Tag Archives: Our Mutual Friend

Addyman Books

IMG_1968Addyman Books, 39 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AA

A few months ago, I had a craving to read something by Dickens.  It was winter and I was cold and I couldn’t help but think of snowy Christmases in the past when Dickens and a mug of hot chocolate have kept me company.  I usually re-read A Tale of Two Cities every year around Christmastime, but this year I decided to branch out.  So, one cold day in January, I bought a copy of Our Mutual Friend at the Southbank Book Market in London. But other books got in the way and it took me a while to come to Our Mutual Friend. Then, with other books on the go, it took an embarrassingly long time to finish it.  But with Dickens, sometimes it’s good to move slowly.  He immerses you so fully in Victorian London that as I walked through Covent Garden, the City and Clerkenwell I didn’t seem very far away at all from Silas Wegg, Jenny Wren or Gaffer Hexam. I love the feeling, when you’re halfway through a book, that you’re living alongside its characters, half in their world and half in your own, carrying them around with you over the days or weeks (or months in the case of this 822 page novel) that it takes to find out how it all ends for them.  Fortunately, in Dickens, you tend to get a happy ending, at least for those who deserve one.

IMG_1962I have to admit that I have spent most of my life in that half-state, only just maintaining the distinction between fiction and fact and prone to quiet moments of staring blankly out windows.  I truly don’t know how Dickens ever managed a normal conversation while his huge cast of characters (most of them more interesting than real people) were floating through his thoughts all the time.

Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye understands that dream-like, semi-real state which overtakes you when you’re in the middle of a very good book.  The shop is quiet and peaceful and decorated like something from your favourite novel.  It’s strange and carnivalesque, gaudy and incoherent and somehow, still welcoming IMG_1956and comforting.  The front room, full of art books and a couple of lost-looking maps, prints and Penguin classics, feels like an old curiosity shop, populated by lonely-looking chairs, mirrors, chests full of books and miscellaneous bits of furniture.  The selection of secondhand books is eclectic.  If  you’re looking for an easy find, this is not the place to go, but it’s one of the best bookshops for settling down in that I’ve ever seen.  Everything, from the decor to the books, is so singular, so curious, that every kind of misfit, outcast or dreamer can find a nook to call home and lots of strange other nooks to explore.

IMG_1953The main fiction section is arranged in a room that looks like an elaborate Victorian puppet theatre, with bright blue and yellow walls and golden columns and decorations.  The selection consists mainly of secondhand paperbacks and those ubiquitous orange Penguin classics and covers classic novels, contemporary bestsellers and lots of random books that, I assume, have been donated by some very interesting people over the years.

IMG_1955It’s the perfect place for browsing, since it reassures you with the presence of those orange Penguins, while simultaneously suggesting, like Alice’s white rabbit, that going down the rabbit hole might be worth it. You might just come out with a strange new treasure you couldn’t have found otherwise.

The thing I love about unusual places like this is that they’re so inclusive.  They acknowledge the geek or the weirdo in every reader, assuring you that we’re all a bit mad, really, in our different ways, but when there are fantasy worlds to be explored and wild adventures to be had, those different ways don’t matter as much as we might have thought.


The back rooms of the shop house the science fiction and fantasy sections, which, it’s nice to see, are much larger and given much more space than in IMG_1958most other bookshops.  Although the two tend to be lumped together, here they have their own sides of the back room, as they should.  I had a contemporary literature teacher who explained the critical difference between the genres in a way I’ll never forget.  She said science fiction presents an alternative world  that we think science could one day produce for us or allow us to find.  Fantasy, on the other hand, is an alternative IMG_1959world that no human discovery could ever create.  No matter how sophisticated our science becomes, it will never be able to turn you into an elf.  Unfortunately.  ‘But fear not!’ the bookshop seems to say, ‘We can still pretend!’  It promises that the characters in books, whether they’re hobbits or Mad Hatters or aliens, are never really that different from us, and can be the most loyal companions throughout our lives.  Hence, I suppose, the giant cut-outs of Captain Kirk and Gandalf.

