing around the shelves suggesting books.  She left with three so I think he must have done all right.  As I skulked around the poetry section eavesdropping on other customers (my usual routine) I heard them talk to customers with complete ease about authors I’ve never heard of, being helpful and obliging and more than willing to spend as long as it took to make sure each customer left with the perfect book.  I don’t normally ramble on about staff, but I’m making an exception because the good people at the Owl were truly impressive.

As they chattered away with customers, I was busily exploring the fiction section.  In addition to a wall full of A-Z Fiction, there was a bay of bestsellers and new releases.  I always love this in a bookshop; I think it’s a sign that the IMG_1841people who run it love, care about and pay attention to books.  I was even more impressed to realise that these bays contained so much more than the mundane chart-toppers.  It gets old to see the same books on display week after week in every bookshop, so it’s very refreshing to see a display of books that demonstrates a real knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as an understanding of what’s good, not just what’s popular.  Not that those can’t be the same thing, it’s just that…well, come on. In a post-50 shades world, do I really need to qualify that statement?

Even the Classics section was better than average, redefining what we deem ‘classics’ by including books from all over the world.  Some of these may not be canonical in the world of British academia, but they have stood the test of time nonetheless and gave me lots of new ideas for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.

The rest of the bookshop is really brilliant; I truly can’t say enough good things IMG_1840about it.  And I’m stumped for clever ways of phrasing my praising.  I’m just in love with the Owl, okay?  A whole wall is full of travel books. The history and politics sections are relevant and well-stocked.  The corner full of cookbooks is colourful and appealing.  Beautiful art and architecture books have an entire section to themselves.  I could have spent hours there looking through the interesting selection of interesting books I never knew I wanted to read until I saw them and then could not pull myself away.

The only small stain on my otherwise brilliant visit fame from another customer.  He walked in with his sons and before he even looked around went immediately to the desk.  He told one of the aforementioned brilliant booksellers that he was taking his son to a girl’s fourth birthday party.  ‘I know nothing about girls and girly stuff’ he snapped, making every woman in the shop glad not to be the mother of his spawn.  Each time one of his boys suggested something like Thomas the Tank Engine or a Scooby Doo book, he snarled ‘We’re not looking for a book you like, we’re looking for something a girl would like.’  I think he spent the entire time trying (and failing) to avoid sneering every time he said the world ‘girl.’    I stood there fuming as he indoctrinated his impressionable sons with some idiotic ideology about how girls like princesses and boys like trains, dinosaurs are for boys, sparkles are for girls.  I wanted to explain to him that if he continued with his behaviour he would be guilty of unleashing two first class neanderthals upon a world that thought it was rid of this type of person.

This ridiculous dividing of literature into categories happens in academia too, IMG_1837where Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are studied by women but their male contemporaries, like, say, Dickens and Carlyle, are for the boys.  Don’t people realise that Austen could be just as observant as (and even more bitingly clever than) Dickens?  It’s worrying that we still allow artists to be pigeon-holed in any way, but gender-based judgements are the worst.  The power of literature is that it allows us to transcend silly little differences like gender, class, nationality, race and see ourselves as human beings.  Anyone who tries to pervert that noblest of goals is, in my humble opinion, a mere subspecies.

But what bothered me most was that he completely missed the point of this bookshop.  By offering its readers an unconventional selection of titles, which are good regardless of whether they’re popular or well-known, the Owl asks us to go beyond our normal habits and discover something new.  IMG_1838It asks us to try out books we would never have found ourselves, by authors we’d never heard of but probably should have.  It invites us to open our minds and it reminds us that this openness, this ability to see beyond our own tiny little lives and experience the world in a new way, is the reason we loved reading to begin with.  So here’s to the Owl Bookshop; the world needs more places like it.

Walden Books

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

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

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

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

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

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Apologies for blurriness. And my generally terrible photography.

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

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

Brick Lane Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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