Best bookshop in the world? Best one afloat anyway.

The Book Barge - pic from the Guardian

It is hard for me to dislike any bookshop. If it stocks books, that’s usually good enough for me.

But some establishments rise far above the rest. It could be because of their ambiance or their range of stock. Maybe it’s the expertise or hospitality of the staff. Or perhaps it’s just the comfy seats. Or something else entirely.

This one – The Book Barge – is extra special.

It has books. And it’s on a barge. Floating. From place to place along the English canal network.

C’mon! Isn’t that fantastic?

Lee Rourke wrote about it in the Guardian newspaper. Here‘s what he wrote:

First we had slow food, then slow writing and now, quite naturally it seems, we have slow bookselling. Slow bookselling? I hear you ask. We’re all aware of what’s happening to the average independent book shop in today’s accelerated, one-click internet-led environment: they are closing down by the score, and it’s becoming a major struggle for the average independent bookshop to survive. I’ve written before about what my ideal bookshop would be like, but I have to admit my ideal wouldn’t stand a chance today.

I’ve been lamenting the demise of the independent bookshop for a while now, everything just seems to be disappearing. And then last week a strange but truly brilliant thing happened. Actually, it all started several months ago, when I received an email from The Book Barge informing me that my debut novel The Canal was their bestseller. Obviously, I investigated further and was amazed to find out that The Book Barge was indeed a floating bookshop on a canal boat (57′ Cruiser Stern) in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

It is the brainchild of Sarah Henshaw. “By setting up on a canal boat,” she explained, “we hope to promote a less hurried and harried lifestyle of idle pleasures, cups of tea, conversation, culture and, of course, curling up with an incomparably good Book Barge purchase.” I was immediately sold. But why a canal boat? “I hoped that by creating a unique retail space, customers would realise how independent bookshops can offer a far more pleasurable shopping experience than they’re likely to find online or on the discount shelves at supermarkets.”

A few months later I received another email from Sarah. This time she informed me that she was about to embark on a six-month tour of the UK’s canal network, incorporating a series of onboard author events along the way, including David Vann and Per Petterson, and wondered if I would like to read at one of her book clubs in London. The tour is a mammoth undertaking, as Sarah will be living on The Book Barge, hoping to swap books for the odd meal, or for the use of a shower along the way. (Most recently she offered to swap books for a mechanic to have a look at the engine – I hope she found one).

So, last week I stepped aboard the Book Barge on the Regent’s Canal by The Narrow Boat pub for a planned reading and book signing event. At 7.30pm on a balmy evening, we set off along the canal, through Wenlock Basin and towards Islington Tunnel. The thing is I didn’t get to read, as we were all enjoying ourselves so much it didn’t seem right to spoil the fun, besides it has always been a geeky ambition of mine to travel through the Islington Tunnel (I have never seen so many spiders’ webs in my life). It was the best (non)reading I have ever taken part in.

On the way, as Sarah navigated the barge along the canal, I managed to ask her just whom her average customers might be. “I’ve had school teachers and kids who are skiving school,” she laughed, “tourists and a bride groom; the odd celebrity; a whole shop full of parents waiting for a Justin Bieber concert to end and most recently a bunch of drunkards diving off the roof into the canal at 5.00am on a Sunday morning. A good independent bookshop shouldn’t have an average customer. The more diverse the custom, the better independents are doing at bringing books to the widest possible audience.”

The Book Barge is a breath of genuinely fresh air and quite possibly the coolest bookshop in the UK. With a wonderful kids’ section and an excellent selection of contemporary and secondhand fiction and non-fiction it makes for a pleasurable book-buying visit. At the moment, it is moored outside the Guardian offices in London. but be quick, the Book Barge sets off for Bath, Gloucester, Worcester, Manchester, Skipton, York and Derby soon. A full itinerary of events can be found here.

It reminds me of my uncle Clem wrote in a school essay. “Lo, could this transport last?” In a heavenly sort of way.

The Book Barge also has a good blog which includes this funny post – i is for ice cube.

If you have a favourite bookshop or stall, feel free to celebrate it below.


