Tag Archives: independent bookshop

Libreria

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Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, London, E1 5JP

Libreria is that rare thing: a new London bookshop! While around the country – indeed, around the world – bookshops are closing down, it’s encouraging to see a new one pop up just around the corner from London’s Brick Lane. I went to visit yesterday, a sunny Sunday afternoon. After seeing a mention of the bookshop in the Guardian a few weeks back, I decided I’d like to see for myself.

What I saw has left me feeling a bit, well, confused.Walking in with very few expectations I was immediately impressed by this bookshop. I then made the mistake of doing an online search for Libreria when I got home, and reading a few things about the bookshop has left me with mixed feelings. But more on that later; there is more than enough to say about a visit to Libreria.

When you walk into Libreria, it takes a second to get your bearings. Because of the gentle curve of the space photo 3and the mirrors on the ceiling, the shelves, which are already packed to capacity with books, seem to carry on forever in every direction, including upwards into the sky. You can only stand there for a moment, stunned, while you take in your surroundings and internally map out the beautiful wooden shelves, painted a welcoming bright yellow. Throughout the shop are little reading nooks where you can sit and admire the books. In some bookshops his would seem a bit gimmicky, but here they are not just helpful, but perhaps even necessary. With every surface – vertical, horizontal and diagonal –  absolutely buried in books, I was often grateful for the ability to sit down in one of these little nooks and take a breath while I examined a book or tried to get my head around the layout of a particular section.

The selection of books is well-informed and interesting. This is not a place to get in and get out with a Le Carre novel, but it’s perfect if you’ve got a bit of time on your hands and want to find something new. Its real skill is in creating excitement about a new book. I love the feeling when I find photo 1something new that I need to snap up immediately, then rush home to turn it over, touch the cover, smell the pages, read and reread every word on the outside and crack it open to start reading as soon as possible. At Libreria, that ability to discover something exciting and inspiring takes precedent – and quite rightly so – over navigability. Rather than a simple ‘Fiction A-Z’, the shelves in Libreria meander in and out of logical order, more in keeping with the way your eye moves along a shelf of books anyway. Every now and then there is a vague sense of alphabetisation for a little while as you scan a row of books, but this can disappear suddenly and inexplicably, morphing into a completely different part of the alphabet or an entirely new system of ordering, so I quite quickly gave up trying to impose my own ideas of what should come next.

photo 2The sections in this bookshop are not titled ‘Fiction’, ‘Non-Fiction’, ‘Art’ and ‘Philosophy’. Instead you’ll find ‘Ways of Seeing’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Mothers, Madness and Whores’ or ‘The Future of Life and Death’. Yes, that does sound a bit pretentious. Of course it does.  But I think it’s always useful to have our notions of genre disrupted, and it’s fascinating to group books together in different and surprising ways. This system also makes it really clear from the outset that there is no point looking for something specific; on this journey you are in the passenger seat, being driven wherever the bookshop wants you to go, rather than where you think you should be going next.

Among the interesting and unexpected places I was taken were:

  • In Gratitude by Jenny Diski. Diski sadly passed away earlier this week, about two years after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. In Gratitude is the collection of the fantastic essays she had been writing for the London Review of Books, about her life, being half-adopted by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing as a teenager and about her experience of dying. I bought it on Thursday, as soon as I heard the sad news, and it was in a prominent position at Libreria.
  • Inflatable Woman, a graphic novel by Rachael Ball that looked intriguing and I’m going to go back to buy next time I’m in the area
  • Women who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. I think this is a stellar title.

There were also displays of books selected by two amazing women – Jeanette Winterson photo 2and Shami Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti’s choices were fascinating and included The Arrival, a beautiful graphic novel about migration by Shaun Tan. We ended up buying two books: The Witches: Salem 1692, a satisfyingly thick history book for £20 and the Selected Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, of whom I hadn’t heard before but whose stories sound irreverent and powerful and focus on ‘the oddities of love.’ This set me back £18, which seems a lot for a paperback. And obviously I’m not comparing that with Amazon, but with other independent bookshops of a similar calibre who provide excellent service and a delightful experience, but without taking the piss on prices. Still, in the scheme of things, this is a small price to pay for an hour spend in Libreria and two amazing books.

When I got home and sat down to write this piece, I decided to find out a bit more about Libreria and how they see themselves. I often do this before writing about a bookshop because I like to know whether a bookshop has a particular speciality or a nice story or an inspiring mission statement that I can include when I write about them. So I googled Libreria. It’s had quite a lot of coverage since opening and the tone of much of it is pretty irritating. For now I’ll give Libreria the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s just the press that’s taken such a frustrating view of this opening. While it’s really heartening that the opening of a new bookshop has been met with any interest, a few articles have described it in a way that makes it sound like it was founded on the whim of its creator who wanted to do something a bit quirky and kooky. It’s described in this particularly wanky article as a ‘concept bookstore in east London’. What does that even mean? Libreria, according to its acolytes, is special because it aims to be a quite space away from information overload and incessant noise and does this by providing a carefully curated selection of excellent books.

