Tag Archives: North London

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.

Primrose Hill Books

IMG_2005Primrose Hill Books, 134 Regent’s Park Road, London,  NW1 8XL

Primrose Hill Books, a small bookshop on the bustling Regent’s Park Road, was full of browsers today, the first actually warm day of this long ‘British summer’.  As picnickers made their way to Primrose Hill, some stopped at the butcher’s across the road for snacks, others queued in front of the ice cream truck and I wandered into the bookshop, seduced by the tables of books on the tables outside.

The books on the front tables are all secondhand and include many orange Penguin classics for £3 or £4 as well as popular contemporary fiction.   Strangely, the selection on IMG_2004offer ranged from William Faulkner to Jodi Picoult, two ends of the spectrum when it comes to complexity and intelligence.  But that’s the beauty of secondhand bookselling and it’s nice that even here, a shop which offers mainly new books (though they sell used ones on their website) the secondhand selection still offers a taste of that randomness and idiosyncrasy.

Inside, the small, bright shop makes excellent use of every single inch of space, cramming brilliant books into every possible gap.  At times this makes it difficult to find things, particularly since the stacks of books that cover every available IMG_2002surface are not piles of one book; they’re just piles.  In order to see every book you have to risk looking like you’re about to bolt out the door by gathering one book after another to your chest as you unearth the one below it.  While I’ll admit this is not exactly conducive to finding the book you’re looking for, it’s perfectly forgivable if what you’re after is just an idle browse.  There’s a certain charm in not knowing what you’ll find next and when you’re in a bookshop filled with so many wonderful titles, that charm becomes excitement.

Primrose Hill Books caters to the local community as well as to the tourists and Londoners who flock to this lovely part of the city for an escape from their own drab and dreary lives.  High expectations are met, with IMG_1999well-stocked poetry, history, politics and philosophy sections.  All of these contained a selection of very good books and absolutely none of the rubbish that often pollutes lesser establishments.  I think it’s reassuring to find a bookshop that has an entire section dedicated to philosophy, even if it is quite small; it’s a sign of the bookseller’s faith in readers and their ability to be brave and adventurous.   The shop also has excellent children’s sections with one bay of books for ‘Younger Children’ and another for ‘Older Children.’  Again, the books selected are only the best and the lack of toys and other loud non-book things (which, again, tend to pollute lesser establishments) allows children to browse on their own in a section dedicated to them without other distractions.

IMG_2003The shop has a large, perfectly-alphabetised fiction section which presents a wide range of options to the browser.  The pristine new books are enticing because in addition to being good books, they’re also good editions of the books.  The shelf confronts you with the red spines that mean Vintage and the elegant white ones that mean Penguin’s Modern Classics.  But perhaps my favourite thing about this bookshop is that the entire centre table is filled with rows and piles of hardcover books.   These are not, as in some bookshops, just pretty editions of Jane Eyre, but hardcover editions of contemporary fiction, both famous and more obscure.  There’s something nice about buying a hardback book, if you can spare the money.  They’re the kind that you cherish, that you jealously guard from sticky-fingered children and that you pull down off the bookshelf every now and then just to look at again.  I consider this visitation IMG_2001time.  While it’s lovely to have a good hardcover copy of your all-time favourite (hence the abundance of Jane Eyres) it is also nice to buy a brand new hardcover.  Since it’s sure to adorn your bookshop for a very long time, buying a new book in hardcover is a bit like a vote of confidence in the book, a promise that you believe in the relationship you might have with it.

One hardcover book in particular caught my eye.  It was The Enchanted IMG_2000Wanderer and Other Stories, a Vintage Classics hardcover edition of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s short stories, with beautiful cover illustrations and a lovely introduction.  The blurb refers to Leskov as the best Russian writer most of us have never heard of, an apt description which captures the sense of outrage most fans must feel at the fact that he gets so little recognition outside of Russia, despite the fact that his work inspired the great Russian authors we do know.  Unfortunately it cost £25, since it’s a hefty book and in hardcover.  I was tempted by this because I’ve been reading Angela Carter lately and really enjoying the way she reworks the conventions of fairy tales and folklore, something which Leskov does brilliantly.  Coincidentally, I have also been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ about the demise of the oral story and he praises Leskov to the heavens for managing to capture in written prose the magic and the ambiguity of folklore and the oral storytelling tradition.  I resolved to read his stories and to see them collected here in such a beautiful hardback edition, knowing that I won’t be bringing them home (today) was quite a mental trial.

Before leaving, I needed to make the rounds of the shop several times, since I didn’t want to miss anything.  It was also partly because my first time around I was distracted by the chatting of two visitors who were completely oblivious to that fact that their voices were far too loud for this peaceful and contemplative space.  One twittered away to the other about a book she had read recently and IMG_2003asked if the other had read it.  ‘I think I’ve got it on my Kindle,’ she said,  ‘but I always buy books for it and then forget about them…’  I couldn’t help but smugly think that while a 99p digital file downloaded from Amazon is completely forgettable, a beautiful hardcover that you bought in a distinctive local bookshop will be at the top of your mind until you’ve read it and probably for quite some time after.   While they were a slight annoyance, very little could actually spoil the time I spent in this beautiful bookshop.

The most important thing is that I left with my appetite whetted and a new book on my list of things to read.  This, really, is all you can ask of any bookshop.  If you can leave with new ideas and questions in your mind, new titles and names on your lips and (if you’ve got the money!) a new adventure in your bag, then a bookshop has done its job.

