Tag Archives: London

Libreria

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Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, London, E1 5JP

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

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

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

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

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

Among the interesting and unexpected places I was taken were:

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

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

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

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

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

Highgate Bookshop

IMG_2926Highgate Bookshop, 9 Highgate High Street, London, N6 5JR 

It’s possible that it’s summertime in England at last! Knock on wood. Last week, on the warmest day of the year so far, I took a long walk in the sunshine from Caledonian Road all the way up to Highgate, a beautiful and vaguely literary area in North London. David Copperfield visits his friend Steerforth at his family home in Highgate and on the walk I passed the Whittington Stone, named after Dick Whittington who, having failed to make his fortunes in London, headed back for his Gloucestershire home with his cat in tow, then stopped in Highgate when he heard church bells ringing in Bow and decided to turn around and have another go at it. Furthermore, whenever I’m in Highgate amongst the yummy mummies and organic cafés, I can’t help but think of Ralph Denham from

Nearby Waterlow Park is a great place to lie in the sunshine and read! I finished Eleanor Catton's 'The Luminaries' lying in the grass.

Nearby Waterlow Park is a great place to lie in the sunshine and read! I finished Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ lying in the grass.

Virginia Woolf’s underapreciated Night and Day, who comes from ‘a respectable middle-class family living at Highgate.’ Like nearby Hampstead, it’s a place of tranquil parks (Waterlow Park is a beautiful place to read in the sun and dogs have to be on leads which is ace!), leafy squares, Georgian townhouses and independent shops in Highgate Village. One of these is the excellent little Highgate Bookshop.

When I visited, the door to the shop was open, which let a warm breeze in, making for a very pleasant browsing experience. A few members of staff were scattered around the shop getting on with their work. They offered knowledgeable advice to browsers who looked confused but seemed able to tell who just wanted to look at books in silence. That discerning nature, in my opinion, is one of the most important qualities of a bookseller. It makes me feel comfortable enough to stick around for a while, to go back and forth between sections as much as I choose.

The shop has a small but well-curated selection of books in all the major IMG_2924categories. There is a good poetry section, a small drama section and shelves full of books on History, Philosophy, Psychology and Politics, as well as lots of beautiful cookery books. It also has lots of books on slightly more niche subjects, like Nature, Animals and Gardening. Its New and Bestselling displays are great because they include lots of different genres; I have to admit that I tend to forsake politics, culture, history and even literary criticism in favour of a good thick novel. While I will always believe that the novel is the perfect art form and by far my favourite, there are brilliant books coming out every day, about art, philosophy, feminism, music, society and technology that I know I would find fascinating if I gave them a chance. The Highgate Bookshop is a great place to remember that and dare yourself to pick something up that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to you.

Its fiction section, though, is still where I spent most of my time. It is an excellent fiction section, where you can find all the classics, a very thoughtful and outward-looking selection of English and international contemporary fiction and lots of lesser-known novels to try. It is also a selection you can trust; under J for James, you’ll find not Fifty Shades of Grey, but rather The Portrait of a Lady, IMG_2923What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw. At least there is order and propriety somewhere in this mixed-up world!

I bought two novels at Highgate Bookshop. The first was by a familiar face on my bookshelf; it was Lives of Girls and Women by The Great Alice Munro, which is her only novel. The second was more of a gamble: Ladies Coupé by the Indian writer Anita Nair. I had never read anything by her before and the cover of the book was halfway between serious world literature and chick lit (it annoys me how often novels by female writers suffer that fate), but the Daily Telegraph described it as ‘one of the most important feminist novels to come out of South Asia’ so I thought it was worth a punt. For anyone curious, I have now finished it and would recommend trying it. It’s not a perfect novel; the prose is good but not great. There are moments when it absolutely soars, and other moments where it feels clunky, contrived and cliché. But overall, it’s good, and the story is incredibly engaging, the characters are three-dimensional and memorable and the main messages – that women can be happy on their own, that women must be happy on their own and that storytelling should be a crucial part of any social movement – will stay with you long after the end of the book. It was one of Nair’s earlier novels so the next time I visit a bookshop I’ll have to look into what she’s done since.

