Tag Archives: poetry

The Little Apple Bookshop

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The Little Apple Bookshop, 13 High Petergate, York, YO1 7EN

APPLE.

Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.

A little piece please. Cane again to the presupposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use.

– from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

Little things are not always as simple as their littleness makes them seem. The little finger of a newborn holds all the worry and anxiety and joy in the world to a new parent. William Blake saw a world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, and found infinity in an hour. James Joyce saw the eternal struggle for empathy and communion between human beings in one bumbling newspaper man’s wanderings around Dublin on the 16th June. Gertrude Stein saw in an apple a whole rainbow of things that were decidedly not an apple.

Little books, like Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, and more recently, We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, can house world-changing, perception-altering ideas within a few dozen pages.

The Tardis is bigger on the inside.

The Little Apple Bookshop in York is…a little bookshop. It’s almost comically little 028considering that it sits in the shadow of York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. But inside, there are books. Which means that inside, it’s bigger than you could possibly imagine. Inside, it contains more information that you could ever learn, more characters than you’ll ever know, more reasons to laugh, cry, rejoice, despair, be inspired, be depressed and ask questions than you would ever create on your own. And all in a single room not much bigger than my kitchen.

Crammed inside are books for all sorts of people, but mainly for the best sort of people: little children. Picture books, story books and chapter books line the walls and make them satisfyingly colourful. The children’s books at the Little Apple are excellent ones and there are actually enough of them! As an adult, I almost never give up on a book I’ve bought and decided to try, but when I was younger I could read the first paragraph of a book and decide yea or nay for absolutely no logical reason. If it was a no, I wouldn’t read another word. Children like this need lots and lots of choices, and not all bookshops understand this. But never fear; though she be but little, the Apple is fierce. It has books to satisfy the tastes of even the pickiest readers.

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If you’re not a child, I commiserate. But there’s even choice for us grown-ups crammed in there. Classic and modern fiction from around the world is beautifully chosen, as are crime and mystery, graphic novels, cookery and a bit of 027non-fiction. Does the Little Apple have everything? No, stupid; it’s too little. But it’s got far more good stuff than most of us will ever need, let alone deserve. Such is the magic of good books; they expand time and space. They make a tiny, poky little room feel never-ending like a palace. They make an afternoon stretch time back and forth, so it’s like a year and also like 5 seconds at the same time, and then, like an elastic,  when you close the book, it snaps back and it’s just an afternoon again. The Little Apple Bookshop is a place where one could easily get lost in space and time, even if you haven’t much of either.

It’s such a bright, friendly, open, inviting place to be, that just visiting is reward enough. I didn’t even feel the need to bring home any new books for myself. I did, however, buy a present for my youngest brother, who never reads, though I always insist on buying him nothing but books at every gift-giving occasion. This time, the book he’s getting that I hope he might actually read is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A fellow browser noticed me take it down from the shelf and whispered to me that her daughter loves this book, so I knew I had a winner.

According to Wikipedia, the subject matter of this book is: ‘good and evil, survival, magic.’ All that covered in 180-odd pages.

Next time you’re in York with a little bit of time and a little bit of money, pop in to the Little Apple Bookshop. You’ll want to buy everything, of course. But even if you walk away empty-handed, it’s impossible to leave without feeling like something – the world, your heart, your mind – has been made a little bit bigger.

 

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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.

Topping and Company Booksellers

Topping & Company Booksellers, The Paragon, Bath, BA1 5LS

Question: When is a bookshop not just a bookshop?

Answer: When you can eat Spanish tapas courtesy of trendy London restaurant Morito among the shelves of an evening, attend a monthly Reading Group where you actually talk about books, take a guided tour through haunted Bath with a mystery writer or listen to the biggest names in contemporary literature (Will Self, Deborah Levy and David Mitchell are coming up) wax philosophical while you have a glass of red wine.

IMG_2318Topping and Company Booksellers, in the beautiful, elegant and quintessentially English city of Bath, has many different incarnations. At times it’s tense, as when it’s hosting a particularly heated debate. At others, it’s  bursting with excitement, as in the moments before a celebrity walks through the door. But most of the the time, it’s just a lovely bookshop, quiet, civilised, refined and full of simple delights.

On the glorious Sunday morning when I was last in Bath, the sunlight spilled in through the wide front windows and filled the shop’s interior with its brightness. The soft, warm wind came in through the IMG_2320open door so that the shop felt so much like a hidden clearing in a wood that I almost expected rose buds and dandelion fluff to fly in on the breeze. While the hardwood floors and tall wooden shelves undoubtedly make the shop as dark and cozy as it should be in the wintertime, today it was the perfect version of a modern Enchanted Forest. A place where, as beautiful as the sunlit city of Bath is, the magical possibility is much greater in the dappled light of this mysterious place, where adventures and romances crouch on every shelf, waiting for their magical whispers to reach your ear, waiting for you to comply with the fairies’ mischievous requests that you let them come out.

There were few other travellers wandering through the Enchanted Forest when I IMG_2322began my journey. While most stayed outside in the safety of bright sunlight, I walked straight in and as deep into the forest as I could, unafraid of getting lost. I weaved my way through corners covered with virtually every genre you could ever want: literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, travel guides and literary travel writing, languages, sport, health, games, nature, cookery, humour, media, psychology, history, current events and even a whole bay dedicated to ghost stories, all of which are arranged beautifully on shelves and in attractive displays on tables. In addition to this impressive range of genres, Topping and Company devotes equal space to established classics as it does to forgotten treasures and contemporary books exploring every aspect of modern life. It’s a collection as prolific as nature itself and as diverse as the people who pop in and settle down in the chairs around the shop to admire and decide which books to bring home.

