Tag Archives: travel

Nomad Books

IMG_2837Nomad Books, 781 Fulham Road, London, SW6 5HA

Like many of you, I am, for all intents and purposes, a ‘grown up.’ I live in a flat, where I pay rent and bills and spend time between coming home from work and going back again. I have an alarm set for 7:20 every weekday morning. I leave the house at around 8:20 and take the Victoria line to work. I work until 6pm, when I walk back to the station and take the tube home. I worry about horrible colleagues, unmet targets and the damp in the corner of the bedroom. In other words, I have a routine. Most days, I do pretty much exactly the same thing. But some days, I do something different.

It seems to me there are two modes of everyday living. You can live in your little bubble or box, going back and forth between work and home and doing more or less the same thing. Alternatively, you can do something new every day, live a life of individual days, each one unique and exciting and new and full of adventure. Sadly, the world we live in makes it all too apparent that we are supposed to opt for the former – that this is a sign of success and normality. Sanity, even. So, most of us spend about 90% of our time in the box. The internet makes it easier, of course, by making our lives more uniform. It’s a shame, given the potential of the worldwide web to help us reach outwards, but sadly we never use it that way. The internet could take us to Maui, Malawi or Mexico, or let us see the Andes, the Aztecs or the Arctic. But the reality is that the vast majority of people, when they open Google Earth, look first for their own house. Yes, the internet, despite giving us delusions of grandeur, actually just seals the lids of our boxes ever more firmly. This isn’t the end of the world; very few of us have the energy or the funds required for a purely nomadic lifestyle.

Nonetheless, it’s in that 10% that most of us create our most treasured memories, so it’s that 10% I want to talk about. We all find ways of bringing that lifestyle into our daily lives and for me the main ones are reading, travel and buying books. Going to Nomad Books in Fulham is one little thing I can do to get a bit of adventure in my life. It is the perfect place for reading (and planning what I’ll read next), travelling (I take a long trip on the District line to get to their travel books) and buying beautiful books.

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Nomad Books has been on Fulham Road for over 20 years. It’s a lovely little building on the corner of a lovely little street. It is particularly popular for its large selection of travel books and travel guides, which are housed in a room towards the back of the shop, along withIMG_2830 the art, architecture, design and photography books. There is a small couch and table here, away from other browsers and staff. In some bookshops, sitting areas like this look a bit forced, but at Nomad Books, I really did feel that I could sit down with a book, get comfortable and read undisturbed for the rest of the afternoon. I might even plan my next trip away from the box while sitting in that comfortable seat and looking at photos of Peru.

Nomad Books also has a good classic fiction section and a very thorough display IMG_2833of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, prominently on display at the front of the shop. Bays full of recent publications, both the bestsellers and the more obscure, are dotted with insightful staff recommendations, so you’ll never be short of good suggestions if you’re overwhelmed by the selection. The fiction selection is by no means extensive; it’s eclectic. This is not Amazon and you will not be able to find anything you want. Embrace that and find something you weren’t looking for. Finding what you’re looking for belongs to the 90% realm. Finding something exotic and tempting and buying it on a whim belongs to the 10%. This eclectic fiction selection, such that it is, covers the walls on the side of the shop that is also a coffee, where you can buy tea and coffee and tasty treats and sit for as long as you like and admire the books or get a head start on the one you’ve just purchased.

At the back of the shop are the children’s books, with more comfortable chairs, IMG_2836couches and tables in amongst them. It’s perfect for an impromptu story time if you can’t make it to one of the shop’s weekly story circles. When I went in last week, during the schools’ Easter holidays, two mums with 4 children between them in tow where chatting away happily in the back of the shop about what books they’d buy. Nomad Books feels like it’s part of the community. These families passing through on their day off were not the only ones giving me that impression; when I walked in a very elegant older lady was sitting in the café reading. About fifteen minutes later, an elegant little old man walked in, gallantly took his hat off and sat down across from her. Eavesdropping told me that they both live in the area and often bump into each other here.