Filed under art, life

21 responses to “Best bookshop in the world? Best one afloat anyway.

  1. Book Barge, eh? Gotta a lot of nautical stuff I imagine? Drake, Cook, Nelson. Noah too, huh?

    • blackwatertown

      You’re right. According to the Book Barge website they have a weekly ‘Book at Breakfast’ slot for adults where, each Sunday, they’ll be reading out W.W. Jacobs’ short story of high jinks on the waterways in The Lady of the Barge. And eating pastries. Hangovers are welcome, we’ll have coffee.

  2. I am not a great reader, but a bookshop like that might draw me in!

    • blackwatertown

      And then might move when you’re engrossed in a book, so that when you look up you’re no longer where you were when you started.
      But seeing as it’s only a canal boat, you’ll have only moved a few hundred yards at most, or be waiting to go through a lock.

  3. I live in Key West, which is a literary haven for many — this VERY week there are two book shops announcing plans to shut down — Borders, a corporate bookseller and the other, Voltaire Books, a great little shop at Simonton and Eaton Streets — sigh — Amazon dot com is both blessing and curse…

  4. I have always wanted to open a bookshop or run a lending library…never got down to it as I was afraid of being tied down…and didn’t get a partner to share the daily running of it! Oh well! Maybe in a next life!

    I have read many books about the canal seems fascinating, at times frustrating and very peripatetic! Lives in hotels, boats and hospitals make for great breeding ground for storioes don’t the?

    • blackwatertown

      Me too – a combined book shop, cafe & music venue – somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. Hasn’t happened just yet. But who knows…

  5. What a great idea. I wish the Book Barge every success. The more independent bookshops the better.

    Unfortunately the Bookshop at Queens University, Belfast, which has been going for over 50 years, will be closing at the end of August because custom has slumped – mainly because so many students are using online materials instead of buying books. A great shame.

    • blackwatertown

      That’s a shocker about the Queens Uni bookshop. I remember it always being pretty expensive and not terribly friendly – though maybe that was because they had to deal with students all the time. I know that No Alibis on Botanic Avenue – excellent and friendly – offers a text book service also.
      So it’s closing. Shame. Wonder whether there’ll be a, er… sale?

  6. A BOOK BARGE — how darned cool is that?! The nearest LARGE body of water to us is Lake Michigan so we’ll have to settle for READ BETWEEN THE LYNES in Woodstock, Illinois (just a gnat’s whisker north of us). It’s not a big chain and doesn’t try to be — it’s very “down home” and comfortable, while being cutting edge at the same time (and right next door to Starbuck’s, to boot):

    • blackwatertown

      Looks like a friendly place – but in trouble by the looks of their website – asking you to spend $35 a month is quite a tall order.

  7. Cool! Always liked something that was unique and different 🙂

  8. Awesome idea but wouldn’t work here we don’t have any canals. Perhaps a harbour cruise or ferry. It is a shame that the smaller bookshops are disappearing. A friend of mine said it’s one of the best places to pick up . . .chicks not books!

    • blackwatertown

      Aha – and did your friend give any more tips. Is it best to lurk round the travel or adventure section looking rugged? Or just contemplate the other customers from a comfy chair? Perhaps peep through the bookshelf from the other side? Or cunningly watch what book some woman buys and turn up at the till with the same one as she is paying? The risk would be that she is buying it for someone else and it’s An Idiot’s Guide to…Being An Idiot. I’ve got ten copies of that at home now. I think I’ll have to try a different approach.

  9. Barbara Rodgers

    Fantastic idea!

    It seems to me, in this area at least, used bookstores are doing a thriving business while I’ve been sad to see the few local independent bookstores close over the years. However, all the Borders chain of bookstores are in the process of going out of business right now, at least here in Connecticut.

    The Book Barn is my favorite used bookstore:
    Other Tiger is my favorite independent bookstore:
    Both are about 45 minutes away in opposite directions…

  10. Val

    An interesting idea… until one gets motion sickness!
    I love bookshops but I think I prefer them not to move. 🙂

  11. Kaya

    Excellent post. I am inspired!
    Thank you.

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