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Since starting this blog, I have begun to approach bookshops in an entirely different way. I used to pop in to bookshops on my way elsewhere; now the bookshop is my destination. I arrange my visits a week in advance, usually by email, to ensure that I visit at a quiet time and do not interrupt more than is necessary. Each visit really begins when I exit the tube stop and attempt to retrace the route I have hastily scribbled in my notebook moments before leaving the house (Note to self: Buy an A-Z or a phone that can access the internet). For some reason, I always feel a bit nervous: here I am, I think, armed with my notebook, camera and makeshift mp3 player-come-voice recorder but what if there is nothing worthy of recording?
So as I leave West Hampstead tube station and head up hill on a brisk but sunny November morning, my eyes flit from shop front to shop front until I spy a green awning. I breathe a sigh of relief, as I have on all my visits so far; West End Lane Bookshop is lovely. The cream walls are lined with deep mahogany shelves and although not particularly large, bare wooden floors and carefully placed tables create an elegant and spacious feel. The shop is one of three family-owned bookshops in North London and has been open for 17 years.
There has been a flood of big-name literary hardbacks released recently and they are well-represented in the shop’s new book bays. I spot Murakami’s 1Q84 and Eugenidies’ The Marriage Plot and am reminded, somewhat guiltily, of my ever lengthening to-read list. It’s a list that is lengthened considerably when I start to peruse the hand-picked fiction section. It’s my favourite type: unashamedly literary, with the great and the good all present and correct alongside an occasional unfamiliar name to catch your interest.
The shop also has smaller sections dedicated to crime, sci-fi, poetry, graphic novels and various non-fiction; history, biography, cookery etc. Towards the back of the shop is a bay of attractively jacketed special editions by the likes of Penguin and Faber. They look particularly appealing when all grouped together and would, I’m sure, look even better in on my bookcase (I’m fairly certain Santa reads this blog). The shop’s other strength is its Children’s section which is a mix of old favourites and exciting contemporary titles. Danny, the Children’s buyer for West End Lane, tells me about the many ways the shop encourages children to read. Not only do they have a children’s loyalty card scheme and dedicated newsletter (there’s a newsletter for grown-up books too), but there is also a pay-back scheme with affiliated schools, who receive 10% back when pupils and their parents purchase books at the shop. Most interesting is their ‘Review Crew’, a group aged between 8 and 15 who receive copies of new books to review for the shop and its website and who will get to tour the publishing house Walker Books during the Christmas holidays (Jealous? Me too).Danny and I had a great chat about the joys of bookselling and our love of Children’s books. Danny used to work in marketing for a music label so I’m interested to hear her insights in to the future of books:
What do you enjoy about being a bookseller?
I’ve been bookselling for two years and it’s just a lovely place to work. I feel like I’ve gone back in time to a place where people have a bit more time to talk and discuss; to really talk about books. It’s brilliant when somebody walks in to the shop and I know what they’ve bought before, so I’ll say ‘Oh my gosh, have to read so and so’ or they’ll suggest a book to me. It’s a proper dialogue and it’s great. Also since working here, I’ve realised what a horribly cold experience it is to shop in big, corporate, anonymous shops. You don’t even establish eye contact, let alone have someone remember your name or remember that your grandson is starting a new school.
You used to work in the music industry, do you see any parallels between the changes in the music and book industries?
Yes, it’s chilling actually. I worked for a major record label and over the years there was not enough support in the music industry for independent music shops. Labels were seduced by the buying power of the supermarkets and when the Indies died out, the industry thought: ‘Hang on, we can’t really launch any new artists through Tesco’. I would hate for that to happen in the book world; independents are a really important facet of the food chain.
And what about e-books?
Regarding the electronic side of things, you can’t be a King Canute about it all. Books are different kettle of fish to CDs, which were always nasty little objects really. I’ll feel very sad if we end up taking our love affair with the screen even further, because books are beautiful objects. I’ve found that some of our customers have been using e-books for reading titles that they consider “disposable”, the books they won’t re-read, so E-readers do have their place.Danny has a wonderful enthusiasm for Children’s books, when I ask for a few recommends she returns with a big pile and tells me about them with such passion I want to read them all immediately:
Vermonia – YoYo: A series in which four friends battle to save a far off planet. ‘Vermonia is a new series of graphic novels that have worked really well for us; I always recommend them to parents who are having trouble getting their child to read.’
Sleeping Army – Francesca Simon: An original take on Norse mythology, set in a modern Britain where people still worship Viking Gods. ‘I read the Sleeping Army last week because we had Francesca Simon come in for an event and I was just taken back to my 8 year old self. There are a lot of clunky ‘issues’ books around for children at the moment and although the heroine of this book has got some things on her plate, it’s just a facet of her life, the main story is about her adventures and her imagination; it’s just fantastic.’
Steampunk – Belly Link & Gavin J. Grant (Ed): The first major YA Steampunk anthology. ‘It has gone down really well with our Review Crew; we have a 14 year old boy reading it at the moment and he is really impressed by it.’Wonder Struck – Brian Selznick: A novel told through a dual narrative, the story of Ben is told in prose while Rose’s story entirely illustrated. ‘It’s a really complex story, beautifully told, so much work has gone in to it.’
The Odyssey – Gareth Hinds: An ambitious retelling of the classic Greek epic through watercolour illustrations. ‘I’m completely in love with this book, the author is a 2000AD comic-book artist and it’s the perfect book to get children interested in mythology.’
The Pirates Next Door – Jonny Duddle: From the author of The Pirate Cruncher, a family of Pirates move to a quiet sea-side town and soon have everybody talking. ‘A big story-time favourite with great illustrations and a really funny story. I was reading it to a group of four and five year olds the other day and there is so much for them to notice on each page. What I’m looking for in books for this age group are books that the parents will enjoy reading too and they won’t get bored of this one.’
I doubt any of you really need an excuse to spend a day in Hampstead, but if you do, West End Lane Books is a very good one. Their fiction section alone will make the trip worth while. They have plenty of author events and talks going on, as well as two book groups, including West End Crooks which is dedicated to discussing great crime fiction; all the details you’ll need are on their website. I’ll be visiting West End Lane’s sister shops in Queens Park and England’s Lane soon, now I can’t wait to see what they are are like.