Like all good bookshops (or record shops, galleries or museums…) the Highgate IMG_2925Bookshop is a central part of its community because it provides a place for people to explore things that are decidedly outside of their daily routines. To be in the presence of books and bookish people is always exhilirating and challenging. I love it because I think it is important for know-it-alls like me to be reminded that there is a whole world of knowledge, experience and art out there, and that I’m only familiar with a tiny fraction of it. The Highgate Bookshop, with its thousands of choices, each providing a new window on a different world, is a very important place to me. It challenges me by asking me to look at what I don’t know, and it inspires me to never stop learning and exploring through the pages of books.

Nomad Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foyles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The European Bookshop

172920The European Bookshop, 5 Warwick Street, London, W1B 5LU

The view from the southern foot of London Bridge always seems to me to capture the essential character of this city.

To the left is Southwark Cathedral, which has stood for over a thousand years and is still in use.  On a Thursday, Friday or Saturday the courtyard outside this medieval site is filled with hungry Londoners eating meals from Borough Market, which has existed since 1040, though its current incarnation is decidedly Victorian.  Looking East is Tower Bridge, rising up victorious and grand from the Thames in all its late-Victorian glory and leading towards the Tower of London on the North side of the river, which also dates back to the eleventh century.  To the northeast is St Paul’s Cathedral, that most distinctive of London landmarks, an oily rascal known as well as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Henry IV , anyone? anyone?) built at the close of the seventeenth century.  And the Gherkin – a symbol of London as a global financial centre – and the Shard make their case for the power of the new millenium.

The layers of history, the palimpsest of stories told by generations of Londoners and newcomers, make London what it is.  Ancient and modern, old families and humble immigrants, traditionalists and revolutionaries co-exist here, adding layers of stories which enrich rather than replace the city’s past.

Across the city, in Piccadilly Circus, the same is IMG_2111true.  London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchard’s, may be overshadowed by the huge Waterstone’s, but it’s still there.  Clarissa Dalloway’s harried wanderings along Regent Street and Bond Street may not have the same immediacy as the enormous Top Shop assaulting you with pop music, but even that fictional character colours the way I experience the area.  It is the middle ground between posh Mayfair, busy Oxford Circus and trendy Soho with its own unique history.  The layers of history in every part of London reflect the generations of people who have come here from other parts of the country and the world and added their touch or made a home.

So it’s no wonder that the stories of London are read and written and told in IMG_2114many dialects and languages, translated from Old English to Modern English, into Portuguese and Farsi and mirrored back to us in similar stories that arrive from all over the world.  We need only look at the number of Arabic, Russian, Polish, French and Bengali bookshops that have filled up the city to see how much London has benefited from the profusion of other and different voices that fill it.  One of these, hiding from garish Regent Street on a quiet road in Soho, is the European Bookshop.  It’s the best place in London to find books written in, translated from and translated into French, Spanish, Italian or German.

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Now, having lived in North America, I am particularly appreciative of the mere fact that this bookshop exists.  Cuz, like, hello, there are, like, other languages, dude!  Even though my rusty French and dodgy Spanish keep me from fully appreciating what’s on offer, it makes me very happy that I live in a city which respects the importance of hearing each other’s stories enough for a place like the European Bookshop to thrive.

IMG_2116The ground floor is a Francophile’s paradise, full of French literature, poetry, philosophy and social commentary.  From Balzac to Baudelaire, Sade to Sartre, all of the famous Frenchmen and women who have captured the world’s imaginations are available in their original language, which is always the best way to read them.  But what is particularly brilliant about the European Bookshop is that it doesn’t settle for just the crowd-pleasers.   We can also explore the work of writers whose fame never went beyond France, or those we tend to forget originally wrote in French (cough cough, Samuel Beckett!)  It also gives browsers the chance to learn about writing from other Francophone IMG_2118countries or regions.  I discovered a Quebecois playwright, a Moroccan novelist and a wealth of novels and poetry by writers from former French colonies in North Africa, writing about the post-colonial experience in their colonial language.  I was reminded of how powerful and how inflammatory language can be, and of the power and significance of words, which we too often waste or use foolishly.

There is a small Italian bookshop at the back of the ground floor as well and IMG_2110Spanish and German books are downstairs.  In each you’ll find well-stocked selections of fiction, biography, history, poetry and theatre but there are also translation of English books into other languages. In the German section are the twisted fairy tales, imaginative novels and grim memoirs that you would expect from the country and the language, but their original passion and force is restored to them, I imagine, by being read in the language in which they were written.  If you’re interested in anything from Walter Benjamin’s brilliant musings to Angela Merkel’s biography, this is the place to go.

