World bookshopper: #9 The Big Comfy Bookshop, Coventry

2016-09-10-13-28-42

One of the best arguments for supporting bookshops as opposed to purely buying books online, is that they make unexpected encounters possible in a way that websites can’t. When you’re browsing most online retailer’s sites, your screen will be filled with a host of recommendations tailored to your buying history – a list of things that are like what you’ve liked before dictated by a sophisticated algorithm intended to maximise the chance that you’ll purchase another product.

In a bookshop, by contrast, as you wander from stand to stand, almost anything can catch your eye. You might go in looking for the latest bestselling thriller and come out with a memoir by a Norwegian lumberjack, or cross the threshold in search of a present for a friend and re-emerge half an hour later with a previously unheard of title that will keep you spellbound for the bus ride home.

In a bookshop, what you see is dictated less by your own previous choices than by the tastes and interests of those running and stocking the store. As a result, spending time in such places exposes you to more possibility and variety in the literary landscape, and can help challenge, disrupt and expand your reading habits.

As venues for unexpected encounters go, The Big Comfy Bookshop in Coventry has much to offer. Set up around two years ago after owner Michael McEntee took the brave decision to give up his day job and pursue his dream of running a wordmonger’s, the store is one of a series of quirky and creative businesses in Fargo Village on Far Gosford Street. There’s a comic shop next door and a film memorabilia purveyor a few units down, as well as numerous vintage-clothing traders with stands set up around the central hall.

It’s raining the day I go, but you wouldn’t know it from the throng of people gathered in the shop. Sitting at an eclectic array of chairs and tables, sipping coffees, teas and the occasional beer, they have just heard a talk from author Kate Riordan, the speaker before me in the line up of this, the inaugural Big Comfy Literary Festival.

Riordan is still there signing copies and while she does so, I take the opportunity to explore.

Although new books by the authors speaking at the festival are on sale near the counter for the weekend, the bulk of the Big Comfy merchandise is second-hand and, as such, dependent on the tastes of readers who have gone before. The usual suspects are out in force – a formidable crop of Wilbur Smiths, James Pattersons and Patricia Cornwells rubs shoulders with US classics such as Catch-22 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

As is often the case in second-hand shops, translations are not much in evidence. However, there are some unexpected titles in the mix. I spend an intriguing five minutes flicking through a book called How to Clicker Train Your Cat. In addition, there is an impressive spread of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

When I ask McEntee if this reflects a particular interest of his, he tells me that it doesn’t. In fact, some 90 per cent of this section comes from a friend of his who needed to downsize his collection.

Yet, while The Big Comfy Bookshop may be beholden to others for much of its stock, the tastes of its founder and his colleagues are everywhere apparent. From playful quotations and notes bearing personal recommendations from the staff on the shelves to posters for regular folk-music evenings and a handsome array of cakes on the counter, the place is alive with an enthusiasm for creating a cheerful, cosy, ‘comfy’ space that celebrates reading.

2016-09-10-13-35-19

A sense of humour is also in evidence: a Post-it note on a map of the Game of Thrones territories of Westeros and Essos hanging in the loo asks ‘But what lies west of Westeros?’

The result is a beautifully informal, friendly space where people can come to browse, chat, read and while away an afternoon. I feel very much at home while I give my talk.

And if any further proof of the welcoming nature of the place were needed, it comes as I leave. On my way out, I pass Darth Vader, who is on a break from an event at the film-memorabilia store and is popping into the bookshop for a quick cup of tea. An unexpected encounter if ever there was one.

World bookshopper: #3 The Book Cellar, St George’s

20160131_200155

If you want to go to The Book Cellar in Bermuda, you have to pick your moment carefully. The first time I visit this store, located in 265-year-old Tucker House on Water Street in St George’s, it is shut.

According to the owner of the shop next door – which is open that day – this is not unusual. Many of the businesses in the historic settlement of St George’s – a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the New World – keep part-time and sometimes unpredictable hours. In fact, that week the business owners were due to be having a meeting about it to see if they could agree a joint opening schedule that would help create more consistent buzz around the town, which has suffered since cruise ships stopped visiting this end of the island.

Luckily for me, the Bermudian friends I was staying with know Kristin White, the owner of The Book Cellar. After an exchange of emails, Steve and I make arrangements for a return visit at a time when we are certain the store will be open.

Kristin is just setting up as we arrive, pushing back the shutters to reveal a sign promising ‘Books’, ‘Toys, Gifts & Souvenirs’, ‘Art’ and, intriguingly, ‘Oddities’. She welcomes us warmly and it immediately becomes apparent that, while her shop may keep part-time hours, Kristin’s love of stories and the community of St George’s is a full-time, wholehearted commitment.

20160203_165913

As well as running the bookshop, with local poet Yesha Townsend, Kristin is development director of the St George’s Foundation and the town’s cultural tourism manager. She stars in a weekly ghost tour she created to bring some of the place’s 400 years of history to life. In addition, she writes creative non-fiction, and recently masterminded a historical murder-mystery evening at a nearby restaurant, using a scandal that took place in the town several centuries ago.

While I wander around the shop, she is constantly greeting customers, talking to fellow business owners and waving to people passing in the street.

Kristin’s creativity and enthusiasm are strongly reflected in The Book Cellar. Its two, small rooms are crammed with fascinating stories and objects, and there are several works by local artists on display.