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I’ve spent a lot of money on books lately, but it was my day off, I was on the other side of the city and I was on an adventure, so I bought Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant. It is still in a beautiful hardcover edition that won’t be around forever so if you’re thinking of buying it, do it now. It cost £20 but if the first 100 pages are anythingIMG_2831 to go by, it was more than worth it. On the back of this lovely hardcover is written a quotation from the first chapter, written in large gold writing, which captures the feeling I got in the shop. It was the feeling that there are infinite worlds out there, in the world and in books, waiting to be explored. It was the feeling that life is too short to spend only 10% of your time on adventures. It’s the feeling we get at airports and train stations at the beginning of a journey. It’s the feeling readers get when they hold a heavy hardcover in their hands, or turn the brittle first page of a favourite old paper back or read a great opening line:

‘There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…’

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London: We Need to talk about Paris

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Readers, have you been to Paris? And? Isn’t it amazing?

Yes, I know. Everyone loves Paris. Everyone agrees that it’s one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Everyone who didn’t run away to Paris at eighteen feels a pang of regret every time someone quotes Hemingway’s statement that ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ You don’t need me to drive the point home. Well, I apologise, but I’m going to have to put in my two Euro cents.

My favourite thing about visiting Paris – the thing even more dear to me than IMG_1499eating brioche with every meal or walking along the Seine at twilight – is being in a city that looks after its bookshops. Walking around the centre of Paris, I cry out ‘Librairie!’ like a joyful child at least once every sixty seconds, because in parts of Paris, bookshops are everywhere you look.

What astounds me even more than the sheer number of bookshops is that they are all independent. Each and every one of them looks different, feels different and has its own unique character. I’m sorry but DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW IMG_1085WONDERFUL THIS IS? It means that a book-hunter has the whole world at his or her feet and access to all of the world’s languages, literature, knowledge, art and poetry. Whatever you are looking for you’ll find it in Paris because you can spend your whole life looking for it in new bookshops, secondhand bookshops, English bookshops, Polish bookshops, African Studies bookshops, Philosophy, Law and Science bookshops, Art bookshops, Alpine skiing bookshops (honestly), bookshops attached to a tiny little publishing house and bookshops filled with cats. Paris gives the human race what it deserves: options, adventures, new experiences and mountains of books.

But this didn’t just happen. The French government has very actively made sure that independent bookshops, which thrive in the rest of the country as well as Paris, are able to survive in increasingly uncertain times. They have done IMG_1086this with a couple of brilliant bits of legislation. Firstly, in 1981, French lawmakers fixed book prices, which means that the discounting that makes Amazon so successful is effectively banned. Then, in 2013, MPs passed what many called the Anti-Amazon bill. Despite the fact that Amazon later called this ‘discrimination’ against online retailers (cry me a river, Goliath), it was really more about preserving the independents and ensuring that they weren’t bullied out of the market by the online giant. Now, I know that my evidence is largely anecdotal, but I think it’s working because I spent for days in Paris last month and I really did sing out ‘Librairie’ every time I saw a bookshop and I really did do it about 30 times a day. My travelling companion was very annoyed.

So, London, my question is: why aren’t we doing this? And the only good answer I can come up with is that we should be, but I’m not holding my breath. See, Amazon doesn’t even pay its tax in the UK and no one in power seems to be doing anything to keep it in line, let alone to support the character-filled, community-gathering bookshops it’s oh-so-casually threatening.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as people power and as long as you, loyal readers, continue supporting your local independents, we might just be able to IMG_1455turn the tide. Keep going to Skoob for your secondhand books and the London Review Bookshop for new ones… and for cake. If you live in Stoke Newington, go to Stoke Newington Bookshop and Church Street Books. If you live in Dulwich, it’s time to meet Dulwich Books. Next time you’re at Camden Market, check out the Blackgull Bookshop. If you’re up in NW3, try Keith Fawkes. If you’re looking for a Christmas present, go to Hatchards for choice or Persephone for something special. But enough about London. This is a tale of two cities.

IMG_1462I clearly don’t have the time to tell you about all the bookshops I visited in Paris; you’ll have to go and see them for yourselves. But I did take a few photos of a lovely bookshops called Tschann Librairie in Montparnasse. We came across it quite by accident as we wandered through the area vaguely making our way back to the Latin Quarter from the Fondation Cartier. It is a beautiful bookshop full of French books only. Tschann is quiet and warm and in the early evening, gave off a warm and welcoming glow, enticing passersby in to browse through the books and visit the attached children’s bookshop. I made my way through the bookshop, trying to decide whether or not I could justify buying yet IMG_1453another book on holiday when I’ve got such a large pile of ‘to be reads’ sitting at home. Of course, I decided I could. The shop had a great selection of history, biography, poetry and philosophy books but naturally I gravitated towards the novels. I bought Dans la café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I had been meaning to read one of his novels and buying one in French in Paris seemed the perfect way to start. It also seemed perfect because the two books I’d brought with me on holiday were The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing and Dear Life by Alice Munro. I figured you can never go wrong when you’ve got three Nobel Prize winners in your rucksack.

