Why bookshops can help you to discover new worlds
The best reads of a lifetime are the ones you never knew existed, says Jude Higgins. That’s why we should all spend more time in our local bookshops
Why visit a bookstore if you don’t know what you want to buy? Because some of the best reads of a lifetime are the ones you never knew existed.
Many shops do everything to make your experience of discovering those great books pleasurable, whether they’re large stores in big cities or small bookshops in local communities.
From coffee shops to ‘book spas’, in-store bands, author events and book groups for all ages – there’s no end to the way bookshop owners and staff share their love of the written word.
Then there’s the sensory experience – the artwork to admire on book jackets, the beautiful editions of old classics, the clean aroma of new paper, the dusty smell of specialist used book stores selling long-forgotten favourites, the soft touch of printed paper.
You can have conversations about your favourite novels, enjoy the cadences of the language when an author reads out loud at an event. You’ll frequently be offered free drinks and nibbles. No-one wants to rush you in a bookshop.
Reading was the top most restful activity in a large survey conducted by BBC Radio 4 for the series The Anatomy of Rest.
So if you’ve a window in your busy working day, or want to take in a bookshop on holiday, find a store and go in to browse. The books you end up selecting might really change your life.
6 of the best bookshops from around the world
Re-discover gems of fiction and non-fiction written by women. Persephone Books, a publishing house and bookshop, republishes many out-of-print or forgotten books mainly written by women from the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. It’s a small, elegant shop in a Grade II listed building, with shelves and tables arranged with all their beautiful books – there are 118 on the list. Buyers love the distinctive soft, dove grey covers and patterned endpapers.
Jenny Dixon from Bath says she has a special bookcase devoted to them, which she calls her “Persephone shrine”.
Another fan, Kate, who travelled far to browse, writes: “When I win the lottery, I will buy the full set and display them in my own library”.
The books make wonderful presents. Reviewer Alex challenges you to go into Persephone Books and “not find a book of interest. From humour to biography to history to poetry, they’ve got it. I especially love gifting the books on London and British life to friends.
Good Things in England was my first Persephone Books purchase, containing more than 800 British recipes dating back to the 14th century – a great exercise in culinary anthropology.”
Find it online or at 59 Lamb's Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB
The Open Book
Wigtown is Scotland’s town of bookshops, so it’s a wonderful place for a book lover’s holiday – even more so if you booked your holiday in the flat over the Open Book where part of the unique deal is to run the shop during your stay.
The Open Book is a great place to visit because each new owner puts their own stamp on the shop, arranging book displays according to their interests, and offering specialist evening events.
People have come from many countries around the world, including Turkey and Taiwan. Elizabeth Michelle, from Oklahoma, was in charge of the Open Book in May 2016. On the rolling blog created by the temporary store owners (well worth a read), she writes: “My project for the day is to complete the creation of the romance section. There were so many titles in there it only made sense to create another section for fans of the genre. I figured that since one of my day jobs is ghostwriting romance novels it would be a nice way to leave my mark on the shop.”
Find the shop on Facebook or pay a visit to 2 High Street, Wigtown, Wigtownshire, DG8 9HQ
Choose a book for the beach from this little North Carolina shop. It is a bookshop near and dear to the heart of Pittsburgh-based book lovers including writer Jolene Mcllain. “It’s hundreds of miles from Pittsburgh at Duck, North Carolina, a small beach/sound community on the Eastern seaboard between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. This small old-fashioned store is situated next to a beautiful pond where I spotted a green heron while reading a book.
It reminds me of the first bookstore I fell in love with in my hometown where my Aunt Peggy brought books into my life as manager of the store. At Duck’s cottage, the very same ambience and excitement for books exists.
“They’ve a great mix of old and new titles and the owners post notes of recommendations on their shelves. I’ve never been let down when I’ve selected one of these books for my beach read.
"There’s a little sitting area inside and a porch to relax on outside where you can order coffee brewed from beans supplied by a local artisanal roaster and choose one of their house drinks – Coconut Crunch, Nutty Duck, Mucky Duck or the Swan. It’s wonderful.”
Find them online or head to 1240 Duck Road, Duck, NC 27949
Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights
Voted one of the ten most popular bookshops in the world by readers of The Guardian newspaper, Mr B's is a real treasure. Delights include their eclectic range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, and their renowned selection of reading gifts for book lovers.
Choose from Reading Bundles (five carefully selected, thematically linked books), Reading Subscriptions (bespoke monthly parcels, beautifully wax sealed and gift wrapped) and Reading Spas.
Bookshop blogger Erica Jones tells us about her spa treatment. “In the Reading Spa, you sit down in Mr B’s bibliotherapy room with a cup of tea and a piece of cake and enjoy around an hour of dedicated bookseller attention.
“Bold book recommendations are a vital book selling skill, and the staff of Mr B’s have that talent in spades – which meant all I had to do was relax and enjoy my spa with Naomi who, after a long chat about my preferences, found me about 20 books to choose from, most of which I’d not seen before. The shop felt great to be in, from the striking booky furniture to the thoughtful decorative details.”
Discover more online or enter the emporium at 14/15 John Street, Bath, BA1 2JL
Politics and Prose
Launched in 1984, Politics and Prose has been an institution in Washington DC ever since. British/ American writer and resident of the city, Fiona J Mackintosh, says: “The store is the hub of all literary life in DC. What I most like is their non-stop series of readings – pretty much 365 days a year. They host some of the biggest literary names in the world but always find time to promote local writers.
"The store also publishes District Lines, an annual anthology of writing about Washington DC – I’ve had short stories in two of these – and holds readings for those published in the anthology.
“They even have their own print-on-demand machine for those who wish to self-publish. And Barack Obama used to do his Christmas shopping there every year! Politics and Prose really is the model for enterprising independent bookstores who wish to thrive and prosper in the 21st century without losing the personal touch.”
Find the popular shop online or visit 5015 Connecticut Ave, NW Washington, D.C. 20008
The American Book Center
A go-to community for writers and readers in Amsterdam, this shop has built quite a following. British ex-pat writer, Jennifer Harvey, says: “The American Book Center in the heart of Amsterdam, established in the 1970s, is a go-to venue for anyone who loves books and storytelling.
"For me, I love that the ABC is more than just a bookstore. It is a vibrant, exciting community for writers and readers that regularly hosts readings and Q and As with famous and local writers. Their events page is always bursting with a great line-up of speakers.
"Their commitment to books is clearly genuine from their book trade-in days, to schools outreach to the curation of a great range of magazines and books.
“The staff are exceptionally knowledgeable. I especially like their blog which details what the staff are reading. Their store in The Hague also has a dedicated space for writing workshops and events for local writers. It’s great, as a writer, to have a warm and welcoming space to meet other writers in the ex-pat, English speaking community in The Netherlands.”
Have a look online or head to Spui 12 1012 XA Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
This article was first published in Project Calm, issue two.
Photos by Bethany Laird, Darwin Vegher, Thought Catalog, Fabiola Penalba, Florencia Viadana, Jessica Ruscello and Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash