Tag Archives: South London

The Bookseller Crow on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clapham Books

IMG_2056Clapham Books, 120 Clapham High Street,  London, SW4 7UH ‎

Isn’t it gorgeous outside today, London?  Today, the last day of Independent Booksellers’ Week, by the way, I went for a nice long walk in the sunshine and stopped in at two bookshops – Book Mongers in Brixton and Clapham Books, a perfect High Street Bookshop. Clapham High Street, minutes away from the beautiful green space at Clapham Common, is a bright and busy place and on a sunny day like this, locals and visitors fill the pubs, restaurants and cafes and spill out onto the  sidewalk, creating a festive atmosphere.  As I watched people gather supplies for picnics at the park and bump into friends, also out enjoying the sunshine, I felt relieved to know that even in London – big, grey, nasty, impersonal London – there are places where families and friends can come together to eat, drink, talk, play, sunbathe, browse and read.

Clapham Books, a lovely independent bookshop that’s deeply embedded in the lives of the local community, plays an important role in making sure that this can happen.  Clapham Books has edged its way into the hearts and minds of many by hosting readings and events where readers can meet each other and their favourite authors as well as weekly storytimes for young children.  Perhaps this is why so many people decided to spend a few minutes of their sunny Saturday visiting the shop.

IMG_2047Browsers and loyal regulars are treated to an excellent fiction section which has a particularly good selection of contemporary fiction that goes so much further than the bestsellers list. Browsing here, reading the little handwritten recommendations that dot the shelves, you can tel that the booksellers have carefully combed through hundreds of titles in order to present you with forgotten treasures, obscure titles that aren’t famous but should be and newer books that aren’t famous yet but will be.  There is a small but mighty selection of Poetry and Plays nearby.  All the books are arranged neatly and carefully on the walls, making the shop feel tidy and clean.

IMG_2055On the wall opposite, the selection of non-fiction books is wide and varied.  The front room of the shop is essentially divided into two halves: fiction and non-fiction.  There is also a small shelf that deals with history specifically, but the books are generalised in these terms. If you’re someone who prefers your non-fiction to be carefully organised and delineated by topic and sub-topic, I have to tell you that a) this is not the place for you and b) you’re just a bit dull, really, aren’t you?  While you may struggle a bit to find the exact book you want right away, I think that the interesting combinations that this large section makes are worth exploring for their own sake.  The juxtoposition between literary biographies with books on science, health and culture not only suggest conclusions you might not have seen if you insisted on separating them all, but also invites you to go beyond the little slice of the selection that would normally hold your attention and try something else.

That something else might be a book on gardening, art, architecture, cooking, travel or history.  They’re all there and I simply don’t see how anyone could spend any decent amount of time in this shop without finding something they love.  Its inviting and accessible layout, combined with its masterful selection of books makes it the kind of shop that will bring out your obsessive compulsive side; I felt unable to leave until I had looked at every single book.  I think I actually did look at every last title in the Fiction and Non-Fiction sections, most of the food books and almost all of the travel ones.

IMG_2054The one section I didn’t explore in its entirety was the children’s section.  This is allowed its own room at the back of the shop under a beautiful sign ‘Children’s Books!’ that looks like something out of a Victorian circus.  The section is much larger than in other bookshops, which is how it should be, really, since of course it’s children who get the most out of reading, in many ways.  They’re the ones whose minds and personalities might be changed forever by the right book or the right character and who are most able to see themselves in a new and fantastical imaginary world.  The ability to do this, which all good adult readers have, is something IMG_2051that is most often learned in childhood.  The reason I didn’t spend too long looking through the excellent selection of books for children from baby to teen was that it was clearly occupied.  One of the two armchairs that provide a quiet reading place for children was being used by a little boy, engrossed in his novel.  I felt it would be best not to invade his space with my grown-upness.

This little boy had come in at around the same time I did, with his dad.  As the IMG_2050father browsed the fiction and gardening sections, the boy headed straight for his armchair, suggesting that he’s probably a regular.  Father and son remained undisturbed by the quiet chatter of the booksellers who were discussing an upcoming author reading by Tom Canty, who has recently written a book called Clapham Lights.