Oh, Paris. I love you. I love Shakespeare and Co, I love the Abbey Bookshop, I love Gibert Joseph and Red Wheelbarrow and all the independents that line your beautiful Haussman-ised boulevards. Long may they live on. Vive la librairie!

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Filigranes

IMG_2215Filigranes, Avenue des Arts 39-40, 1040 Brussels, Belgium

The entrance to Filigranes, a large bookshop on the Avenue des Arts in Brussels, is decorated like a giant gingerbread house, with snowflakes painted on the windows and beautiful seasonal displays facing the street from warmly-lit windows.  It’s like walking into a fairy tale.

The first room is large and open, with books and book-related products covering every inch of the walls and crowding tables, displays and even bits of the floor.  The shelves wind their way in and out of IMG_2210corners, creating both wide open spaces and smaller, cozier ones  for the more reclusive.  I personally tend to classify myself in the latter category, so I was pleased to find that there is room enough for everyone to have their own space.  As the rows of books carry you from the front of the shop all the way around the room, there are little nooks where you can dip into the quiet philosophy section for a moment, then dip back out into the jolly noises in the rest of the shop.  In the middle of this first room are not one but two cafes, where book-lovers and coffee-lovers alike can stop, relax and enjoy the lively, festive atmosphere of the shop.  Thankfully, the cafe-goers and the bookshelf browsers never step on each other’s toes: there is enough space in this massive shop for everyone to choose between the quiet retreat of a corner surrounded by pages or the bright and bustling cafe scene.  Indeed, looking at the coffee-sippers, half chatting and half admiring their new purchases, I realised that many of them had probably been quietly browsing only moments ago.  Do you know what this means?  You could spend hours in this shop, arriving first thing in the morning and not feeling that you need to leave until closing time, because in this delightful city of books you’ll have food for the mind (novels, philosophy, history, art),  food for the body (oh those eclairs…) and food for the soul (poetry, god damn it) at your disposal.

Yes, it would make quite a good day trip, spending a whole day wandering around the bookshop, peeking into corners and admiring the smooth white spines of French books and only taking a break to refuel.  But the thing about Filigranes is that you might end up staying for hours even when you certainly IMG_2213hadn’t planned to.  The place is a labyrinth (there’s a map of the shop on their website), a seemingly endless progression of more and more rooms, each one seemingly bigger than the last and each one full of wonderful and exciting things.  It’s a book city, a book palace, a book maze and the perfect place to get lost.  Room after room unfolds and the further you get from the entrance, the quieter the rooms become as the more obscure genres find their homes.  Here, in the suburbs of the book city, are the comics and graphic  novels, children’s books in French and other European languages, a small games and toys section (all very tasteful, don’t worry), humanities, and cooking.  The art section is particularly noteworthy, as it’s larger than many and filled with books which tell the stories of talented artists and reproduce timeless paintings, but are also beautiful objects worth treasuring in their own right.  Brussels is full of art, artistic people and really lovely art bookshops, including the Librairie St Hubert, which I’ll write about soon.  From what I’ve seen, Brussels embraces the most high-brow of art forms, but is equalIMG_2212ly devoted to the quirkiness, randomness and playful side of art.  In fact, in the bookshop of the charmingly weird Museum of Musical Instruments I flipped through a book about art deco masterpieces hidden in the architecture of the city.  It’s fitting that Filigranes, one of its best larger bookshops, should have such a good range of titles. There’s also a champagne and caviar bar in the middle of it all.  In case you get thirsty.

