Tag Archives: used books

In Which the Author Confesses her Crime


Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make: I am guilty of a small crime. I only hope you find it charming and that you don’t abandon your well-meaning but overly-zealous book-hunting correspondent.

Last week I walked into a large second hand bookshop in the south-west. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that lest my confession is whispered into the wrong ears. I roamed through aisles of bookshelves, looking for the good and interesting secondhand books in the sea of mass market paperbacks. The hidden gems are always there and I welcome the challenge.

I picked up a tattered old hardcover book (which I shouldn’t name) and was turning the the thick, yellowing pages when a small piece of paper fluttered out. I knelt down to pick it up and read the little note that had lovingly been tucked into this book.

Some time ago, judging from the name ‘Neville’ and the fragility of the paper, a sister used this funny little book as a means of transporting a feeling, a thought, to a loved one.

The note reads, ‘Neville, Dad’s copy of S.C.C.C. Handbook, thought you might enjoy it,’ followed by a swooping signature I can’t quite make out but for some reason am supposing is female.

Now, I know this note wasn’t meant for me. But it was meant for someone who would know what it meant. Someone who would understand that within the brittle, yellowing pages of an old book, a human life can be deposited, memories can sit and collect, waiting to be opened up and brought back to life with startling force. Maybe Neville wasn’t that person, and when he was clearing out his cluttered house he didn’t keep a piece of his family history. I prefer to think that he did understand, and kept the book in a place of honour, even if he never read it himself, because it meant something. I don’t know how old this note is, so maybe Neville is long dead and it’s the original owner’s grandchildren who sent it to its new home here in this bookshop.

The truth doesn’t really matter. What means most to me is the way this simple note, tucked into this little book, opens up infinite possibilities for stories happy and sad. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe that human lives are bound up with books. We move through chapters in our lives, turn over new leaves, impose narrative structure on random events and aspire to happy endings. I know this note wasn’t meant for me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to be part of the story. So, selfishly leaving the book itself to wait for the next browser, who, I know, will now get less out of it, I tucked the note into my pocket and took it home with me.

I just can’t help it; I love a good story. I hope you won’t judge me too harshly.


The Addyman Annexe

IMG_1946The Addyman Annexe, 27 Castle Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5DF

What do you do when your successful bookshop starts to overflow and you just can’t bear to part with the beautiful books?  You create an annexe, a place where there’s more room to spread out and the opportunity to add a new twist to an already-beloved business.  The Addyman Annexe is only a few minutes away from its parent, though in the tiny town of Hay-on-Wye, you could say that of any two locations.  Although the same wide selection and evident love of literature can be found in this shop, it feels different – more modern, more open and exciting in different ways.

IMG_1936During the Hay Festival, the shop was constantly packed with browsers.  Its lovely exterior, simpler design, more contemporary feel and emphasis on what’s good in publishing right now drew a younger crowd than Addyman Books, making it feel more like one of my usual London bookshops than the secondhand treasure coves that populate the rest of Hay.  As much as I love cramped corners, crumbling old tomes and disheveled bookcases, it was refreshing to be in a neat, bright and more vocal environment.  Customers twittered away happily about the events they’d attended, the books they were buying and the beautiful displays that filled the front of the shop, while the bookseller at the till patiently spoke with everyone about their choices.

The front room of the Addyman Annexe is extremely appealing.  During the festival, there was a table devoted to books by festival speakers, arranged immaculately and invitingly amongst the usual fare.  That fare was, as in many of the best bookshops, made up of a perfect mix of popular fiction, non-fiction and a few bays of New Releases, Bestsellers and a staff-curated selection of favourites.  Any bookshop that puts this much thought into their displays is sure to be a good one.   This attractive IMG_1943entrance falls back into another room, filled with history and politics and other misplaced books.  That small room is decorated elegantly and simply, with red walls, neat rows of books and their overspill, piled on the floor.  The sheer number of books packed into this small shop is astounding and  – for someone quickly running out of shelf space – inspiring.  I don’t know how the Annexe manages to keep the overspill from Addyman Books as well as its own massive stock looking neat and orderly while at the same time evoking that feeling of being snuggled up amongst the stacks of an old library.  I do know that I’m in awe.  The shop combines the best of the two kinds of bookshops found in Hay;  the bibliomania of volumes cascading off of shelves with an easy, open atmosphere that invites everyone, regardless of age or income.  Some of the books are new, though most are used and the prices are very reasonable.  Of course the rarer books are more expensive, but you can buy a good paperback for just a few quid.