A few minutes later, a group of students came in who were on their way to IMG_2046Clapham Common to see a friend for her birthday.  They were looking for presents and as they browsed I heard them reminisce about the ridiculous things this friend Lisa had done (she sounds fun) and laugh, chat and debate about which book she would like best.  As book talks always do, their conversation veered away from Lisa and they ended up staying in the shop much longer than I think they intedended, debating the merits of hardcover books, comparing The Great Gastby to the recent (and obviously inferior) film adaptation and trying to get their facts straight about whether Churchill served as PM during the first or second World War.  I didn’t say they were the smartest students.

This is what I love about bricks and mortar bookshops.  I’m guilty of being grouchy when loud people interrupt my quiet time with books, but today I took a cue from the young reader and just enjoyed being in this book-glorifying space.  Because although it’s lovely to read alone in your room, with no distractions and no contact with the outside world, even I find that sometimes it gets a bit lonely.  Sometimes you just can’t keep your excitement in!  You need to recommend this book to someone!  You need to ask someone if they’ve read it, argue over the ending, pull apart every detail and read your favourite lines out loud just to savour the way they sound.  This is where bookshops come in, especially vibrant and busy ones like Clapham Books; they give people like us places to gather and be together, silently or vocally understanding each other through our shared love of books.

The Calder Bookshop Theatre

IMG_2023Calder Bookshop Theatre, 51 The Cut, London, SE1 8LF

The Cut is a busy South London street that runs from Southwark station to Waterloo.  The home of both the Old Vic and the Young Vic, it is a thriving part of the area and, more importantly, of London’s theatre scene.  The Calder Bookshop Theatre, right across from the Young Vic – recently dubbed London’s sexiest theatre by TimeOut – is one of those peculiar creatures that is so weirdly amazing and anomalous that it could only exist in London.

The  shop, which moonlights as a theatre, specialises in theatre books, by which I mean books about drama, criticism and theory about theatre and performance IMG_2022and an unrivaled selection of plays from across the world, stretching all the way back to Ancient Greek tragedy and forward into experimental contemporary pieces.  Drama is one of those genres – like poetry – that tends to be marginalised in most bookshops, given one shelf of the same old names and tacked on to the end of Fiction like an afterthought.  But not here!  At the Calder Bookshop, plays – appropriately – take centre stage.  There are discounted classic novels on the tables outside and the table in the centre of the one large room that makes up the shop, but the emphasis really is not on them.

After you’ve made your way through the Books on Theatre area that greets you when you enter, you realise that about three quarters of the shelf space in the IMG_2019shop is dedicated to plays, organised in alphabetical order.  The editions range from Penguin Classics editions of Aeschylus to pocket-sized copies of plays by lesser known playwrights, published by small arty publishing houses.  It’s no surprise that in a bookshop less than a mile away from Shakespeare’s Globe, that the Bard has his own section, which is stocked with Arden editions (the very best) of all his plays.  However, despite the focus on this local hero, on the whol the selection has a refreshingly international outlook.  Although European plays still predominate (the kings of the roost are gentlemen like Moliere, Chekov, Beckett, Sartre, Ibsen and Strindberg), the effort has clearly been made to include work by classic and contemporary South American and African writers in particular.  These are baby steps to be sure, but there decidedly in the right direction.

Finally, the remaining space is dedicated to Politics and Philosophy.  While both are quite Marx-heavy and noticeably veer toward the left, the selection is thoughtful and interesting, cementing the shop’s claim that it does more than IMG_2020just plays.  The philosophy books on offer present a wide range and, again, cover most of the big names from Ancient Greece to the late twentieth century, Plato to Lacan. It was here that I spotted the book I ended up coming home with.  If you’re not familiar with Penguin’s Great Ideas series, you really ought to check them out.  The small just-bigger-than-pocket-sized books are new editions of the essays, books and treatises that changed the world.  Among the repetoire are hefty texts like Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Darwin’s On Natural Selection.  This series, in my opinion, does more to prove that words can change the world than any amount of academic philosophical waxing ever could.  I bought their edition Proust’s long essay Days of Reading a while ago from the Kennington Bookshop and ever since, I’ve been quite evangelical about the joys of the series.  Today, I bought  Thorstein Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption for £4.99 and just can’t wait to tuck into the deliciously anti-capitalist rant.