I fail to see how this makes Libreria any different from any other good bookshop. I don’t photo 1deny that it’s a brilliant place, because it’s a space in which you can leave behind the noise and information overload of the outside world and instead focus on books alone, in a setting that allows for creativity, spontaneity and discovery. This is wonderful and necessary, but it’s hardly some super creative new hipstery thing that no one’s ever thought of before. It’s just…a bookshop. That’s what a good bookshop is, and what it does. The self-congratulatory tone of a lot of the press coverage makes it sound like they’re the first ones to hit on this totally quirky and twee idea. This feels a bit insulting to bookshops like Brick Lane Books, a few minutes down the road, which has been a stalwart of the community, providing the same service (if not a better one, as they work hard to engage the community in reading and literature) but without banging on about it, for over thirty years. It’s a bit insulting to all the booksellers and booklovers for whom a good bookshop isn’t a novelty or the quirky retro Instragram fad of the week, but a treasured (if underappreciated) part of life. I’m sure the folks at Libreria are aware that they are the latest, but by no means the first, brilliant bookshop in London. So I’ll chose to ignore the pretentious think pieces and just let a good bookshop be a good bookshop.

The idea of a safe, clean, quiet place where you can go inside and have respite from the world around you while getting lost with books is a great one, and one with a long tradition of libraries and bookshops. I applaud anyone setting up a new bookshop like this, particularly one as truly unique as Libreria. This place is a haven and I’m so glad London has another beautiful bookshop, with a bold and creative selection of books that invites you to experiment and learn, and enables the magic of stumbling upon the perfect thing.

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Fossgate Books

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Fossgate Books, 36 Fossgate, York, North Yorkshire, YO1 9TF

Fossgate, in the city centre of York, was built by the Vikings, as a bridge over the River Foss. It has had a fascinating history, taking on several different iterations. At the present, it is particularly noteworthy for being York’s ‘hidden gem’, which is home to dozens of small independent businesses. A massive banner stretches across the width of the north end of the street, proclaiming Fossgate the undisputed ‘ultimate street of independent businesses.’

I had the good fortune to visit Fossgate in December and happened to coincide with Small Business Saturday on the 5th December. Rambling up and down this vibrant city street, I popped in to many of the little businesses that make it unique, but as my readers know, there is no shop that can tempt me like a good bookshop. So I also dropped in to visit Fossgate Books. This quirky little bookshop is spread over two floors. It’s nowhere near as glossy or fashionable as many of the  London bookshops I haunt, but it’s got an understated, no-nonsense charm about it. And besides, the focus is firmly where it should be: on the books.

It was late afternoon when I went into the shop, but it was back in December and I remember that the sun had set well before 4pm that day, so Fossgate was beautiful in the soft light of the gloaming. There were very few other shoppers at that time; most had already headed back home for the evening, or into a warm pub  somewhere. The few of us in Fossgate Books had the place mostly to ourselves, while the attentive bookseller pottered around finishing a few end of day tasks, popped his head out now and then to greet someone passing by on the street outside and occasionally looked up from his desk and set his eyes benevolently upon his visitors. In the silence, it felt wrong to pull out my camera and notebook, but I made a mental note to remember some of the weird and wonderful titles so I could tell you all about them.

Fossgate Books has a wide selection and seems to specialise in second hand and rare books. I was delighted to find loads of  old children’s books, as well as hardcover modern first editions, varying in price from a couple of quid to £100. Parts of the collection were really quite charming; there was a quite expansive selection of literary biographies, which are always fascinating a whole shelf full of books about York and Yorkshire and an impressive selection of philosophy and religion books.

This is one of those bookshops that contains books you could have gone your whole life without ever seeing elsewhere. I chuckled to myself out loud when I saw a book called ‘The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries.’ I love how coming across a book like this can suddenly draw your attention to an incredibly specific area of study, something you would never think could possibly be very interesting. At first it seems comically niche, but then you realise that there is probably a whole community of people obsessed with this very subject, and a larger group than you might think of people who have made it their life’s work.

Independent bookshops are brilliant because they take us out of our own interests long enough to expose us to absurd books like this. They create those precious moments when something you previously thought was tiny and insignificant opens up to reveal a whole world within it. I have no doubt that if you visited Fossgate Books tomorrow, you would be so lost among the hundreds of books that you’d fail to find this specific one. But you’d find something else that would make you smile, or laugh, or think again, or possibly spark an interest in something you’d never heard of before. You won’t find the same thing I found, but you’ll find something, and I’d love to know what it is.

 

The Little Apple Bookshop

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The Little Apple Bookshop, 13 High Petergate, York, YO1 7EN

APPLE.

Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

A little piece please. Cane again to the presupposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use.

– from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

Little things are not always as simple as their littleness makes them seem. The little finger of a newborn holds all the worry and anxiety and joy in the world to a new parent. William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, and found infinity in an hour. James Joyce saw the eternal struggle for empathy and communion between human beings in one bumbling newspaper man’s wanderings around Dublin on the 16th June. Gertrude Stein saw in an apple a whole rainbow of things that were decidedly not an apple.

Little books, like Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, and more recently, We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, can house world-changing, perception-altering ideas within a few dozen pages.

The Tardis is bigger on the inside.

The Little Apple Bookshop in York is…a little bookshop. It’s almost comically little 028considering that it sits in the shadow of York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. But inside, there are books. Which means that inside, it’s bigger than you could possibly imagine. Inside, it contains more information that you could ever learn, more characters than you’ll ever know, more reasons to laugh, cry, rejoice, despair, be inspired, be depressed and ask questions than you would ever create on your own. And all in a single room not much bigger than my kitchen.

