Tag Archives: second hand books

Keith Fawkes

IMG_2260Keith Fawkes, 3 Flask Walk, London NW3 1HJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!’

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

The Haunted Bookshop (Sarah Key Books)

IMG_1827Sarah Key Books The Haunted Bookshop, 9 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

It’s official.  I’ve found the strangest bookshop in the UK.  Congratulations to me.

Cambridge’s Haunted Bookshop is one of the few bookshops in the world that is truly unique  – the only one of its kind – and I love it. I’m massively intimidated by it, but I completely love it.  While the Waterstone’s in Cambridge has a great selection and a plethora of inspiring titles, it still looks exactly like my local Waterstone’s in Islington.  And the one in Trafalgar  Square.  And the one at Gower Street.  Even Cambridge’s own independent bookseller, Heffer’s (review forthcoming), looks exactly like every other branch of Blackwell’s, the major chain that now owns it.

There are a lot of up-sides to this gentrification of everyday life; it makes us comfortable enough to go into a bookshop anywhere in the world (or at least the country) because we know it can’t be all that different from the one at home.  And in this day and age, any method towards the end goal of getting people into a bookshop justifies the means.  But I think there’s also a lot that gets lost when the slightly different, thoroughly quirky and downright bizarre are edged out.  Haruki Murakami wrote that ‘if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’  Surely he could just as easily have warned us that if you only get those books from Amazon’s Top Ten List or – worse – the Books section at Tesco (shudder) your bookshelf will look the same as everyone else’s.  And your stories will be the same, too.

That said, I would love to meet someone whose local go-to bookshop is this tiny, cramped little shop in St. Edward’s Passage.  What if this was the place you always went when you fancied a browse, if this the collection of books you had to work with whenever you needed a lit fix?  I’d imagine that the bizarre combinations your bookshelf held and the stories of hunting, finding, losing, sharing, wanting, coveting, considering and surrendering that those books told about you would fill many pages themselves.

But enough of my philosophising. There’s a bookshop to be fawned over.

First of all, it seems like the shop has two names.  Fine.  Why not?  As it turns out, Sarah Key Books (named, no doubt, after a woman called Sarah Key) specialised in secondhand and antiquarian books and particularly in children’s literature for years before it found its current home at what is called The Haunted Bookshop.  Unfortunately I do not have any answers as to how, why or by what it’s haunted.  I mean I could of course go all humanities student on you and say that it’s haunted by the voices IMG_1823and stories of writers and readers past.  Which, you know, I’m pretty much convinced it is.  But I’ve been waxing poetic about dog-eared pages a little too much of late, so I’ll refrain.  The other possible haunting is the palpable presence of the owner, sitting behind her desk, head popping up from between piles of books, who almost seems to wish that you’d leave her alone and let her get on with it.  It’s kind of a Bernard Black situation.  Although once you actually go talk to the staff I promise they’re much lovelier than Bernard Black.

The collection of secondhand and often first editions of classic children’s books is absorbing.  From Matilda to Harry Potter, from Enid Blyton to Hans Christian IMG_1825Andersen, from Alice Liddell to Snow White, every child and every childlike adult is covered.  Beautiful illustrated hardcover copies and tattered paperbacks range from £4 or £5 to roughly £1500, for something like, say, a first edition of Prince Caspian.  For those of us who will probably never have the kind of disposable income required to do more than pick up and maybe sniff these books (if you’re feeling cheeky) it’s like the trials of Tantalus.

Children’s books aren’t all that’s on offer though; the Folio Society editions make their appearance too, as do various editions of classics. I had my eye on a copy of one Sherlock Holmes novel or another, as well as a FS edition of Wuthering Heights.  I refrained from buying anything, to my dismay and my wallet’s satisfaction.

