Tag Archives: independent bookstores

Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

IMG_2345Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, 14-15 John Street, Bath, BA1 2JL

If you live in England and love bookshops, you already know Mr. B’s. When I started this blog I was asked endless questions about the places I’d been and hadn’t been. Most often, people wanted to know if the bookshop was still at 84 Charing Cross Road (it’s not, sadly), what I thought of Shakespeare and Company in Paris and whether or not I’d been to Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

IMG_2327Although Mr. B’s only popped up in Bath in 2006, it has quickly won the hearts of even the most prickly and become a cult favourite with a global following. Going to Mr. B’s is something of a right of passage for anyone who considers herself a reader.

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This is my mate Dom admiring creative magnet poetry. Hi Dom!

What makes this bookshop so beloved is, I think, partly that it bucks the trend. It opened up while we were all worrying about independent bookshops but, through ingenious new methods of bookselling – which never lose sight of the bibliophilia that must always be at the heart of it all – it has excelled, being named Independent Bookshop of the Year on two separate occasions. Those of us who love bookshops were delighted to be shown that they can still make it, even ‘these days.’ However, to say that we only love Mr. B’s because it keeps us self-proclaimed Luddites from fretting too much would be to seriously and gravely undermine what it so brilliant about it. Mr. B’s combines everything that is right and good about an old-fashioned bookshop (the smell of books, the impeccably curated selection, the clean, crisp white shelves, the staff recommendations, the quirky decor and the peaceful, quiet bliss) with a barrage of new ideas sure to woo readers back into its arms and away from the clutches of The Great Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

When you walk in, you are met by the Fiction section, where the fun begins. With a board where you can play with magnet poetry and a bathtub full of Young Adult novels, a sense of whimsy that would make a more cynical person IMG_2329scoff delights the naive, romantic bookish types. One of my favourite touches are the little ‘Mr. B’s Thoughts…’ cards that dot the section, guiding browsers to a special treat. I love bookshops that do this. For avid readers who know what they like and can sometimes get in a bit of a rut making only safe choices, these recommendations give a nudge in a new but always good direction. For those less accustomed to browsing the shelves, they make the experience more friendly and less elitist, while ensuring that you find something with a bookseller’s guarantee. As you follow the excellent selection of contemporary and classic fiction from Z to A, you turn the corner and find children’s and Young Adult books. The collection of IMG_2328books gathered at Mr. B’s are the type that will not just grab the attention of a child, but also satisfy even the book-snobbiest parents. They are all fantastic books and there are many really lovely editions of children’s classics to be found in amongst the picture books and longer chapter books. While there are books for every age group and every type of child, there are, I am pleased to report, none of those silly, flimsy little IMG_2326paperback series that are always aimed at one gender only. You know the ones I mean – the forty part ‘Cupcake Fairies’ series that keep little girls entertained for about a day until they need the next one. Surely it’s much better to eschew Waterstone’s and head for Mr. B’s to buy something a bit more substantial? Whether you’re looking for a book for a little one learning to read, a quiet, bookish little boy, a brave, excitable teenage girl or an adult who wants to feel like a kid again, there will be an adventure for anyone on Mr. B’s walls.

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Past the till, passing poetry, drama, cookery, books abIMG_2341out Bath and even a small music section, is the staircase leading down to More Reading Delights. In the basement are the typical basement subjects: Biography, History, Current Affairs, Politics, Economics, Business, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion and Science. I fear that some people miss this basement. Don’t. The selection, as elsewhere in the shop, is inspiring. The booksellers at Mr. B’s have saved us the trouble of wading through the confusing world of publishing. They have picked out only the most intelligent, relevant and beautiful books available so that book hunters really can’t go wrong. Despite knowing next to nothing about the enigmatic Mr. B, I know that I trust IMG_2344him without a doubt. If a book is here, it’s  because someone who knows what (s)he’s talking about has vouched for it. The basement is only a small room but books cover all the walls, the table in the middle and even the fireplace. Down here there is also a modest selection of graphic novels, arranged on the shelves in and around said fireplace. These, like the fiction books, are a mix of the classic stand-bys of the genre and the newest and freshest books. If there is something good going on in publishing, you can trust Mr B’s to be all over it.