IMG_2021Perhaps the most exciting thing about the shop, the thing which makes it such a typical London establishment, is that in the back it holds a wonderful surprise.  At night, the back room serves as a theatre, where drama-lovers and book-lovers can come together to be inspired by the work of playwrights past and present, all conveniently brought together under one roof.  The events are always changing, so check out their website if you feel like tagging along for a workshop, a play or an evening of cinema.  Like London itself, The Calder Bookshop Theatre is the kind of place where random and delightful things just kind of happen sometimes, without warning or announcement or advertising, as if they’ve sprung right out of the imagination of some surrealist artist and into life fully-formed.

Book Mongers

Book Mongers,  439 Coldharbour Lane, London, SW9 8LN

This bookshop in the heart of Brixton, I’m delighted to report, is completely mad.  Of course, Brixton itself is delightfully mad too, full of strange people and wonderful people and really random and bizarre sights.   So in a way, this eccentric little shop fits in perfectly.

Frankly, I’m a bit stumped as to how to begin describing the beautiful, beautiful chaos that surrounds you the second you walk in the door of Book Mongers.   I think it’s because it’s not like any other bookshop I’ve ever been in and believe me, I’ve been in a lot.

Book Mongers is absolutely packed full with books.  In the midst of this impressive scale, I needed to come up with a strategy.

I think it’s accurate to say that when I enter a bookshop, the first place I go, in order to orientate myself and establish what kind of shop I’m dealing with, is the Fiction section.  I quickly realised this bookshop resists those kinds of easy generalisations and assumptions, because instead of one coherent and complete Fiction section, there were various shelves labelled the curiousest way I’ve ever seen.  The books were organised into amusing, but somewhat confusing, categories like “European Short Stories”, “American Fiction – Male Authors” and “Modern Scottish Novels”, in addition to a “Fiction” shelf and a “Literature” one on the other side of the shop.  The other impediment to the quick and simple location of a specific book was the fact that on each shelf there were sporadic piles of other books, front covers out to the world, gathering on top of the more obedient books that were waiting, forgotten, in their places on the shelves. In order to find that spine of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for example, I had to move Into the War by Italo Calvino, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  and C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress (am I the only one who always forgets he wrote more than just Narnia?) out of the way.

In other words, this shop is an absolute nightmare if you’re looking for something specific.

Fortunately, I almost never am.

I enjoy the madness of Book Mongers, possibly because the layers of books remind me a bit of the many bookshelves for whom I’ve acted as keeper over the years.   At one point, in my childhood bedroom, the first of my two bookcases had a couple of shelves where the books were two rows deep.  My meticulously organised mother soon objected to this and tried to rearrange the shelf while I was at school.  It resulted in one of the biggest fights we’ve ever had.

Despite the disorganisation of the shelves, the layout of the shop is very conducive to browsing.  I find I often have the awkward experience in bookshops of having to squat down and tilt my head in a way it shouldn’t be tilted to get a glimpse of the books on the bottom row or two of a shelf.  Rather ingeniously, every cranny in this bookshop is equipped with a chair for snooping, resting, reading or eavesdropping purposes.  An in those crannies you’ll find books on poetry, biography, gardening, cookery, art, architecture, philosophy, psychology, history (seriously, an impressive history collection!), science, music and all kinds of weird categories of fiction as well as one of the biggest collections of literature in foreign languages I’ve seen in any London bookshop, except maybe Skoob.  And they’re all dead cheap, by the way.

Which brings me to my favourite part of Book Mongers: the mezzanine.  Up a couple of stairs is a little alcove with a couch, a very strange arrangement of some disturbing stuffed animals, a bicycle and a desk covered in a books, old magazines and a random statue of a lobster.

The best part of this bit of the shop is that all the books on the walls cost only 50p.  When I see something like that, I sceptically assume (maybe not sceptically; it’s based on lots of experience) that these are the weird, random, kind-of-cool-but-not-enough-to-actually-buy-it kind of books.