Crammed inside are books for all sorts of people, but mainly for the best sort of people: little children. Picture books, story books and chapter books line the walls and make them satisfyingly colourful. The children’s books at the Little Apple are excellent ones and there are actually enough of them! As an adult, I almost never give up on a book I’ve bought and decided to try, but when I was younger I could read the first paragraph of a book and decide yea or nay for absolutely no logical reason. If it was a no, I wouldn’t read another word. Children like this need lots and lots of choices, and not all bookshops understand this. But never fear; though she be but little, the Apple is fierce. It has books to satisfy the tastes of even the pickiest readers.

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If you’re not a child, I commiserate. But there’s even choice for us grown-ups crammed in there. Classic and modern fiction from around the world is beautifully chosen, as are crime and mystery, graphic novels, cookery and a bit of 027non-fiction. Does the Little Apple have everything? No, stupid; it’s too little. But it’s got far more good stuff than most of us will ever need, let alone deserve. Such is the magic of good books; they expand time and space. They make a tiny, poky little room feel never-ending like a palace. They make an afternoon stretch time back and forth, so it’s like a year and also like 5 seconds at the same time, and then, like an elastic,  when you close the book, it snaps back and it’s just an afternoon again. The Little Apple Bookshop is a place where one could easily get lost in space and time, even if you haven’t much of either.

It’s such a bright, friendly, open, inviting place to be, that just visiting is reward enough. I didn’t even feel the need to bring home any new books for myself. I did, however, buy a present for my youngest brother, who never reads, though I always insist on buying him nothing but books at every gift-giving occasion. This time, the book he’s getting that I hope he might actually read is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A fellow browser noticed me take it down from the shelf and whispered to me that her daughter loves this book, so I knew I had a winner.

According to Wikipedia, the subject matter of this book is: ‘good and evil, survival, magic.’ All that covered in 180-odd pages.

Next time you’re in York with a little bit of time and a little bit of money, pop in to the Little Apple Bookshop. You’ll want to buy everything, of course. But even if you walk away empty-handed, it’s impossible to leave without feeling like something – the world, your heart, your mind – has been made a little bit bigger.

 

Minster Gate Bookshop

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Minster Gate Bookshop, 8 Minster Yard, York, YO1 7HL

In the shadow of the imposing York Minster, a little bit tucked away, you’ll find a quiet, little bookshop. On a cold evening, it radiates a soft yellow light from its front windows, promising warmth and refuge. In European Christian tradition, churches like York Minster have provided a sanctuary for the wretched and afflicted; criminals, orphans, victims of crime or violence and fugitives from the law could enter a church and be given asylum for some time. While York Minster would be a grand place to seek refuge and respite from a cruel world, I personally prefer a bookshop, where one need never fear being turned away or rejected, so long as one stays quiet and is gentle with the books.

I am a traveler in York. At least for now anyway, unless I decide to leave London and its 013extortionate cost of living behind and start again up North. For now, though, I’m just a traveler, dependent on the hospitality of others and, as Blanche DuBois put it, the kindness of strangers. This means that while I’m in York and away from home, I get to take refuge from my everyday life and instead spend some time in someone else’s everyday life. Now, in York, that someone could be anyone a Roman administrator, a Viking settler, an Anglo-Saxon priest, a Victorian writer or a 21st century student. York has had so many lives already, as evidenced by its name. When the Romans first founded the city and built its still-standing walls in71 CE, they called it Eboracum. Under the Anglo-Saxons this became Eoforwic, then Jorvik under the Vikings and finally York, via various Middle English iterations including Yerk, Yourke and Yarke over the years. In this city there are endless possible narratives to slip yourself into as you shed your self for a little while.

I have written before about how reading and traveling are the perfect combination, as 004both are fundamentally about leaving behind what is known and familiar and journeying into a different place and a different self. Sometimes this is quite a terrifying prospect, but it can also be an incredibly comforting one as well. Growing up, one of the things that books were to me was a refuge. When family life was loud, when I didn’t want to answer questions, when I simply wanted to disappear, the best way to do this was to open a book. You see, being a girl with her nose in a book is like having an invisibility cloak. No one seems to see you, the book is your shield and it keeps prying eyes and minds at a distance. Little do they know, inside your cloak, a whole world is being built around you, seen from a new and exciting vantage point. It’s just like walking along the streets of a new city; your anonymity keeps you safe from having to engage, lets you hide out a little longer in the secret adventure you’re having on your own.

I had the same feeling in Minster Gate bookshop. Coming in out of the cold and away from the crowds, a whole world of possible escapes presents itself. Within the quiet space of a little bookshop, worlds open up. And in York, a city with such an improbably rich history to untangle, every new story comes with the promise of magic.

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Minster Gate Bookshop is split over four floors, each a maze of different rooms. It presents the adventurer with dozens of subcategories of books; History is not just History, but: 015British History, Archaeology, Ancient History, Military, European, American and World History and, somewhat oddly, Transport. Fiction dominates the basement, with many classics available for discounted prices. They have every single Neil Gaiman book, all sitting in a pile on the floor and all for £3. There are new books, used books, rare and special edition books, prints and maps and all sorts beyond that! There’s everything from crime and mystery to folklore and fairy tale sections. The shelves seem to scream, ‘You can be anyone in here!’