 In the Spanish ‘Traducciones’ section I found Ulisses by James Joyce, a translation of the epic novel.  Reading Ulysses in English is enough of a IMG_2113struggle, but trying to do so in translation is a task I’ll just have to admit I’m not up to.  Distressingly, Joyce is only two books away from Spanish translations of the 50 Shades series. Normally this would have made me livid, but I realised that looking at the wall of Spanish books next to me, I had no idea which books were award-winners and which were rubbish and that maybe that’s okay.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As an unrepentant book snob I think it’s extremely important to recognise good literature and – if nothing else – quite a lot of fun to deride bad literature, but IMG_2112every once in a while, it’s nice to leave ideas of good/bad or respected/mocked behind and just let yourself get swept up in the magic of a wall full of books.  And rummaging through a collection of poetry, plays and stories in another language is a great way to bring back the mystery and adventure of reading for its own sake.  Some books may be better than others, but when you’re liberated from prejudices and preconceptions, the only way to find out is to read!  We can return to our snobbery later; it’ll still be there.  Like all of our human failings, it’s not going anywhere, but the elusive glimmer of adventure is only a fleeting one.

IMG_2115In each section there is a collection of children’s books.  Which makes sense, really, because the best way to get some one to fall in love with words and language is through a good old-fashioned bedtime story.  Whether they take you to a dark enchanted forest or an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, the love of words starts with a book, read anywhere in the world, in any language.  The particular magic of The European Bookshop is that, like the city that gave it a home, it brings so many stories together in one place, not to replace each other, but merely to enrich our understanding of the story-filled world around us.

The Bookseller Crow on the Hill

IMG_2789The Bookseller Crow on the Hill, 50 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, London, SE19 3AF

My dear friend Adair was born and raised in Croydon and is a die-hard Palace supporter. He’s the kind of fan who calls all his friends at midnight and leaves drunken messages on our phones when Crystal Palace qualifies for the Premiership. He is the only reason I know enough about football to tentatively put the preceding sentence together. He has been trying for years now to get our group of friends to venture South with him to go to a match. Naturally I haven’t gone because obviously football is a sport and therefore is stupid and a waste of time. Time I would rather spend reading books or reading the paper or reading magazines or reading poetry or reading articles on Jezebel or cooking or playing with small children or thinking long and hard about feminism, or any of the other important things I do on a daily basis. But today I  took the train from Victoria to Crystal Palace. Adair is very annoyed that after all these years, when I finally made it down there it was without him and it was not to see football, but to visit a bookshop.

Crystal Palace, as it turns out, is a really lovely part of London. Like other parts of South London, such as Greenwich, Pechkam or Dulwich, you can still get the sense that the area was once its own little village, outside of London, with its own high street and a self-contained community.  Most of the action happens in The Crystal Palace Triangle, made up of three streets full of shops. IMG_2790Encouragingly, these shops are mainly independents. Some are clearly posher new editions (trendly little cafes and brasseries) but others seem like the real deal – family businesses that have probably been there for years. It’s a lovely place to walk around, full of pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, antique dealers, hardware stores, and – since it’s at the top of a hill – a lovely view down over London from St Paul’s Cathedral to Canary Wharf.

The Bookseller Crow embodies everything that’s good about local family-run IMG_2786bookshops. I spent half an hour in the shop and in that time, two people popped in to say hello, chat with the bookseller about their New Year’s celebrations, ask about the new books and chat about the business. If you live in some quaint little village in the countryside you might not realise how notable this is. But this is London. Where people scowl at each other on the street just for daring to walk on the same pavement. Where commuters nudge each other passive aggressively for a tiny bit more space on the tube. A bookseller who can get passersby to pop in and say hello is nothing short of a wizard.