IMG_1826Despite not going home with any of these beautiful books, I still felt glad to have found this strange and wonderful little place today.  Like Alice falling into Wonderland, or Harry landing in Diagon Alley, walking into the Haunted Bookshop is like stepping through a portal.  It’s like being transported back to a time before global monopolies (yes, I’m cross with Amazon for buying Goodreads; I promised not to rant about it), super-chains and clinical, sanitised spaces where no one is ever challenged and nothing new ever happens.  It makes me glad to live in the UK because it seems to me that while so much of the world just steps in line and lets the strange and quirky and unpredictable fade out of their lives, some people here (few and far between as they may be) still put up a fight for their weirdness.  Sarah Key Books: you’re one of a kind and I hope you never stop fighting to stay that way.

G. David Bookseller


G. David Bookseller, 16 St.Edward’s Passage, Cambridge, CB2 3PJ

St. Edward’s Passage is a narrow little side street that ducks away off King’s Parade in Cambridge.  It’s the kind of street that you could very easily not notice and pass by without ever realising that it was there.  G. David Booksellers (also referred to as David’s Bookshop) is, remarkably, even easier to miss, as it’s on a narrower bit of street which veers off to the left while the rest of the street carries on forward.  It’s almost as if the bookshop is hiding from the prying eyes of noisy tourists, setting itself apart for those who really want to find it.

Inside is a world where any book-buyer will find something to fall in love with.  IMG_1822To make sure of this, G. David stocks new, secondhand and antiquarian books.  The new books are usually slightly cheaper than retail price, and they fill up the history, fiction, classics (not classic literature, but classical literature – I love that they have an entire section just for that), Shakespeare (again, his own section), poetry and drama.  In amongst these new titles are secondhand books for very cheap prices.  In the children’s section there were £1 Wordsworth Editions copies of all the classic children’s tales and cheap secondhand copies of everything from Harry Potter to Narnia, all for around £2 or 3.

IMG_1817The selection is a bit quirky, as it usually is in secondhand bookshops.  Like any good secondhand shop, it’s not the place to go when you know what you want or need immediate results.  But it is the perfect place for browsing.  The new books are clever and well-chosen, so if you do wade through the unorthodoxy that always exists in any good used bookshop and actually buy something, you’re guaranteed to walk out with an actually good book.  The secondhand books reveal some interesting patterns – someone nearby has an obsession with PG Wodehouse and has provided dozens, if not hundreds, of his novels, which take up an entire wall.  There are also, as I mentioned, dozens of editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and piles of secondary criticism about his works.

Downstairs, in the basement, are the sections that always seem to get relegated IMG_1820to the basement.  Isn’t it unfair that fiction is always front and centre, while gardening is always hiding somewhere in a back corner or a dingy cellar?  As someone who’s never bought a gardening book in her life, I have no right to complain, but I must say it gives me much more sympathy with the gardening, nature and pets books that always populate those silent, cobwebbed back corners.  Although if I were a book, I must say those quiet corners are probably where I would set up camp.

IMG_1818If the front rooms and the basement are the areas where browsers are likely to find something they want to flip through, buy, take home and treasure, then the back room is the place to go when you would actually like to be impractical and a little bit decadent, thank you very much.  For it is here that the antiquarian books live.  Modern first editions and early copies of classics line the walls with their leather bindings, gold leaf pages and their red and brown spines facing out to the world.  They are a sight to be seen.  Particularly worth looking at are the many books in the Local Interest shelf, which cover the history of the city of Cambridge, the university and local customs and traditions in Cambridgeshire.  A lot of them have fascinating photographs or illustrations of the city from years ago.