IMG_1966Upstairs, in a little room that feels like somebody’s private library, more characters pop up, just as Dickens’ Rogue Riderhood seemed to be lurking around every corner the other day as I walked through a Rotherhithe that’s very different from his.  Although the cut-out characters are, I’ll admit, slightly terrifying, this little room in the attic, home to more fiction, rare and antiquarian books, poetry and culture sections, is the quietest and most relaxing part  of the shop.  The mismatched decorations, the precarious-looking shelves and the two leather armchairs make the room feel a bit like someone’s attic hideaway.  Like the one I’m probably going to end up having one day when my books take over all the other IMG_1963rooms.  It’s such a homey space that I didn’t linger too long, unwilling to disturb the silence.  Instead, I wandered back through the little hideaways that abound in this shop looking at more books.  It will come as no surprise, I imagine, that this bookshop has an excellent selection  of books about folklore, mythology, the Occult in its ‘Myths, Legends and Fairytales’ alcove.   It also has a very good poetry section.


Addyman Books is, by any definition, a strange little place.  At times gaudy, often bizarre and usually confusing, it’s actually not that different from most of the books I like.  Its charm comes from its sincerity, its insistence that it’s okay to be a little bit different, that convention is overrated anyway.  The shop welcomes those overly-keen, overly-excited nerds and weirdos who have always found refuge in books, and gathers them together in one wonderfully different place.  It says to those of us who often wish we could escape into the pages of our favourite stories, ‘You’re not alone! We’re with you!  Take a seat, pick a book, escape with us!’

Southbank Book Market

IMG_1724Southbank Book Market, under Waterloo Bridge, London

In a world where few possess the patience for browsing and laziness-enablers are everywhere, I’m worried about a lot of bookshops.  The Southbank Book Market isn’t one of them.

Okay, technically it isn’t so much a bookshop as a bookspace.  But you know what, last week I wrote about a boat with books in its belly where cats like to lounge and everyone talks like a pirate, so the rules have apparently been thrown out the window anyway.

The reason I have no doubts that there is a place in London’s future for the Southbank Book Market is that it is, in every way, so London.   One of the city’s best-kept secrets, it is situated on the south bank of the Thames. Vaguely IMG_1727reminiscent of the world-famous book stalls that line the Seine (my second-favourite European river), the market partakes in the quintessential London tradition of amazing things that just kind of pop up out of nowhere while you’re passing through.  Of course, it is located in one of the best parts of London to idly pass through, with its famous neighbours like the London Eye to the West, the Oxo Tower to the East, Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre and the BFI.  In other words, some pretty good company.

Walking out from Waterloo station towards the river today, I was approached for directions (twice), saw several street performers, cut through the Food Market which smelled delicious, peeked into the windows at Royal Festival Hall to see if any spontaneous afternoon choral performance was going on (it happens!) and IMG_1735got lost in a crowd of clowns.  And I’m not even joking.  The place is always buzzing with life and you never know what you’re going to find there.  One time, I came across a giant vat of soup that some company or another was giving out for free to everyone passing by and despite but also because of the absolute randomness of that moment, it sticks in my head as the quintessential London moment.  Because this city is about the exciting things you don’t go looking for, but which find you anyway. The Book Market is situated in the perfect spot for the serendipitous pass-by and at all times of the day it’s flooded with idle wanderers, readers on their lunch breaks, aspiring photographers, students, tourists and a whole assortment of the other people who wander London’s streets.

There are probably about ten long tables laid out in a row underneath Waterloo Bridge which comprise the book market.  And books cover every inch of all of IMG_1728them.  A ring of books standing up on their sides goes around the edges of each table and in the middle, some books are laid flat, given more of a spotlight.  I’m not actually sure what the logic is in the choice of books that go in the centre; some are antiques or special editions, some are particularly beautiful or unique books and some are just really odd.  For example, an outdated Encyclopedia of the World’s Rivers; useful, I’m sure, but just a bit random.