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Upstairs, you’ll find books on art and architecture, travel (the ‘Travels with my Book’ IMG_2333section), crafts and design as well as an even larger selection of graphic novels. It is also the space for featured books, sporting colourful and exciting bays labelled ‘Mr B’s Delightful Lists’ and ‘Our Favourites/Your Favourites.’ You have to marvel at the booksellers’ never-ending capacity to pick out a great next read for you. Recommending books new and old, which you’ve always meant to read IMG_2336or never heard of, the good men and women of Mr B’s Emporium provide their most earnest recommendations, all in the interests of ensuring that as many people as possible benefit from as many good books as can possibly be fit into what is not actually that large a bookshop. They also feature books related to or following on from their many events. Mr B’s draws some of Britain’s biggest authors through its doors for readings, signings and debates and you can buy the books they’ve discussed in the shop.  But be warned – being taunted about Our Norse Night by a shelf full of interesting books can be quite frustrating if you’ve missed it.

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And finally, the crème de la crème, Mr B’s Emporium’s crowning jewel and the IMG_2334reason for much of its fame. After wandering through the rest of the shop you finally come to The Bibliotherapy Room. This room is covered in books and very much part of the regular bookshop for regular customers. But so much more can happen here. Seeing as we are in Bath, after all,Mr B’s has styled itself as a spa retreat for the mind rather than the body and offers a variety of luxurious treatments for book-lovers. Please do try not to drool over your keyboard as I describe them.

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First comes Mr B’s Sumptuous Reading  Booth, a tiny little nook with a lockable door where you can sit and read in peace. For £3.50 you get 30 minutes in a locked room to sit in a comfortable chair with music, tea, biscuits and a book. Plus a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. It’s really the perfect birthday present if you know a misanthropic bibliophile like mIMG_2338e who considers a day alone in the silence with a book the best gift you could ever be given.  I covet my lunch hour at work, my alone time when I get to go sit in the park or in a cafe and read. I like my co-workers but they just don’t seem to get that I need some time with my book. For anyone who has this same problem, £3.50 is quite a bargain for some time snuggling up in a comfortable chair without any distractions, being able to read quietly and alone without anyone thinking you’re anti-social. Which, to be fair, you probably are, but what’s so wrong with that?

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Finally, if you fancy spending a little more money on your literary R&R, you can buy yourself or a loved one (obviously you’re going to buy it for yourself though) a Reading Spa. It costs £55 for the basic package and you get an hour alone with a bookseller who creates a bespoke stack of IMG_2331book recommendations just for you, time to sit and read with tea and cake and a £40 voucher to spend on the books you pick out. The Reading Spa, in addition to being The Best Idea Ever, is also a reminder to sad, apathetic little people who love the Brazilian River Which-Must-Not-be-Named of everything that you miss when you give up on independent bookshops. But the great thing about Mr B’s is that you can be extravagant if you want to, but you don’t have to in order to enjoy it. Even just strolling through, you’ll still get the incredible service, curated choices of excellent books and the relaxing, welcoming atmosphere that independent bookshops do best.

I spent money at Mr B’s aIMG_2335nd was happy to do it because I was not only paying for two new books that I know I will enjoy, but also for an hour of entertainment and enlightenment and, which is truly priceless, lots and lots of inspiration. I bought two books. The first was The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which made me think of the bookshop in Cambridge that I love and was recommended after a Ghost Stories evening at Mr B’s. The second was A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie’s new novel. I had seen this in a Blackwell’s in Bristol a couple of weeks before and fought the urge to buy it. When I got back to London I hunted around the London Review Bookshop and the Islington Waterstone’s after I IMG_2332realised that I couldn’t live without it. When I couldn’t find it anywhere I thought maybe I’d made it up – that I’d read the title or the author’s name wrong and was searching for a book that didn’t exist. I didn’t go to Amazon to immediately gratify my desire. I waited. And it popped up again in Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights where finding it again really did delight me.