From obscenely beautiful books about mundane things like the UK’s flora and fauna to first editions of Ford Madox Ford and T.S. Eliot, there is something here for everyone to admire and try very hard not to literally drool over.  The best IMG_1819thing I found, though was a first edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  Aside from how incredible it is to hold a first edition of any famous book in your hands, this particular copy was absolutely unique because of what other readers from the past had left inside it.  In the front cover was a beautiful ex libris, which I think was issued by the owner’s primary school, which said that it had belonged to a little girl called Caroline and was given to her in 1950.  In addition to this little footprint there was a small yellow sticker on the inside cover referring to a book club operating in Nairobi.  How this book made it from a schoolgirl in England in the fifties to a reading group in Kenya is, I’m sure, a fascinating story which I would love to know, but am happy to imagine. I was sad to leave it behind, but maybe one day I’ll go back for it and add my own story to the – clearly long – list of stories in which this single book has played a part.

My parents, together, have read Narnia out loud 28 times. Seven books times four children, taking up years and years of bedtime stories and years of their lives.  The box set we have, though it’s not a first edition, is worth infinitely more to me because not only did I sit and invest hours of my life reading them, but I know that all of my brothers, with their tiny child hands, did the same and that 28 times my parents read them aloud, providing definitions of hard words, acquiescing to demands for one more chapter, and doing the squeaky mouse voice of Reepicheep.  Beautiful old books have always excited me; medieval manuscripts were my favourite part of every museum, just about beating the IMG_1821dinos for the top spot.  There’s a sense that holding them, you are experiencing some kind of communion with the first scribe who copied out the words in some French monastery all the way down to the little girl who wrote her name and the date inside the front cover.  But you don’t need to be holding the first edition of Ulysses (but oh my god, can you imagine?) for a book to bring you closer to someone else.  Any old book buried in a pile in a shop far away from home can call to mind our own experiences reading, reminding us of the people who’ve shared them with us, the questions they’ve made us ask and memories – private or shared – we’ve made between the pages.  Yes, I want the beautiful first edition, but I’d never trade it for my own tattered copy, infinitely more precious but probably worth only about a hundredth of the price.

Henry Pordes Books

               IMG_1801Henry Pordes Books, 58-60 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0BB

There was a time in my life when I went to this bookshop two or three times a week.  It made sense, really; it was on my way home.  Okay, it was one way home.  Okay, it was twenty minutes out of the way.  I called it the scenic route.

But Henry Pordes was worth the time I ‘wasted’ and the money I spent on it.  It IMG_1796was the first of the Charing Cross Road bookshops that I discovered when I first moved to London and so I think  I subconsciously compare every other shop I enter to this one.

Charing Cross Road is perhaps one of the most famous book-buying destinations in the world, thanks in large part to Helene Hanff’s brilliant novel about her post-war correspondance with Marks & Co., a bookshop that used to be at 84 Charing Cross Road.  If you haven’t read it, it’s a short epistolary novel that you can get through in a couple of hours and it’s definitely worth it.  I’d offer to lend you my IMG_1786copy, but tragically, I read the entire thing on a plane and then stupidly left it there.  But books never disappear.  No one, upon finding a stray book, would drop it in the bin; something about it wouldn’t let you.  You’d put it in a lost and found, or leave it behind somewhere where it would stay dry, or maybe donate it to a secondhand bookshop.  And if it were lucky, it would end up on Charing Cross Road.

Henry Pordes is busy at IMG_1800almost all times of day and its visitors include: 1. frazzled Arts & Humanities undergraduates, 2. awestruck American tourists, 3. antiquarian book dealers consulting on acquisitions or trying to sell their own books, 4. old men wearing tweed who head straight for the history section and 5. wanderers whose facial expressions indicate that they’ve never been here before and had no idea how good a decision they just made by walking in.

IMG_1799The shop’s front had been undergoing renovation for the past couple of weeks, but when I went yesterday its beautiful front window was once again visible from the street.  In this window are the books that trap you.  First editions of books of poetry, comics, art books, political commentaries, modern classics and not-so-modern classics are displayed proudly in the front window, and continue inside, covering the upper walls of the main room.  It doesn’t surprise me that the more valuable, antiquarian books are kept either high out of reach or behind glass.  I mean, it disappoints me of course, because just to touch them would be more than lowly English students dream of, but I get it.  Fortunately, they are still visible and give the shop an air of gravity; you feel that you’re in the presence of history, of genius and, essentially, of humanity’s greatest achievements.