And at the very end of the shop, which, as in any good labyrinth, is right next to the beginning, there is a truly impressive and inspiring collection of international books in English, other European languages and I’m sure many others that I was too overwhelmed to notice. It always strikes me as a bit unfair and a bit embarrassing that most bookshops in the UK never have more than a bay of books in other languages – though places IMG_2214like The European Bookshop, Skoob, Book Mongers and The French Bookshop in London are trying to change that.  Although the quality of these international English bookshops is never guaranteed to be any good, at least it’s an attempt at internationalism.  But at Filigranes, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the foreign language section; like every other genre represented, it is top notch, with a thoughtful mix of canonical favourites and the best of what’s out now. Filigranes makes the best possible use of the vast space it has by ensuring that on its shelves there is no genre, no country, no language and no style which is unrepresented.

As we wandered through the shop last week, marvelling at its size and scope every time we turned a corner and found it opening up into a new room, an announcement came over the loudspeakers and a voice invited browsers to stay a little longer than usual for a pre-Christmas do.  Authors were coming in to sign books, red wine was being passed around, live music would be starting imminently and in every way possible, the party was kicking off.  There was dinner to make and a warm cozy flat to get back to, so after spending entirely too long flipping through the magazines, art books, French poetry and novels in English, I pulled myself away.  But walking out into the dark, cold street I took comfort in the thought that all evening, book-lovers, music-lovers and food-lovers would be reading, laughing, eating and, surrounded by beautiful words and favourite characters, enjoying the company of friends.

The French Bookshop

IMG_2142The French Bookshop, 28 Bute Street, London, SW7 3EX

I spent some time yesterday wandering around South Kensington, through the slick wet streets, which were dark already by half past four, a sure sign that winter is upon us. As my umbrella struggled valiantly against the wind and the rain soaked through my boots, I had one of those London moments when you feel like you’re walking through a film set.  The Christmas lights at Harrod’s were already up, twinkling in the cold dusk while tourists and locals alike popped in and out of those lovely boutiques and cafés that fill the area.

Anyone who has been in South Kensington in the last couple of years might have noticed that walking around the museums or sitting in the up-scale coffeehouses, you hear more French than English being spoken.  The area is home to a huge population of French ex-pats as well as the French Institute and French schools, cinemas, cafes and, yes bookshops.  One day I’ll return for Au Fil Des Mots and Librarie La Page, but last night, The French Bookshop stole the show.

IMG_2139Bute Street, just a few minutes away from the tube station (which is seconds away from the wonderful South Kensington Books) is a quiet street that is home to several small independent businesses, the loveliest of which is The French Bookshop, where warm wooden shelves (there’s just something about wooden shelves, isn’t there?) hold an impeccably organised, tidy and straight selection of books from every genre and for every age written in, or translated into, French.  I always love going into other language bookshops because you get a glimpse into another culture, expressed in terms of the different publishers, authors and categories define the reading experiences of another culture.  And being in this bookshop in particular made me want to go to Paris, a city full of beautiful independents in a country which recognises their importance, tries to keep them viable and gives them the love they deserve.

The shop has a large selection of French books, classic and contemporary in many genres, including fiction, history, philosophy, biography and poetry.  ThereIMG_2136 are also children’s books and books for learners of French, so there really is something for every reader at every level of French, which only served to make me feel more guilty about the fact that I’ve neglected my French in the past few years and gone from being quite nearly fluent to awkwardly forgetting the words for things like ‘keys’ or ‘cup.’  So when the booksellers at The French Bookshop started talking to me in French and I could barely string together a sentence, I was rather embarrassed, but if there is any place in the world where hope springs eternal,it’s in a bookshop, where behind every corner another story is about to start and beckons you to come along.  So one of these days, I promised myself, I’ll pick up a book in French (though perhaps I’ll start with a children’s book) and let the adventure begin anew.

But there are many forms that adventure can take!  Of course you can seek out a classic French novel, your essential Zola or Hugo or Proust if you fancy a long haul, but you can also find out about the best in contemporary French literature, which is always refreshing.  Alternatively, there are titles originally written in English (IMG_2138in the top left corner there you’ll see a translation of Joyce Carol Oates) and other languages ranging from Arabic to Swedish, if you felt like re-reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or, Les Hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes, a translation that’s quite a bit closer to the (depressing) original Swedish.  And, for those who are more into cold hard facts than escapism, there’s also a better selection of high-quality newspapers and magazines in French than you’re going to find anywhere else in London.  Go on, look, I dare you.