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After spending a good deal of time in fiction, as I always do, I ventured on and into the children’s section near the back of the shop. I know these parts well, but they can be daunting to those unfamiliar to them, those for whom it’s been far too lonIMG_2319g since they took their shoes off and ran barefooted over mossy paths and climbed up gnarled roots. Fortunately, if this is an enchanted forest, it is inhabited by a fairy godmother called Victoria has marked the way for those less able to navigate on their own. Victoria’s Recommendations do the art of bookselling proud. She has hand-picked the finest spoils and presented them for our inspection, giving us her treasures to take home. The books are arranged by age group and go beyond the obvious choices, taking in everything from brand new picture books to a thoughtful range of young adult novels.

Up a couple of stairs, you enter the Arts Room, the heart of the bookshop, IMG_2324announced by a large sign listing off the impressive range of subject matter covered in this small room: Arts, Architecture, Design, Photography, Antiques, Poetry, Drama, Film, Music, Philosophy, Crafts, Literary Criticism, Languages, Reference and Science. Though it is smaller than the rest of the shop, this back room holds beautiful books of art and architecture, pages and pages of theory and criticism, signed copies of famous recent titles and a curated collection of excellent old and new books. I probably found half a dozen new or recent books of poetry and literary IMG_2317theory (I am biased towards literature in my bookish adventuring) that I had never heard of but was dying to read. A new book on oral storytelling in Chaucer, the Collected Poems of Anthony Thwaite, an analysis of the state of the art of letter writing and a book on First World War poetry all had to be left behind, though I haven’t stopped thinking about them and will soon return. This room and I have unfinished business.

The Arts Room is crammed with fascinating books which, gathered together, are IMG_2316simultaneously depressing – in the sense that this one room contains more knowledge than any person can read and absorb in a lifetime – and uplifting in the sense that we belong to the human race, incapable, admittedly, of magic and sorcery, but masters of creativity.  Small and circular, this room encloses you and threatens to swallow you up, lulling you into a deep sleep and confusing you until you don’t remember why you would ever leave. Be wary lest you fall under its spell and stay forever.

 

She Said Boom!

IMG_2134She Said Boom!, 372 College Street, Toronto, Canada, M5T 2N9

There’s a lot of pessimism about books at the moment.  When I tell people I’m devoted to real books they look at me like I’m a bit sad and hopeless; when I tell them I want to own a little bookshop one day they say things like ‘Well, if people still read books in ten years, that is…’ or ‘But there won’t be any bookshops in the future…’  and other nonsense.

We’ve all watched in horror as, in America, Borders closed, in Canada,Indigo replaced books with slippers and throw pillows and in the UK, Waterstones dropped the apostrophe and added Kindles to its shelves. We’ve all seen a local independent close.  We’ve all heard the by-now trite advice that if a bookshop wants to survive, it has to up its game, becoming a cafe on the side and selling games, toys and household trinkets that have only the most tenuous relation to actual books.

It’s a sad day for our culture when books aren’t enough, when the hundreds or thousands of titles available in a bookshop can’t hold our attention.  Because, you know, it’s just the entire creative and intellectual output of an entire civilisation, but you’re right, it’s just boring when we can’t also buy chaimochafrappacinolattes and throw pillows in the same place.

The sooth-sayers are loving it, saying that bookshops are doomed, saying that consumers are too lazy to leave home and too apathetic to support local businesses. Frankly, it’s all crap.

I know that because yesterday I went to She Said Boom!, a used bookshop in downtown Toronto, which thoroughly lifted my spirits.  She Said Boom!, which sells books, comics, CDs and records, is not gimmicky or touristy or sexy.  It’s just a good bookshop.  All that means and all that should ever have to mean is that it has knowledgeable staff, a good selection and a bit of room to browse.  A beloved institution on College Street, She Said Boom! was bustling when I visited.  It does this old heart good to see that a good local bookshop can still draw a crowd.

The College Street location is a kind of satellite store for She Said Boom!’s main IMG_2133location in Roncesvalles Village in the West End of Toronto.  Both have excellent and very broad selections of books, but specialise in Literature, Philosophy (of the Eastern and Western varieties), History and Politics.  The College Street shop also has an interesting selection of books on Religion and a great poetry section, where one of the booksellers had a  really sweet conversation with an older customer about his love of Robert Frost as she helped him find Frost’s Collected Poems.

At the College Street location, the books get the most attention.  Bookshelves cover all available wall space in the shop, jutting out into the middle in places to create nice little private nooks where mousy booklovers can follow the alphabet from A to Z as the Fiction section snakes its way over many shelves and in and out of corners.  All the books are used, so they are always significantly cheaper than retail price.  Even though I really shouldn’t be buying too many books while I’m away, I bought Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie for $8 (£4.75) and I love it so far.  Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whose writing I trust so deeply that I will gladly buy anything he wrote without reading the blurb; his name is enough for me.

She Said Boom! has a section devoted to the Classics, by which they do not mean Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, but actual Classical writing from the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  I love when bookshops have a selection of Classical literature that has more in it than The IliadThe Odyssey and The Aeneid.  Here, you can find Greek tragedy, epic poems, Roman comedy and all the greatest writers of antiquity, including Sophocles, Euripides, Catallus, Cicero and Ovid.  Like any good bookshop, She Said Boom! has a selection that does more than just satisfy your cravings and demands, but inspires you to explore different books and give them a chance.