Minster Gate Bookshop, while it caters for many tastes, has a decidedly literary persuasion. With full sections of Literary Theory and Literary Biography, it also has lots of rooms for those funny books that don’t seem to have a clear classification. In a poky little room up on what I think was the third floor, though I lost count, I found a treasure trove of fascinating clever escapes. Arthurian legend, feminist folktales, little-known classics and scholarly criticism rubbed shoulders. My particular favourites in this difficult-to-classify collection were:

The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm

The Book of Legendary Lands by Umberto Eco

The Literary Heritage of the Arabs: An Anthology

The Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare

I wanted to buy all of them and hide away forever wandering through far away, long ago 014and never-never lands, but in the end, I bought a hardcover first edition of The Second Virago Book of Fairytales by Angela Carter for £6. Like me, Angela Carter was fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and believed that they have significant insights into why our culture is the way it is, as well as being an excellent example of oral storytelling and quite fun to write and rewrite.

It was only when I walked out of Minster Gate bookshop that I became aware again of the sounds of the city, the crush of the crowd, even what time it was and the stress of knowing I had to get dinner on. Inside, everything was suspended, just like when I used to open a book and hide for a while. When you’re fully engaged in the world of a story – or a world full of stories, which a bookshop should be – everything else seems to disappear. Minster Gate Bookshop, because of its location, probably gets a lot of tourists who poke their heads in, shriek ‘Oh it’s so cute and English! #quaint #janeaustenorwhatever’, take a #geek selfie and then walk out again. And so be it; it’s there for them to do that.

But I think what it’s really there for it to be a refuge that opens its arms to lovers of books, stories and words and lets them leave everything else at the door. Long may it continue to welcome all of us.

Nomad Books

IMG_2837Nomad Books, 781 Fulham Road, London, SW6 5HA

Like many of you, I am, for all intents and purposes, a ‘grown up.’ I live in a flat, where I pay rent and bills and spend time between coming home from work and going back again. I have an alarm set for 7:20 every weekday morning. I leave the house at around 8:20 and take the Victoria line to work. I work until 6pm, when I walk back to the station and take the tube home. I worry about horrible colleagues, unmet targets and the damp in the corner of the bedroom. In other words, I have a routine. Most days, I do pretty much exactly the same thing. But some days, I do something different.

It seems to me there are two modes of everyday living. You can live in your little bubble or box, going back and forth between work and home and doing more or less the same thing. Alternatively, you can do something new every day, live a life of individual days, each one unique and exciting and new and full of adventure. Sadly, the world we live in makes it all too apparent that we are supposed to opt for the former – that this is a sign of success and normality. Sanity, even. So, most of us spend about 90% of our time in the box. The internet makes it easier, of course, by making our lives more uniform. It’s a shame, given the potential of the worldwide web to help us reach outwards, but sadly we never use it that way. The internet could take us to Maui, Malawi or Mexico, or let us see the Andes, the Aztecs or the Arctic. But the reality is that the vast majority of people, when they open Google Earth, look first for their own house. Yes, the internet, despite giving us delusions of grandeur, actually just seals the lids of our boxes ever more firmly. This isn’t the end of the world; very few of us have the energy or the funds required for a purely nomadic lifestyle.

Nonetheless, it’s in that 10% that most of us create our most treasured memories, so it’s that 10% I want to talk about. We all find ways of bringing that lifestyle into our daily lives and for me the main ones are reading, travel and buying books. Going to Nomad Books in Fulham is one little thing I can do to get a bit of adventure in my life. It is the perfect place for reading (and planning what I’ll read next), travelling (I take a long trip on the District line to get to their travel books) and buying beautiful books.

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Nomad Books has been on Fulham Road for over 20 years. It’s a lovely little building on the corner of a lovely little street. It is particularly popular for its large selection of travel books and travel guides, which are housed in a room towards the back of the shop, along withIMG_2830 the art, architecture, design and photography books. There is a small couch and table here, away from other browsers and staff. In some bookshops, sitting areas like this look a bit forced, but at Nomad Books, I really did feel that I could sit down with a book, get comfortable and read undisturbed for the rest of the afternoon. I might even plan my next trip away from the box while sitting in that comfortable seat and looking at photos of Peru.

Nomad Books also has a good classic fiction section and a very thorough display IMG_2833of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, prominently on display at the front of the shop. Bays full of recent publications, both the bestsellers and the more obscure, are dotted with insightful staff recommendations, so you’ll never be short of good suggestions if you’re overwhelmed by the selection. The fiction selection is by no means extensive; it’s eclectic. This is not Amazon and you will not be able to find anything you want. Embrace that and find something you weren’t looking for. Finding what you’re looking for belongs to the 90% realm. Finding something exotic and tempting and buying it on a whim belongs to the 10%. This eclectic fiction selection, such that it is, covers the walls on the side of the shop that is also a coffee, where you can buy tea and coffee and tasty treats and sit for as long as you like and admire the books or get a head start on the one you’ve just purchased.