I have since devoured both books and, unsurprisingly, both were excellent. IMG_2330However, I took away a lot more from my short visit to Mr B’s. I took away a list of other books that I want to buy, including books I don’t have yet by authors I already love and other books I’d never heard of. A trip to Mr B’s is delightful because, like any other good bookshop, it doesn’t end when you walk out the door. The ideas, the yearnings, the questions it brings up stay with you long after. They will influence what you read next. They will form your opinions on a whole range of topics. They will wake you up in the middle of the night and drive you crazy when you can’t remember that name of that book! They will make you want to come back and back and back again for more. A bookshop like Mr B’s can begin an addiction which will stay with you for the rest of your life. It can begin a love affair with reading that will never end. It can reignite a passion for books in the hearts of people who long ago opted for convenience over adventure. Simply put, like a day at the spa, a trip to Mr B’s Emporium just makes things better.

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Street Book Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poetry Bookshop

IMG_1890The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5BQ.

In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section.  This is hardly fair.

Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls,  but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them.  It is an art form that can express the complexities and inconsistencies of the human heart and mind in a way that – I don’t believe – any other art form can.

It deserves more than a few anthologies in the back corner of Waterstones.  And yet, shockingly,  Hay-on-Wye’s Poetry Bookshop is the only bookshop in the UK dedicated solely to poetry.  Londoners are lucky enough to have the Poetry Library at the South Bank – a fantastic resource and a quiet place to read – but we rarely have the opportunity to go somewhere where poetry is more than an afterthought, where we can find volumes of poetry to bring home and keep, stain and spill on and dog-ear and write in and defer to in times of need.  It seems a shame, to me.

Thankfully, one poetry bookshop exists, good enough while we wait for IMG_1883the idea to spread.  The couple who own the bookshop are friendly and helpful.  They will let you browse quietly on your own but I have no doubt of their impeccable taste in and knowledge of poetry, should an idle browser need a recommendation.  As I moved slowly around the A-Z collection of English poetry in the main room, the bookshop’s popularity became clear.  Regulars came in to chat with the owners, including the  owner of one of Hay’s other bookshops who came bearing gossip about the Festival.  At one point the owners’ springer spaniel came bounding in and everybody seemed to be used to this.

IMG_1889Around the walls of the main room, poets great and modest are represented.  Ezra Pound has a disproportionately large section, as does Seamus Heaney, but they by no means dominate the selection.  Places of prominence are returned to other poets, whether they’re literary heavyweights like Chaucer and Tennyson or relative newcomers.  It was here that I found the books I came home with.  I bought U.A. Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems, including the brilliant ‘Not My Best Side’ and many other amazing poems for £7.  I also bought a small green edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music from the 1950s for £8.

The selection continues on the shelves in the centre of the room.  On top of them, beautiful and rare collections of poetry are displayed for our admiration.  Their shelves are full of more books and anthologies and one is dedicated to Old English poetry.   And I mean Old English poetry that’s not Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which my absolutely legendary Old English teacher dubbed ‘The Heaneywulf’), but translations of other poems like ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and my personal favourite ‘Deor.’

There’s a line in ‘Deor’ which goes ‘þæt ofereod, þisses swa mæg’ or ‘That passed over, so may this.’  This one line, coming to us from a thousand years in the past, is a perfect example of how we can carry poetry with us through our lives. I have kept it in my mind as a refrain, almost like a mantra, when I am going through hard times, as a reminder that we have come out all right in hard times before, and can do so again.

