There is something very special about a bookshop, for many of us the lure of a bookshop is so strong we can hardly ever just walk past. The window displays, the events that booksellers dream up to tempt us inside, the eclectic mix of titles inside, differ greatly from shop to shop. Sometimes it feels as if an independent book shop is such a rare a thing that it’s right up there with unicorns. Certainly I am saddened by the lack of them here in Birmingham, yet this wonderful book by Jen Campbell, serves to remind us that bookshops are very much alive, and in many cases increasing and thriving.
The Bookshop Book has been chosen as the official Books are my Bag book for 2014. It really is a delightful book celebrating bookshops around the world, and the dedicated, book loving obsessives that put their all into the opening and running of them. If you have ever curled up with a large cup of tea and a roomful of fellow bibliophiles and just talked the afternoon away about all things books – you will understand the deliciousness of this book. It is a vicarious exploration of extraordinary bookshops, where you will meet a whole host of book loving friends, people who really do get what it is that makes us booky types tick.
I encountered so many memorable places and people in this book, mentally making a list of places I really want to visit (some of them rather an impossible dream). There were some places I already knew; a favourite bookshop of mine is Barter Books in Alnwick, so I was delighted to see it featured and read the story of how it started. It is years since I was in Northumberland, but it really made me want to go again soon. There are the book towns around the world which have sprung up, some with the assistance of Richard Booth –who started the book town of Hay on Wye – another of my favourite booky places.
“When driving into Hay, you first come to the children’s Bookshop, which is a mile out of town and full to the brim with Enid Blytons and old school girls’ annuals. Judith, who runs it, and her husband, who was a watchmaker, actually built the shop themselves. Further on, in the centre of the town there’s the Cinema Bookshop – a bookshop in a converted cinema; Ashbrook Garage, which sells books on cars; Fleur de Lys, which sells books on trains; Book Passage – a corridor of books; Mostly Maps (I think you can guess what they sell there) and the Broad Street Centre, which houses the stock of twenty different booksellers under one roof.”
However I have now found out about many more places I know I would love just as much. The Book Barge in Lichfield started by Sarah Henshaw certainly captured my imagination, books and barges, what a magical combination! Now Sarah plans on taking her book barge to France, and has written her own book about her project. We also discover bookshops in oatmeal mills, in old railway stations and converted churches, bookshops that sell coffee and cakes, a bookshop that also sells hats, shops with beds in for people to stay, the list is endless. In Canada there is an antiquarian book vending machine in a shop called The Monkey’s Paw (great name) and a man who bought, read and reviewed one every week, no matter what it was. We meet Khaleb Omondi in Kenya, who began by selling his old school books by the railway tracks before opening a small shop with money he borrowed.
“When Khaleb Omondi’s father died in 1992 he had to drop out of college and move to Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, to live with his uncle. He found work in the city cleaning offices, and in the afternoons he’d set up a stall and sell things by the railway tracks. In Kibera there was a sacred feeling around books, he realised: education was almost a sacred concept. He brought out his old school books to see if they would sell and despite the people of Kibera having hardly any money, they bought them; they wanted their children to learn”
In New York there is a secret bookshop, the owner forced out by raising rents, you need to ring and make an appointment and secure the address before going. Sebastian in Mongolia sells books to herders, while Andrew and Sally Wills at the Old Inlet Bookshop in Alaska run the furthest-west bookshop on the road system in mainland USA (there’s another shop in Alaska not reachable by road).
In between the myriad stories of bookshops and their owners, are booksish facts and wonderful things; little snippets of booky gossip and history. One of my personal favourite bookish facts is that Ernest Hemmingway was once a spy for the KGB, but was so rubbish at it they dispensed with his services. The Bookshop Book includes interviews and quotes from many famous writers, who share their own memories of bookshops, the importance of bookshops in their lives, and even their experiences of working in them.
“I remember my annual trip to a bookshop after Christmas, with one or more book tokens in hand. A crisp book token seemed much more valuable than cash, because it was purely for my pleasure; nobody could expect me to save it like pocket money, or spend it on birthday presents for any of my family of eight”
(Emma Donoghue ; author of Room and Frog Music)
This book really is must for anyone who loves a great bookshop or a great story; because bookshops are full of stories, some of the most remarkable are the tales of how these shops came into being. The Bookshop book has made me realise just what extraordinary and often magical places bookshops are, and what an amazing (slightly mad) and wonderfully committed bunch of people booksellers are.
With thanks to the publishers for the review copy.