Tag Archives: West London

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…’

South Kensington Books

southkenSouth Kensington Books, 22 Thurloe Street, London, SW7 2LT

The other day I had to go to Knightsbridge and it was awful.  The crowds of tourists milling in and out of Harrod’s, the rows upon rows of astronomically expensive designer shops and the worship of consumerism and materialism for its own sake sicken me.  Did you know that Harrod’s has a bookshop?  It’s filled with screaming children, smells overwhelmingly of perfume and has Celebrations, the book about nothing by Pippa Middleton, on display. After about five minutes in there, I decided to take the long way home and go via South Kensington for a little bit of sanity.

The streets of South Ken are pristine, elegant and sweet and there are quaint little cobbled roads with small cafes and boutiques and little families who walk all in a line behind mother duck on their way to the Museums.  And right outside the tube, in Thurloe Street, is a beautiful little bookshop I can never resist popping into every time I’m in the area.  (For the record, on the rare occasion I’m in the area, it’s almost always because I’ve been at the V&A, which you’ll be pleased to know has an absolutely stunning library.)

After the madness I had to walk through to get to it, I don’t think I can put in words how much of a relief it was to come to this quiet little street and a bookshop that has real class.  If the future of book-buying is a loud, chaotic, overly-perfumed room sandwiched between the Luxury Gifts section and a toy shop, I want no part in it.  Give me South Kensington Books any day.  I would gladly forsake the company of the rest of human kind and even pay a bit more to buy my books here, where the money spent is so much less important than the experience of book-hunting.

But this little bookshop warrants so much more than a comparison with Harrod’s, so I’ll stop my griping now and give it the attention it doesn’t demand, but nonetheless deserves.

South Kensington Books blends perfectly into its surroundings; it’s elegant, understated, quiet and absolutely lovely. Its front window display is one of the most inviting I’ve ever seen with big beautiful cookbooks, children’s books, history books, novels, maps and postcards.  Above the books you can just about glimpse a preview of what’s inside; dim lights, wooden shelves and rows and rows of new friends to meet.  I blame this window for drawing me in one too many times and taking altogether too much money from me over the years.

IMG_1756The first room is full of your usual bookshop fare.  On one wall is its very well-stocked fiction section, where you’ll find most of the classics, contemporary fiction, the current bestsellers and all the award-winners.  All the books are brand new and ever so slightly cheaper than retail price.  For example, the retail price on Within a Budding Grove, which I bought and am now dying to read, was £9.99, but I got it for £7.99.  So, no, not a competitor with Amazon on price, I’m afraid, but they certainly undercut Waterstone’s.  There’s also a fantastic selection of beautiful art books, which I’m afraid I don’t have the intellect to appreciate nearly as much as they deserve, but still love to admire. The travel book section is wonderful (if a bit Lonely Planet-heavy, but what can you do?) and I nearly bought myself a guide book for my upcoming trip to Copenhagen, but decided I’d rather wander the streets without guidance or expectations this time around.  Don’t worry, if there’s a bookshop, I will gladly offer up the Matilda Project’s first Danish entry.

(Look at what’s just happened! Once again, a bookshop in London has had the power to transport me somewhere completely different, putting meddlesome ideas in my head.)

But back to South Kensington.

In the back room is the bookshop’s really amazing selection of history books.  This is my new go-to bookshop when looking for presents for my dad.  The man is obsessed with history.  For Christmas I got him Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  It’s probably 700 pages but he was so excited and I IMG_1754know the enormous tomes on display here would make him very happy. British and American history and politics are very well-represented, but the selection is not quite as Western-biased as a lot of bookshops I’ve been in; the rest of the world gets its say too.  The back room also has a small selection of children’s books and a wall full of beautiful books of poetry.  They had the selected poems of Keats, Byron, Blake and Wordsworth in the lovely hardcover collections with beautiful covers that Faber & Faber released recently, where a contemporary poet selects the poems and writes the introduction.  Have you seen them yet? They’re gorgeous.  I almost bought Memorial by Alice Oswald, which is a brilliant collection of poems that’s sort of a re-writing of the Iliad.  She explains it much more eloquently than that though. I wanted it, but two books in one day seemed a bit decadent.

Oh, and the entire back wall was covered in cookbooks of all shapes and sizes, ranging from your conventional recipe book to a guide to what flavours work well together.

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The last time I was in here, they also had a whole shelf of Folio Society editions of some classic and some contemporary novels.  If you’re not familiar with them, the Folio Society produce beautiful hardcover copies of books, working on the ethos that ‘Some books are worth treasuring.’  Their books are the kind that you use to build your perfect library, and then pass on to your children. I went in once and saw a really wonderful Folio Society edition of the Complete Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and from then on have been pretty much sold.  Another time, I found their copy of Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee which had amazing colour illustrations by Andrew Gibson.