At the back of the shop are the children’s books, with more comfortable chairs, IMG_2836couches and tables in amongst them. It’s perfect for an impromptu story time if you can’t make it to one of the shop’s weekly story circles. When I went in last week, during the schools’ Easter holidays, two mums with 4 children between them in tow where chatting away happily in the back of the shop about what books they’d buy. Nomad Books feels like it’s part of the community. These families passing through on their day off were not the only ones giving me that impression; when I walked in a very elegant older lady was sitting in the café reading. About fifteen minutes later, an elegant little old man walked in, gallantly took his hat off and sat down across from her. Eavesdropping told me that they both live in the area and often bump into each other here.

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I’ve spent a lot of money on books lately, but it was my day off, I was on the other side of the city and I was on an adventure, so I bought Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant. It is still in a beautiful hardcover edition that won’t be around forever so if you’re thinking of buying it, do it now. It cost £20 but if the first 100 pages are anythingIMG_2831 to go by, it was more than worth it. On the back of this lovely hardcover is written a quotation from the first chapter, written in large gold writing, which captures the feeling I got in the shop. It was the feeling that there are infinite worlds out there, in the world and in books, waiting to be explored. It was the feeling that life is too short to spend only 10% of your time on adventures. It’s the feeling we get at airports and train stations at the beginning of a journey. It’s the feeling readers get when they hold a heavy hardcover in their hands, or turn the brittle first page of a favourite old paper back or read a great opening line:

‘There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…’

Foyles

IMG_2826Foyles, 107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT  

For many years, Foyles was at 119 Charing Cross Road. Founded in 1903 when the brothers Foyle sold their textbooks after failing their civil service entrance exams, it moved to the heart of the West End and the street of books in 1906. It took off and the brothers went from selling books out of their mother’s kitchen to owning one of the world’ most famous bookshops. Charing Cross Road is a very special place for books and book-lovers and Foyles has long been the jewel in its crown. With its erratic shelving, its labyrinthine corridors, Christina Foyle’s Literary Lunches and Ray’s Jazz cafe, this bookshop has become a London favourite a second home to many a frazzled Literature undergraduate. Its history is so long, illustrious, confusing and entertaining that I won’t try to tell it here. But if you’re interested in how 119 Charing Cross Road came to be, you can read more on the Foyles website. If, like me, you have a soft spot for misanthropic Luddites, give Christina Foyle’s obituary a try.

When I first went to Foyles, it had largely modernised, leaving behind its days as the world’s most infuriating bookshop. It was still a higgledy-piggledy mess of genres and a maze of floors and stairs and lifts, but they had abolished the now-infamous system whereby, for many years, you had to queue twice to buy a book: you’d queue for a hand-written note in the section where the book belonged (not necessarily the section where you’d find it, of course) then again when you brought the note and the book down to the main IMG_2820till. If you mixed things up you’d have to go back upstairs with your book and do the whole thing over again. While I may have missed the glory days of disorganisation, Foyles was still a place that marched to the beat of its own drum. The staff were always a little bit quirky. Some quiet corners were so isolated that you’d suddenly look up from a book and realise that you hadn’t seen or heard a human for 20 minutes and anxiously poke your head out to make sure the rest of the shop was still there. The segues between different subjects never quite made sense (you’d walk along rows of shelves on 20th century Middle Eastern history and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by books about Alchemy) and the books on display were consistently, even stubbornly, alternative. As a student, I spent many hours in Foyles, partly for the atmosphere and partly because its selection of academic books and obscure novels made it absolutely necessary to anyone trying to avoid buying books on Amazon. I remember rushing around London trying to find books in Waterstone’s branches, secondhand bookshops and university libraries, all the while knowing that the only place that would have them would be Foyles. Some of the books I found at Foyles and nowhere else were: Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo, Cane by Jean Toomer, Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog and Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. Yes, Foyles was a lifesaver for me countless times, but it was also one of my favourite places in the world.

So, imagine my anxiety when I learned that it would be leaving 119 Charing Cross Road, closing up the old shop and moving down the road to number 107. I admit that to most people, this was barely news. To me, it hinted of catastrophe. The idea of Foyles being anything other than the place I knew and loved activated those human fears of loss and change and for about a year I mostly pretended it wasn’t going to happen. At the Hay Festival in 2013, we went to listen to Miriam Robinson (then Head of Marketing) and Alex Lifschutz, the architect of the new Foyles. They talked about the changing industry and the importance of making bookshops cultural destinations in their own right and about finding the balance between tradition and innovation. I was reassured but unconvinced. When the new Foyles opened up in the summer, I was anxious. The first time we went I tried to be balanced and to reserve judgement. The second and third times it felt really strange. I’ve now been in about ten times since it reopened. It was on about the 8th visit that I admitted to myself, ‘Okay, I really love this place.’ When I went again this weekend, I realised I might love it even more than the old Foyles.

IMG_2825When you walk in, you are greeted with a huge sign that announces, ‘Welcome book-lover, you are among friends.’ While I don’t love the way this is punctuated, the sentiment is one that fills my heart with good will. Here is a place where we belong! The people who come to the new Foyles are, honestly, the loveliest bunch. Where are the arrogant philistines expounding all the reasons that Toni Morrison is actually overrated? Where are the giggling couples hiding in corners and the creepy old men loitering around the books about sex? Where are the talkative hipsters who think a peaceful bookshop is the perfect place to impose their reading of Proust upon innocent passersby? Here there are only quiet hipsters and real book-lovers. It’s as if this temple of books and reading casts a spell on browsers and makes them act like decent human beings. It’s like heaven!

