What would your perfect bookshop be like? Here’s my list:-
- Lots of books (of course), but not just the latest bestsellers or the firm favourites. I want to stumble across exciting finds!
- An ambience that encourages browsing, ideally with quiet nooks that give me the illusion of being on my own with the books. Somewhere to sit is also helpful.
- Knowledgeable staff who are miraculously right there if you need them, and yet are never pushy when you want to be left alone to mull over the books.
- Efficient systems for ordering books, and for putting all the books where you expect to find them.
- Organised shelving, that doesn’t look regimented – I want to feel at home in a bookshop, and I want to be encouraged to wander.
- Something idiosyncratic. I don’t have this entirely pinned down, but I expect a bookshop to have its own feel to it, its own character. And I like quirky!
- It’s also a bonus for me if there is an extensive secondhand section.
Like most book-lovers, I find it very hard to pass a bookshop when I’m visiting a new town, so I have been able to hone my preferences over a lifetime of browsing and buying in all sorts of shops. I’m pleased to say that, as well as a great number of “production line” places that don’t hold my interest for long, there are quite a lot of bookshops that meet my criteria, and where I can happily lose a few hours.
I’m very lucky to have one of these only a few miles from where I live in Sussex. It has a very distinctive feel to it, helped by being housed in a beautiful old building, part of (so I am informed) the longest parade of Tudor shops in England. There are low ceilings, oak beams, carvings galore, and upstairs there is a veritable warren of small rooms, mostly housing secondhand books, plus an appropriately furnished and comfortable reading room. The latter is also home to regular writing workshops, and is available for other groups to use.
The other factor that contributes to the character of the shop is the owner, who is closely in touch with the local community, and has an unerring sense of how to support it. During the two “Dance in the High Street” festivals, rooms were made available within the bookshop as artists’ changing rooms, and for storing banners and placards, and the owner supported wholeheartedly the community group who were organising the events. When it was clear that there were people wanting to combine twin loves for good books and fine coffee, he turned an area of the premises over to a coffee shop. Because the shop is only a few hundred yards from the terminus of the Bluebell Heritage Steam Railway, it carries a huge stock of hard to find books for trainspotters and other enthusiasts. Over the last few months, chess tables have been set up twice a week on the pavement outside the shop (or in the coffee shop if it rains), and anyone is invited to stop and play a game or two.
I should think, with the proliferation of online outlets, that earning a living by running a bookshop must be harder than ever before. But whenever I am in this local shop, there are always plenty of people browsing in odd corners, chatting with the knowledgeable staff as they place an order, and drinking coffee while they mull over their purchases. It deserves to continue serving and delighting the community of East Grinstead and those who visit the area for a long time to come.
What features would contribute to your ideal bookshop? Have you found one that lives up to your wishes?