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