Foyles, Foyles, Foyles! It makes me so happy that this place exists! The ground floor has bestsellers and hot of the press books, as well as magazines, art IMG_2824and architecture books and gifts. The lower ground floor has a huge children’s book section with expertly-chosen books and knowledgeable staff. It is also home to cookery, travel and craft books. At Foyles, none of these are token one-shelf sections but comprehensive overviews of a whole genre. Then there is the amazing fiction section that takes up most of the first floor. Here you’ll find the Highlights section which draws attention to some amazing contemporary books you might have missed and the staff recommendations which are wonderful. It is global in its scope and the books on display are impeccably selected. This floor houses literary fiction, graphic novels, crime, fantasy, science fiction and a huge poetry section. There are also plenty of beautiful editions of classics, IMG_2818including my favourites, the Folio Society editions. Upstairs, on floors 2,3 and 4, you will find books on every subject under the sun. Foyles has books on all of the major subjects: History and Politics broken down by geographical region, biography, religions, philosophy, science, maths, sport, travel, music, law, medical, business, economics, film, drama, nature, health, Women’s studies, Culture, LGBT studies and a tiny section about Transport for London where I found a geeky but very interesting book about the history of the names of all the London Underground Stations. Flipping through it, I learned that my area of London used to be called Battlebridge because it was the site of a IMG_2819bridge over the River Fleet where the battle between Boudicca and the Romans was fought. I think that’s far more interesting than ‘King’s Cross’ and I’m glad that I know it. Foyles also has a world-class selection of Foreign Language books and a great music section, where you can find CDs, books about music and sheet music. Can you believe all of this is in one shop?!

On the fifth floor you’ll find the Foyles cafe, the perfect place to have tea and cake and admire your purchases. It’s a bright and lovely cafe full of almost entirely bright and lovely people and it’s quite an ideal place to re-energise after IMG_2822you’ve climbed your way up to the fifth floor and spent ages looking at books. At Hay, Miriam Robinson talked about how going to bookshops in the 21st century has to be an event. Well, in my household, ‘going to Foyles’ has become a perfectly acceptable thing to say that you’re doing this weekend. (Disclaimer: this may not be the case across the board; we are very bookish people and don’t get out much). Nevertheless, we can spend hours there, particularly if after our browse and our tea and cake, we’re going to one of the many events and talks that Foyles hosts. Foyles really is a place where you might go for a day out, the way you would go to a museum or gallery. In my eyes, it’s a complete success.

And now it’s time to tell you about my spoils. I bought A Tale for the Time Being IMG_2816by Ruth Ozeki. When it first came out, Foyles (the old Foyles!) had a beautiful limited edition hardcover that I never got around to buying and now they don’t make them any more. I have finally accepted this and bought the paperback edition. I started reading it the same day and it’s great so far. I also bought The Vegetarian by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and The Hen who Dreamed she Could Fly by another female Korean writer, Sun-Mi Hwang translated by Chi-Young Kim. I should also mention that when I was in the shop 2 weeks ago, I bought another lovely Pushkin Press edition of Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix. I have since finished it and it is beautiful – ironic, playful, emotional but not melodramatic, and highly intellectual. I definitely recommend it. Foyles, like any good bookshop, is a great place for discovering international writers you might not have heard of and giving them a try. In my experience, it’s almost always worth it.

So go and visit! It doesn’t matter when! There will always be knowledgeable staff IMG_2823who recommend excellent books. There will always be books on display that make you think and feel and want to act. At the moment, the Penguin Little Black Classics line the stairwells all the way up to the fifth floor. It may not be number 119, but the new Foyles will make you fall in love with books and bookselling all over again. I wasn’t sure at first. I missed its old home and mourned my student days getting lost in those meandering shelves. But I promise you, 107 Charing Cross Road is a very good place. The spirit of Foyles is still here and this new home is one of my favourite places in the world.

 

Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus

IMG_2535Dussman das KulturKaufhaus, Friedrichstrasse 90, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Dussman das KulturKaufhaus is a massive department store in the centre of Berlin, not far from the Brandenburg Gate and hoards of tourists. It’s similar in size and location to the John Lewis on Oxford Street. In other words, it sounds like the kind of place that I would tend to avoid. The reason I just can’t IMG_2526keep myself away from it, though, is that while most department stores are full of clothes and appliances, homeware and haberdashery and other non-essential things, Dussman is full of all the things I love and live off: books, music, DVDs, paper and pens and more books. It’s a book city, the kind you need a map to navigate but where the back roads and little country lanes are a lot of fun to explore and the perfect place to get lost. Split over several floors (three? four? five? I just can’t remember) and featuring a sunny atrium and a garden, Dussman is the biggest bookshop in Berlin and the one-stop-shop for all your bookish needs.

Wandering around the ground floor, you’ll find novels, poetry, mass-market thrillers, classical literature and bestsellers from a wide range of mainstream and independent publishers. Quantity is the most striking feature of this

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

bookshop, but quality is there too; if you are looking for a special book, a particularly nice edition, an old classic, a hidden treasure or even the most specialist of genres, you can find it here. There are books by German authors, but there are also many books in translation from other languages. If, like me, you’re a lover not just of literature but of books, of paper and card and glue and vellum (not that I encounter much vellum, but I love the idea of it) then you’ll be pleased to know that between the novels, you can also find sheet music and maps. On the other side of the ground floor (am I getting across how large this bookshop is?) is the first music section, which is not just an afterthought but a wide and varied selection.