IMG_2131In the middle of the shop, there are tables and boxes full of records, CDs and even the odd cassette tape.  Now, I may know my way around a bookshelf, but (as that statement perhaps proves) I’m not very cool. The people rummaging through these boxes of old records like they were on a treasure hunt definitely are, so I was reluctant to budge in and push them out of the way; they looked like they knew what they were doing.

I was a bit intimidated at first by these objectively cooler browsers (not to mention the tattoo-ed, incense-burning, Velvet Underground-playing, grumpy-looking staff).  But then I saw the looks of joy and contentment on the faces of all different kinds of browsers, whether they were mouthing Robert Frost poems to themselves, gingerly turning the pages of vintage comics or quickly flipping through piles of records like they were magazine pages.  And I realised that what’s so great about She Said Boom! is that they have something for everyone, and a way of bringing out the geek in each one of us.

Bookshops like this – good bookshops – are places where it’s okay to get excited about silly little things like paper books and vinyl records that other people will IMG_2132try to tell you are behind the times.  Good bookshops are places where we come together to acknowledge our common weirdness, our geekiness, our passions for things that other people tell us aren’t worth it. I’m partial to books, but I think that what I’m looking for between the pages is the same thing that other people find through their favourite lyric or a single burst of colour on a canvas.  We’re all just looking to know that someone else in the world shares (or once shared) our passions, our thoughts, our feelings.

That’s why we still need bookshops like She Said Boom!, where the passionate weirdos and misfits who’ll one day rule the world can discover new things to get inappropriately excited about and fan the flames of lifelong passions.

John Sandoe Books

IMG_2108John Sandoe Books, 10 Blacklands Terrace, London, SW3 2SR

I remember the first time I realised that not everyone enjoys a bookshop the way I do.  I was with some friends of friends walking on Hampstead Heath and when we came out near Keats House, Daunt Books’ glowing green and gold worked their magic.  The girls cooed, ‘Oh a bookshop, I looooove bookshops!’ Oh good, I thought, I’ve found some kindred spirits!  I was thrilled to leave behind the awkward small talk and bond over books.  So I felt cheated when, after five minutes in the fiction section, they were ready to go.  Muggles.

IMG_2101I’ve since become aware of the two different types of browsers.  There are those who pop in for a few minutes to enjoy the quiet or the warmth and give a cursory glance to a few books before quietly wandering out.  Despite my ‘muggles’ comment, there’s nothing at all wrong with this kind of browsing.  I think it’s lovely when someone on the way to do something else decides to spare a few moments to be with books.

But then there’s the second kind of browser.  The kind who does not just pop in, but rather plans her entire day around the outing.  The kind who looks at the spine of every single book, reads IMG_2103the backs of hundreds and flips through the pages of dozens, collecting a pile of ‘possibles’ as she goes along and keeping a wish list.  This browser can spend hours walking around in circles, squatting as she reads the first chapter of a book on the bottom shelf and getting comfortable in chairs, stairways or doorframes.  John Sandoe Books, which has been located on Blacklands Terrace, just off the King’s Road for over 40 years, is the ideal place for this kind of reader.

The shop spreads over the three floors, and on the busy ground floor you may have to squeeze through a wall of other browsers to view the IMG_2095shelves.  It’s a popular shop and you sometimes have to share the space.  It’s worth it.  On the ground floor is a superb collection of fiction, classic and contemporary, history, cookery, gardening, art, architecture and, covering the staircase to the basement, philosophy, psychology and popular culture.  There is also a bay of books from independent publishers – including Persephone Books and Slightly Foxed.  The selection is extensive; anyone who’s anyone is represented and there is simply no room for the mediocre.  The booksellers have chosen beautiful editions of old and new favourites that are made to be cherished, read, reread and passed along.  It’s yet another reminder of why we still need booksellers, dedicated and passionate people who know books and want to share their favourites with the world.

IMG_2094The ground floor is busy; readers awkwardly dance around each other for a bit of floor space and the booksellers handle telephone enquiries and customers’ questions with expertise while running back and forth to put books on hold for loyal customers.  It’s full of casual short-term browsers and the dedicated I-could-literally-spend-hours-here type. But the patient browser is rewarded with the luxury of space and privacy in the basement and the first floor, where those just popping in rarely make it. I was lucky enough to have both other floors to myself and was glad of the privacy.

I first made my way down to the basement, down a staircase covered in books for IMG_2096adults and children.  I was particularly excited to see Kay Thompson’s Eloise books about a little girl who lives in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in New York City and causes all kinds of trouble and headaches for adults.  Thomspon was American so while her books are quite popular there, but they’re a bit less common over here.  Which is a shame because they’re delightful.  You can also see Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand  – about a pacifist bull who prefers prancing in meadows to fighting in rings – peeking out.  The staircase alone (which, like every other surface at John Sandoe is absolutely covered with books) indicates that this is a good place for children’s books.

IMG_2097And down in the basement, even the greatest poetry enthusiast will brush past the poetry section and head towards the beautiful, colourful and inviting children’s section.  Once again, the shelves, the tabletops and the little chair are all covered in books and there is not a mediocre one in the bunch.  It’s the kind of children’s section parents and children alike must dream of, where whether you’re seven or sixty-two you could pick up any  book and IMG_2100trust it to be a winner.  In the end, I came home with Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline.  I don’t often buy children’s books, especially not when I know there must be a copy lying in some box or hidden on some shelf at my parents’ house.  But I just couldn’t resist little Madeline because I happened to have been thinking about her just a few days earlier and remembering the original book’s legendary beginning: ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.’  It’s a simple and perfect beginning to a sweet and timeless story.

