Tag Archives: kindle

West End Lane Books

IMG_2293

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.’

IMG_2292

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.

Here We Go Again…

Over the past couple of weeks, those of us who live in the UK have been subjected to this advert for the Amazon Kindle:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghYDpDaK5ds

In it, young children sit in parks and other lovely outdoor places that children who actually have Kindles probably don’t actually visit any more.  The kids talk about how much they love reading (on their Kindles) and how they love to lose themselves in the book, get to know the characters and all those other lovely things that reading has been for so many children for centuries before Amazon came along.

So, why, I asked myself, did this advert make me so angry?  I love books, I love children and I think that getting young people to feel those very feelings is nothing short of heroic.  So why was I so irrationally angry to see it happening? Sure, I hate that they’re reading Kindles instead of books, and I suspect that in ten years when they see that kids who did it another way can still revisit their childhood memories through yellowed and dog-eared books, the children in the advert might too.  But at the end of the day, if children are reading, even on a Kindle, it’s better than not reading at all.

So I spent weeks trying to figure out exactly why this advert promoted such rage in me.  Then I realised.  It reminded me of a scene from Mad Men when Don Draper tells the executives from Hershey’s Chocolate that he can’t create a cheesy ad for the chocolate bar that signified what it was to be a child.  Don says ‘if it were up to me you wouldn’t advertise.   You shouldn’t have someone like me telling a boy what a Hershey bar is.  He already knows.’

And that’s my problem with this advert.  Though they claim that it is the Kindle that creates the magic feeling of joy and adventure when a child reads, what they’re describing is a story.  And you don’t have to advertise stories because those of us who love them already know.  We get it.

Sure, books are products which are marketed, publishers compete for attention and authors make themselves into brands, but at the end of the day, every author, editor, publisher, literary agent and every reader knows that none of it matters as much as the story itself.

I used to think that there were some things that couldn’t be given a price tag.  Some things that were so precious and unique and intangible that no matter how pervasive capitalism got, no one could ever bottle and brand and market and peddle.  And that feeling the advert describes, that wonderful feeling that we already know was one of them. It’s not the Kindle that creates magic.  It’s the story.  And no one owns stories.

Amazon can sell books.  They can produce books.  They can even control the way we find, access and even read books.  But what you can’t do, what no advertising campaign and no brand can ever capture, is the storytelling. Stories are the antithesis of the giant international conglomerate, the uniform and universal, stale and impersonal company.  Stories are deeply personal.  They are tied to places and things and families and memories.  In my opinion, books and the very impulse to write them are just an attempt to extend the feeling of gathering around the fire to hear the news or snuggling up in bed with a parent to read one more chapter before the lights go out.  That feeling should be sacred.  It doesn’t belong to anyone and no matter how much money you spend on advertising, it’s nobody’s to package and sell and profit from.

I’m posting an abridged version of this as a comment on the video, so if you agree, consider liking it and getting it up to the top for others to read.  Then consider boycotting Amazon if, like me, you don’t want to think about a world that can commoditize the unique and magical feeling of being swept away by a story.

Type Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

IMG_1870

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.

The Matilda Project Hits the Hay Festival

IMG_1908Hay-on-Wye is a little town of about 1500 people that sits just on the border of England and Wales and is most famous for the Hay Festival, the annual gathering that celebrates literature and the arts.

But the town’s other claim to fame is that it is the ‘Town of Books.’  Despite its small size and population, the town is home to more than thirty bookshops. In 1962, when Richard Booth opened the first one, Hay was a quiet little place in the Welsh borders but within ten years, it had become Mecca for bibliophiles, as dozens of other bookshops clustered around it.  In 1977, Booth declared it The Independent Kingdom of Hay, and since then, the town, its literary festival and its many bookshops have made it heaven for book tourists.

IMG_1907

I am one such tourist.  The incompatibility of our little tent with the rainy Welsh weather aside, it has been brilliant to see writers, artists, philosophers and booksellers talk to sold-out crowds about the things they love.  But Hay’s bookshops have really stolen my heart and with a running total of eight books bought, I am going a little bit crazy.

While it is impossible to really go through all the bookshops in the town on such a short trip, over the next couple of days I will try (if I can pull apart the blur of book-related bliss and organise them into separate bookshops) to walk you, my beloved readers, through the bookshops of Hay, in the hopes that you will fall in love with them the way I have.

Stay posted, and happy reading.

 

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.

IMG_1849

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.

IMG_1848

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.

IMG_1835

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.

IMG_1834

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.