IMG_1882But enough of English poetry, modern or ancient.  Downstairs, in what feels like a cellar, is the shop’s collection of international poetry in translation.  This basement brings poetry in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu, Belarusian, Hungarian, German, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Gaelic, Welsh, various Native American languages and I have no doubt many others that I’ve forgotten to curious readers.  As you duck down to fit through the door, you can’t help but feel that you’re complicit in something.  Rummaging through the shelves full of new and mysterious poetry feels a bit like reading under the blankets with a torch after bedtime, or whatever it was that normal children did to rebel.  Whenever I visit my grandparents, I IMG_1879love exploring the photo albums, old books and boxes full of toys and clothes that fill their basement, in the hopes that I’ll find some treasure from the past and uncover the story is carries with it.  That poking-around-in-grandma’s-trunk feeling is exactly what this basement recreates.  It’s the distinct feeling that you have stumbled upon something that has the potential to be magical.  Of course, poetry in translation is never quite as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly a start.  And if you’ve ever felt the urge to learn Ukrainian, discovering that your new favourite poet wrote in it is a pretty good motivator.

IMG_1887The final part of the shop is the little space upstairs.   On the walls in this little mezzanine are more books of poetry, as well as books about poetry and poets and other miscellaneous works.   There are some interesting titles, but perhaps my favourite thing about it is that the books cover the walls on either side of the staircase, creating a wall full of books that carries the reader all the way from top to bottom without having to look at an inch of dull, uninteresting wall.  I never realised that the boringness of a wall was a major problem until I saw this bookcase, but now that the book wall is in my mind, nothing will ever be the same again.  I want one.

Charmingly, one of the walls on the top floor is covered in penciled height measurements of several different children.  Whether these are the owners’ children, nieces and nephews, friends of the family or loyal customers is left for the browser to imagine, but in the end it doesn’t actually matter.  The most IMG_1884important thing this suggests is the way in which all of us, not just those whose parents sell them, grow up with books and with poetry in particular.  From nursery rhymes to lullabies, silly limericks to advertising jingles, poetry is all around us and it defines us in the years that we grow up.  I heard a speaker at the Hay Festival talking about the way we live in a world filled with poetry and was completely convinced by his argument.  Long after we’ve forgotten exactly what the difference is between an scalene and an isosceles triangle, or whether a motion is centripetal or centrifugal, we remember every word of something as seemingly trivial as ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.’ A poem from Mother Goose or something as silly as a radio jingle has the transportative power that all good writing always has, recalling worlds and lives we thought we’d left behind and reminding us that the deep and personal emotions to which poetry gives voice are never forgotten.

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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Heffers Booksellers

IMG_1811Heffers Booksellers, 20 Trinity Street, Cambridge, CB2 1TY

Heffers: The great Cambridge bookseller since 1876, reads the massive banner in the centre of what is essentially a city of books.  A bibliopolis? With its large size, wide selection and more commercial feel, this bookshop is a departure from the quaint, quiet independents I normally haunt in Cambridge, but it has its benefits.  So bear with me.  They can’t all be quirky and cute.

Heffers has been providing Cambridge with the literature its students and IMG_1810residents no doubt gobble up for 137 years and has only recently been bought by Blackwell’s.  Unfortunately this means that the place has lost a bit of its individuality and come to look a bit more like your average Blackwell’s or Waterstone’s.  But that’s okay. As a literature student I can testify that sometimes creaky floors and yellowed pages just don’t give the selection you need.  And that’s okay too.  Both types of bookshops have their benefits and I thoroughly believe that we need both.

We need places to explore, to wander, to seek and occasionally (though it’s not the most important part) to actually find.  Ideally, we’d live in a world where we have enough variety that you can pick and choose, supporting the best local independent for the cause, moving around freely when what you need out of your bookshop is slightly different.   Making new friends, but keeping the old, as they say.  Why the internet age is so vehemently opposed to giving us choice is a IMG_1809mystery to me, except to suggest (conspiratorially) that maybe they like dictating what we can and can’t find.  I know that that sounds insane, but think about it.  Shouldn’t we be insulted that our intelligence is made so little of that big companies have the audacity to recommend books we may like, to limit our choices to one maketplace, to monopolise our book-buying, book-reading, book-reviewing and book-sharing experiences by eliminating all the competition?