On my most recent visit, though, they were conspicuously missing. I asked the bookseller what had happened to them and he’d told me that since the last time I’d been in there, maybe a month earlier, the majority of them had been sold.  This is a good thing, I suppose, since it means the bookshop must be doing all right and that people still care about having books that are more than just a file and still feel the need to treasure them, share them and pass them on.  I’m not going to pretend I didn’t miss admiring them though.

A quick note on the Folio Society.  They earned my eternal love and devotion the day I first saw this advert on the tube:

‘Rekindle your love of Beautiful Books’ is obviously a not-so-subtle jab at Amazon and their Kindle and I think it’s brilliant.  Wake up, humans, your Kindles aren’t special!

And here we go, time for another one of Emily’s rants.  I get a lot of comments on this blog saying things like ‘I have and Kindle and I love it, but I still love paper books!’ I have a friend who owns one and says as useful as it is, she’ll never stop buying real books.  Well I’ve got news for you, guys.  Sorry if it offends, but you can’t have both.

If you want to own a Kindle, knowing that it threatens to put bookshops and publishers out of business and stifle high-quality creative output by letting it get lost in a sea of self-publishing and digital ‘files’, you are not allowed to complain.

You’re not allowed to moan when your favourite newspaper stops producing print copies.  You’re not allowed to grieve when your local independent goes out of business.  Because you know what?  It will be your fault.  If you stop going to libraries and bookshops and buying from small publishers and supporting authors at events in real life, you’re not allowed to complain when those things disappear.  If you buy more ebooks than print books, whether you like it or not, you’ll play a part in putting amazing places like South Kensington Books out of business.

When HMV went into administration, I listened to my friends complain about how there would be nowhere on the high street to browse, to fondle physical copies of the music and film they love, to talk to humans about them.  Finally, I got fed up and asked them how many of them had actually gone to HMV in the last year and was met with silence. If you say you love something but don’t support it, what kind of love is that?  It’s like not voting and then complaining when the candidate you wanted doesn’t win.

So listen to the Folio Society and take the lead from this gorgeous bookshop.  If you love books, please, I beg of you, support the independents who really care.  Support the man behind the till at the South Kensington bookshop who spent twenty minutes trying to locate the book a woman wanted, working from the single clue ‘They were talking about it on Radio 4 yesterday.’  Support my wonderful friend and former bookshop co-worker Wendy, whom I  once watched patiently talk to a family for 30 minutes trying to find a perfect book for each of their three children.  And support the values that made my dad come home from work every night just to turn the pages with his five-year-old, trace the words and letters with his finger and tuck her into bed before going back to work, just because he knew that those moments would be what mattered.

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Lutyens & Rubinstein (and two Bonus Bookshops)

IMG_1634Lutyens & Rubinstein, 21 Kensington Park Road, London, W11 2EU

I didn’t even mean to go to this bookshop today, but it was a very happy accident.  I’ve been into a lot of interesting bookshops in the name of The Matilda Project and in them I’ve found intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally pleasing sights, but it simply cannot be denied that this is the most beautiful bookshop I’ve been in yet.

Hanging from the roof there are elegant white lighting fixtures and, scattered amongst them, small white explosions that look like flowers or birds or snowflakes.  But really, they’re books.  Old books whose pages have been used to IMG_1625create the sense of being surrounded by a flock of birds, whose wings are printed pages, about to fly off, out into the streets of Notting Hill.   I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence to book art, even though I know that there are some truly beautiful sculptures made of hollowed-out, old and obsolete books.  Of course it depends on what the books is.  Cutting up the pages of a book about business-management-finance-legal-bureacray-or-whatever doesn’t seem like such a crime at all, in fact, making it into a piece of art is doing it a favour.  But to desecrate a copy of the 1623 Folio would, obviously, be an atrocity deserving a lifetime in jail.  Listening to Rebecca Black.  In a way, books are brilliant because they give their authors (and sometimes their readers) a life that goes on even after the individual is gone, so why shouldn’t we return the favour, and give them a second life?  It’s a bit of a sticky issue and I haven’t figured it out, but the book birds at Lutyens & Rubenstein, no matter what I decide, will always be something special.

The rest of the shop is bright with an open, modern feel.  A sleek white staircaseIMG_1629 leads to the downstairs and the children’s section is up on a little mezzanine level with a view of those paper mobiles and the rest of the shop.  It’s a really beautiful shop, worth it even if you’re not a big reader just for the absolutely lovely space.