Now, The Crow is probably not your place if you have a really specific idea of what you want. The selection is good but not extensive. It really shines as a place for finding what is new and good, or what is old and unheard of but still delightful. When I walked in, the first display of books was an incredible mix of books I love, books I haven’t read but have been meaning to, books I’ve never heard of but now need to read and delightfully weird and random things. This table included the following amazing titles, which are all on my list of books to read:

1. Wendy Cope’s Life, Love and The Archers, a collection of the poet’s musings, essays and other collected prose.

2. Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

3. Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale

4. Something bizarre called William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, featuring a wonderful illustration of Jabba the Hutt on the cover

5. Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and his old but newly translated book The Secret Library

6. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s new novel and finally,

7. Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram, a graphic novel about the author’s experience of being diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant.

The shop has great selection of contemporary fiction, science fiction and crime, Local Area books, children’s and teen books, humour and classics. My favourite bay is labelled ‘Sex, Parenting and Health.’ What a funny but oddly appropriate trio of subjects to put together!

IMG_2785There is also have a whole bay full of Hot of the Press books. Some of the books in this section are not stritctly new; they still have I am Malala, Watching the English and Americanah in this section. Incidentally, I got Chimamanda Ngozi Adhiche’s We Should All Be Feminists for Christmas and am on a bit of a kick, so I may have to finally buy Americanah, which I’ve been meaning to read since the day it came out. What can I say? I adore everything about that woman. I would honestly marry her. But I digress. I was being picky about the use of the word ‘new’ but I’ll forgive the Crow for putting out a few 2013 books because there was one new book I had never heard of but (you guessed it!) I now want to read. It was called The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, a Korean novelist.

I discovered so many things today. I love going into bookshops and feeling superior when I’ve read everything, but I really love going in and finding things I’ve never heard of that look inviting and amazing. Have you ever heard of Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler? What about Derelict London and Mindful London, two opposing but equally interesting books spotted in the Local section? Oh! And this is the best one! Have you heard of the Save the Story Series? It’s a series of children’s books commissioned by Pushkin (of course they’re involved – everything they do is amazing!) in which famous authors including Ali Smith, Dave Eggers, Umberto Eco and other international writers retell classic stories like King Lear, Antigone, Gilgamesh and Don Juan for children. The illustrations are gorgeous and the stories look crazy and wonderful.

IMG_2784Discovery, as I’ve said over and over, is what bookshops can give us that Amazon can’t. Of course, I could go online and find a book I’m interested in reading. I could look at book reviews and more often than not just follow a link to order the book and have it appear on my doorstep three days later, requiring no effort from me. But would this make my life better? I dare to say ‘no; it would make my life worse.’ For then I would never be exposed to surprise. I would never be tempted by the exotic or the unfamiliar. I would never find the book that convinced me to reevaluate a whole genre I had previously written off. I would never let my eye by drawn away from the predictable book to settle on the new-found treasure hiding in plain sight right next to it. I would read the same novels by Dead White Western Writers that I’ve been taught and given and seen on lists of books to read before you die for my entire life. Were it not for bookshops like this one, I’d never read Korean novelists or buy Lebanese cookbooks or be interested in Argentinian poetry. I’d never think to buy a graphic novel or science fiction. I’d never bother getting on the train to discover a new part of my city. I would be boring and predictable with a narrow view of the world and little desire to broaden it. Thank you, Bookseller Crow on the Hill, for saving me from that horrible fate.

London: We Need to talk about Paris

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Readers, have you been to Paris? And? Isn’t it amazing?

Yes, I know. Everyone loves Paris. Everyone agrees that it’s one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Everyone who didn’t run away to Paris at eighteen feels a pang of regret every time someone quotes Hemingway’s statement that ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ You don’t need me to drive the point home. Well, I apologise, but I’m going to have to put in my two Euro cents.

My favourite thing about visiting Paris – the thing even more dear to me than IMG_1499eating brioche with every meal or walking along the Seine at twilight – is being in a city that looks after its bookshops. Walking around the centre of Paris, I cry out ‘Librairie!’ like a joyful child at least once every sixty seconds, because in parts of Paris, bookshops are everywhere you look.

What astounds me even more than the sheer number of bookshops is that they are all independent. Each and every one of them looks different, feels different and has its own unique character. I’m sorry but DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW IMG_1085WONDERFUL THIS IS? It means that a book-hunter has the whole world at his or her feet and access to all of the world’s languages, literature, knowledge, art and poetry. Whatever you are looking for you’ll find it in Paris because you can spend your whole life looking for it in new bookshops, secondhand bookshops, English bookshops, Polish bookshops, African Studies bookshops, Philosophy, Law and Science bookshops, Art bookshops, Alpine skiing bookshops (honestly), bookshops attached to a tiny little publishing house and bookshops filled with cats. Paris gives the human race what it deserves: options, adventures, new experiences and mountains of books.