Cambridge, on the other hand, is a city that seems to have it right.  Its narrow cobbled streets house every point on the spectrum, from Waterstone’s at one end, The Angel Bookshop somewhere in the middle and The Haunted Bookshop at the extreme other end.   Heffers is just another point on the spectrum; a place you can feel good about patronising because it’s a bricks and mortar bookshop and still technically an independent, but which has all the convenience of the big chains.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t retained some of its own individuality.  It is a far IMG_1814more specialised bookshop and has a fantastic range of academic books, for which I have no doubt the students at Cambridge are very grateful.  It goes beyond just English students though and has music, art, history, politics and economics sections that stock more than the bestsellers and offer choice, variety and a high quality selection.  It also has an entire section filled with prints, ranging from classic pieces of art to posters of Che Guevara to decorate any pretentious first year student’s walls.  Furthermore, unlike a chain, it also has a small secondhand books section in the basement, providing even more options for skint students and tightly-budgeted families.

The layout of the books is also infinitely more appealing than an ordinary chain bookshop.  These little windows cut into the middle of shelves not only add a bit IMG_1812of fun and playfulness to the shop, but encourage all those trite but nonetheless accurate sentiments about books being windows on the world.  The size of the shop, its selection and its quiet, serious atmosphere make it perfect for Cambridge.  It caters to frazzled undergraduates who desperately need a certain book, as niche or obscure as it may be, while still providing a relaxed environment where any resident or visiting bibliophile could quite happily spend the whole day.

I think it’s appropriate to end this fun little Cambridge mini-series with Heffers.  One of my favourite things about the city of Cambridge is that it’s full not only of books, stories and poetry, but of a range of brilliant independent bookshops.  It is a place that gives back something we’ve been missing these past couple of years: choice.

IMG_1813Because why should a giant company or an impersonal website decide what we read?  Surely books should be the way we express not our conformity, but our originality, or individuality.  Surely they should be the way we show not our laziness, but our adventurous side, our free and independent minds, our unique imaginations and our personalities.  In Cambridge, book lovers have it made.  They can have an adventure amongst yellowed, tea-stained, dog-eared pages and creaky attic stairs, or they can get in and out with the book they’ve been needing.  Heffers may not be my favourite bookshop in the world, but I’m glad it’s there, proving that we actually don’t need worldwide monopolies dictating everything in order to still have convenience and ease.  It shows that we don’t need to bow to the big fish to get the obscure titles or out-of-print classics we love.  All we really need are a couple of dedicated booksellers.

The Haunted Bookshop (Sarah Key Books)

IMG_1827Sarah Key Books The Haunted Bookshop, 9 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

It’s official.  I’ve found the strangest bookshop in the UK.  Congratulations to me.

Cambridge’s Haunted Bookshop is one of the few bookshops in the world that is truly unique  – the only one of its kind – and I love it. I’m massively intimidated by it, but I completely love it.  While the Waterstone’s in Cambridge has a great selection and a plethora of inspiring titles, it still looks exactly like my local Waterstone’s in Islington.  And the one in Trafalgar  Square.  And the one at Gower Street.  Even Cambridge’s own independent bookseller, Heffer’s (review forthcoming), looks exactly like every other branch of Blackwell’s, the major chain that now owns it.

There are a lot of up-sides to this gentrification of everyday life; it makes us comfortable enough to go into a bookshop anywhere in the world (or at least the country) because we know it can’t be all that different from the one at home.  And in this day and age, any method towards the end goal of getting people into a bookshop justifies the means.  But I think there’s also a lot that gets lost when the slightly different, thoroughly quirky and downright bizarre are edged out.  Haruki Murakami wrote that ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’  Surely he could just as easily have warned us that if you only get those books from Amazon’s Top Ten List or – worse – the Books section at Tesco (shudder) your bookshelf will look the same as everyone else’s.  And your stories will be the same, too.