Owl Bookshop

IMG_1842Owl Bookshop, 207-209 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2JU

Last week I got myself very lost in Kentish Town, looking for Walden Books.  Fortunately, most good stories get started when the heroine stumbles off the path. As I wandered up Kentish Town Road, growing more and more certain that I had gone too far, I became aware of golden light glowing out from the windows of this beautiful green shopfront.

IMG_1839The first thing I noticed about the Owl Bookshop is how ‘local’ it is; sitting on the high street, it is an integral part of the community.  It’s the kind of place that probably has regulars.  It’s the kind of place where a child can grow up, returning every week like a ritual, just like I did in another local bookshop far far away.  The little chairs scattered around the shop invite you to sit down and read or sort out which books you’re actually going to take home.  The majority of the books are retail price, but there are a few tables throughout the shop filled with books on sale for £3, £4 and £5, so a lack of money needn’t stop you from browsing.

It reminded me a lot of the Stoke Newington Bookshop and not just because the layout of the shop similar – indeed you could almost substitute Stoke Newington’s blue shelves for the Owl’s green ones and have the same shop. But more importantly, both have an almost tangible sense of community, and the booksellers who foster those communities are friendly, lively, energetic and more than competent.

When I walked into Owl Bookshop, one of the booksellers was patiently helping a woman decide what to buy for her friend who ‘likes good novels.’  Unbelievably, this was the only criteria she was able to give the bookseller, but instead of being annoyed, he seemed to enjoy the challenge, happily bouncing around the shelves suggesting books.  She left with three so I think he must have done all right.  As I skulked around the poetry section eavesdropping on other customers (my usual routine) I heard them talk to customers with complete ease about authors I’ve never heard of, being helpful and obliging and more than willing to spend as long as it took to make sure each customer left with the perfect book.  I don’t normally ramble on about staff, but I’m making an exception because the good people at the Owl were truly impressive.

As they chattered away with customers, I was busily exploring the fiction section.  In addition to a wall full of A-Z Fiction, there was a bay of bestsellers and new releases.  I always love this in a bookshop; I think it’s a sign that the IMG_1841people who run it love, care about and pay attention to books.  I was even more impressed to realise that these bays contained so much more than the mundane chart-toppers.  It gets old to see the same books on display week after week in every bookshop, so it’s very refreshing to see a display of books that demonstrates a real knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as an understanding of what’s good, not just what’s popular.  Not that those can’t be the same thing, it’s just that…well, come on. In a post-50 shades world, do I really need to qualify that statement?

Even the Classics section was better than average, redefining what we deem ‘classics’ by including books from all over the world.  Some of these may not be canonical in the world of British academia, but they have stood the test of time nonetheless and gave me lots of new ideas for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.

The rest of the bookshop is really brilliant; I truly can’t say enough good things IMG_1840about it.  And I’m stumped for clever ways of phrasing my praising.  I’m just in love with the Owl, okay?  A whole wall is full of travel books. The history and politics sections are relevant and well-stocked.  The corner full of cookbooks is colourful and appealing.  Beautiful art and architecture books have an entire section to themselves.  I could have spent hours there looking through the interesting selection of interesting books I never knew I wanted to read until I saw them and then could not pull myself away.

The only small stain on my otherwise brilliant visit fame from another customer.  He walked in with his sons and before he even looked around went immediately to the desk.  He told one of the aforementioned brilliant booksellers that he was taking his son to a girl’s fourth birthday party.  ‘I know nothing about girls and girly stuff’ he snapped, making every woman in the shop glad not to be the mother of his spawn.  Each time one of his boys suggested something like Thomas the Tank Engine or a Scooby Doo book, he snarled ‘We’re not looking for a book you like, we’re looking for something a girl would like.’  I think he spent the entire time trying (and failing) to avoid sneering every time he said the world ‘girl.’    I stood there fuming as he indoctrinated his impressionable sons with some idiotic ideology about how girls like princesses and boys like trains, dinosaurs are for boys, sparkles are for girls.  I wanted to explain to him that if he continued with his behaviour he would be guilty of unleashing two first class neanderthals upon a world that thought it was rid of this type of person.

This ridiculous dividing of literature into categories happens in academia too, IMG_1837where Jane Austen and Emily Bronte are studied by women but their male contemporaries, like, say, Dickens and Carlyle, are for the boys.  Don’t people realise that Austen could be just as observant as (and even more bitingly clever than) Dickens?  It’s worrying that we still allow artists to be pigeon-holed in any way, but gender-based judgements are the worst.  The power of literature is that it allows us to transcend silly little differences like gender, class, nationality, race and see ourselves as human beings.  Anyone who tries to pervert that noblest of goals is, in my humble opinion, a mere subspecies.

But what bothered me most was that he completely missed the point of this bookshop.  By offering its readers an unconventional selection of titles, which are good regardless of whether they’re popular or well-known, the Owl asks us to go beyond our normal habits and discover something new.  IMG_1838It asks us to try out books we would never have found ourselves, by authors we’d never heard of but probably should have.  It invites us to open our minds and it reminds us that this openness, this ability to see beyond our own tiny little lives and experience the world in a new way, is the reason we loved reading to begin with.  So here’s to the Owl Bookshop; the world needs more places like it.

Walden Books

IMG_1850Walden Books, 38 Harmood Street, London, NW1 8DP

Covered in beautiful purple flowers and the overspill of vines from the house next door, Walden Books is an inconspicuous fairy tale cottage hiding on a quiet residential street in Chalk Farm, a refuge just moments away from the noise and confusion of Camden Lock Market.