But wait!  On these shelves were some actually really good books!  Lots of them were silly beach reads, but there were some old Wordsworth Classics editions of books by writers like Wilkie Collins (okay, so a Victorian beach read, but still),  Dickens and Gaskell as well as children’s books like Anne of Avonlea and The Phantom Tollbooth that made me very nostalgic.  And all for 50p!  I, for one, was just in heaven.

In the end, I submitted to the easy-going, ‘stay a while, don’t worry about it’ feel of the shop and sat on the couch perusing those old favourites about Anne Shirley, her dreaded red hair and her burning desire to change her name to Cordelia.  I actually know a little girl lucky enough to be called Cordelia but, inexplicably, she shirks old King Lear and prefers to go by ‘Coco’ instead, which I think is absurd.  And there we go, somehow, Anne’s got me a million miles away again.

So in the end I didn’t actually buy anything, though I deliberated for a while over a book about the history, production and appreciation of tea which cost £2.50.

I think the wonderful thing about bookshops like this is that you might not go in looking for anything and sometimes you might even come out empty-handed, but that’s not what matters.  After spending a good amount of time admiring lovely old books, discovering new titles, flipping through brittle pages and being surrounded by the gentle smell of paper, you’ve transcended that “must find, must buy” mentality that the world imposes and the internet facilitates.  To pop into Book Mongers, or any fine bookshop, is to pop out of that mentality for a moment.  To spend a little while sitting down, flipping through an old favourite (or a new one) is a rewarding, refreshing and increasingly unappreciated escape into another world.

Riverside Books

Riverside Books,  Unit 18-19, Hays Galleria, Counter Street, London, SE1 2HD

I love London.

Today I went for a nice long walk from my flat in King’s Cross down to this bookshop in London Bridge.  Despite the drizzle, the cold and the wind, it was a lovely walk, because I passed St. Paul’s Cathedral, crossed over the river at Southwark Bridge, getting a view of the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, walked through Borough Market and made my way along the river into Hays Galleria, just off Tooley Street.  The walk along the south bank of the Thames is amazing.  When I lived in Spitalfields, my favourite route for a run was down to the river at Tower Bridge and along the south bank up through Central London.  Oh, I could rave about that route for hours, but it’s one of those things you have to do for yourself if you ever have a sunny (or not!) day in London.

I had walked past Riverside Books many a time before today but never actually gone in.  I’m very glad that today I finally did!  It’s a wonderful little shop, right on the river, just west of Tower Bridge.  It’s a bit of a departure for me, since my favourite haunts tend to be old and crumbling and delightfully unreliable, but this bookshop is modern, fresh and neat.  Normally, that’s not a complimentary description coming from me, but in this case, it works.  I think what’s so appealing about it is that it’s modern but without being a giant conglomerate or an indifferent money-machine.  There’s still character and charm in this shop.

The shelves are populated by a careful, deliberate and masterful selection of books.  All the books which have recently won or been shortlisted for any of the big prizes are on display, so you’re sure to come across not just a book, but a good book.  Of course, even the most prestigious of prizes are awarded to a dud sometimes (cough, cough, The Sense of an Ending…) but I still think that when you’re looking for a good read, starting with prize-winners is not the worst thing you could do.  In addition to these, there is a whole bay dedicated to new releases, some by famous and acclaimed writers and some by less-known authors or newcomers.  Bestsellers, of course, also have their place, but I was delighted to see that while those dreadful books by that despicable fifty shades woman were present, there were only one copy of each “book”.  Instead of the entire bay of copies you’d see in some bookshops, here they got half a shelf.  About a million times more than they deserve.  There was a wide range of books in the fiction and poetry sections, so I was very happy!  I was also delighted that there was an entire section of literary anthologies!  They also have an amazing collection of travel books and guides, which I always enjoy looking at and imaging the possibilities.  Berlin!  Vienna!  Nice!  Dublin!   The wide range of cookbooks, crime, fantasy, science fiction and children’s books was more than you’d need and they were all arranged beautifully and organised perfectly.  As it should be, the books take the spotlight in Riverside Books and it’s a beautiful sight.