But this didn’t just happen. The French government has very actively made sure that independent bookshops, which thrive in the rest of the country as well as Paris, are able to survive in increasingly uncertain times. They have done IMG_1086this with a couple of brilliant bits of legislation. Firstly, in 1981, French lawmakers fixed book prices, which means that the discounting that makes Amazon so successful is effectively banned. Then, in 2013, MPs passed what many called the Anti-Amazon bill. Despite the fact that Amazon later called this ‘discrimination’ against online retailers (cry me a river, Goliath), it was really more about preserving the independents and ensuring that they weren’t bullied out of the market by the online giant. Now, I know that my evidence is largely anecdotal, but I think it’s working because I spent for days in Paris last month and I really did sing out ‘Librairie’ every time I saw a bookshop and I really did do it about 30 times a day. My travelling companion was very annoyed.

So, London, my question is: why aren’t we doing this? And the only good answer I can come up with is that we should be, but I’m not holding my breath. See, Amazon doesn’t even pay its tax in the UK and no one in power seems to be doing anything to keep it in line, let alone to support the character-filled, community-gathering bookshops it’s oh-so-casually threatening.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as people power and as long as you, loyal readers, continue supporting your local independents, we might just be able to IMG_1455turn the tide. Keep going to Skoob for your secondhand books and the London Review Bookshop for new ones… and for cake. If you live in Stoke Newington, go to Stoke Newington Bookshop and Church Street Books. If you live in Dulwich, it’s time to meet Dulwich Books. Next time you’re at Camden Market, check out the Blackgull Bookshop. If you’re up in NW3, try Keith Fawkes. If you’re looking for a Christmas present, go to Hatchards for choice or Persephone for something special. But enough about London. This is a tale of two cities.

IMG_1462I clearly don’t have the time to tell you about all the bookshops I visited in Paris; you’ll have to go and see them for yourselves. But I did take a few photos of a lovely bookshops called Tschann Librairie in Montparnasse. We came across it quite by accident as we wandered through the area vaguely making our way back to the Latin Quarter from the Fondation Cartier. It is a beautiful bookshop full of French books only. Tschann is quiet and warm and in the early evening, gave off a warm and welcoming glow, enticing passersby in to browse through the books and visit the attached children’s bookshop. I made my way through the bookshop, trying to decide whether or not I could justify buying yet IMG_1453another book on holiday when I’ve got such a large pile of ‘to be reads’ sitting at home. Of course, I decided I could. The shop had a great selection of history, biography, poetry and philosophy books but naturally I gravitated towards the novels. I bought Dans la café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I had been meaning to read one of his novels and buying one in French in Paris seemed the perfect way to start. It also seemed perfect because the two books I’d brought with me on holiday were The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing and Dear Life by Alice Munro. I figured you can never go wrong when you’ve got three Nobel Prize winners in your rucksack.

Oh, Paris. I love you. I love Shakespeare and Co, I love the Abbey Bookshop, I love Gibert Joseph and Red Wheelbarrow and all the independents that line your beautiful Haussman-ised boulevards. Long may they live on. Vive la librairie!

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West End Lane Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camden Arts Centre Bookshop

IMG_2276Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London, NW3 6DG

It’s shocking that the  Camden Arts Centre, just off busy Finchley Road, isn’t better known.  Even on a sunny Sunday morning, there were fairly few people wandering round the galleries, the garden, the cafe and the bookshop – just the way I like it.  Camden Arts Centre is a beautiful space with high ceilings, bright white walls and large windows letting in all of the sunshine and none of the noise from the road. It is dedicated to displaying excellent contemporary visual and performing art, but also puts an emphasis on getting the public involved in the arts.  In addition to traditional exhibitions, they run courses and events for all ages and have a resident artist who works at the centre, but also works with students and hosts talks and open days with the public.  It is a small space, with one studio and only a few rooms of dedicated gallery space, but its size shouldn’t fool you; they manage to cram a lot in.