Outside, inexpensive fiction and poetry books draw wanderers in for a quick IMG_1844browse through the books outside on the terrace. The brave or curious venture further, into the bookshop itself.  The little brass bell that announces the entrance of a customer probably only rings a dozen times a day, so the shop attendant will notice you.  He’s a lovely, friendly man who waved me through to the back room without having to surrender my bag. I’m shocked but delighted to learn that I don’t look like the kind of person who’s going to steal books.  Luckily, I got the chance to browse through the small, cramped shop privately, with only one other customer arriving as I was on my way out.

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The front room has antiquarian books and a whole bay full of secondhand books about London, ranging from the recent to the antiquarian and covering different IMG_1847areas of the city.  Sneaking past the till, I squeezed into the small back room.  For the limited amount of space, Walden Books has an impressive selection of secondhand books.  Books are everywhere, organised horizontally, vertically and diagonally.  For the most part they are actually in vague alphabetical order (miraculously), but there are some who spill off the shelves and huddle on the floor at their feet.  The large column in the middle (covered by books) makes the room feel more cramped, but provides a little bit of privacy so that browsers can hide in corners surrounded by the smell of paper and imagine that they’re completely alone.  In these quiet corners, the browser will find fiction and poetry as well as a huge selection of plays.  Normally, when you ask to be directed to the drama section, you encounter one shelf.  Fifty percent of it is occupied by William Shakespeare.  He’s absolutely brilliant, of course, and deserves his spot in all of our hearts and on all of our shelves, but has drama not progressed at all in the last 400 years?  Answer me, Waterstones!!  The other half will be filled with various copies of A Streetcar Named Desire, Doctor Faustus, Death of a Salesman and, if you’re lucky, an Ibsen or two.  It’s all very limiting and predictable.  But at Walden Books, the plays – dug up from some very interesting people’s attics, I have no doubt – represent a huge range of time periods, cultures and genres.  Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth going  and browsing around just to get some new ideas in your head.  I have a little red notebook that I carry around with me whenever I go into bookshops to write down the names of books and authors I discover.  The list is so long now that I’ll probably never get through them all, but for some reason writing them down makes me feel one step closer to having read them.

A whole wall of the middle column is dedicated to poetry.  Again, it’s refreshing IMG_1846to see variety rather than the one typical one bay dominated by Keats, Shelley, T.S. Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy.  Again, all are brilliant, but there’s so much more out there!  My favourite discovery in Walden’s today was a copy of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems.  It felt slightly serendipitous since just the other day I almost got sucked into buying a book of Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry for £4 at the Southbank Book Market.  The best thing about it was that someone had tucked a clipping from the Times in April 1970 into the front of the book.  The clipping contained a poem by Pound which I think was called ‘The Pigeons’ which I have mysteriously not been able to find mention of anywhere else.  Is anyone able to illuminate? Whenever see something stuck in a secondhand book, I can’t help but wonder what the thought process of the bookseller is when s/he finds it.  Does it cross his/her mind to throw it in the bin, as the refuse of an older reader, of does it get to stay in because it adds to the value of the book?  I sincerely hope it’s the latter.

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Apologies for blurriness. And my generally terrible photography.

Other areas covered on the shelves of Walden Books are local history, philosophy (and it’s a fantastic selection by the way), fiction, natural history, sociology and anthropology.  I came very close to buying and 1959 edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the anthropological study of mythology and religions upon which T.S. Eliot based many parts of The Waste Land.  For those who aren’t familiar with my obsession with Eliot, suffice it to say that I think of my life in terms of ‘before I read The Waste Land‘ and after.  The book was only £5 and had a lovely inscription on the inside front cover – ‘To Kate, on your 17th birthday.’

Despite the clutter, the confusion, the awkwardness of being one of two strangers in a very small space and the unorthodox collection of books, there is something beautiful about Walden Books.  It’s messy, scattered, dusty and dingy.  It’s madness, yet there is method in’t.  It is full of a chaotic promise, that if you have the patience to sit and look, turn pages and inspect overleaves, you too can be part of something magical.  It doesn’t have the sanitary neatness of a chain bookshop or – worse – of your Kindle’s ‘library’ if we must use the word, but it has something infinitely better.  It reminds us of the simple beauty of a row of old books and the promises they make to anyone brave enough to pick them up.

Church Street Bookshop

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Church Street Bookshop, 142 Stoke Newington Church Street, London, N16 oJU

Well, fancy that, we’re back in Stoke Newington!  And the 73 bus, with its views from the upper deck of the busy, colourful high street, has seduced me once again.

Church Street Bookshop is the perfect bookshop for the strong, silent type.  Bookshops like the Stoke Newington Bookshop, just a ten minute’s walk away, are paradises for those who love being social, talking about books and being part of a community of bibliophiles, while its smaller neighbour is for those who prefer nothing but the unobtrusive sound of soft jazz tinkling in the background and the whispers of yellowed pages and black type between wooden shelves.  Personally, I think I’m somewhere between these two types of bookhunters, or maybe I change by the day.  At times, I quite fancy a chat with the bookseller about how amazing the inscription on an edition of Sula is, but more often I’m happy to browse alone, in my own little world.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a sense of community here; while I was wandering through the small space this morning, two people came in who seemed to be religious devotees of this secondhand shop and one of them was a lovely older lady bearing flowers for the bookseller.  Such are the wonderful people-watching opportunities that bookshops foster!

IMG_1749The front windows of the bookshop are filled with colourful children’s books on display and all are secondhand.  Inside, the bright front windows let in so much light that it’s a bit like maybe light from the heavens has broken through the clouds to shine down on the very spot where the book that’s going to change your life is hiding.  That’s an exaggeration.  But it is very well-lit.  And I do believe that if a light from heaven was going to shine down on a place where a human life might be changed, it would absolutely have to shine on a secondhand bookshop.

Boxes (presumably of books) block the entire middle section of the back corner, where fiction, poetry, politics and philosophy live, but it works, because it closes an otherwise open space off into more secluded corners; perfect for hiding away from the rest of the world.

Each bookshop’s selection is a little bit different and these differences stem from things like the owner’s taste, location and the local population.  Secondhand bookshops, then, are revealing because they rely on the books they’ve received from donors, at least in large part, I assume.  Of course this is all completely speculative since I’ve never worked in a used bookshop.  I’m just a fan.  Anyway, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes (casual Dr. Seuss IMG_1752reference…anyone?), this bookshop has a really brilliant selection of recent and contemporary literature. Almost the entire back wall of the shop is filled with it.  Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison…they’re all there and in fine form.  Such an emphasis is put on these more modern titles that there is half a bay labelled ‘Pre-Twentieth Century’, with one copy of Pride and Prejudice, one of Bleak House…you get the idea.  The classics aren’t that well represented, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  There are loads of editions of the classics that are cheap and most secondhand bookshops have them by the boxfull; it’s the contemporary novels that are harder to get secondhand.  Which is why this bookshop is so handy!

The shop also has a very good collection of children’s books, cookery, history, local interest and London-related books.  But as always, I gave these only a very cursory one-over before heading back to Poetry and Fiction.  I am so predictable and must be very boring to anyone who wishes I would talk more about the history sections of these bookshops.  Oopsy.

Aside from the fantastic selection of books, this bookshop is notable for its prices; everything is so ridiculously cheap it feels unfair.  Obviously an oversized hardcover edition of a thick book will always be more than a couple of quid, but of all the paperbacks I picked up, the most expensive one I saw was about £2.90, but most were in the £1.60-£2 region.  It’s the kind of place that’s very dangerous because you can keep collecting cheap books until all of a sudden you get the till and it’s not so cheap anymore.  But personally, I’d argue that it’s more dangerous to never buy books at all, so I’ll leave you to weigh up your chances for survival.  Hint: go with the books.  Even if you end up with too many.

IMG_1750I made the rounds of the shop several times and on one of these tours I found the book I came away with.  It was a copy of the Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas.  When I left, I brought it up to the till, which is also covered with books and hides a back room which promises more stacks.  I paid £2.50 for it.  I surprised myself by buying this.  I always think of Dylan Thomas the poet before Dylan Thomas the writer of plays and short stories, but that’s completely unfair to him, I suppose.  I like Thomas a lot – I already have a copy of his Collected Poems and one of his plays – but I’d say my interest in him generally is enough to pick up the book and examine in, but usually not enough to buy it.

What changed my mind today was this beautiful inscription:

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‘December 2006

To Louise –  You are a wonderful, extraordinary and amazing woman and it has genuinely been my privilege to work with you these last four years.  Now I’m looking forward to knowing you as a friend for all the rest of my life; I’ll be keeping in touch whether you like it or not!  Love, Mia x’

I love coming across inscriptions and marginalia like this and will always, categorically always, buy the book when I find something like this written inside.  I kind of can’t believe that Louise gave this book away to a secondhand bookshop so soon after receiving it; I wonder if they fell out, if she didn’t like Dylan Thomas anyway or if, tragically, she lost it on a bus or a park bench and it somehow ended up in Stoke Newington.  I hope it was the latter.

Whenever I post about marginalia or inscriptions, I have the secret hope that somehow, the person who wrote it or the person to whom it was addressed will find me.  In my dream they’d be grateful to me for uncovering their treasure; in my nightmare they’re angry at me for invading their privacy.  In both cases, they would want the book back and I would, of course, comply and return it to its rightful owner.

These personal touches are how we go about making books our own.  It’s IMG_1751something you’ll never have with an ebook.  Long after he’s gone, I’ll still have the copy of The Fountainhead that my dad inscribed with ‘Happy 15th Birthday, sweet pea, etc.’ My mum still faithfully observes the amendments her own mum made to a tortière recipe in the cookbook she passed down.  And years from now, when I am dead and my things are sold, those books will show up in a secondhand bookshop somewhere.  This ensures that the simple stories – the ones more pedestrian than those told in the books they decorate, about families, generations, lovers, fights and apologies, goodbyes and reunions and what those of us who don’t live in lands far far away get up to – will never be forgotten.

Somewhere, someone will find the books in which we’ve shared something about our humanity and despite space and time, they’ll feel the connection to another human being they’ve never known.  It’s an irresistible feeling, one which compels you to by a second copy of a book  you already have or something by an author you hate just to hold onto it.  It’s the feeling that the little stories about human lives are worth keeping.  It’s the certainty that books, the mausoleums that hold those stories and the cathedrals that exalt them, are eternal.

Stoke Newington Bookshop

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153 and 159 Stoke Newington High Street, London, N16 0NY

Londoners have a tendency to think that anywhere that doesn’t have a tube station or quick bus route from central isn’t worth going to, and I have to admit that, having been lucky enough to have never lived further out than Zone 2, I’ve fallen prey to this ideology.  So, despite the good things I’d heard about this bookshop, I stepped onto the 73 bus this morning with more than a bit of skepticism about what Stoke Newington, the mystical land at the end of the bus route, would be like.