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After you’ve had enough of the ground floor, you can take the lift if you’re clever to explore the others, where you’ll find every section a bookshop could possibly have: more music and film sections which have documentaries, jazz, classical IMG_2532and opera and world music, then books on art, cookery, gardening, humour, philosophy, sport, business, technology, education, history, languages, law, literary theory, politics, science, travel, comics, graphic novels and manga. I challenge you to name a book (or a film or an album) that this shop does not stock. On the top floor, in a rather uninspiring location next to the business and management books, I found one of my new favourite places: a couple of arm chairs pushed up against a big bay window, facing away from the shop and other browsers to look out over the rooftops of Berlin. By the time I’d made it up that far and then started to head back down again, I was quite exhausted and stopped for a bit of a rest in the excellent children’s and young people’s section.

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The children who shop here must be very well-rounded as the selection of children’s books in German, English and other languages included stories and poems and lots of educational books about geography, history, science and pretty IMG_2531much every other subject you can imagine. I’m getting tired of listing subjects; from now on, just assume that if you can name it, Dussman has it. Watching families come into this busy bookshop and pick out new treasures to bring home and read together is the most encouraging thing to witness if you love books!

Finally, there is the English section, which is really a bookshop inside the bigger bookshop. I’m told it’s the largest collection of English books in Berlin, so it’s an absolute lifeline for ex-pats who are looking for books from home or feel that they IMG_2521can barely handle reading Proust at all let alone in German. It’s also great way to explore Germany’s literature even if you don’t speak the language. There is a whole section of English translations of books about Berlin and books by German writers. Before going to Berlin, I had read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories which are insightful, subtle and highly amusing, but, ultimately, are still the work of an outsider looking in. As the world gets more and more globalised, I think we have a duty to find out more about the other people we share this planet with, but you can’t do that if you only read works that came IMG_2525from your own small island. That is why collections like these are always so interesting – when one country curates a selection of its finest literature to present to the rest of the world, it can’t help but cause debate, and the choices are often completely different from what someone on the outside would have predicted. After roaming around through this lovely bookshop-in-a-bookshop for a good forty minutes, we bought The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which is a bit of a rite of passage for anyone interested in dense European novels. When I buy a book, I always like to find a time, as soon as possible, to sit down and admire my new purchase. At Dussman’s English bookshop, you can curl up on a sofa by the window and fondle the crisp new white pages while you look out onto the busy street below.

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In a bookshop this large, it’s easy to get side-tracked and end up wandering aimlessly for hours. I say go for it. In a place with so many different possibilities, so many new things to pique your interest and make you think, you owe it to the adventurer in yourself to explore every different avenue. You have to be IMG_2518indiscriminate in your enjoyment, embracing the new and strange and obscure as well as the classic and best-selling and putting the two of them together. Sometimes I like to play a game with my bookshelves. I pick two books that I happen to have stuck on there beside each other and wonder what would happen if the characters were to meet. Would Stephen Dedalus play nicely with Pip? What would Dean Moriarty and King Lear talk about? It’s not the coolest game but it’s made me smile many times. At Dussman, these opportunities, questions, connections and segues are everywhere. They’re in between the pages of the book you’ve never heard of, or in the name of a German poem that makes you think of something you read when you were young, or in a travel guide to Bali. All you have to do is be patient, exploring everything you can until something exciting pops out at you.IMG_2522

Topping and Company Booksellers

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

Question: When is a bookshop not just a bookshop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

There are little patches of magic everywhere, though it seems they’re always getting harder to find. Yes, somewhere along we decided that what was convenient, clean and simple was better than the messy and impractical, but rather than lamenting this cleaning up of everyday life, I prefer to focus on how it makes us appreciate it all the more when we find things hidden, messy, old or superfluous.

So next time you’re walking along Hampstead High Street (or any high street) and start to resent seeing the same big names no matter where in the country you are, or realise that the reason you can’t find that weird quirky family business any more is that it’s been swallowed up by yet another Top Shop, don’t get upset, just get off the main road.

On Flask Walk, one of the many meandering little back streets that lead you away from the centre of Hampstead Village, individuality particularity, charm and joy are still hiding, waiting for you.  On this little road, locals and tourists alike mill about, popping into the independent florist’s, jeweller’s or antique dealer’s.  At the heart of it is a London legend: Keith Fawkes’ Bookshop.

This small, poky, traditional bookshop, owned and run by a descendent of Guy Fawkes, is a favourite for Hampstead yuppies, couples on their way for a march IMG_2258on the Heath and literature undergraduates looking for cheap copies of everything on the reading list.  It’s a second hand bookshop, yes, but what I love about it is the sense that it’s not there for us.  It’s not an emporium, it’s not a showroom.  Rather, it’s a home for unloved or not-yet loved books. It’s their place, their silent, messy, musty castle, and we’re merely visiting, hoping to fall in love with one and bring it home.