But if you are a reader, you’ll be pretty pleased as well.  Upstairs is the beginning of the fiction section (A to about F, I think), a poetry corner and many books about art, history and politics, as well as biographies.  The selection is fantastic and represents a real mix of classics (there were SO many Dickens books!) and contemporary fiction.  The choice of books about culture, politics, history and media was thoughtful and relevant.  Downstairs there was a IMG_1626really impressive selection of  art, architecture, photography and fashion books, displayed neatly and beautifully on the shelves, a table and even sitting in one of two armchairs.  The other one, I was delighted to find, was empty, tucked in a corner and had a little lamp beside it.  I cannot express how much I love bookshops with comfortable seating.

I was tempted to buy a very interesting book about the Regent’s Canal, which IMG_1630replaced the south bank as my favourite running route when I moved all the way to North London (shiver…just kidding, now I love it).  It was such a cool book, tracing the canal as it moves through different areas of London, from Little Venice to The Olympic Park.  So cool!  I decided not to in the end and it was my boyfriend who ended up making the purchase.  Since reading The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, he’s been looking for something else by him but has been having a hard time finding it.  In L&R, Doctorow was there and he bought Ragtime.  I overheard him having a chat about it with the very friendly bookseller while I was looking through the children’s books.

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Once again, I came out empty-handed, possibly because I know that Christmas is coming and I will very soon have to fork over lots and lots of cash in bookshops. (By the way, if you haven’t seen it, Jon Green’s video about buying books for Christmas is brilliant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4UT9iBdQDI and I’m in love with him.)  Despite not buying a book today, I love this bookshop.  It’s a quiet, beautiful space, a bit like an art gallery or a museum, where the centrepiece is BOOKS and all kinds of beautiful, clever, interesting, unique books.  Spending half an hour among the paper birds and flying away with the words printed on them is a lovely way to spend a morning.  And if you can do it in a light and pleasant bookshop while sat in an armchair in a basement, well then you’re pretty lucky, wouldn’t you say?

Two Notting Hill Bonus Bookshops!

1.  IMG_1616Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London, W11 1NN

If you find yourself in the area with time and the inclination to browse around a bit more, try Books for Cooks! This lovely little bookshop is just around the corner from L&R and if you love cooking (or just love food) it’s a fantastic place to be.  The walls are covered with bookshelves and the shelves are absolutely crammed with cook books.  Organised by region of the world, you’ll find more than your standard Jamie and Nigella here.  These cookbooks bring the whole world and all of its smells and tastes to even a cold and dreary December morning in Notting Hill.  The sheer number is quite overwhelming to anyone who’s not a chef or an absolute connoisseur, but even if you know nothing at all about food, poking around is fun! And if you get there early enough in the morning, you can even grab a bite at the cafe in the back of the shop!

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The Notting Hill Bookshop, 13 Blenheim Crescent, London, W11 2EE

Built on the site of the Travel Bookshop made famous by a certain film called Notting Hill (maybe you’ve heard of it?) this little bookshop is officially the most tourist-y bookshop in London.  In a way, that’s cool.  In a way, it’s completely and totally awful.  If you can bear the crowds, it’s actually a really lovely little bookshop, with a great fiction and poetry selection and well-stocked history and politics sections too.  And of course, a wide range of travel books.

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Book & Comic Exchange

Book & Comic Exchange, 14 Pembridge Road, London, W11 3HL

A few months ago, I had a strange out-of-body experience; I seemed to see the situation in which I had found myself as if I was simultaneously living it, but also distanced from it and watching it from the sidelines.  In a moment of pure rage, I watched myself standing in the middle of my kitchen, surrounded by my chuckling parents and brothers, shouting at the top of my lungs that Amazon is, without a doubt, the single worst and most dangerous threat to civilisation that has ever existed.

Now,  with a calmer head, let me tell you why I hate Amazon.

I feel that up until now I’ve offered the occasional subtle jab, but have refrained from posting a long and detailed transcript of the rant. Feel free to skip it and jump down to hear the story of my trip to a bookshop in Notting Hill.

If you prefer to stay with me, you’ll find that if you go to http://www.amazon.co.uk right now (provided that, like me, you don’t have an account and therefore don’t have a “recently viewed” or “recommended” section), you won’t see a single book on their home page.  This is clearly a company that has no emotional attachment to books and no sense of loyalty to any publisher, author or reader.  And yet they are still the single greatest threat that small independent bookshops and, in fact,  the publishing industry at large, has ever known.

But the real threat here is, more than anything, a threat to the culture of book-buying, and this is what I realised when I was in this Notting Hill second hand bookshop.  (The bookshop is a delight and I promise I’ll get to it soon!)  When you walk into a second hand bookshop, you often aren’t given the greatest selection.  I admit this.  It’s not as if every book ever published is available new or almost-new for a nominal cost at the touch of a button.  Some people think this is a bad thing.  Sadly, those people are idiots.