As you enter the shop, there’s a poster on the wall next to the fiction section which I just have to share.  It sets the tone for the rest of the shop and makes any reader, regardless of native language, feel right at home.  It’s Daniel Pennac’s ‘Les Droits du Lecteur’ or ‘Rights of the Reader,’ which are:

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1. The right not to read

2. The right to skip pages

3. The right not to finish a book

4. The right to re-read

5. The right to read whatever you want

6. The right to ‘Bovarysme’ (the error of identifying too much with the book)

7. The right to read wherever you want

8. The right to dip in and out

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to silence!

I had never seen this before but I just love it, and a friend has told me that Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator, who I had the good fortune to hear speaking at The Hay Festival) has an excellent poster of the rights, which sounds like it would make a perfect Christmas gift for your favourite book-loving child.  And if you can track down a copy in an independent shop, all the better! Just a helpful hint from The Matilda Project!

IMG_2137The French Bookshop offers so many new ideas and opportunities to discover that you may never want to return to boring old English again. If that’s the case you can buy your travel guides and maps of all of France’s regions on the spot and ride off into the sunset with Flaubert under one arm and your pocket map of Paris close to hand.

That very fantasy got me thinking about cultural exchange, and how books are a huge part of the way that different cultures learn about each other, particularly here in England, where Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens are more loved at home and abroad than many living celebrities.  I’ve always felt that when traveling you should go to a bookshop or a library, since the insight they give into  a new place is always interesting and one you might not otherwise get.  I also try to read books about the places I’m going or written by people who call those places home.  But it’s IMG_2140only recently that I’ve started reflecting on the importance of carrying books and writers and special words with you from the place you come from.  I think we enrich the lives of the people we meet if we can bring some unique line of poetry or some unique, untranslatable word from our language out into the world with us.  But maybe we also enrich our own lives, by carrying a piece of home with us.

The French Bookshop, you might say, is a concrete illustration of that principle, a way for ex-pats and émigrés to bring something with them from one home to another, so that they can stay connected to their culture while also bringing it with them as a gift for new neighbours.  And I think there’s something lovely about the thought that when people leave home for unfamiliar shores, the thing they create to remember where they used to be is a bookshop; the things they carry with them to remember who they used to be are words and stories.

Balfour Books

IMG_2129Balfour Books, 468 College Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6G 1A1

I finished a book last night.  Curled up in bed to protect myself against the cold weather in Toronto, Umberto Eco took me away to an uncharted island somewhere in Polynesia in 1643 in The Island of the Day Before. I always leave myself one sleep before starting a new book.  If you close one and immediately open another you do a disservice to the new book, since you’re still really in the world of the other.  So I went to bed, and woke up this morning feeling a book-shaped void in my life.  I have 6 days left in my trip to Toronto and, finding myself out of books, I headed out to Balfour Books in a panic.

Buying books for or while on a holiday is a tricky business.  You don’t want to bring War and Peace because you might well spend the whole time reading one book, which seems a waste.  On the other hand, you don’t want to bring five or six shorter books because – as the Kindle Zombies will tell you – IMG_2127books are sooooo unbearably heavy that I don’t even know how anyone ever carried one.  (My answer to said Kindle Zombies: ditch two or three pairs of shoes and all your gadgets for a few books so you have something actually interesting to do and stop moaning.)  That said, I do try to bring only a few books on holiday – the more books you have the more likely you are to forget one or leave an old one behind to have space for a new one.  And, for me, part of the fun of traveling with books is bringing them home again, with a ticket stub or metro pass from another city tucked in somewhere, to sit on my shelf and remind me of my travels.

But if you don’t bring enough books you may end up with six days left and no reading material.  This gives you the chance to go book-hunting in a new city, but suddenly you are looking for just one book to get you through.  Suddenly you have to worry about how long it you should buy to keep you busy and how thick or thin it needs to be to fit in your bag.  It’s stressful.

I thought a lot (probably too much) about all these questions and in the end IMG_2122decided to visit Balfour Books, a used bookshop on College Street, to find something relatively short but interesting and challenging enough that I wouldn’t speed through it too quickly.  I had Virginia Woolf in mind because her novels meet those criteria, and because she’d prepare me to go back to London.  I walked for ages along a grey and dreary College Street so by the time I finally saw Balfour Books I was more than ready to get out of the cold and the harsh banality of downtown Toronto and wrap myself up in the soft, comfortable glow of the bookshop.