IMG_1794On the ground floor, there is an entire corner whose three sides are covered with literary theory and literary biography.  I came here once while writing my dissertation on Ezra Pound and found, in this section, a book called Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. I thought it might end up being somehow relevant, and as it wasn’t very expensive I bought it.  It ended up being so useful that it became the central text in that dissertation.  It just goes to show that sometimes we humans don’t really know what we need, and if we were only ever to pursue the exact thing that we want, because we want it, right now, we would miss out on finding the things that we never knew we needed or, as a recent New Yorker article put it, ‘the book beside the book’ that you were looking for.  Also on this floor is a small room in the back full of history and political books, a shelf of big,  hardcover children’s classics and an admirably well-stocked collection of art books.  There was a beautiful hardcover book of full colour paintings by Modigliani that was £16 – much cheaper than the retail price – but still to expensive for me.  What I did buy in the end came from the basement.

IMG_1792Downstairs are the travel, more art, psychology, fiction, poetry and drama sections, as the map of the shop at the top of the stairs indicates.  Yes, there’s a map of this bookshop.  I think there’s something so romantic about the idea that a visitor might need a map to keep him/herself from getting lost in the basement and never coming out.  In the fiction section, I bought a copy of Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence for only £4.  I have read the book before but realised lately that I don’t have a copy and might soon be in a position where I need one so I wanted to invest.  It’s always difficult buying a copy of a book you’ve already read.  You have to weigh up your options and decide whether to go for a cheap copy (you have already read it, so aesthetics shouldn’t be that big a deal the second time round) or spring for a more expensive copy (this is a book you’re going to read twice; surely you want a copy worth a second go-around, right?).  I settled for something in the middle, with a solid, sturdy Penguin classics edition at a third of the retail price.  I also bought a hardcover copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad for £3.50, which is about about a fifth of retail price.

Other highlights of this basement are the bay full of Folio Society editions of IMG_1788classic novels.  As anyone who regularly follows this blog is already aware, I adore the Folio Society.  Their recent tube adverts which read ‘Re-kindle your love of beautiful books’ are delightfully sassy.  And with a whole shelf of these gorgeous editions stretching from floor to ceiling, I feel that I could be perfectly happy without ever leaving this room.

One of the volume’s in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is called Books do Furnish a Room and I think the man is onto something with this statement.  Although many of my arguments against ‘e-books’ are more intellectual and political than ‘But books are pretty!’, sometimes that’s the one that resonates with people most.  And it is the argument that the shelves of Henry Pordes quietly put forwards themselves.  The way we buy books is different from the way we buy any other commodity, whether it’s food or clothes or…what else do normal people spend their money on?   We buy books not only for ourselves, but to put them against the other books we have, in the hopes that our shelves will say something about who we are as people.  We buy them not only for ourselves, but also for the friends who’ll borrow them, the family members who’ll steal and probably never return them, the children who’ll inherit them and the strangers who’ll find them in the basement of a bookshop one day.

IMG_1795The sight of straight lines of books, standing proudly spine to spine, row upon row like soldiers, resolute in the battle against their obsolescence, warm a bibliophile’s heart.  More than any list on a screen, these rows of books remind us not only of the books we’ve read and through them the things we’ve learned and the journeys we’ve taken, but also of the many books we haven’t read.  They are the ones we want to read, the ones sitting on our shelves waiting and burning with the need for recognition in the backs of our minds.  They speak to the ingenuity and creativity of all those writers who came before us and all those readers who treasured their books as long as they lived, until those hallowed volumes ended up here.  In a way, Charing Cross Road is book-heaven.


Church Street Bookshop


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:


‘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.

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.


Word on the Water


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.


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.


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.


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.’