Like any good bookshop, this one still has customers shuffling in and out and in a relatively small space, I enjoyed eaves-dropping on them this morning.  A couple came in about the same time I did and when they went to pay for their books at the till, the bookseller asked the man if he wanted a loyalty card.  His hilarious response was, “No, I’m not loyal to anything.”  His girlfriend, without missing a beat, replied, “Thanks for that”, leaving him awkwardly fumbling with change and words to try and make the situation go away.  Listening to snippets like this is, aside from the books, one of my favourite parts of going to a bookshop!

I was particularly excited to see that there were lots of books about books, as I’ve pointed out in a couple of other shops recently.  Is it possible that as we see physical books, publishing and a reading culture in general being threatened, people are mobilising, making their voices heard and taking time to talk about, celebrate and properly appreciate books and the printed word?  One can only hope!  Anyway, it was in this section that I found the book I came home with today.  This is not the end of the book;by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière is a conversation between these two literary men about the future of books.  I laughed out loud at the quotation from Umberto Eco on the back cover: “The book is like the spoon: once invented it cannot be bettered.”  And it’s true, isn’t it?  In my life, books, the physical artefacts, have been as common and pedestrian as spoons – always a part of my daily life, quietly appreciated, needed and never questioned.  The difference being that I actively adore books.  Spoons I just feel okay about.

But books, real books, are exactly perfect, just as they were the day the first one was bound.  They fit in our hands, they play with our senses, they create joy and excitement with the built-in metaphors of turning new pages, starting new chapters.  Books are our lives; we move through them the way we move through our years. Our bodies, like our books, are always being shared,  being admired, getting damaged, being marked by experiences (whether ear-marked or scar-marked), changing (whether yellowing or wrinkling), being loved, being forgotten, being remembered.  And our hearts, in our lives and in our books, are always changing, growing, making new friends, missing them when they go, fearing what comes beyond the next turn (or page, or chapter), wanting to flip ahead to make sure it all turns out all right but knowing we can’t, worrying about how many pages we have left.  Books and human lives go together, perfectly.

At Riverside Books, I was reminded of this.  Places like this are a relief, a redeeming bit of sunshine and of hope, where books (and truly good books) are all that you really need.  Well, okay; a view like this doesn’t hurt either.

Week 6: Secondhand Books

Secondhand Books, 20 Lower Marsh, London, SE1 7RJ

Yup, that’s what it’s called.  It’s an unconventional name, but it does the job and for that I’ll give it credit.  Besides, it’s  an unconventional shop.  It seems to fit in on Lower Marsh, where one can find an equally unconventional mix of establishments, including two bars, several Chinese take-aways, a record store that only sells old man music, a 50s American-style diner, a greengrocers, a model train shop, a strange little place that seems to sell a range of toys and accessories for dogs, a card and gift shop, a sex shop, a second-hand clothing store and a sprinkling of little cafes.  Ah, Lower Marsh, one of the most random and hodge-podge streets in London…and one of my favourites.  For the first year I lived in London I was around the corner from it so every morning I walked passed this strange assortment of places without paying too much attention.  So, this week, when trying to decide which bookshop to visit, I thought I really ought to finally get around to checking out the shop I had walked past almost every day for a year and never entered.