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I also gave in to temptation in the much larger than average poetry section in the basement.  I decided to buy two books of poetry: one by a giant and one by a rising star.  The first was Seamus Heaney’s Death of a NatuIMG_2099ralist which contains his moving poem ‘Digging,’ which many journalists quoted in the wake of his death about a month ago.  In many ways it is a statement of Heaney’s goals and intentions as a poet and I wanted to have a copy of it.  When I heard that Heaney had died I was surprised at how upset I was.  I didn’t even know him!  But then, I had read his poetry, so in a way, I did.  The second was Memorial by Alice Oswald, a creative re-writing of The Iliad which has recently made her the first poet to win the Warwick Prize.

And finally, I headed to the first floor, where I was surrounded by paperback fiction and biography.  The names of authors marched around the four walls in IMG_2105alphabetical order, while biographies of writers, philosophers, politicians, composers and other important and interesting figures filled the shelves in the middle.  Ever since I read Ulysses, I have had my eye on Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce.  Unfortunately it’s massive and I already had three books under my arm so it will remain on my wish list.

But I could still enjoy standing in the middle of that room with bookshelves full IMG_2104to bursting and books everywhere else.  Now, readers, when I get left alone in a room full of books, I get weird.  I stroke their spines and spread my arms out across the shelves to gather them in.  I sniff their pages and I whisper to the authors.  ‘No no, you’re much too conventional, I’m in the mood for someone like…her!  Yes, you, you’re great.’  I must have become so involved in the books that I didn’t hear as one of the booksellers came upstairs.  As I looked up at the wall of books behind me I let out a loud sigh of contentment.  And heard a woman’s soft chuckle behind me.  I turned around, embarrassed, but the bookseller just looked and me and smiled.  I knew she was like me.  The kind of reader who will structure her day around a bookshop, spend hours hiding in a quiet corner or whisper to a long-dead poet.  In a place like John Sandoe Books, the weird ones like us are right at home.

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Quinto & Francis Edwards

IMG_2044Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB

Today, the penultimate day of Independent Booksellers’ Week, I’d like to introduce you to one of my all-time favourite bookshops. But first, I’d like to take a second to thank everyone who has written such lovely comments here.  I don’t always reply to every one, but I read them all and I appreciate you sharing your stories with me.  Many people tell me about the libraries and  bookshops they loved when they were growing up, their favourite novels and the state of things in their hometowns all over the world.  Many people ask me questions about books and bookshops.  There are two questions that I have been asked over and over again, which are, ‘Have you been to Shakespeare & Co. in Paris?’ (Answer: yes, it was heaven but it was before I had this blog) and ‘Have you read 84 Charing Cross Road?’  (Answer: Of course I have.)  If you haven’t, the book, by Helen Hanff, is a short epistolary novel that documents the correspondence between an American book-collector and the staff of a bookshop on Charing Cross Road during World War II.  Over the years, the correspondents grow closer and they discuss books, their lives and the events of the war.  It played a part in immortalising London’s amazing ‘street of bookshops.’  The number of bookshops on the road has dwindled since its glory days, but there are still some good ones going strong.  I love living in a city that has a street of bookshops and so, in addition to praising Quinto & Francis Edwards, one of the nicest bookshops in the area, I’d like to pay homage to this road, one of my favourite places in London.

I’ve been meaning to write about Quinto for ages and started to feel more and more guilty about it as I’ve slowly ticked off the majority of the Charing Cross Road bookshops.  In fact, the only ones I haven’t written about are Foyles, Blackwell’s and one other small discount bookshop, which effectively means that this is the last on my list of the proper ones.  A Proper Charing Cross Road IMG_2040Bookshop is a lovely creature and becoming a rarer and rarer breed.  In the four years that I’ve been living in London I’ve seen two shut their doors.  Bookshops close for all kinds of reasons – increased rent, retirement or the unpredicatble events of life.  I always feel a bittersweet relief to learn that a bookshop has closed because the owners are moving on to another project rather than buckling under the yoke of Amazon.  Not every sad thing that happens is Amazon’s fault, as much as I’d love to absolutely demonise them.  Because they’re evil.  But the reality is that over the years, things have changed, London has changed and so, of course has Charing Cross Road.  That’s what makes The Proper Charing Cross Road Bookshops (hereafter referred to as PCCRB) so special.

Quinto, the epitome of a PCCRB, has that special charm, that sense of magic and mystery that a room covered all the way around with books always conjures up. These shops tend to be small, quiet places, that specialise in secondhand books.  They often have dangerously steep little stairwells leading to dusty, low-ceilinged basements and books popping out of every spare inch. Foyles is a kind of honourary member of the clan, because of its humble beginnings as one of many bookshops on the road and its dedication to preserving the character of the area.  But its massive size also sets it apart in a way.  That’s not a criticism; it’s a great bookshop which is modern and accessible and has a great selection.  It has a magic all its own, but it’s not the quaint and quirky kind that defines Quinto and the PCCRBs.

IMG_2043Quinto & Francis Edwards is actually two bookshops, integrated into one.  The ground floor is Francis Edwards, a bookshop based in Hay-on-Wye that specialises in rare and antiquarian books.  The ground floor of its London location is full of beautiful old books.  Most of these come from personal libraries that were sold or donated to the bookshop, so the collection reflects the idiosyncrasies that I think we all hope our collections will represent by the time we’re old. There are lovely hardcover sets of the Complete Works of Dickens which you can buy individually or as a set if you IMG_2042don’t have the heart to break them up, and other antiquarian books.  There are also rare and first editions of twentieth century books.  Finally, there are massive collections of slightly odder books, including travel, history and sports selections.  Because many of this are antiquarian, it’s quite funny to pick up the outdated takes on history that couldn’t possibly belong anywhere but on the shelves of a secondhand bookshop.