As it turns out, it’s absolutely lovely.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was completely surprised to see just how nice it is, with rows of independent shops lining the High Street and Stoke Newington Church Road.  It’s a bit like a town in its own right, with a local community who are out and about on the streets, going into independent bakers, butchers, candlestick makers and booksellers on even the dreariest of Saturday mornings.

IMG_1745At the centre of this community are two bookshops; the Stoke Newington Bookshop and Stoke Newington Bargain Books, which is only three doors down from its parent.  Both feel like places where locals come on their way to the farmers’ market on the weekend, with their little ones in tow, popping in out of the February air.  Rosy-cheeked and frozen-fingered, shoppers wander in, seduced by the beautiful window display.   Inside, the shop is one big open space, with the till in the centre of the shop and books along all the walls and on tables throughout the shop.  The open layout is perfect for the shop’s moonlighting gig as a venue for the public to come and spend the evening listening to their favourite authors giving readings or interviews over a glass of wine.  Tomorrow night, in fact, such a gathering will be happening as Rachel Joyce, the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – which has been garnering loads of attention lately – nestles in amongst the books and gives a reading.

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The sense of community in this shop is heartening, and I think a lot of the credit for IMG_1740that goes to the friendly, helpful staff, who take turns in this shop and the Bargain Bookshop down the street.  They also have a table of staff recommendations, which I always loved writing when I worked in a bookshop and which provide a good place to start when you have no idea what you want to read next.

The selection of books is very good; it’s not the biggest selection, but most big titles are here and there is a brilliant selection of Classics and poetry.  The books on display are all good books, clearly well-chosen.  It’s a good place to go for history, politics, media and biography, as well as, of course, fiction.  One of my favourite things about both this shop and the bargain bookshop is their wide range of children’s books, from picture books all the way up to young adult.IMG_1738  The back corner is filled with them and when I was in the shop, a little girl was sitting with her mum trying to decide between Diary of a Wimpy Kid and something by Jacqueline Wilson.  Personally, I’d always go for Wimpy Kid, but to each their own.  I never can resist the children’s corner (it’s always just so much more colourful than all the other corners!) so I spent a little while rifling through storybooks I remembered from years gone by and then reluctantly moved back over to the boring grown-up side of the shop. Lame.

I found about ten books that I have been wanting to buy in the fiction shelves, which was brilliant for the bookshop but really bad for my wallet.  Among the sultry temptresses I had to fend off were Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Artful by Ali Smith, and the new 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The IMG_1741Bell Jar.  The cover of the new The Bell Jar has been causing controversy since it came out, with its silly chick-litty cover that people say takes away from the weight of the work.  Without having read the novel (yet) I can’t judge the cover, especially since some prominent journalists and writers have rushed to its defense, saying that it is a good representation of the way that the novel deals with femininity and its various constructions.  Besides, regardless of the cover art, I know that the woman who wrote Ariel can’t possibly have written anything nearly as trivial as the cover makes the content look.  And besides, I reckon if some silly girl who only ever reads silly books looks at The Bell Jar and decides to buy it on the basis of its cover,  she might just fall in love with Plath and one day become a better person for it.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, I might have bought the book just because of the controversy it’s been causing had I not been carrying a lighter-than-usual wallet.

But that does bring me another important thing about Stoke Newington Bookshop and their Bargain Bookshop; there are cheap books!  In the bookshop proper there are loads of cheaper editions of classics and a table of half price sale books.  To my delight, the sale books were all recent, well-known or more IMG_1747obscure but still really intriguing, meaning that this was a genuine attempt to sell cheaper books rather than just the shop getting rid of the ones no one wants. Next door at the bargain bookshop, Wordsworth editions rule the day, with their cheap copies of the classics for adults and children.  I had to leave empty-handed, since I’ve been trying very hard lately to buy books that I need before books I want and since the one book I needed wasn’t there (to be fair to them, I think it’s quite obscure) I had to walk away.  The bright side of being a broke student is the cultivation of a will of steel when it comes to attractive books.

Although I didn’t buy a book today, I did discover a brilliant small business that I vow I will one day return and support and I added several new books to my wish list.  The only problematic thing about that ever-growing, ever-shifting wish list is that for every book I manage to cross off it, I need to add fifteen.  Such is the joy of being a bookworm; my passion is one I’ll never get bored of, one I’ll never outgrow and one that will never go out of style.  Some of the gloomier commentators might say that ebooks will send real books out of style, but as long as there are places like this, I don’t think that’s true.  Because to buy an ebook, you can sit in your pajamas at home and press a button and yes, it’s easier, but it’s just not as much fun.  Instead, today, I left my neighbourhood, took the bus to a part of my city I’d never been to before, discovered not just one but a whole high street of independent businesses and participated in a community.  For a good bookshop is so much more than a place of commerce; it is a place of discussion, of shared passions, of debate, of precious moments turning pages with a little one, of new adventures added to the bucket list.  It’s not the walls, the ‘bricks and mortar’ of the Stoke Newington Bookshop that people love, it’s the adventures and the magic that take place between them, when a family spends a Saturday morning reading together, or friends reminisce about their schooldays reading Hamlet, or an author inspires a new generation of readers, or complete strangers bond over a shared love of T.S. Eliot.