In one of the front windows there is a display of those old favourites of mine – orange Penguin paperbacks.  These used titles range from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence and are all well-priced.  This is a relief compared to many of the other bookshops in Hay, who stock beautiful books which are far to rare and precious for the average IMG_1937browser to actually buy. But any good city, I think, needs a healthy range of bookshops, giving us choice and variety and the freedom to look at unattainable treasures, but also find a cheap copy of our next read.  Nestled in amongst them are Penguin’s line of mugs.  Now normally I’m not a fan of cross-promotion and don’t like the cheapening of literature through such obvious money-grabs.  That being said … I might have a Great Gatsby mug.  What am I – perfect?  And I’ll say this for small independents: I know it’s hard for them to make as much money as they used to from books alone, so it must be tempting to branch out a little bit.  If that’s what needs to happen to keep places like this afloat, we’ll just have to grin and bear it.  I’d much rather have Penguin mugs and tote bags in amongst the books than plastic toys and Starbucks coffee or – the horror – losing the bookshops altogether.

The rest of this room is filled with a few different sections, including poetry and IMG_1939some fiction, though the majority of it is in the back room.  There are some rarer editions of novels here as well as a couple of modern first editions.  The selection in this shop is what really sets is apart from other bookshops in Hay.  On the shop’s website they say that here is where they store ‘the sexier material: beat, sex, drugs, art, modern firsts, poetry, philosophy, left wing history and the occasional occult work!’  The quirky selection is fun, adventurous and most of all, accessible, since the bookshop is so friendly and homey.


Up a few steps is a room with yellow walls.  This back room houses the general fiction section as well as – if memory serves – literary criticism and biography. This room is just as neat and tidy, as bright and welcoming as all the others.  And, like the others, it’s quite full.  A large table in the centre features IMG_1942some excellent staff-chosen selections, piles of books collect along the bottoms of shelves again and the shelves that cover all four walls are packed.  It’s a beautiful thing.  The selection is, naturally, amazing and includes novels from across the centuries in various editions – beautiful hardcovers to cheap paperback editions.  In the end, I walked out with a small paperback edition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha with a very cool cover which only cost £3.  My second purchase here was one of those nice red-spined Vintage editions of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin which only cost £4.50.

IMG_1941Now, this is probably just going to reveal my ignorance, but I had never even heard of Christopher Isherwood until about a moth ago.  I was browsing in the Foyles on the Southbank when I discovered him.  I read the backs of Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains and was intrigued, but went on with my day.  Now have you ever had that experience where you swear you’ve never heard of something in your life until one day you do and then it’s everywhere?  Well, it was like that with Isherwood.  Another instance of Book Fate.  I have learned in my book-hunting escapades that if a book reaches out to you on a few separate occasions, you really ought to give it a chance; it’s trying so hard!  I knew I had made the right decision in trusting the Fates when the friendly bookseller at the till gave my selections and approving nod and said ‘Two brilliant books.’  I felt a bit bad taking the credit; as with most of the best things in life, I didn’t find them, they found me.

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!’

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad Street Book Centre

IMG_1878Broad Street Book Centre, 6 Broad Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5DB

Now this, my friends, is a proper bookshop.  Housed inside a beautiful Tudor building (or maybe Tudor revival, but I’m not fussy), The Broad Street Book Centre is at the centre of Hay and its dimly-lit windows, wooden floorboards and IMG_1867display of books in the front window draw in many aimless wanderers off the street.  Each inch of wall space and lots of the floor space too is covered with beautiful rare and secondhand books, just waiting for you to come and pick them up.  Many of them are so old and frail, with thin pages, crumbling spines and delicate gold-leaf, that it almost feels unfair to disturb their rest on the walls by picking them up.  But fortunately, the overwhelming message that the shop sends is that this is a place where adventure is allowed, so explore on!

IMG_1876The shop basically consists of what feels like a never-ending string of rooms, which are labelled in the most mystifying system I have ever seen.  I’m sure it makes sense for the owner of the bookshop to say ‘Ah yes, this book needs to go to section A in Room 8b’, but to the average browser, it’s not very helpful.  It is however, charming, so I’ll allow it. And it makes the shop feel a bit like a labyrinth, one where an alternatively benevolent and sadistic overlord gives you hints on how to leave which you never know if you should trust or not.  But the joke’s on him because I’m not trying to leave.  I had to be dragged out in the end, with the gentle admonition that if I spent as much time in every bookshop in Hay as I did in this one, I’d never get through all of them.  Which, in the end, I didn’t.

