Tag Archives: Jane Eyre

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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St Philip’s Books

St Philip’s Books, 82 St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1RA

On Wednesday morning, I woke up at the ungodly hour of half seven to help my friend Christine (shout-out to Christine!) move to Oxford, the city of spires and surreal views.  Christine is a smart cookie and I don’t just say that because she’s starting an MA at Oxford.  She’s a smart cookie because she’s picked as her new home a city full of cobbled roads, eccentric academics and many, many bookshops.  Ranging from the ubiquitous Waterstones to the Oxford University Press Bookshop to the very classy £2 Bookshop, Oxford is the perfect city for those of us who wish we could curl up under a blanket in a draughty old stone building filled with books so beautiful and old you’re afraid to touch them and never leave.

Walking around the city, I realised that I could have written about any number of bookshops and I sadly had to bypass some that looked amazing, telling myself that now I’ve got more reasons to go back and wander through the streets getting lost. I chose to write about St. Philip’s Books, though, because my friend Gabi (shout-out to Gabs!) has been working there for a few years now and is always telling me about this completely original and completely strange place.  His insights into the way the shop operates (or doesn’t) add even more humour and personality to a wander through it.

St. Philip’s is one of those places you’d easily walk by if you didn’t know it was there.  There are signs that say there’s a bookshop and promise Theology, History, Literature and Philosophy books, but walking past, all you see is a Chinese restaurant.  Fortunately, I had my own personal guide who led me through the wide stone arch, behind the Chinese restaurant and into this quiet little shop removed completely from any noise from the street.  Apparently the staff often have to deal with disgruntled and hungry tourists who aren’t interested in the books and were actually looking for the restaurant. These people probably make up a large percentage of the people who wander into the shop, since I’m assured that even on the best days they expect only about ten customers.

The books in this shop are not exactly for those of us on a budget and, even I admit it, the prices are about twenty times what you’d expect to pay on Amazon. The trouble is, I don’t think you’ll find them on Amazon.  These rare and speciality books include old bibles, first editions of novels and poetry, obscure and often hilarious religious and theological books, leather-bound history books, speciality books about Oxford and a very awesome hard cover edition of The Hobbit.  The copy of The Hobbit that my dad read to me from when I was a child was the gold, hardcover 50th anniversary edition that came in its own box and had gold-leaf pages.  It was the first book (and by that I mean physical book, not story) I ever loved.  I remember feeling awed and afraid to touch it because it was so special that it seemed wrong for grubby little child fingers to hold it.  This is how every single book in this shop made me feel.  So, knowing that I would never be able to own any of them, just being there was some kind of solace.  Gabi laughed at me, cruelly, as I scuttled through the shop having huge amounts of fun  with the old books.

Some of the highlights of my visit were  a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, a beautiful hard cover copy of The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell which had an inscription dated from 1931 and an absolutely tiny, metal-bound Book of Common Prayer with tiny print, thin yellow pages, beautiful calligraphy and a tiny metal lock.  It was very Jane Eyre.  I am assured that despite the fact that the shop is already busting with books and cluttered with boxes which are, presumably, filled with more boxes, this is just the beginning.  The owner (who for some reason I think of as St. Philip, though I hear he’s just called Chris) apparently has an entire garage filled with books he has yet to catalogue.  I think there’s something romantic about the idea of a man whose entire life is dedicated to collecting beautiful old books, so much so that he can’t even keep track of them.

Oxford is an undeniably literary city. For some, it evokes Alice Liddell and her Wonderland, others imagine being at Hogwarts and still others imagine sitting in on a lecture with C.S. Lewis or Tolkien.  But what was a pleasant surprise for me was to find that this rich literary culture isn’t confined to the university; it spreads out from there and takes over the shops, the streets and even the buildings, which all seem to have stories of their own to tell.  And it is this pervading book culture that I am using to justify my visit to this unusual bookshop.  While one of the intentions of this project was initially to show that buying books cheaply is still possible outside of the internet, it has become about much more than that.  I have come to treasure bookshops where, regardless of the price range, books are appreciated and St. Philip’s is clearly such a place.  It may be true that the average book-lover who wanders in can’t afford to take home any of these treasures, but I believe that it’s important nonetheless just to know that they’re there.  I am grateful not only to the man who collects and keeps and sells these books, but to the generations that came before him who thought that they would make good presents, who cared enough to keep them in good shape and who simply bothered enough to keep them in their basements, even if they were just collecting dust. So while I dream of one day being able to buy one of these beautiful books, whose pages I’ll turn gently and protect them from grubby little children fingers whenever possible, for now, it’s enough for me just to know that they’re still out there.