The advantage of book-hunting at 11am on a Tuesday is that everyone who IMG_2127actually lives here is at work, so I was the only customer.  As I wandered around the shelves and in and out of quiet enclaves, I was alone with books, classical music and the quiet chatter of the lovely bookseller and another woman I suspect was an employee or a friend.  They politely welcomed me when I came in, offered to help and then left me to browse silently, which is all I ever want to do.  I love booksellers who get that.  While I planted myself down in a chair near the Fiction section, the two ladies continued their conversation which meandered from books to art to wildlife to travel and back to books again.  I could have sat there for hours listening.

IMG_2120The bookshop has a great selection of books from many different genres.  The fiction selection is huge and includes everything from ancient Greece to the present, with books that range from cheap paperback editions of classics to beautiful hardcover copies of contemporary novels by the biggest authors of recent years.  Speaking of which, atop a lovely old chest of drawers at the front of the shop, short story collections by Alice Munro catch the eye and remind the world that, finally, a Canadian has actually done something worthwhile.  I tease, but Alice Munro is brilliant and deserves the attention.  IMG_2124Besides, it’s always good when a bookshop makes the effort to get its customers to pay attention to good writing.   Balfour Books also has travel, cooking, science, art, architecture, mystery, poetry and drama sections which are excellently stocked and have labels on the shelves made of Scrabble letters.  It’s so cool.  The books range from pristine almost-new copies to battered old ones which are nearly falling apart!

There is also an excellent children’s section, where you’ll find classic and contemporary picture books, the very best of chapter books as well as some IMG_2125young adult and teen titles.  My favourite part of the children’s section, though, are the ancient (or at least vintage!) hardback copies of well-known children’s favourites and their lesser-known contemporaries.  There are lovely old copies of The Jungle Book and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and an 1865 children’s book called The Brownies by Juliana Ewing, about magical little creatures who sneak into homes and night and help out.  This was the book that gave the Baden-Powells their name for the younger division of the Girl Guides.  I’m a Brownie leader in London by night so this made me very happy and I nearly bought it.  Had I not been on holiday and worried about the weight of my bag I would have.

After being distracted from my Virginia Woolf search by several IMG_2128novels, a book of poetry and a biography of Hillary Clinton I knelt down and rummaged through the pile of paperbacks and pulled out two of Woolf’s novels that I haven’t read: Jacob’s Room and Orlando.  They were both only $4 (£2.40) and I’m sure I would have loved either.  But something made me put them down. I love Virginia Woolf.  I love the way her tales of London are 90 odd years old but still add something to my own experience of that city.  But sitting there, crouched over the bottom shelf, I realised that when you’re traveling, even somewhere not really new, it seems like a cop-out to pick out a book that reminds you of the place you came from or are going back to.  There will always be time for the familiar, but when you’re far away it’s good to embrace someone else’s familiar.  Surely that, above all else, is what books teach us.

Nothing would have been nearly as interesting if Bilbo Baggins had got his way and stayed at  home living his normal happy life.   I would have had IMG_2121nothing to entertain me last night if Umberto Eco’s Roberto had never left his little Italian village and made his way toward the lights of seventeenth century Paris.  The adventure plot is one of the oldest in Western literature and there’s a reason we’re still fascinated by it.  It’s why we travel.  It’s why we go to new places and it’s why we return years later to the old ones.  There may not be dragons, there may not be gold, there may not be a fair maiden, but if we listen to the songs and stories of the people in the places where we find ourselves, sometimes, we really do find ourselves.  So I took the hint.  I bought The Progress of Love by Alice Munro for $7.  I hope that reading it will help me find a way to link the stories of the place I came from with the stories of the many places where I’ll find myself.

The Matilda Project Hits the Hay Festival

IMG_1908Hay-on-Wye is a little town of about 1500 people that sits just on the border of England and Wales and is most famous for the Hay Festival, the annual gathering that celebrates literature and the arts.

But the town’s other claim to fame is that it is the ‘Town of Books.’  Despite its small size and population, the town is home to more than thirty bookshops. In 1962, when Richard Booth opened the first one, Hay was a quiet little place in the Welsh borders but within ten years, it had become Mecca for bibliophiles, as dozens of other bookshops clustered around it.  In 1977, Booth declared it The Independent Kingdom of Hay, and since then, the town, its literary festival and its many bookshops have made it heaven for book tourists.