What I love most about the book market is that there are so many different kinds of books.  Mass-market paperbacks are all over the place and there’s a huge (if eclectic) selection of science fiction, fantasy and crime paperbacks.  There are also the classics in many different forms, ranging from Wordsworth Classics (code among English students for ‘the cheap edition’) to first editions thrown in there somewhere if you’re lucky enough to spot them.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular organisation system either, but trying to figure one out can actually be a lot of (very geeky) fun.  As you make your way around the stalls, craning your neck to read the sideways titles, patterns appear IMG_1726to form.  It will seem, briefly, that maybe all the Penguin classics are in a line here and all the Pelican classics are beside them, sometimes they might even be vaguely in alphabetical order until you find a sequence of books that goes something like “Atwood, Byron, Conrad, Dickens, The Unauthorised Guide to Twilight, Eliot…” and you realise organisation was a foolish dream.  To be honest, it’s a bit disconcerting to see A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man slotted in next to something called From Notting Hill With Love…Actually.  I honestly saw this title and thought it was a parody. Then I hoped desperately that it was a parody and when I realised it wasn’t I fell to the ground and wept.

(A side-note on ‘chick lit’: I seriously resent the implication that this kind of book is literature in any, even an abbreviated, form and doubly resent the assumption that it appeals to the female condition.  Real Women’s Literature is Virgina Woolf.  It’s George Eliot and Sylvia Plath and Katherine Mansfield and Jane Austen but only if you read her for her social commentary and wit instead of her hunky heroes.  And it’s a side-order of Judith Butler and Elaine Showalter. Anyone who says differently is just plain silly.)


Anyway, back to the books.  Some particularly exciting finds today were a 1968 copy of The Adventures of Pip by Enid Blyton going for £6 as well as a couple of other old copies of children’s books, including Blyton’s The Adventures of Binkle and Flip (what a title!), a 1954 novel Jack of the Circus by Frank Richards and another called Tom Merry’s Triumph, also by Richards. They were old books with beautiful covers and illustrations and all so cheap!


I walked away very excited about the two books I bought.  The first was The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and it was a lovely old hardcover edition from 1950.  When I saw that I got really excited because I thought it might be a first edition (I knew it was published shortly after the end of the war), but the first edition was in 1949.  Curses!  But still, a very exciting purchase and for only £3. I was going to resist, but the deciding factor for me was that when I held it up to my nose and sniffed it smelled absolutely delicious and I think once you’ve done something that intimate with a book you can’t really leave it behind.

The other book I bought was Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, another old hardcover from 1956. It was actually part of a set of the complete works of Dickens and they were all only £2.50 each, reduced because there was an ex libris in each one and a bit of scribbling in the corners.  Personally, I’d be willing to pay a bit extra for marginalia, but if they want to charge me less, I won’t argue.  As much as it pained me to separate this beautiful book with gorgeous illustrations from the rest of its family, I convinced myself it would be okay.  With the cold weather in London lately I’ve been feeling the need to read either Dickens or something Russian.  I’m about halfway through Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter at the moment and fabulous as it is, it’s just not fulfilling my snowed-in-feeling quota the way Dickens always does.

So I spent £5.50 on books.  Oops.  But I feel okay about it because my purchases are such precious books that I would gladly have paid a bit more for them.   After paying, I started to wander around a bit more, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed.  After about two minutes of this I realised I was going to have to call it a day and drag myself out of there, because I kept seeing books I wanted to buy and knowing that they were all cheap enough that I could justify it!  It’s a dangerous game, buying books at the Southbank Book Market and, feeling that I hadn’t the required strength of will,  I had to reluctantly withdraw.