Quinto is downstairs, and it stocks a more general selection of secondhand IMG_2041books, some of which are fairly recent (the entire Twilight series graced the children’s section – what can you do?)  and some of which were very old.  In the A-Z Fiction section I found two special books, sitting together on top of the other books, tucked in on top of a row that was already full.  The first was a 1986 first edition of Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald. While that’s hardly old enough to be considered rare, what made it so special was, of course, a dedication on the first leaf.   The date indicates that Joe gave the book to his mum on her birthday in 1986, when Innocence was a brand new release. Carrying this little bit of human history, it was for sale for only £3.  Sitting with it was a first edition of William Faulkner’s 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust.  It was £8 and I wanted it so much, but after spending £5.95 on a hardcover at Treadwell’s yesterday, I had to leave it for another time.

Which, at Quinto, is always a bit of a gamble.  The basement is restocked once a IMG_2039month, so that all the books in stock get a chance to shine.  This is great because it means that every time you come in, you’ll find a different selection.  It’s not so great if you saw something there once and were hoping it would still be sitting there in the exact same place.  The staff are very friendly and happy to help you locate books, but sometimes you just have to accept defeat.  When this happens, you can soothe your disappointed soul by rummaging through more books.  I particularly recommend the History and Foreign Languages sections, as well as POETRY!  I tend to moan about how little attention most bookshops pay to poetry, but here it’s well-represented.  Three whole shelves are absolutely packed with everything from your classic Donne, Keats and Byron to Billy Collins and Mimi Khalvati.  For a bookshop that feels old and almost crumbling (in the most charming way, I promise), it’s a bit strange to see contemporary poetry, but it’s a very welcome addition.

IMG_2037My one piece of advice is that this is not the place to go when you’re in a hurry.  I told myself going in today that I had half an hour only.  The bookshop is small enough, so that should be enough time to get around and get a sense of the place.  If only the basement weren’t so cosy!  If only the walls weren’t covered in beautiful copies of old friends and the promises of treasures to be discovered, I could have made a quick circle round and left. But I didn’t want to be pulled away from it.  I wanted to banish everyone else and curl up in the corner of this rare quiet place in Central London and never leave.  It’s how I feel about all the PCCRBs. They’re too special to leave, too special to lose.  This row of bookshops, standing strong and willfully anachronistic in the face of a world that thinks it’s too busy for them, deserve to be loved and appreciated and preserved.  They’re a reminder that no matter how advanced our technology becomes, no matter how loud and busy and impersonal our cities are, there can still be peaceful places, like inside the pages of a book, where you can retreat, curl up and be alone in the quiet with words and stories.

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.

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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.

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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!’

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

IMG_1928Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, 13/14 High Town, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AE

When I visited this lovely bookshop a few weeks ago, the Hay Festival was kicking off.  On the first weekend of the festival, the sun had come out and the streets of this little Welsh town were full of laughter and music.  Hay-on-Wye Booksellers is perfectly situated on the High Street, right at the centre of the action, making it an indispensable part of the Hay-on-Wye experience.

IMG_1948Street musicians and market stalls filled the square outside this shop and tourists, grateful for a bit of good weather, bared their legs and arms lying on the grass in the shadow of the town’s medieval castle.  The atmosphere was decidedly festive, celebratory even, and even those trying to read didn’t seem too annoyed to be distracted by the sounds of this traditional, Starbucks-free High Street.

IMG_1919Inside, the sunlight filtered in through the shop’s wide front windows, bringing the jovial atmosphere but only a tiny bit of the noise with it.  It was perfect.  The two front rooms on the ground floor are filled with classic and contemporary fiction in hardcovers, cheap paperbacks and old antiquarian tomes.  You’ll also see shelf upon shelf of  poetry and children’s books, which include obscure, rare and out of print titles that you’ve never heard of as well as the favourites.  Standing in the centre of the floor is a tower filled of secondhand Penguin paperback editions of classics, which are the staple of any good used bookshop and are usually quite IMG_1915cheap.  The shelf, a stand-alone cube in the middle of the floor, is a perfect symbol for what it is that I love most about bookshops; as you explore one side of it, you never know what interesting new book or person might be waiting for you on the other side.  As you move further back , you find brilliant history and politics selections as well as books about culture, art and music.   Although I love every book, based on the sheer virtue of its being a bound collection of white paper with black type, I am biased to novels and poetry, so I sometimes tend to skim over other sections.  But the other sections here at Hay-on-Wye Booksellers remind you of how much you might miss by doing that, with selected titles prominently displayed with their covers out, enticing readers with promises of distant times and far-off places, or careful IMG_1918and considered analysis of the not-so-distant.  The more I do learn from non-fiction (when I can get my nose out of an escapist novel and pay attention to the real world, that is) the more I’m able to see the bigger pictures behind the well-known little stories that we tell ourselves.  Reading the stories of nations and populations as well as of individual lives can explain and illuminate a single event.  I have found this particularly when reading Middle Eastern literature in a post-9/11 world.  Whether it’s Peter Tomsen’s epic non-fiction work The Wars of Afghanistan or Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, reading about the world instead of just swallowing media sensationalism gives more depth and breadth to our understanding of the world around us, proving once again, how reading makes us better people.