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I am one such tourist.  The incompatibility of our little tent with the rainy Welsh weather aside, it has been brilliant to see writers, artists, philosophers and booksellers talk to sold-out crowds about the things they love.  But Hay’s bookshops have really stolen my heart and with a running total of eight books bought, I am going a little bit crazy.

While it is impossible to really go through all the bookshops in the town on such a short trip, over the next couple of days I will try (if I can pull apart the blur of book-related bliss and organise them into separate bookshops) to walk you, my beloved readers, through the bookshops of Hay, in the hopes that you will fall in love with them the way I have.

Stay posted, and happy reading.

 

Owl Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanfords

IMG_1646Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London, WC2E 9LP

Going to Covent Garden a week before Christmas is a really, really bad idea.  Yes, it looks lovely.  Everything is atwinkle with the light of a million Rudolph’s noses and the festive cheer is contagious.  But unless you’re someone who loves crowds (I’m not), you’ll feel like a total Scrooge for wanting to swiftly and silently murder the throng of jolly Yuletide shoppers.

No one wants to feel Scrooge-y.

The only reason to brave such an excursion is if you are on the prowl for a bookshop.  Today, I battled through with my elbows out to get to Stanfords on Long Acre, the famous maps and travel bookshop.

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The shop is full of maps!  Maps as big as your wall and maps that fit in your pocket; maps of the whole world and maps of individual neighbourhoods.  There are travel guides, travel fiction and travel accessories.

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Stanfords is bigger and more commercial than most of my usual haunts, but variety is always a good thing and Stanfords really is a lovely place.  I don’t know if it was just because it’s so close to Christmas, or if it’s the fact that everyone in the shop is dreaming about their next adventure, but the atmosphere was positively buzzing with excitement.

But when you think about it, of course it is!  Even those who aren’t afflicted with IMG_1649a travel addiction know that the thought of vacating your everyday life for a little while and going somewhere exciting and different and fundamentally new is intoxicating.  Looking at maps, spinning globes and reading about museums, galleries and independent cafes in other cities is a joy.  In Stanfords, I think what people are really buying are the possibilities.  They’re buying the knowledge that Spain and Thailand and South Africa and Brazil are out there, somewhere, waiting for them. They’re imagining that those places can be explored by strolls through piazzas, wanders through independent librerías and restaurants with ocean views or by treks through the forests, bike rides along the coast, hikes up the mountains.  Stanfords has maps and books for all these possibilities, telling you how to cycle through France, jog in New York, hike in Tibet or bungee-jump in Vietnam.

IMG_1650Stanfords has everything you need for a trip to, say, Moscow.  Maps of the city and all its neighbourhoods, a huge selection of travel guides, guides to the surrounding area, books about contemporary and historical Russian politics, histories of the Czars and the Russian Revolution and books written by Russian writers and set in Russia.  Because who wants to go to Moscow without having read Tolstoy?

And the fact that Stanfords realises this is what I love most about this bookshop.  Books are not only seen as accessories to or facilitators of travel, but also as travelling companions.  They are worth bringing along not just to consult them about whether there’s a Starbucks in Lima, but also to complement your experience of the world’s invisible cities by reading the stories of their famous voices and their marginalised ones and by understanding the vast differences and, more importantly, the similarities between them.

Personally, I’ve always tended to separate reading from travelling, though I don’t know why I should!  Although one of my favourite parts of visiting a new city is exploring its bookshops (in fact I got the inspiration for this blog in an independent bookshop in Stockholm), I tend to imagine that there are the real journeys I make through streets and cities and the imaginative journeys I make in books, while sitting in my armchair with a cup of Darjeeling.  My visit to Stanfords today reminded me that a book, even if it’s just a map or a travel guide, is the perfect travelling companion.  Not only does it quietly acquiesce without a single complaint to your insistence on visiting every single church in Florence, but it lets you stick your tickets and metro passes in its pages, to be pulled out and remembered one day years later. My own copy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South will forever remind me of a romantic weekend in Sweden spent reading, drinking tea and eating kanelbulle in Östermalm, as will Strindberg’s Miss Julie which I bought there in a foreign language bookshop.  One day, looking back at your swollen copy of Dubliners you’ll remember that it rained every day you were in Ireland; your tattered map of Tangiers will remind you that for the life of you, you just couldn’t get the layout of the city straight in your head and it will call to mind the many  unplanned adventures you had in its back-alleys.