So, though I left with an empty hand, my mind had been filled with thoughts of what and where and when I’ll read next.  Like an addict obsessed with the thought of her next fix, I hurried home to my current book and continued to wade through it, eager for more words and comforted  by the eternal covenant that no matter how we mourn for the one we’ve just finished, there will always be a next book.

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Word on the Water

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Word on the Water, Regent’s Canal, London

“So close your eyes while mother sings of the wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see those beautiful things as you sail on the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three – Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod.

– From Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod, a Nursery Rhyme.

I’ve been in a lot of bookshops and sung their praises, but this one takes the cake. To be fair to them all, those very worthy other bookshops are often just as good as this one in terms of selection, decor and price, but all of them are lacking one essential ingredient that makes this competition not even close to a fair fight.  While every other bookshop I’ve been in has been firmly planted on solid ground, today I set foot inside a floating bookshop on the inside of a London Canal Boat.  You just can’t beat that.

IMG_1708I heard about this mystical creature some time ago and have been trying to track it down for ages.  It moves along Regent’s Canal which cuts through North London from Harrow in the West all the way to the Thames River Basin at Limehouse in the East.  On their facebook and twitter pages, Word on the Water post where on the canal they’re going to be and for how long.  Once or twice I’ve gone to City Road Basin in Angel to try to find them, but always seem to miss the canal boat.  However this time, I just happened upon them by accident.  When I saw the “Floating Book Sale” sign I had a feeling I had accidentally stumbled upon this thing I’d been wanting to find for so long.  This week, the boat is stationed just west of Camden Market on the canal, and a two minute walk from The Blackgull, another amazing Camden bookshop which works brilliantly as the second half of a double feature.  If you’re in that area at all this weekend, you should visit both of them and support two amazing businesses for less than you’d expect.

You might find that you hear the boat before you see the grey plume of smoke rising out from its chimney, as music always seems to be playing from the deck.  If you catch them at the right time, you might be lucky enough to hear one of their live music shows or the poetry readings for which IMG_1711they’re famous.  I’ve never been to one but I hear that music and poetry are shouted out from the deck of the boat to listeners down below and I can only imagine that it must be magical.  But on a weekday at lunch hour, classical music from speakers is perfect.  After examining the paperbacks on sale for £1 or £3 on the deck of the boat (bargain!) and the small selection at the helm, I crouched down and crawled into the cabin, where the magic happens.  The shop’s inside is warmed by the heat of the wood-burning oven in the corner and the couches around it are inviting and cozy.  To live in the cabin of this boat would be a dream come true.  You might be able to grab a spot on the couch and sit for a bit with a book if the cats aren’t monopolising the space.  Yes, there are two little cats (although perhaps there are more, but I only saw two) who live onboard and on this chilly January day they were huddled up on the couch close to the fire.  They must be used to IMG_1710visitors because they didn’t seem to notice me rummaging around the shelves of books that cover the walls.  For such a small space, there is a decent selection of secondhand books, all for very reasonable prices.  I bought Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood for £3.  As with most of the bookshops I frequent, you’re in a real-live establishment, not on Amazon, so they don’t have everything, but I think that forces you to really look at what’s there and invites you to try a book you might not have thought of before.  If you’re not up for these more bookish of adventures, you’ll just have to settle for the charming ambiance and the original idea, which are reason enough to pay the barge a visit, if you can find it.

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While I’m on the subject of adventures, despite the frustration of a few failed attempts, I’m very glad to have found this bookshop today by accident.  It goes to show that you can search and search as long as you like for exactly what you want, trying to plan every detail of each day of your life, but in the end, life surprises you.  The plans you made might fall through and one day you might just be glad they did, because the things you never even imagined would happen will come to be the most important moments of your life.  I harp on a lot on this blog about how bookshops are worth saving because they privilege the act of searching over instantaneous finding.  But I think this bookshop doesn’t need to preach that lesson at you because it’s the living proof of it.  You might not find exactly what you’re looking for in such a tiny little bookshop,  but the experience IMG_1709is worth so much more than what you come out with.  To walk along the canal like you do every day and then to come across a boat you’ve never seen which has been styled a “book barge” moored at the side sounds like the beginning of a pirate novel and reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in a way.  And I think we all need a little adventure in our lives.

For example.  I recently had to track down a copy of Home to India by Santha Rama Rau for a class I was taking.  There were no copies at Waterstone’s, Foyles, any of my usual local independents, my uni’s library or the University of London and the British Library’s copy was off-site.  I tried all of these places and finally found a copy at SOAS.  After weeks, I finally got my hands on a tiny, weathered red copy of the 1936 edition published by the Left Reading Club, an organisation which operated in the 30s and 40s, disseminating quality literature about leftist ideology among the British intelligentsia and which I had never even heard of before.  Everyone else in my class had ordered the reprinted version from Amazon instead of bothering to look for it.  So, sadly, none of them really got the sense that a text like this, by an Indian woman writing in the 30s about nationalist politics, was not exactly floating around freely.  The experience of tracking down that novel added something to my experience of reading it; its evident rarity really made its revolutionary aspect and its profound modernness (which of course becomes so relativised over time that it’s well-nigh invisible to recognise if you’re not looking for it) all the more real.

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The point of that story, which somehow became a very long anecdote, is that oftentimes the adventures we have while looking for books add something special to our experience of them that wouldn’t be there otherwise.  And it’s the sense of discovery, adventure and the fanciful that Word on the Water is bringing back to the book-hunting experience.

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On the barge with me today there was a little boy, probably about three years old, admiring a picture book about dinosaurs, which his parents were reading to him (bless them) even though they clearly needed to be on their way.  When they finally managed to get the book out of his hands, the little boy asked if he could drive the boat away.  His parents and another adult in the shop smiled and laughed, in that dismissive way adults do when they’re conspiring to ruin a child’s fun.  I found myself laughing too, but in my heart I thought this little boy is on to something.  For what a perfect fairytale ending would it be to motor off along the partly-frozen canal, into the Thames and out to sea, never to be seen again in a boat full of books?   It reminded me of the nights I feel asleep dreaming of drifting away in a shoe with Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod who ‘sailed off on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew.’

Housmans

IMG_1645Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, London,  N1 9DX

“People do not know how dangerous lovesongs can be, the auric egg of Russell warned occultly. The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant’s heart on the hillside.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses

I walk past this bookshop almost every day, but until yesterday had never gone in.  I’d occasionally flick through the £1 secondhand books in the cart outside, but always figured I’d get around to actually going in some other day.  Yesterday I finally did and wished I had been going there all along.  Housmans is a quiet little bookshop with wooden floors, crammed shelves and lovely people; just what I like to see.

IMG_1644Housmans calls itself the ‘radical booksellers’ and specialises in communist, socialist, political and economic books, magazines and pamphlets.  Now, up until now I’ve tried to remain relatively apolitical on this blog, simply because that’s just not what this is about.  However, with such an obviously political bookshop, I think I ought to provide some kind of disclaimer, just to prevent cries of “Propagandist!”  I consider myself a politically engaged person and my sympathies invariably fall decidedly left of the centre.  I personally don’t subscribe to Marxism or communism, but I find both fascinating and valuable systems of thought and I think they can and should play some role in the way we interpret our society. Housmans, like any good bookshop, is not trying very hard to push an agenda or to convert anyone; they’re just there as a communal space for learning, the dissemination of ideas and knowledge and the appreciation of all kinds of different books.  So relax.

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Naturally, this bookshop has an incredible selection of books about communism, socialism, economics, politics, culture and society.   Many of them are very interesting and they range from generic introductions to different IMG_1641theories and ideology to really nuanced and specific publications.  The shop also has lots of books about society more generally and issues of gender, class and race.  Something I really enjoy about this bookshop is that there is a mixture of media.  Most places I go tend to opt for thick books published by big publishing houses.  (That’s not a criticism!)  But here, you get those more mainstream publications, but also books by independent publishers, magazines and pamphlets.  It’s absolutely always a good idea to expand your normal reading habits by trying new subjects, genres and formats (and by ‘formats’ I do NOT mean Kindles).  Not doing this is something that I too am quite guilty of; once you know what you like you just want to read everything like it that’s ever been published, but if you don’t branch out, your reading experience is poorer for it, I believe.  Perhaps this is a possible New Year’s Resolution for me!

Another notable aspect of the shop is its huge section of London Writing, IMG_1642ranging from Great Expectations to Hackney, That Rose Red Empire by Iain Sinclair.  The shop has a great selection of texts about different regions of London, their histories and their unique struggles.  If, like me, you’re interested in the history of London, the different boroughs, the tube lines and the way the city and its diverse communities took the shape they have today, Housmans is a brilliant place to start looking for information.

And finally, the downstairs, where there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of secondhand books for ridiculously cheap prices. The majority are a quid.  Obviously there are some beat-up books down there, but a lot of them are still in decent shape and come from genres like fiction, politics, philosophy and poetry. Score!

I bought a book called Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That by Susie Hodge, which explains the significance (it is there!) of modern art and of specific pieces.  I paid full retail price for it, since it wasn’t secondhand, but I feel okay about that.

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Which brings me to one of my favourite things about this bookshop.  Not only are they involved with The Booksellers Association’s ‘Keep Books on the High Street’ campaign, they have also set up their own ‘ethical alternative’ to Amazon.  As any regular reader of this blog knows, I hate Amazon.  However, I realise that I can’t hate by default the idea of ordering books online.  While I may feel that it’s less aesthetically appealing than a creaky old bookshop, I recognise that some people are less able to get to a bookshop because of reduced mobility or isolation and many have had to endure the closure of their local independents.  Besides, a lot of bookshops actually need that extra revenue to stay afloat.  Personally, I always prefer a real bookshop, but I get that there are advantages to buying online.  However grudgingly, I admit it.  My objections are more to the fact that Amazon is trying to monopolise the market at the expense of independents, promoting laziness and undermining the hard work and talent of publishers and authors with cheap prices and self-publishing, which is also responsible for atrocities like 50 Shades of Grey.  However in light of the recent revelations about Amazon UK’s tax dodging (which had me absolutely gleeful, by the way) a lot of people are having second thoughts.  Housmans online store claims to be a more ethical alternative and raises some really interesting points about Amazon’s policies and EVERYONE should read it and join in with the boycott!

IMG_1640My visit to Housmans reminded me of one of the most wonderful things about books.  Even as someone who isn’t wholly convinced by communism (despite a couple of Marxist Students meetings I went to back in the day), I couldn’t have felt more welcome in this bookshop because, of course, you don’t have to be a radical to be interested in radical ideas.  Books, if we open our minds and let them, let us be bigger than ourselves, let us join in with something global, let us leave our own tiny lives behind and experience what it would mean to be somewhere else, be someone else, live some other way.  And if we are willing to let them, those experiences can help us become better, more open and understanding people.

