Look­ing for books


The Simple Things - - ESCAPE - Il­lus­tra­tion: JANE MOUNT Words: FRANCES AM­BLER

Now that’s a fan­tas­tic book!”. I’m flick­ing through the pages of Im­por­tant Ar­ti­facts and Per­sonal Prop­erty from the Col­lec­tion of Lenore Doolan and Harold Mor­ris: in­clud­ing Books, Street

Fash­ion and Jewelry in my lo­cal book­shop when I get this en­thu­si­as­tic en­dorse­ment from the shop’s owner. I’d have dis­missed the book if I’d seen it on­line – that ti­tle, for starters, and the fact that it re­sem­bles an auc­tion cat­a­logue, more than a novel. But in my lo­cal book­shop, with time and space to browse, and a per­sonal en­dorse­ment – I bought it.

I’m so glad I did. Leanne Shap­ton’s novel tells of the com­ing to­gether and fall­ing apart of a re­la­tion­ship through ob­jects. And that’s one of the de­lights of a phys­i­cal book­shop, be­ing in­tro­duced to new things that might not have other­wise crossed your path.

But there’s a lot more that I have to thank this book­shop for. I dis­cov­ered a new favourite au­thor, Laura Dock­rill; I found the first is­sue of an in­trigu­ing look­ing mag­a­zine there – it was

Oh Comely and I now work for it; and when I con­trib­uted to my own first book, we held an event there. All that’s not count­ing the many rec­om­men­da­tions and dis­cov­er­ies made there, dis­pro­por­tion­ate to its modest size. I now live in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hood, but I haven’t taken my­self off the mail­ing list, al­ways tempted to make the hour trek for an­other visit. And that’s the pull of a good book­shop.


Lo­cal book­shops are so much more than ‘just’ a shop. They’re com­mu­nity hubs, as well as a way into hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent lives, minds and worlds. Know­ing this, a cam­paign was launched ear­lier this year to give book­shops the same busi­ness tax re­lief rates as pubs, a bid to pro­tect them from cur­rent high-street woes. Since Ama­zon opened in 1995, more than half the UK’s book­shops have shut. We’ve all or­dered on­line but the best way to sup­port our book­shops is, of course, to visit them in per­son. They’re the an­tithe­sis of the speedy, un­think­ing

click and buy, al­low­ing you a chance to dip into dif­fer­ent styles of writ­ing to see if they ap­peal – in­deed time to give due judg­ment to a book by its cover. But there’s more. Through their cafes, book clubs or au­thor events, they re­flect the pas­sions of their own­ers, staff and com­mu­nity – look at the ‘beloved book­stores’ il­lus­trated by Jane Mount on these pages, a long way from the un­wel­com­ing den epit­o­mised in the TV se­ries

Black Books. Let’s be heart­ened by the fact that last year the num­ber of in­de­pen­dent book­shops in the UK in­creased for the first time in a decade (al­though only by one) – find a lo­cal through the indie book­shop week list­ings at in­diebook­shop­week.org.uk/ book­shopsearch.


Al­to­gether a dif­fer­ent – but no less de­light­ful – beast is the secondhand book­shop. I’ll con­fess that what re­ally gets my pulse rac­ing is a tiny shop over­flow­ing with tee­ter­ing stacks of used books, three lay­ers deep. I pic­ture a spe­cific shop when I think about this, one right out­side my rail­way sta­tion when I first moved to Lon­don, which I al­ways fell into on my way home to cram in an hour of book­ish fun be­fore it closed. With each book cost­ing a pound at most, my read­ing habits were never so di­verse.

Secondhand book­stores mean you can sam­ple “oh I’ve never got round to try­ing” authors with­out guilt, or re­dis­cover de­light­ful but out-of-print sto­ries. I have a bat­tered list of authors I specif­i­cally look out for – re­cently en­hanced by Christo­pher Fowler’s The Book of

For­got­ten Authors (River­run), which con­tains bi­ogra­phies of 99 authors who have fallen from pop­u­lar­ity, but are well worth seek­ing out. Plus, when secondhand book shop­ping, there’s al­ways an ex­tra fris­son of ex­cite­ment of what else you might dis­cover: notes in the mar­gin, an in­trigu­ing in­scrip­tion, per­haps a hid­den love let­ter – it’s a snooper’s par­adise.


Book­shops aren’t just about es­cap­ing. They’re also a haven for knowl­edge, like walk­ing into a liv­ing, breath­ing en­cy­clopae­dia. Spe­cial­ist book­shops do the re­search for you, wait­ing for you to come in and scoop up the spoils. What could be nicer than plan­ning your hol­i­day with a bit of pri­mary re­search in a shop such as Stan­fords in Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den? Crime »

afi­ciona­dos can don their deer stalk­ers and head to Belfast’s No Ali­bis, while Bris­tol’s Arnolfini has all your cof­fee ta­ble/art book needs cov­ered. They can be places for change, too – just look at Lon­don’s Gay’s the Word – not only in pro­mot­ing gay lit­er­a­ture but also as a cen­tre for cam­paign­ing, as so mem­o­rably brought to life in the film Pride.