A few weeks ago I saw this in practice.  I was watching a stage adaptation of To IMG_1927Kill A Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.  As Atticus handed down his now familiar message that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’ I wondered how much they had affected my personality since the first time I read the novel at thirteen years old.  In the intermission, I was stuck in the queue behind a terrible woman who was growing not just frustrated but downright angry at the understaffed team of young baristas who were taking just a little bit too long to get her her tea.  It’s astounding how we can sit and watch a play about the importance of empathising with others and then five minutes later, be completely unable to do so.  My point is that books – fiction or non-fiction – can make us better people by asking us to think about things that lie beyond us as individuals.  But only if we actually read them with open hearts and minds and let them make those transformations in us.  And I’m coming down off my soap-box … now.

IMG_1917I know that I’ve praised the wide selection of every bookshop in Hay and probably sound like I’m recycling the same clichéd compliments for all of them, but the most astounding thing about this town is its ability to delight and impress you over and over again each time you walk into a new bookshop.  In this shop in particular, though, as books spill off the shelves and collect in puddles on the floor,  I was struck by the feeling of possibility that this abundance of bookshops and IMG_1911abundance of books gives to the browser. I could learn anything here, be anyone, go anywhere.  It’s the feeling I had going into my grade one classroom for the first time when I was six, or the first time I ever saw Senate House Library in London.  It’s a feeling of awe at how much there is to see and do and read and feel and think in the world and how lucky we are to have books to help us access even just the tiniest little sliver of all of it for ourselves.  It’s a very, very good feeling.

Although this first floor alone might seem overwhelming enough, there’s moreIMG_1926.  Just like in the Poetry Bookshop, this shop has a wall full of books that leads you up the stairs, albeit slowly, since the books provide a bit of a distraction.  As you ascend, you have to try not to block the way too much as you examine the books that lead you from one floor to another. Books are the best guides anyway. Upstairs, when you finally make it, the selection becomes more eclectic.  While I may not personally be interested in a book (let alone an entire shelf) on deer management, I am very glad that such a thing exists.  Although I must admit that I find some of the more specialised topics quite amusing, in all seriousness, I’m relieved to see them there.   I’m reminded once again (as I often am these days) of Murakami’s IMG_1922observation that ‘if you only read what everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’ which seems to speak to the homogenizing influence of a certain internet giant that tells us what everyone else is buying and suggests that we must therefore buy it too.  The upper floor of this shop also has an excellent selection of more history and art books, as well as philosophy, psychology and theology books and a selection of comic books and graphic novels.  The little windows, somewhat blocked by books, I’ll admit, provide beautiful views of the green and pleasant lands beyond the town, reminding browsers that the outdoors (on sunny days anyway) is a beautiful place to adventure and to read.

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This bookshop, like most of Hay’s, sells mostly secondhand books, with some rare and antiquarian books sprinkled in.  The nature of secondhand bookshops is that their price range is often quite large.  While a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby printed a few years ago with only a few scuffs might go for as low as 50p, IMG_1912a dog-eared, crumpled first edition with a significant ex-libris would cost thousands.  I think there’s something wonderful about that.  Although both copies contain the exact same story, the history embodied in one copy makes its value greater.  The variety which secondhand bookshops provide offers opportunities for everyone to read whatever they want, regardless of how much money they have to spend, while simultaneously asserting that it’s not the beauty of the thing but the collection of stories it represents which is valuable.  Books might be the only commodity in the world that actually become more valuable as they becomes dated, irrelevant, dusty, unattractive and well-used.

This was a welcome reminder for me, since sometimes I feel just a little bit bad about how much I enjoy buying books.  As much as we like to tell ourselves books are special, they’re still just material objects, aren’t they?  They’re things, products, commodities.   Sometimes I ask myself, is building a beautiful library of books just a more socially acceptable form of hoarding?  Is coveting them, feeling sad when I lose them and not being able to bear to leave them behind nothing more than commodity fetishism?

And then I go somewhere like Hay-on-Wye Booksellers and I’m reminded that, although some books are nothing more than products, designed to fill a demand in the market (cough, cough, Twilight-spin-offs), the really good ones are so much more.  If I were to buy an iPod and then drop it, crack it, spill on it, scratch it up and let it become five years out of date, no one would want it anymore.  But the more we love and use and personalise our books, the more they mean to the people to whom we give, lend and bequeath them.

The lovely booksellers (because aren’t all booksellers always lovely) in this large IMG_1913but intimate bookshop reminded me of why it’s okay that we define ourselves by the books we’ve read and why collecting them is somewhat (if only just somewhat) different from any other kind of consumption.  As I listened to the women behind the till chat to each other about the books they’re reading and watched them spend ages walking around the bookshop helping customers, I couldn’t help but wonder how much money they make.  Booksellers aren’t in it for the money.  They’re in it because they love books and they want to share that love, foster it in others and make sure that their favourite stories never stop being told and told and retold and then maybe lost for a while and rediscovered and told once again.  They’re in it because they believe, like I do, that reading makes you a better person, if you would only just let it.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

IMG_1905Richard Booth’s Bookshop, 44 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AA

If Hay is the kingdom of books, Richard Booth is the king and this is his castle.  And, judging from how excited I got looking at my bag full of spoils, I’m the dirty rascal.

This beautiful, colourful building, which looks a bit like a gingerbread house or IMG_1898something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was one of the highlights of my trip to Hay. When my boyfriend (and fellow book pilgrim) and I are trying to distinguish between the dozens of bookshops we explored during a short trip, we both know what the other means by ‘the epic one.’  This is because it simply is the perfect bookshop; it ticks all the boxes.

