Thursday 23 June 2016

Independent Booksellers Week Q&A tag

I was tagged by Bex to answer this questionnaire in honour of Independent Booksellers' Week - which also reminded me that I was long overdue a visit to the labyrinthine Ryde Bookshop (see below) to add another book or two to my to-read shelf. (Or four, as it turned out. But it's all for a good cause, helping to keep a favourite business going.) So thank you Bex, and anyone else who wants to write about their bookshopping experience, consider yourself tagged!

What book(s) are currently in your bag?
Speak by Louisa Hall. It's about lifelike robots, how voice and memory come to shape personality, and takes us from a young woman travelling to the American colonies in the 17th century, via Alan Turing, to a future where a genius programmer is under trial for coming dangerously close to creating new life.

What's the last great book you read?
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells - the book where all the time-travel stories began. For some reason I associate science fiction with summer reading.

Which book have you gifted the most?
People who know me will not be in the least bit surprised to learn that I have probably given multiples copies of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery to those deprived individuals who had not read them. Also, at the Bookshop Crawl in February I took great glee in just putting all the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet paperbacks into everyone's hands - although they bought those themselves.

What's your favourite independent bookshop?

Just the one? Can't do that, I'm afraid. On the Isle of Wight, the big one is Ryde Bookshop: three stories high, with books packed into every nook and cranny. It looks quite small and when you go in: a room of new books, then one with CDs and DVDs, with children's at the back. But then you go through the door to find three stories of second-hand books stuffed into every nook and cranny: On the ground floor: travel and genre fiction (science fiction, crime and romance), and I always head straight for science fiction at the back. At the foot of the stairs are old hardback classics, and a box of vintage postcards to rummage through. Upstairs, there's the children's room, which seems to be arranged by era as well as alphabetical order: paperbacks from my childhood, vintage hardbacks - usually plenty of the old school stories. There's a spinner with Enid Blytons and Babysitter's Clubs and so on, and a little cubbyhole with more recent children's fiction. Also, collector's items, old annuals on every subject, Guinness World Records, and so on. General paperback fiction is shelved along the landing and up the second flight of stairs. There are two rooms with non-fiction: history, religion, etc. The top landing has shelves of psychology, sociology, and there's a room for hardback fiction and cookery, and another for the arts. There are two men who run the bookshop: the manager is rather taciturn, while his assistant is very chatty.

Then on to London, where there is a bookshop to fit every specification: new and second-hand and antiquarian, arts bookshops, comic book shops, radical political bookshops, an LGBT bookshop, bookshops with cafes, bookshops in marketplaces, large and shiny or cramped and dusty. Foyle's is a must, although now they've opened several branches I'm not sure they're quite the same sort of independent any more. Persephone is cosy and vintage, specialising in half-forgotten women's writing from the first half of the 21st century, all in smart, plain grey covers with pretty endpapers. The London Review Bookshop picks out books the staff like best, rather than the safe bestselling authors. But my favourite little all-purpose bookshop is Primrose Hill, quite a small shop but one packed full of treasures. The last time I went in, one of their regulars was asking for recommendations and the bookseller whizzed around the little shop from author to author. "You liked this book, didn't you...? Then you'll enjoy that one." Lovely, personalised service. And it's right next door to a cafe, and on a sunny day there's nothing better than to pop next door, get a coffee and maybe a cake to take out to Primrose Hill or Regent's Park with your new book.

And last year I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye, a little town on the border between England and Wales which is a famous bookselling town, especially full of second-hand bookshops. One shop is a massive converted cinema, but I was particularly struck by Richard Booth's bookshop. With its dark red and cream exterior, it is a very handsome bookshop indeed, and inside, it has old and new books side-by-side on smart wooden shelves and custom-made signage over the aisles. Booth's has its own cafe, a Folio Society reading room, and even a cinema! Which makes a striking contrast when you go in search for science fiction, crime or romance in the basement. It was rather hilariously austere, with a stone floor, low dark ceiling, and when I went, the lights were out at one end. It seemed that the popular stuff had been shoved away out of sight, so as not to sully the smart, intellectual, high-brow image of the rest of the shop. But in that cellar the shelves just went back and back, full of trashy old '70s and '80s sci-fi paperbacks with ridiculous covers, Doctor Who and Star Trek tie-in novels. I was in my element!

What's been your favourite book recommended by a bookseller/Booktuber/blogger?

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. When I bought this in London, the bookseller got very excited and raved on about how he'd just finished it, couldn't put it down, just had to know what happened next. It's a beautiful story, set in a world like our own, but flooded, and most people live on ships. It follows two girls: one who lives in a floating circus, with her performing bear, and the other lives alone on an island, responsible for the burial rites of those lost at sea. They meet once, and then fate keeps drawing them back together.

What's your favourite indie bookshop memory?

When I was little I used to go to the old Newport Book Centre and spend ages looking at the Enid Blyton books. I bought the Malory Towers books completely out of order, buying them as and when I found them in the shops. Sadly, the Book Centre has long since closed and been turned into a (rather grotty) pub. As fate would have it, I now work with one of the former booksellers.

What do bookshops mean to you? What do you love about them?

I think there's an art to book-shopping, going into a shop and spending time wandering around, in no great hurry, not on the look-out for anything in particular, having a browse to see what might catch your eye, perhaps chatting with the like-minded people who work there and don't look at you strangely when you just have to stroke the cover of your favourite book as you pass. There is something comforting in just being surrounded by books, as if some of the magic escapes out of the pages to build a safe place around you. You just don't get that by tapping on your keyboard or e-reader.

What are the books that made you? Which books have most affected or influenced you?

  • Oxford Reading Tree's Biff, Chip and Kipper series.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia - C. S. Lewis
  • Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Anne of Green Gables series - L. M. Montgomery
  • Swallows and Amazons series - Arthur Ransome
  • The Famous Five series - Enid Blyton
  • Malory Towers series - Enid Blyton, The Chalet School series - Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and the Trebizon series - Anne Digby.
  • Mystery Kids and Mystery Club books - Fiona Kelly.
  • The Discworld series - Terry Pratchett
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter series - J. K. Rowling
  • The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Rilla of Ingleside - L. M. Montgomery (I'm counting this as separate from the rest of the Anne series because its impact hit me in a different way much later in life.)
  • A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • The Little Stranger and Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
  • The Shining - Stephen King
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
  • Tell The Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Watchmen - Alan Moore
  • 11.22.63 - Stephen King
  • The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth
  • Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged - Ayisha Malik
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

What books do you recommend for Father's Day?

I bought my dad Mary Beard's SPQR about ancient Rome. But every dad has different interests and tastes. I had great fun putting together a display for Father's Day at work, trying to include as many subjects as possible: fiction, sport, humour, music, science, history, cooking, biographies, etc.

What book is at the top of your TBR pile?

It's a whole shelf, not a mere pile! But The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Paver has been one of my "read soon" books for about six months. Really need to get around to that one...

These questions originated from Will at Vintage Books here.


  1. 1) You gave me Neverwhere!
    2) You would LOVE Scarthin Books here, it sounds a lot like your Ryde Bookshop.
    3) I actually gave my dad books this year for FD - he's not a HUGE reader, but I discovered that there are two surprisingly well-reviewed Homeland novels out there and he LOVES the series, so... nailed iiiiiit. :)

    1. 1. Yes I did!
      2. Funnily enough I was just reading about Scarthin Books from another blogger, Erica from The Bookshop Around the Corner. It sounds awesome. Proper "genteel black hole that's learned how to read."
      3. Sounds like you're onto a winner! Hope he enjoys the books. :)


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