IMG_2252When you duck to step down from Flask Walk and into the shop, the bright light of outside, the bustle of Hamstead Village on a Saturday morning is immediately dimmed and silenced.  It feels a bit like entering a church.  Inside, it’s dim and cold in the winter – it’s probably not properly insulated and besides the door stays open all day to lure passersby in, so there’s no protecting against the chill.  Unlike your local branch of Waterstone’s (or the homepage of The-Website-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named), Keith Fawkes is not tidy, open or easy to navigate.  Firstly, there’s the confusion of the entrance, which is also one of the aisles, the narrow space where browsers squeeze in between two shelves of books, unwilling to let new entries barge past until they’re finished looking at the books they want.  Once you manage to get through to the back of the shop, where the till is hidden under books and magazines on the back table, you realise that there is no big open space to gather, nowhere to stand and chat while you sip your mochafrappacinnochailattecano or whatever it is you people drink.  Almost the whole shop, you see, is a series of narrow rows cut off from each other completely by bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling.  This arrangement means that, providing you can find one, you can claim a little spot in a corner somewhere, far away from other browsers, and theres not very much anyone can do about it.  it’s the perfect set up for those of us love to burrow.  And because it’s such a closed-off plan, no one will know if you’ve been there for five minutes or fifty.  It’s the perfect place for secrets.  And what secrets there are!  Vintage children’s books, history of the world, poetry, fiction, history, IMG_2257philosophy!  There are new books that look like they’ve never been touched, modern first editions in their own section – some of them signed – tatty of Penguin paperbacks for a pound or less, beautifully preserved old hardcovers and a whole shelf full of beautiful Folio Society editions of books that you never knew you wanted but might not be able to resist. Oh yes, it’s the perfect place for hearing secrets.

But Keith Fawkes is not, admittedly, the perfect place for finding.  Piles of books fill up all the available floor space, making it nearly impossible to fit more than one person in an already-narrow aisle.  Books also have a way of piling up on IMG_2253every other surface so that no one really knows how many layers deep a shelf may be.  They fall down onto the floor and climb up in spiraling towers toward the windows, which they swallow up almost completely in some places, making the shop feel even dimmer.  They also cover each other up, so that the book you’re looking for may well be sitting a foot from your face, but you’d never find it without releasing an avalanche of words sure to crush your toes if you’re not wearing proper footwear.  Who knew bookshop browsing was such an extreme sport?  I don’t believe it’s possible to exaggerate how messy, how crowded, how cramped and unorganised the shop is or how impossible it is to even know what you’re  looking at.  No, Keith Fawkes is not an organised or a sanatised place.

It is, however, a magical one, because it offers possibility, playfulness, discovery and, most importantly, mess. Mess is underrated these days.  I’m a big fan of mess and madness in places like this, partly because there often is method in’t, IMG_2255but mainly because I think it’s good for us, as human beings, to invent that method.  That’s the only thing we can do that the computers can’t.  It’s up to us to look at a dusty pile of yellowing book overflowing off a shelf and not just see a problem to be dealt with, but a treasure trove of potential out of which we can find or make any meaning we want, and know that no other person could have made the exact same meaning.  I’m a big fan of mess because one day in a November past , as a first year English student, I read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and didn’t understand it.  I puzzled over it, tried to make sense of it, tried to dissect and organise it and made it my mission to clean up Eliot’s mess, and then realised that the mess was the point.  And on that day in November, a poem changed me for ever and for the better, and I realised that the whole world is a mess, but what’s miraculous is that our minds, our imaginations, help us find connections and meanings in piles of random articles.

At Keith Fawkes, in the fiction section, I saw a faded and scuffed hardcover 1976 edition of Sleep it Off Lady by Jean Rhys, published by Andre Deutsch and with a gorgeous once full- and now faded-colour illustration on the cover by someone called – and I love this – Rosemary Honeybourne.  This collection of stories is not one of Rhys’ more famous works and the cover was so faded that it’s nowhere near as beautiful as it must once have been, but for £3.50 I bought it anyway, because I had a hunch that it was from the same series as a copy of Voyage in the Dark that I had bought over a year earlier at Slightly Foxed Books, on the other side of the city.  I got them home and I was right.  I feel like somehow I’ve reunited them.  I also paid £3 for As a Man Grows Older , the English IMG_2254translation of the much more beautifully-titled Italian novel Senilità by Italo Svevo, which I never would have picked up if I hadn’t read Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno several months ago. Which I never would have done if I hadn’t been skimming Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce, who was a kind of mentor to Svevo.  I was only flipping through it I saw it at a friend’s house, returning her copy of Never Let Me Go. These are connections which nothing but the human brain can make.  It doesn’t really make sense that reading a dystopian novel by a Japanese writer a year ago led me to pick up an Italian one in a Hampstead bookshop on a cold Saturday, but I’m glad that it did.  Both books were used and incredibly good value for the condition they’re in.  When I brought them up to the till, a descendent of Britain’s most famous terrorist wrote up the titles and the prices by hand in a yellowing notebook which is probably not nearly as reliable as scanning it, but infinitely more pleasant.

So the next time you’re craving an escape from the imposed order and thoughtless ease of the post-Amazon world (I say post- because the popularity of Keith Fawkes suggests that the resistance is already well underway) wander away from the main road and down the side streets.  These are the places, hidden and quiet, where you can still find mess and chaos and, if you look for it, beauty and truth.