The galleries are on the first floor, and the bookshop and cafe are on the second floor, and out in the backyard is something lovely – a beautiful garden, much larger than you’d expect in central London, where you can sit and relax, read on the grass or drink your tea and sandwiches from the cafe inside.  At the bottom of the garden, just outside the cafe, are little tables where study groups sit and discuss philosophy, and at the top is a green space perfect for lounging with a book or, as on Sunday morning, grabbing a couple of friends for a quick yoga session. It’s a quiet spot, sheltered from the rest of the city, which you would never know was there unless someone very kind let you in on the secret.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

 

After a morning of strolling through the galleries and having tea in the garden, popping into the bookshop is the perfect way to end your visit.  The bookshop is deceptively small; it’s one long shelf and a table display, so at first I was somewhat unimpressed. But when you get to looking, you realise that what they’ve done is really quite ingenious.  By cramming books in as tightly as possible on only a few surfaces, the Camden Arts Centre bookshop manages to pull off an impressive and far-ranging selection of books on art and culture, all the while keeping the room clean and minimalist and the atmosphere relaxed and manageable.

Although most of the books are serious and philosophical treatises on art for adults, there is also a great and much larger than expected selection of books for children.  A lot of these are focussed on various art forms, as you’d imagine, but there are also more general and mainstream titles.  Whereas upstairs in the Nina Canell sculpture exhibition, there is a sign specifically warning parents of young children to keep a close eye on their spawn, in the bookshop, they are free to roam around and get their hands on as many picture books as they want.  There is a fun and welcoming atmosphere in the bookshop that manages to just about chase away that awkwardness that all but a few afficionados feel in an art bookshop, when looking through sometimes obscure books on a very specific topic.

When it comes to books for adults, Camden Arts Centre’s bookshop is just as fun, IMG_2274just as sincere in extending the invitation to get excited.  There are beautiful coffee-table sized books full of colour illustrations and photographs of art and architecture by world-famous artists like Ai Weiwei (Ai Weiwei Speaks, a book of the artist’s interviews with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is also in stock) and much more obscure ones, some of whom have been exhibited at the Arts Centre.  The books available cover painting, sculpture, photography and architecture, focussing sometimes on a specific artist, and other times about a movement or a phenomenon.  Many explore the relationship between art and mainstream culture, something that Camden Arts Centre is clearly interested in. If you need proof of this, you need look no further than the many books that aren’t explicitly about art, but are about culture, society and human nature.

On the shelves of this bookshop, you’ll find everything you need to understand, love, hate, critique and embrace the world around you.  You’ll find creative and political manifestos, novels about human nature (as if all novels weren’t), art magazines and the great works of philosophy.  You’ll find Penguin’s Great Ideas series with essays by Lenin, Freud, Nitzsche, Orwell, Wollstonecraft, Proust, Benjamin and dozens of other movers and shakers of human thought.  You’ll find a series of beautiful, white-covered books by Verso Books in their Radical Thinkers series, which include essays by some of the great minds of the

Taken from Camden Arts Centre's website.

Taken from Camden Arts Centre’s website.

nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose artistic or political radicalism changed their respective fields: Said (the man-god responsible for Orientalism), Walter Benjamin (my hero), Baudrillard, Althusser, Lukács, Frederic Jameson, Lefebvre, Theodor Adorno, Bentham, Terry Eagleton, Sartre, Brecht, Derrida and others that I’ve never even heard of but have no doubt are brilliant.  The one that particularly caught my eye was Women, Resistance and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World by Sheila Rowbotham. I’m a sucker for a good bit of feminist theory and when it’s got a communist edge, I’m sold.  This beautiful book almost parted me with £7.99 – a bit less than the retail price, slightly more than you can buy it for on the Verso website and probably ten times what it costs on Amazon, but then they don’t have a cafe, a garden, two thought-provoking exhibits upstairs or a shred of atmosphere, now do they?

It’s a very serious, high-brow selection of books, but the Camden Arts Centre Bookshop doesn’t feel pretentious for a second, because of its idyllic setting and its prime location between all the parts of the centre toward which all kinds of different people gravitate.  The bookshop and its impressive stock fit perfectly here, where, on a quiet street in North London, they provide a welcome oasis from the everyday, but also encourage you to challenge yourself.  The Camden Arts Centre and its bookshop, like books themselves, strike the perfect balance between glorious escapism and the mind-expanding, consciousness-awakening brilliance of a good adventure.

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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