Bookselling, at its best, is about adventure, about exploration and about dialogue.  If I walk into an independent second hand bookshop, I might browse a bit first and, if I have something particular in mind, maybe even ask if it’s available.  If it’s not (it’s usually not), I might start a chat with the bookseller, since real bookshops made of human beings and paper books employ people who love and know books. We might talk about the book they don’t have, suggest similar ones or engage in a battle to the death in which there’s no right answer but only subjective opinion.  In other words, the most worthwhile kind of debate.  Then, having established that while the book I needed isn’t there, but that there are still other good books, I’ll browse.  It is then that I’ll find a sequel I didn’t know existed to a book I read eight years ago, or a book of poetry with a beautiful inscription in the front cover, or a book with the same title as the book I was looking for but by an author I’ve never even heard of.  When I walk out, it may not be with the book I went in looking for, but chances are it will be with three or four other books that I can’t wait to begin, which I never would have found if I had chosen to sit at home on my couch with the television blaring in the background, search a title, click a button and thus end my intellectual journey for the day.  So even though the process would have been longer and more difficult and less objectively successful than a quick peruse of Amazon, going into a bookshop has given me:  1) the sense of belonging to a community of booklovers, 2) a new list of must-read titles from someone I can trust, 3) the thrill of the unexpected, 4) a chance to broaden the range of books I’ve read and, most importantly, 5)  a reminder that sometimes you find the most important and most valuable things (in life and in bookshops) when you’re in the middle of looking for something else.

This adventure, this thrill of discovering, is what we risk losing in a world where everything is digitised and the word “search” has really come to mean “find”.  And it’s what, thankfully, is still alive for those of us who care, in little London bookshops like this one.

Notting Hill’s Book and Comic Exchange is, encouragingly, full of people, even on a rainy Friday morning.  It seems to have established a loyal base of customers who wander in and spend a considerable length of time poking around.  I found myself still looking around after nearly an hour and, to my delight, many of the people who were in there before I came in where still there when I left.

Many of them were rummaging through the shop’s absolutely insane collection of books, but most were flipping through the rows upon rows of comics that take up the entire centre aisle of the shop and a room in the basement. Unfortunately, all of this was somewhat wasted on  me, since my knowledge of comics is very elementary and hardly goes beyond your average person on the street’s understanding of what really is a whole world unto itself.  Being in this bookshop, though, I really wished I knew more about  it so that I could have “geeked out” even more than I already was.  I had to settle for drooling over the shelves packed with books and the little corners where you’re surrounded on three sides by walls covered with books and more than anything you just want someone to stick a fourth side on and leave you there forever in a little room of pure happiness.

I have a feeling that every book in the world  is hiding somewhere in this bookshop.  The trick is finding it.  None of the books I was looking for was in its place in the Fiction section  – the alphabetisation was very relaxed – and so I quickly established that no useful book-buying was going to happen today.  Instead of walking off in a huff like a child of this internet generation might have, I decided it was browsing time. The books on the ground floor cover fiction, poetry, history, cookery, music, society, philosophy and art.  The boundaries are a little bit blurred and I think there are lots of things that haven’t been put back in the right places.  This has very funny results including a sequence of books in the music section that put a biography of Mick Jagger next to “Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction”, next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  I spent a very long time and had entirely too much fun playing the “let’s try to figure out how these go together!” game.  Also, Roald Dahl’s Boy was in the Horror section.  It was hilarious.

The basement deserves mention, purely because it’s so bizarre.  Any semblance of order that the upstairs maintained is completely abandoned.  There are books.  There are just…lots of books.  Novels, books of poetry, books about dieting, fantasy novels, erotica, art books, gardening books and, as I mentioned, a back room full of even more comics books and graphic novels.  The crazy decorations of the upstairs are abandoned too. It’s as if the basement isn’t even trying.  I guess that’s part of the appeal.

In the end, I found a book that I never would have imagined could exist and certainly never would have typed into Amazon’s “search to find” bar. It was called “In the Victorian Kitchen” and it was a calendar that gave information about what happened in the Victorian household every day and month and season of the year.  So, on the page where February 14th was found there was a description of what Valentine’s Day meant to a Victorian scullery maid; at the beginning of October we get information about the harvest and how it changed everyone’s jobs.  The interesting thing, though, was that whoever owned this book had used the dates as a calender of her own, putting in birthdays, wedding anniversaries and deaths with the name and year of the person.  I flipped through all 365 days and was amazed that the birthdays ranged from the owner’s mother’s birthday (July 27th, 1877) to someone called Emma’s birthday in April 2009.  I realised I was holding in my hand a record of all the important events of one woman’s life, which ended up spanning over at least four generations.

It’s these people who put their whole lives into the books that they love whom I hope we never lose, and it’s these bookshops, these havens where those precious memories can be treasured and passed on, that we must preserve.