The joy of a book­shop out­ing is that you can get an im­mense amount of plea­sure with a short time com­mit­ment. If you have more time on your hands, you could try a book­shop crawl. The UK is blessed with sev­eral ‘book towns’ – that’s (usu­ally ru­ral) towns or vil­lages with a high con­cen­tra­tion of secondhand book shops. The idea is said to have started in Ja­pan at the end of the 19th cen­tury, but per­haps the most fa­mous ex­am­ple is Hay-on-Wye, which be­came a book town in the 1960s and is es­pe­cially worth a trip dur­ing its an­nual, world-renowned lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. We’ve now also got Wig­town in Scot­land, Sed­bergh in Cum­bria and Ather­stone in War­wick­shire, with more ex­am­ples now found around the world. Larger cities prob­a­bly have enough stores for you to de­vise a day of book­ish brows­ing for your­self, but if you need a bit of a help­ing hand, Ninja book­box or­gan­ises an­nual book­shop crawls (see ‘More’ at nin­ja­book­box.com), to date held in Lon­don, Bath, Ox­ford and Can­ter­bury. And Blue Stock­ing Books ( blue­stock­ing­books.co.uk) or­gan­ises walk­ing tours specif­i­cally around in­spir­ing Lon­don book­shops.

1 STRAND BOOKS. New York, USA This store in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage boasts ‘ 18 Miles of Books’ (which, if you’re won­der­ing, is more than 2.5 mil­lion of them). It’s owned by Nancy Bass Wy­den, whose grand­fa­ther founded Strand Books in 1927. At that time, Fourth Av­enue was called Book Row and there were 47 other book­stores nearby. Strand is the only one left.

2 POW­ELL’S. Port­land, Ore­gon, USA Al­most syn­ony­mous with Port­land with over five Pow­ell’s stores around the area (al­though the first Pow­ell’s was in Chicago). The flag­ship store, City of Books, is the largest in­de­pen­dent used and new book­store in the world – and oc­cu­pies an en­tire city block.

CITY LIGHTS. San Fran­cisco, Cal­i­for­nia, USA 4 Founded by poet Lawrence Fer­linghetti in 1953, it’s both a book­seller and a pub­lisher. Fer­linghetti was ar­rested on ob­scen­ity charges re­lated to his pub­li­ca­tion of Allen Gins­berg’s Howl (found not guilty) and the store re­mains closely as­so­ci­ated with the Beat po­ets.

3 BOOKS FOR COOKS. Lon­don, UK An in­sti­tu­tion for hun­gry fans. The up­stairs test kitchen pre­pares recipes from a cho­sen ti­tle and serves lunch daily to 40 or so en­thu­si­as­tic food­ies.

5 GAY’S THE WORD BOOKS. Lon­don, UK When Gay’s the Word Books opened in 1979, much of its stock had to be im­ported from the States, be­cause the UK didn’t pub­lish enough gay books. In 1984, ti­tles by the likes of Ten­nessee Wil­liams, Gore Vi­dal and Christo­pher Ish­er­wood were among those seized un­der ac­cu­sa­tions of pornog­ra­phy and con­spir­acy to im­port in­de­cent books. The charges were even­tu­ally dropped, but no apolo­gies for the wrong­ful ac­cu­sa­tions were ever given.

7 SHAKE­SPEARE AND COM­PANY. Paris, France The Left Bank store is a trib­ute to Sylvia Beach’s book­store of the 1920s, which is fa­mous for pub­lish­ing Ulysses. Ge­orge Whit­man opened the cur­rent in­car­na­tion in 1951 – it’s now in the hands of his daugh­ter Sylvia. At least 30,000 writ­ers and artists, in­clud­ing Ethan Hawke, Dar­ren Aronof­sky and Ge­of­frey Rush have been ‘Tum­ble­weeds’, sleep­ing on benches-cum-beds tucked into the store’s aisles.

6 TOP­PING & COM­PANY BOOKSELLERS. Ely, UK Get a free cup of cof­fee or tea as you browse hand­some shelves with well or­gan­ised books of all kinds, in­clud­ing many signed and col­lectible edi­tions. Note the signs, hand-writ­ten by Mrs Top­ping her­self. Branches can also be found in Bath and St An­drews.

Il­lus­tra­tions & book­shop cap­tions © 2018 by Jane Mount. Ex­tracted from Bi­b­lio­phile: An Il­lus­trated Mis­cel­lany (Chron­i­cle Books).

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