I’ve been away this weekend, to Bath and Oxford – which, as well as being two of England’s most historic and beautiful cities, are also two of its most literary. At a time when independent bookshops are struggling (and many UK towns and cities don’t have one at all), it’s heartening to me that there are still places wherre they flourish. The downside of visiting such bookshops is that there are altogether too many interesting books out there. Ah well…
Anyway, for the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about where I went and what I bought.
Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – John Street, Bath
The winner of Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. Mr B’s Emporium strikes me very much as a traditional bookshop with a contemporary outlook. You really get the impression that the people who work there know and care about what they stock. I came away with two books:
Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale
The first time I heard of the Icelandic writer Sjón was when Scott Pack named The Blue Fox as his favourite read of 2009. I thought it was about time I tried something by Sjón, and I remembered Alex in Leeds reviewing From the Mouth of the Whale recently, so that was the one I chose.
Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
I was served at the counter by Mr B himself, Nic Bottomley. While I was there, I asked him to recommend a short story collection. He suggested a few, and I decided on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies. Knowledgeable booksellers are valuable for just these sorts of recommendations, and for expanding what you read in unanticipated ways.
Blackwell’s – Broad Street, Oxford
Perhaps I’m stretching my definition of ‘independent bookshop’ here, seeing as Blackwell’s have over 40 branches around the country. But then again, most of them are on university campuses rather than high streets, and the Oxford shop was the first of all… and this is my blog post, so the shop will count as far as I’m concerned. I promised to limit myself to two books, but stretched to three in the end (and could have bought several more quite easily).
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Storyteller of Marrakesh
I just started browsing, and this was in front of me on the nearest table (a selection of writing from India and Pakistan). I recognised the author’s name from hearing about The Watch, a title which launched Chatto & Windus’ Hogarth imprint earlier in the year (see William Rycroft’s review, for example). I hadn’t heard of the novel before, but it concerns overlapping and contradictory stories (as a storyteller tries to uncover the truth about a couple’s disappearance), which is just the sort of thing that appeals to me.
Simona Sparaco, About Time
The adjacent table was of fiction in translation, which is something of which I want to read more. I’m always interested in reading books that use the fantastic in different ways; this novel is about a playboy who finds time speeding up for him, but no one else. I’d never heard of the book or its author (though the publisher, Pushkin Press, is a name I trust), but it interested me, so I went for it.
Richard Beard, Lazarus is Dead
This was on my list of ‘books I keep intending to buy, but never get around to’. It’s had plenty of praise (from John Self, for instance), and its promise of an idiosyncratic take on the Lazarus story had me intrigued anyway. I chose this novel narrowly over Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy, a fact I record here partly as a reminder to myself not to forget about it!
If there’s a downside to buying interesting new books, it’s that there are also interesting old books to be read. But they’ll all still be there to discover again when the time comes. And so are the shops, which I’d heartily recommend you visit should you get the chance.