For me, a well-behaved, rule-abiding white girl sitting in her purple-walled room in the suburbs, reading Allen Gibsberg’s Howl for the first time let me be a rebel, a dissenter, a philosopher.  Reading The Diary of Anne Frank made me know what it felt like to be up against a great force of evil. This is the power that books have; to give us new lives and  make us new people, if only for a little while.  But if we’re lucky, we might just end up carrying a little bit of that rebel, that fighter along with us even after we turn the final page.

The Blackgull Bookshop and Bindery


The Blackgull Bookshop and Bindery, 70-71 Camden Lock Place, Camden Lock Market, NW1 8AF

“It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons.  The books transported her to new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad.  She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”  – Roald Dahl, Matilda.

In honour of Roald Dahl Day, which was yesterday, I’m resurrecting The Matilda Project. And, in the spirit of that transportative quality of language, let me steal you away to a far less exotic location than Ernest’s or Rudyard’s…Camden Town.

I’ve recently made the move to North London, something I never thought I’d do, but I must confess, it’s nice that no matter where you are and no matter what time it is, there’s always a bus to King’s Cross.  And while the South and the East seem to be full of people and shops and sights that feel like they’ve arrived just a minute ago from a million different places, the North is full of things that seem to belong there; I’m sure there are people and shops and whole networks that have lived and thrived and never left the Cally Road in fifty years.  Walking along Regent’s Canal from Caledonian Road to Camden Lock Market you’ll see a veritable cross-section of Londoners, but on a cold weekday morning, it’s mainly just homeless people and art students.  When I got to Camden, a slightly calmer market place than usual was setting up its food stalls and opening the doors to its vintage shops for the day.  The lady at the Blackgull didn’t talk to me as I ducked into her shop; she was busily moving books around, unpacking boxes and setting up for the day.  At one point, while I was jealously looking at an old Faber publication of Eliot’s Four Quartets, a woman walked into the shop and up to the little bustling bookseller with a chipper “Hi Barbara!” to which Barbara replied “Morning, Jenny!  What have you brought me?” I think this is probably a friendship, or at least a partnership, that goes back a long time; Barbara trusted Jenny’s books enough to buy them off her without making any fuss and seemed genuinely concerned that Jenny had broken her little toe which, the latter insisted, is actually much more important than you’d think it is.

While they were having this conversation, neither of the women paid much mind to me lurking in front of the philosophy books. I didn’t mind, because, despite its busy location and the fact that it probably feels very different on a Sunday afternoon when the market is full, silence suits the Blackgull. The shop is open to the sounds of the market and even inside, there’s no escape from the cold air, ironic sunlight and winds of a London September, so even though you’re inside, it doesn’t feel like it at all.  And with the tall shelves full of books that cover every single inch of the walls, it’s less like walking into a shop than it is like stumbling out of a clearing and back into a forest, where all around and overhead you’re surrounded by tall rows.  Perhaps this is the kind of urban forest is the kind of place the French were thinking of when they chose the word “feuille” to mean both a sheet of paper and a leaf.

The shop has two sides, separated by the till in between them and in the middle of the first section, where fiction, history and philosophy books stretch up to the roof, there’s a thick stump covered with antique and rare books blocking the way, slightly, and affording the perfect opportunity to hide away from the tourists in the market and that most pesky of irritations in a bookshop – the Other Customer.

On the top of this  island of misfit books is a round sign that reads “When I first read a dictionary I thought it was a poem about everything.”  It’s a funny thing to think about – especially since before I got on my tip toes to read the bottom line, I thought it said “nothing”, instead of “everything”.  But more importantly, it’s just a little bit random, this giant disk suspended above a shelf of books that simply aren’t dictionaries.  But that is just the kind of place the Blackgull is; miscellaneous posters about Camden, London, books, music and art are all over the walls and behind the till there is a mint in box Sigmund Freud action figure.  Why does such a thing exist?  Why display it in a bookshop?  These are the kinds of questions there’s simply no point in voicing.

The shop has an impressive collection of second hand books which are organised into the usual Fiction, Poetry, Plays, History, Philosophy, Psychology and Art.  There is also the amusing addition of a box sitting on the floor full of music books, ranging from Oboe Solos for Beginners to Bach for the Piano to Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to the music for one of The Darkness’ albums.   But my favourite section of this shop was “Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll”. 

Sadly, (well, not that sadly, I suppose) all of my book-hunting these days is off a scribbled list in my notebook of books I need for my Masters course, so I didn’t get a chance to buy anything too hilarious or exciting. I did, however, notice two books that I’ll have to come back for at some point.  The first was a book about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Ida Baker, who is referred to in Katherine’s letters as L.M. and is characterised as having no aspiration in life other than to cater to Katherine’s needs.  Come on, Ida, grow a backbone.  One of these days I’ll revisit in the hopes that I can redeem Ida in everyone’s estimation.  The second was a book about books with funny names.  Tragically and somewhat ironically, I’ve forgotten its name.  Instead, I spent a grand total of £7 today and bought Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Bone People by Keri Hulme.  Not bad.

The Blackgull is a strange little place inhabited by mysterious flora and fauna, where far-off city noises are a little bit softer and there’s always a thick trunk to hide behind when they get too close. As it started to rain outside, the strangeness of everything else in the shop made plausible the fantasy that soon enough, I’d be hit in the head by a gentle shower of black typewritten letters falling down to the ground from the tops of the bookshelves.