The first thing to say about Secondhand Books is that the selection is – how shall we put this kindly… – eclectic.  The genres represented are fiction, poetry, drama, art, music and history.  Of course I may have missed some, as there is little (read: ‘no’) indication of what exactly you’re looking at, but I think that’s about the gist. Yes, the selection is limited.  If you went looking under ‘D’ for ‘Dickens’ you’d be surprised to discover that of the sixteen novels the man wrote, Dombey and Son is the only one to be found.  So, perhaps not the place to go with a specific thing in mind, but still worth the visit.  I find that when you’re presented with fewer novels, instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer number and looking single-mindedly for the thing you want, your mind is opened up to actually look.  Unafraid of being bogged down by a huge number of titles, you can actually see what’s there.  Somehow, I ended up with two books.
The first was an old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with illustrations by Nicolas Bentley.  Lovely pictures, but I just can’t get over the spelling of Nicholas without the ‘h’… but we shan’t hold that against him.  Of course, being as geeky and keen as I am, I actually already have the Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot on my bookshelf, but seeing the illustrated version of the poems on that unfamiliar shelf made me want to buy it anyway (it was £2, so who cares anyway?) in the same way that I’d cling to a vague acquaintance at a party where I don’t know anyone else and the elderly host is breathing down your back…I’ll return to the shopkeeper shortly.  The second book was The Island of the Day Before (£2.50) by Umberto Eco.  I had never heard of this books before and I don’t think it’s one of Eco’s more famous ones.  But then, how would I know, as I’ve never read anything the man’s written? Oh how we surprise ourselves. Incidentally, I read the first paragraph and was enthralled to the point of forgetting the awkwardness of being the onlyone in the shop.

The shop itself is, frankly, strange.  But just as when choosing our books, our music, our food, our partners and our friends we all pick the strangest variety available (we do all do this, right?), the same should be true of bookshops.  The owner is an older man who sits at his desk which is, awkwardly, in the middle of the already-tiny space.  He seems not to notice that you’re standing right in front of him, examining his strange collection.  Incidentally, he seems to be a bit of a traditionalist.  Well, maybe he’s behind the times, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he’s perfectly capable of keeping up with progress but has made the conscious decision not to.  Yes that’s right.  Either way, you won’t be able to pay with a card; the lovely gentlemen held my books behind the desk for me while I went in search of a cash machine.

But when I first walked in, he was alone and I greeted him politely but quietly, establishing that I’m just a book-lover browsing, thank you.  While my back was turned away from the door, I thought I heard at least two people walk in, finishing conversations hastily before stepping through the door frame.  But when I craned my neck nosily, I realised that no one had come in, but that the open door allowed this gentleman to sit at his desk all day, clandestinely listening to all the conversations rushing by him on the street outside.  After an initial moment of shame at the thought of the many mindless conversations this man might have overheard spilling out of my own mouth as I passed his shop of an early morning, I arrived at a more appealing thought.  This man, I imagined, is really a writer, maybe even a philosopher, who set up the shop as a cover, a way for him to secretly listen in on conversations, writing down the particularly humorous, insightful or representative comments made by the human race and putting them all in his novel which will surely be very popular, make lots of money, and not be sold in the shop.

Week 1: The Kennington Bookshop


The Kennington Bookshop

The Kennington Bookshop, 306-8 Kennington Road, SE11 4LD

For my first trick, I won’t venture too far from home.  People ’round these parts say that South London deserves far more credit than it actually gets and in order to right the balance, I’ll proceed to shower this appealing little shop on Kennington Road with accolades.  It looks clean and simple from the outside and in the airy front room, the books are arranged by someone who evidently loves books.  For a geek like me, there’s a certain sense of triumph in the way that little tables are set up throughout the shop in ways that actually make sense. 

My favourite table featured (in an exquisite colour-coded order) Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which are small books filled with the musings of some of the great minds of the literary past, many of them writing about writing, or about reading, or about literature.  I picked up Marcel Proust’s “Days of Reading”, a beautiful little book that only set me back £4.99. Score!

The shop also has a whole section of books about London and about England which, for a phony-Londoner like me, are always interesting, though I don’t like to spend too long looking at them lest someone discover that I am, in fact, just pretending to be a native.  Once again, these books are laid out beautifully by someone who is clearly a reader him/herself.  And I approve.

My favourite thing about this bookshop is that in addition to the pristine upstairs, there’s a downstairs with second hand books which, aside from the sentimental attachment I have to pre-loved books, is always helpful for us poor literature students.

Every time I’ve bought a book in this shop the staff at the till have always been lovely. They’ve talked shop with me, told me how much they love the book I’m buying or, in one situation, warned me not to bother as it doesn’t live up to the hype (who doesn’t appreciate honesty?).  My favourite experience was when their card machines were down and the man at the till had to take my debit card details manually and proceeded to tell me stories of bookselling in “the old days”.  What a star.