But if you find yourself scratching your head as  you try to get your head around the somewhat chaotic collection of rooms and books as you make your way through the labyrinth, try to enjoy being lost.  Wandering, in shops like this one, invites a certain wonderful phenomenon: serendipity.  SecondhandIMG_1869 bookshops are one of the best places in  the world for serendipitous moments to happen; indeed, I don’t think any other kind of place is better suited to creating that ‘Well would you look at that!’ feeling.  And that feeling is one of the best feelings we can ever have; it reminds us that despite our efforts to micromanage and control every moment of our days, the world and all its magical possibilities still have the power to surprise us.  It’s a feeling that sadly is becoming less and less common as we not just lose, but freely give up, our ability to accept the random, the unplanned and the unexpected.  Fortunately it is still allowed and even fostered in secondhand bookshops like this one.

IMG_1872One of my favourite rooms in the shop to rummage around in held the children’s section, Folio Society Editions and modern novels. The children’s selection had lots of the contemporary favourites – Harry Potter, Narnia and other secondhand copies of our favourites – but also had many beautiful hardcover children’s books from the 30s and 40s that have been forgotten, including some titles by Enid Blyton that I had never heard of (although I also heard lately that the wrote over 600 children’s books – can you imagine?!) and some very dated storybooks for girls and boys.  The section was colourful and the light from the window just above it made for a bright and pleasant reading area, with a little wooden chair perfect for storytime gatherings, should some ambitious parent decide to try.  On the IMG_1873opposite wall was a brilliant collection of modern first editions, featuring books by writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and all the other darlings of contemporary fiction.  A small selection of these first editions were actually signed by the authors, so they will have been much more expensive, but the rest of the books were affordable.  I would say that for the average paperback novel, you could expect to pay about £5, though many were cheaper than that and a great many of the beautiful rare books were much more expensive.  IMG_1871The final wall of this room was covered in Folio Society Editions of everything from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Arthur Conan Doyle to Emily Bronte.  Some were more expensive than others, again, but most were around £20, making them the perfect gift even if buying one for yourself feels a bit extravagant.  As regular readers know, I love the Folio Society and should probably not go on about them as much as I do, but I will say once again, that they are perfect as presents, particularly if you want to give someone a special copy of a book they love to be kept in a place of honour on their bookshelf.

IMG_1877The shop also has a brilliant collection of CDs, sheet music, history, politics and poetry books and a room that is full of books about the railways.  Because why not, I guess.  I very much doubt that there is anything you couldn’t find in this bookshop, that there is any booklover whose ideal birthday present isn’t lurking at the back of one of its shelves.  And if you’re looking for serendipity or book fate (something I had a great chat about with a bookseller at Richard Booth’s Bookshop – coming up!) this is the place to go.  You’re sure to find a new book, or author, or even genre that you’d never heard of before but won’t be able to get out of your head.


Which brings me to ‘the one that got away.’  In the fiction section near the front of the shop, I gasped out loud when I discovered a small early edition of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.  This is the first in the Scottish writer’s series of twelve books of fairy tales, which collect famous stories like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty with more obscure ones from all over the world.  This book had IMG_1868a blue hard cover, gold  leaf pages, and a Happy Birthday inscription on the front cover.  And it only cost £6.  Unfortunately, knowing that I had already spent too much money on books on my little trip to Hay, I decided to leave it.  For now.  In a way, seeing it there was more precious to me than actually taking it home.  When I was a little girl I used to take Lang’s Fairy Books out of the library at school after our kind  school librarian suggested one to me and I became completely hooked.  I would borrow them week after week until I had read all of the ones we had in the library several times. And I hadn’t thought about that in about ten years.  Like so many other childhood memories, reading those books has probably formed my personality in many ways and I doubt I would be the person I am without them, but they had slipped into the dark recesses at the back of my mind.  Until, as if a bit of fate or serendipity had followed me all the way to Wales, I saw them sitting on a shelf in the Broad Street Book Centre, and precious memories from years ago came flooding back.

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.’