Wednesday, 22 September 2010

places of worship

I'm off to Northumberland next week for a few days holiday. It's a part of the country that I have loved for a very long time now and have visited many times, always exploring a new part. The main appeal used to be Alnwick, for a very specific reason, they have a fantastic bookshop there. I am drawn to places with good second-hand bookshops and will base entire holidays/trips around them. When I look back on holidays I do tend to think most fondly of bookshops that I have found. The top ten, in no real order, are as follows.

#1. Brierlow Bar just outside Buxton in Derbyshire. This is not actually a secondhand bookshop but has vastly discounted books and a great selection. There is a large fiction section but their real highlights are in the various non-fiction sections. Cookery, travel and history are all brilliant.

#2. Massolit Books in the centre of Kraków in Poland. I found this wonderful place in 2005 while travelling around Europe on a rail-pass. We were wandering towards the Castle and found this wonderful shop, sadly backpacks did not allow for many purchases but I did get a great poetry book. We were also invited to join a poetry reading that evening. The shop is cosy and welcoming with a cafe attached and a lovely fire. As a lot of the stock is English language the staff are happy to help out with non-Polish speakers. They had a huge stock and of a great variety.

#3. Barter Books on the outskirts of Alnwick in Northumberland. For a long time this was the largest and most exciting bookshop that I had ever seen and so it will always have a sentimental attachment for me. It wouldn't need that to keep me going back because the book selection is great. The layout is really user-friendly and the little train that runs around the top of the shelves is always nice to see. Again, has drinks/snacks and fire near the entrance. It is housed in the old station and the staff are brilliant, exactly the sort of people you want to meet in a bookshop - and I do mean that in the best possible way.

#4. Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road in London. Living in London gave me the chance to properly explore the bookshops there without worrying about having to get them home (apart from TFL weekend strikes). This is great because of the knowledge of the staff and their willingness to help in any way possible. They will keep an eye out for particular books, check their vast stock not kept on site and almost always know whether something is in the store or not. The prices are fair and their is a table set outside with £1 books and often deals on top of this. This is my favourite place to buy plays and poetry - a great selection, and often unexpected and lesser-known works. Don't neglect downstairs if you go, they have a really cracking children's section and some wonderful titles can be found in the back room which is less well organised but worth digging around.

#5. Powells in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. Possibly the best, almost certainly the biggest bookshop on my list. I was only in Portland for two days and spent five hours in here. I bought five books and gave two in for trade. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly, the till system is efficient, even at peak times. The stock is out-of-this-world awesome. Fiction and non-fiction alike. Don't expect to pick up a real treasure at rock-bottom prices but I didn't see anything overpriced either. They know what books are worth and prices follow suit. They have several bookshops but their flagship is like the mothership for book-lovers. It's worth a trip to the States, even if you see nothing else.

#6. Community Bookstore on 7th Ave. Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A. However, if you do happen to venture outside Portland and as far as New York, this is a great bookshop. I was staying just around the corner and spent a lot of time, wandering in and picking up books. The staff left me alone when they saw I just wanted to wander. The best thing about this bookshop is a bookshelf near the back of the store which holds ARC editions of books. I remember reading (although, of course I cannot remember where) several writers and readers talking about the sale and re-sale of ARC copies a while ago and I think Community Bookstore has it well organised. When they are done with a book it goes on the ARC shelf and people can come and help themselves to them and then leave a donation in a tin which is given to charity. Brilliant, right? They don't have a huge selection but they do have a warehouse and delivery options. Staff are also great at recommending titles and there is a foodie seating area at the back as well. Oh, and cats, I almost forgot the cats.

#7. Much Ado Books in Alfriston, Sussex. I stayed in a self-catering cottage with friends a few years ago and this delightful bookshop was right opposite. It was a great holiday with the only drawback being that I found this shop on our penultimate day so didn't get to take full advantage. It looks small from the outside but is huge and well stocked. Lots of surprises inside. This is a real bookish bookshop and if you want a good discussion about literature then the wonderful American ex-pat owners. We got along so well that when I left it felt like leaving friends (after only an hour or so). Worth a de-tour, or even a specific visit.

#8. River Market Books, Little Rock, AR, U.S.A. I had such a great time at this bookstore. It is just around the corner from the Little Rock public library and their stock is largely books that are donated to the Library that are unwanted/duplicates/inappropriate etc. When I went the most surprising thing is first walking downstairs which is crammed full of books. Mostly fiction and a large amount of crime, a good few sections of genre books and great classics. The prices are amazing and the whole place is very well organised.

#9. Book and Comic Exchange, Pembridge Road, Notting Hill, London. If you ever talk to me about books I promise that it won't take me long to start talking about the Book Exchange. Their ground level shop is good, but only good. Then there is a tiny little corridor near the stairs which is packed with sci-fi and fantasy (heaven!). And then downstairs...a 50p section of pure joy. It used to be 10p and 50p but last year the 10p magic was taken away. The reason I have so many books is largely due to this shop - without exaggeration I have bought at least 150 books from here. It is very close to Notting Hill tube station, perfect for staggering back home with lots and lots of books. Take a backpack.

#10. Afterwords Bookstore, E. Illnois Street, Chicago, IL, U.S.A. My trip to Chicago was a mix of huge highs and lows. I was walking around in very deep snow with a broken toe and the hostel was very noisy but I loved the city. One of my favourite places in the world. Afterwords was found at the end of a long day of walking around and I staggered in, hoping to be able to exchange my copy of Ripley's Game for a new book to keep me going on the next part of my trip. The store is a combination of new and secondhand books and some of their prices are stupidly good, especially if there is a sale on. I also have to give them credit for me falling in love with Doris Grumbach who is now pretty much my favourite author because it was her book I took away with me in the end. There is nothing usual about this bookstore, it is a one-off and magical place. You probably would not find it if you weren't looking, but if you are it's near Grand Red metro stop.

There it is, my current list. The most wonderful thing is that this is the tip of a very literate iceberg and every time I go to a new place I try to find more bookshops - because you really cannot have too many books


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