The size of this bookshop alone makes it stand apart from many of the small independents that I’ve found in other cities and in Hay.  When you first walk in the front door, you simply don’t get a sense of how far back the rows of book stretch.  This is probably because the front of the shop features shelves and tables filled with a thoughtful selection of new releases and old favourites.  This space, the first one that browsers come to, gives a brilliant first impression as it suggests alternative titles that you would never find if they weren’t recommended to you by a connoisseur.  While many of these are novels, I was also delighted to find a very good selection of non-fiction books about politics, environmental issues and the arts.

Once you move beyond the first room  of the bookshop you discover just how IMG_1893wide the selection is and how large the bookshop is.  In many ways it feels more like a library than a bookshop with an almost encyclopedic list of subject areas, presented in neat rows of wooden bookshelves, whose section titles are illuminated by the kind of beautiful brass lamps with green lampshades that fill prestigious libraries all over the world, evoking a sense of awe and advising the brash and tawdry to please keep their voices down.  The subject areas covered on the ground floor range from a brilliant selection of history and politics books to books about gardening, football and the military.  IMG_1894One of the most original things about this shop is that rather than separating its books into new and used and (as in many London bookshops in particular) relegating used books to the basement while the pretty new ones greet customers, Richard Booth’s lets them rub shoulders.  Which, really, is how it should be, since every new book must surely dream of one day being a dog-eared, tea-stained, cracked-spined favourite on the right reader’s overfilled bookshelf.  The ground floor is also home to a lovely children’s section, with a great selection of contemporary and classic children’s books and poetry.  It features  a small wooden table for young readers to get down to business and beautiful designs of plants and flowers, suns and stars on the floor to get their imaginations running properly.  It’s a very adult-dominated bookshop, you IMG_1895see, so the children might need a bit of help getting back into the zone.  Finally, at the back of the ground floor, there is a cafe, which shows that you could quite literally arrive in the morning when they open and not leave until they kick you out in the evening.

But upstairs is where the fun really starts.  Here you’ll find philosophy, psychology, religion and theology, Occult, poetry, literary criticism and of course fiction.  As a student of literature I think I have a higher tolerance than many for the endless movements, theories and schools that are faithfully represented on these shelves, IMG_1900but my favourite subcategory has to be the section on Postmodernism.  Now, I’m sure it is usually well and thoughtfully stocked, but when I happened to stumble upon it, the books had been moved around in such a way that the bookshop itself seemed to confess complete bafflement.  Don’t you love finding unintentional comedy in unexpected places?  The large windows on this floor let in much more sunlight than there is on the ground floor, making the upstairs feel more open and less den-like.  Of course both aesthetics are good in bookshops, so I can’t really say that one is better than the other.  Here, again, the IMG_1897rows of books stretch back further than you expect them to, providing customers with an extensive selection.  But it isn’t just quantity that matters here; quality is the name of the game.  The till is surrounded by copies of each of the Telegraph’s 100 Best Books, so that readers looking for a classic will be met with 100 suggestions and beautiful new and used copies of all of them.  This bookshop makes it very difficult to go wrong.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Richard Booth’s Bookshop is that it goes one step further than most other bookshops in Hay-on-Wye and about two and a half IMG_1904steps further than most London bookshops by offering not just the occasional wooden stool where you can sit and read or peruse your options, but an entire living room, complete with couches, armchairs and cushions. As you make your way through the intimidatingly large and winding selection of fiction books, you realise that at the end of the row of long bookshelves is a perfect reading nook.  It’s as if Richard Booth reached into my brain, picked out all of my criteria for my dream bookshop and brought them all together in one place.  What an absolute legend.  As I wormed through the rows of fiction books, picking up and reluctantly putting back titles by Dickens, Colette, Flaubert, Faulkner, Isherwood and IMG_1903Thackeray, I noticed that the couches were the centre of the shop.  In the half hour I spent wandering around them looking at the books and the wall full of Folio Society editions, I saw two families come and sit for storytime, a student with his laptop take a break and have a coffee and at least three browsers who stopped to collect their thoughts before heading to the till.  Tucked in at the back of the shop, this is a place where you can sit, relax, read and reflect without feeling like you’ll be kicked out in a moment if you don’t buy something.  It’s so easy to get comfortable that I saw one man clearly struggling to decide whether or not it would be acceptable to take his shoes off.  It took him a couple of tries, but in the end he did and he looked very pleased about it.

The book I came home with at the end of a very long visit was from the poetry selection.  And for once, I didn’t just buy it on a whim; there’s a story involved, as there always should be.  A few months ago, I found myself in a lovely bookshop in Copenhagen, exploring the English language section.  IMG_1901There, I found a slim green paperback of poetry by Ruth Padel called Charles Darwin – A Life in Poems.   The poet, a descendent of Darwin’s, has written a collection of poems about his life from early childhood to death, which incorporate  Padel’s brilliant lines with quotations from Darwin’s books and letters and those of his family and friends.  I really wanted to buy it in Copenhagen but, confused by the currency and concerned about overspending on holiday, I decided to refrain and try to track the book down back in England.  Of course, I promptly forgot the author’s name and the book’s title and, disappointed, let it slip from my mind.  Until I saw it here again, waiting on a bottom shelf. It was book fate.   When I brought it to the friendly bookseller at the till, he raised his eyebrows and gave it a once-over.  ‘I’d never noticed this one before,’ he said, ‘it looks interesting.’  I told him (and he politely pretended to care) about how this book had narrowly escaped me once already and this time it was fate and I wouldn’t let it pass me by.  This book wanted to find me.