Up on the shelf near the doorway into the second room, an old hardback volume stands, fanned open with the word ‘Love’ carved into its pages. On a table nearby, a newspaper-wrapped oblong promises the purchaser a ‘Blind Date with a Book’ for the bargain price of $5. Whoever is bold enough to buy it will know only that the package contains ‘Young adult fiction perfect for readers of adventure & action’ – until they hand their money over.

20160203_171704

Although the selection of new books is very small, it is eclectic. Alongside various poetry volumes, as well as Suzanne Finamore’s Split: A Memoir of DivorceCheat: A Man’s Guide to Infidelity and Greg Kading’s sensational-sounding Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations, I am pleased to see a number of translations, including Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

When I remark on this to Kristin, she tells me that, when she took over the store four years ago, her aim was to focus on international fiction, as it is a particular interest of hers. The stock is low at the moment, but she and Yesha plan to reassess and bring in some more books in the coming months, with several trips to literary events abroad on their wish list.

Meanwhile, The Book Cellar’s second-hand section is thriving. You can almost hear the shelves in the back room groaning under the weight of the titles stacked on them. And although the selection here is fairly mainstream and anglophone – a lot of James Pattersons, Dick Francises and Stephanie Meyers, some Anne Fadiman, a Tom Wolfe and two copies of Bill Clinton’s My Life – there are some more unusual finds to be had. Over by the window, Steve spots the gekiga manga Path of the Assassin by Japanese writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojim.

Back in the new books section, I settle on Ways of Dying by the South African writer Zakes Mda. I take it to the till and pay as Kristin tells me about plans she has for two further tours in the town – one to do with food and the other, a bicycle trip.

‘When people ask me what I do, I say I sell story,’ she says. ‘St George’s main export is story.’

Back on Water Street, walking down towards the main square, where even now a ducking-stool juts out above the water showing where town gossips used to be dunked in the sea (and re-enactors still get wet from time to time), I can’t help thinking she’s right.

World bookshopper: #2 Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC

20160127_203414

At first glance, there’s a huge contrast between Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which was the subject of my first world bookshopper review. Where HW is charmingly quirky and a little worn round the edges, much like many of the titles on its shelves, Rizzoli gleams. And while a large part of the fun of visiting the former has to do with the fact you never know what lucky finds might leap out at you from the donated titles ranged on the shelves, curatorial flair and selectivity are the name of the game at Rizzoli, which reopened at 1133 Broadway last year, after closing its previous store on 57th Street.

On the day I go, the main window is given over to one title alone: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. Copies of this lavish book – created to tie in with an eponymous exhibition, which was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are deftly stacked and propped to catch the eye of people passing along the snow-heaped sidewalk. Their uniformity is broken only occasionally by a Lonely Planet guide to Africa, several blue ceramic animals, a book on African art and a copy of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt – stylish touches that set off the handsome hardback admirably.

The same keen aesthetic sense is apparent when I get inside. Black pillars flank a harlequin marble floor. The wooden bookshelves shine warmly, proclaiming the subject matter of their contents in tasteful, serif font. Above them, a mural showing clouds against an azure sky softens the effect of the monochrome stone. Small wonder that the shop’s website proclaims it ‘the most beautiful bookstore in New York’ – someone has given its interior a lot of thought.

This appreciation of the visual finds its echo in the store’s merchandise. Substantial sections are given over to architecture, art, photography and design. Audrey Hepburn gazes coolly from the covers of many of the books devoted to fashion.

Similar care and taste goes into the selection of titles in the new fiction and new non-fiction sections too. I spot the latest offerings from international names such as Leila Aboulela, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as books by Stephen King, Sally Mann and Patti Smith.

There are also collectors’ items, such as the awesome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by translation celebrity Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante fame). Housed in a glossy casing, this handsome three-volume celebration of the Italian holocaust survivor’s extraordinary oeuvre seems to demand lofty surroundings. I decide that if I wanted to buy it and own it, I would first have to sell my little flat and purchase somewhere much bigger, with a library handsome enough to do it justice.

Opposite the new fiction and non-fiction area, a literature section contains collections of essays – or what are described on the shelf as ‘belles lettres’ – as well as poetry and more paperback fiction. Allen Ginsberg rubs shoulders with Lena Dunham, and there are works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Peter Carey too.

Nearby, a stand of Italian- and French-language fiction tempts me for a moment to dust off my A-level French and try something in the original.

In the end, though, my head is turned by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief. (On the flight out of New York – during which I devour this novel in one go – I’m very grateful for this decision. Not only is this novel about a Nigerian man’s return to Lagos after years in the States exceptional – seriously, you should read it – but it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have been able to fit a French dictionary into my hand luggage. I resolve to schedule my next bout of French-language reading for a time when I am not in transit.)

As I queue to pay for the Cole and pick up a postcard bearing a tasteful photograph of the bookstore at the counter, I am struck by a thought. The care and attention that goes into choosing and presenting books beautifully at Rizzoli actually has a lot in common with the come-one-come-all eclecticism of Housing Works.

In their contrasting ways, both these distinctive stores are physical embodiments of a love of books and a desire to create a good environment in which to share them. At root, the people behind them share many of the same beliefs – that the written word is important and necessary, that it has power to make the world better, and that it should be showcased in a joyful space where people relish spending time.

I step out through the stylish glass door into the chill of the Manhattan winter. Already, I am eager to see where my world bookshopping will take me next…