That said, I would love to meet someone whose local go-to bookshop is this tiny, cramped little shop in St. Edward’s Passage.  What if this was the place you always went when you fancied a browse, if this the collection of books you had to work with whenever you needed a lit fix?  I’d imagine that the bizarre combinations your bookshelf held and the stories of hunting, finding, losing, sharing, wanting, coveting, considering and surrendering that those books told about you would fill many pages themselves.

But enough of my philosophising. There’s a bookshop to be fawned over.

First of all, it seems like the shop has two names.  Fine.  Why not?  As it turns out, Sarah Key Books (named, no doubt, after a woman called Sarah Key) specialised in secondhand and antiquarian books and particularly in children’s literature for years before it found its current home at what is called The Haunted Bookshop.  Unfortunately I do not have any answers as to how, why or by what it’s haunted.  I mean I could of course go all humanities student on you and say that it’s haunted by the voices IMG_1823and stories of writers and readers past.  Which, you know, I’m pretty much convinced it is.  But I’ve been waxing poetic about dog-eared pages a little too much of late, so I’ll refrain.  The other possible haunting is the palpable presence of the owner, sitting behind her desk, head popping up from between piles of books, who almost seems to wish that you’d leave her alone and let her get on with it.  It’s kind of a Bernard Black situation.  Although once you actually go talk to the staff I promise they’re much lovelier than Bernard Black.

The collection of secondhand and often first editions of classic children’s books is absorbing.  From Matilda to Harry Potter, from Enid Blyton to Hans Christian IMG_1825Andersen, from Alice Liddell to Snow White, every child and every childlike adult is covered.  Beautiful illustrated hardcover copies and tattered paperbacks range from £4 or £5 to roughly £1500, for something like, say, a first edition of Prince Caspian.  For those of us who will probably never have the kind of disposable income required to do more than pick up and maybe sniff these books (if you’re feeling cheeky) it’s like the trials of Tantalus.

Children’s books aren’t all that’s on offer though; the Folio Society editions make their appearance too, as do various editions of classics. I had my eye on a copy of one Sherlock Holmes novel or another, as well as a FS edition of Wuthering Heights.  I refrained from buying anything, to my dismay and my wallet’s satisfaction.

IMG_1826Despite not going home with any of these beautiful books, I still felt glad to have found this strange and wonderful little place today.  Like Alice falling into Wonderland, or Harry landing in Diagon Alley, walking into the Haunted Bookshop is like stepping through a portal.  It’s like being transported back to a time before global monopolies (yes, I’m cross with Amazon for buying Goodreads; I promised not to rant about it), super-chains and clinical, sanitised spaces where no one is ever challenged and nothing new ever happens.  It makes me glad to live in the UK because it seems to me that while so much of the world just steps in line and lets the strange and quirky and unpredictable fade out of their lives, some people here (few and far between as they may be) still put up a fight for their weirdness.  Sarah Key Books: you’re one of a kind and I hope you never stop fighting to stay that way.

The Angel Bookshop

IMG_1806The Angel Bookshop, 2 Bene’t Street, Cambridge CB2 3QN

The last time I was in Cambridge it was summer, the stone chapels and colleges stood out against a bright blue sky and my legs were bare.  I remember sitting out on the grass reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and being in a good mood despite my disappointment with the novel.

But this time around, I find myself scurrying from bookshop to coffee shop and back out again only when I’ve read a bit of poetry or had a bit of tea to steel me against the snow.  Yes, snow.  In March.  This time around, I’m sitting in Cafe Nero’s (don’t judge me, the independents here are all expensive) and reading Toni Morrison’s Sula.  The bleak weather of England and the hot American South of the novel make a surprisingly good combination.  And the tea doesn’t hurt.

When the weather in England does this to us, we let out a collective sigh of ‘Why the hell do people still live here?’ That said, days like this are as perfect for some activities as they are preventative for others.  I’ve heard this called ‘museum weather’ and ‘cinema weather’ and the general consensus seems to be that on days like this, staying somewhere warm and comfortable is the only thing to do.  Hence my pattern of bookshops and coffee shops.

Cambridge’s Angel Bookshop in a way seems to be at its best on days like this,IMG_1802 when the only thing anyone can think about is coming in from the cold.  When winters got cold in my childhood, the most wonderful feeling in the world was to come home, take off my boots and wet socks, be wrapped up in a blanket and read a story. In many ways, it still is.  Although nothing can compare to your mum’s hot chocolate and her storytelling (my own mum has the best troll/goblin voice in the world), walking off the road and into The Angel Bookshop comes pretty damn close.

Run by the same bookseller who owns The Lamb Bookshop back in Bloomsbury, The Angel shows evidence of the same careful selection of books, dedication to good quality children’s literature and incomprehensible ability to provide browsers with discount prices, undercutting Waterstone’s, if not Amazon.

IMG_1805A large portion of the ground floor is taken up by children’s books and the entire floor feels like it is, with colourful mobiles hanging from the roof and The Gruffalo staring at you from almost everywhere.  Already feeling nostalgic for the warm insides of my childhood, this bookshop reminded me of another one half a world away where my love affair with reading began in the mid-90s.  It was called Mable’s Fables and like The Angel Bookshop, it had a brilliant selection of children’s books arranged by age group.  If only Twilight hadn’t been present in the Angel’s 11+ section, it would have been perfection. But I guess even the best of bookshops are subject to the ridiculous whims of the market.

Also on the ground floor are some fiction books with a sign promising more downstairs and shelves filled with cookbooks, travel literature and a table of miscellaneous recommendations.  The most interesting one was called The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm.  It is, sure enough, a book about the IMG_1803history of magic and the literature of magic in the British Isles.  I mean, come on, how cool is that?  I spied a chapter called ‘Star-cunning and Wyrd-craft: The World of the Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer’.  I am a massive geek about Old English and about Anglo-Saxon literature and one of my favourite OE words is wyrd which means something like fate or destiny – the modern English word ‘weird’ is descended from it.  My second favourite is wordhord, literally ‘word hoard’ which is basically the words that you store up and keep, waiting to be used, in your mind.  When Beowulf says he is opening his wordhord, he means he is unleashing his words; he is storytelling.  My completely unacademic theory is that wyrd and word sound similar because words and stories and poetry have the power to not only tell, but decide our own stories and our fates.  But enough of my geekery.

Downstairs is a basement full of bargains.  There are, of course, Wordsworth Classics for £2 each, but there are also contemporary fiction, biography and autobiography, literary theory, travel and history sections.  The majority of the books are massively discounted, most are half the retail price.  I bought a IMG_1804hardcover copy of the massive The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous and unfinished 2011 novel.  It was discounted from £20 to £8 and more than worth having to carry the thing around with me for the rest of the day.  I think.  I was also delighted to discover a large hardcover book on the central table (which incidentally is absolutely covered in beautiful and interesting books – seriously, a treasure trove) which was a complete and full-colour facsimile of the 1660 Harmonica Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius. Guess what it is.  It’s a star atlas.  A star atlas.  How very romantic is that? The book was absolutely giant and cost £40 (though that was a discount too) so I didn’t buy it.  It is also the least practical purchase I could possibly imagine, but I still kind of regret the decision.

On my way back out of the basement (where I spent a very long time), I passed back through the children’s section again. As I lovingly admired books by my old friends Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and Judy Blume, I relived that bittersweet moment from childhood when you realise that even if you read all day every day for the rest of your life, you’d still never get to the end of all the books.  Though the thought almost certainly depressed me the first time I had it years ago, when it has returned over the years I’ve been struck also by the positive side of it – you could read all day every day for the rest of your life, but you’d still never run out of books.