In a world where we can search and instantaneously find, we forget that sometimes it’s nice not to have all the control.  Places like Richard Booth’s Bookshop, with its inviting atmosphere, surprisingly large area and quirky collection of books, is a reminder that sometimes if you let things be, something amazing that you were never looking for might just find you.

The Poetry Bookshop

IMG_1890The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5BQ.

In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section.  This is hardly fair.

Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls,  but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them.  It is an art form that can express the complexities and inconsistencies of the human heart and mind in a way that – I don’t believe – any other art form can.

It deserves more than a few anthologies in the back corner of Waterstones.  And yet, shockingly,  Hay-on-Wye’s Poetry Bookshop is the only bookshop in the UK dedicated solely to poetry.  Londoners are lucky enough to have the Poetry Library at the South Bank – a fantastic resource and a quiet place to read – but we rarely have the opportunity to go somewhere where poetry is more than an afterthought, where we can find volumes of poetry to bring home and keep, stain and spill on and dog-ear and write in and defer to in times of need.  It seems a shame, to me.

Thankfully, one poetry bookshop exists, good enough while we wait for IMG_1883the idea to spread.  The couple who own the bookshop are friendly and helpful.  They will let you browse quietly on your own but I have no doubt of their impeccable taste in and knowledge of poetry, should an idle browser need a recommendation.  As I moved slowly around the A-Z collection of English poetry in the main room, the bookshop’s popularity became clear.  Regulars came in to chat with the owners, including the  owner of one of Hay’s other bookshops who came bearing gossip about the Festival.  At one point the owners’ springer spaniel came bounding in and everybody seemed to be used to this.

IMG_1889Around the walls of the main room, poets great and modest are represented.  Ezra Pound has a disproportionately large section, as does Seamus Heaney, but they by no means dominate the selection.  Places of prominence are returned to other poets, whether they’re literary heavyweights like Chaucer and Tennyson or relative newcomers.  It was here that I found the books I came home with.  I bought U.A. Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems, including the brilliant ‘Not My Best Side’ and many other amazing poems for £7.  I also bought a small green edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music from the 1950s for £8.

The selection continues on the shelves in the centre of the room.  On top of them, beautiful and rare collections of poetry are displayed for our admiration.  Their shelves are full of more books and anthologies and one is dedicated to Old English poetry.   And I mean Old English poetry that’s not Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which my absolutely legendary Old English teacher dubbed ‘The Heaneywulf’), but translations of other poems like ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and my personal favourite ‘Deor.’

There’s a line in ‘Deor’ which goes ‘þæt ofereod, þisses swa mæg’ or ‘That passed over, so may this.’  This one line, coming to us from a thousand years in the past, is a perfect example of how we can carry poetry with us through our lives. I have kept it in my mind as a refrain, almost like a mantra, when I am going through hard times, as a reminder that we have come out all right in hard times before, and can do so again.

IMG_1882But enough of English poetry, modern or ancient.  Downstairs, in what feels like a cellar, is the shop’s collection of international poetry in translation.  This basement brings poetry in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu, Belarusian, Hungarian, German, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Gaelic, Welsh, various Native American languages and I have no doubt many others that I’ve forgotten to curious readers.  As you duck down to fit through the door, you can’t help but feel that you’re complicit in something.  Rummaging through the shelves full of new and mysterious poetry feels a bit like reading under the blankets with a torch after bedtime, or whatever it was that normal children did to rebel.  Whenever I visit my grandparents, I IMG_1879love exploring the photo albums, old books and boxes full of toys and clothes that fill their basement, in the hopes that I’ll find some treasure from the past and uncover the story is carries with it.  That poking-around-in-grandma’s-trunk feeling is exactly what this basement recreates.  It’s the distinct feeling that you have stumbled upon something that has the potential to be magical.  Of course, poetry in translation is never quite as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly a start.  And if you’ve ever felt the urge to learn Ukrainian, discovering that your new favourite poet wrote in it is a pretty good motivator.

IMG_1887The final part of the shop is the little space upstairs.   On the walls in this little mezzanine are more books of poetry, as well as books about poetry and poets and other miscellaneous works.   There are some interesting titles, but perhaps my favourite thing about it is that the books cover the walls on either side of the staircase, creating a wall full of books that carries the reader all the way from top to bottom without having to look at an inch of dull, uninteresting wall.  I never realised that the boringness of a wall was a major problem until I saw this bookcase, but now that the book wall is in my mind, nothing will ever be the same again.  I want one.

Charmingly, one of the walls on the top floor is covered in penciled height measurements of several different children.  Whether these are the owners’ children, nieces and nephews, friends of the family or loyal customers is left for the browser to imagine, but in the end it doesn’t actually matter.  The most IMG_1884important thing this suggests is the way in which all of us, not just those whose parents sell them, grow up with books and with poetry in particular.  From nursery rhymes to lullabies, silly limericks to advertising jingles, poetry is all around us and it defines us in the years that we grow up.  I heard a speaker at the Hay Festival talking about the way we live in a world filled with poetry and was completely convinced by his argument.  Long after we’ve forgotten exactly what the difference is between an scalene and an isosceles triangle, or whether a motion is centripetal or centrifugal, we remember every word of something as seemingly trivial as ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.’ A poem from Mother Goose or something as silly as a radio jingle has the transportative power that all good writing always has, recalling worlds and lives we thought we’d left behind and reminding us that the deep and personal emotions to which poetry gives voice are never forgotten.