In my previous post, Travel and Books Part 4: No Two Bookshops Are the Same, I described what makes a bookshop great for me, especially when travelling. We’ve been lucky to find some excellent ones along the way.
Once we’re into the trip, we read more and more local books (or at least we try to, when not sightseeing or doing other things), as well as brochures, maps, and new information we pick up as we go along. This means some of the books and reading material with which we started out get temporarily set aside. Even the Economist has to take a back seat.
Next week we’ll only be in Paris for a few days, en route to the U.S., but it will be hard to pass up a visit to Galignani (independent) and WHSmith (chain) on rue de Rivoli. When we reach the area where my mother lives in New Jersey, it will be equally difficult to avoid the huge Barnes and Noble dangerously located exactly halfway between her former home and new assisted living facility.
Independents from Seoul to the Peak District
Sometimes a local book purchase leads to a further story, as on one of my business trips to Seoul. I found a Korean bookshop with a tiny English section, and bought a collection of essays by a local female journalist.
The following day, I mentioned to a Korean colleague how much I was enjoying the book, and she said, “She was my university English professor! May I tell her you like her book?” Of course I said yes, and subsequently exchanged several e-mails with the writer. It also became an ongoing point of friendly discussion with my colleague, who followed the writer’s columns and kept me up to date on her activities.
On my first trip to England with Clive in 2006, he took me to the Peak District (which is so beautiful, I nicknamed it postcard country). We stayed at a B&B in Bakewell, where we found the amazing Bakewell Bookshop. As often happens, I wished we had hours if not days to explore its treasures. Here I found a sweet memoir, Tales from the Country Matchmaker, by Patricia Warren. Before the days of Internet dating and TV’s “The Farmer Wants a Wife,” she founded the Farmers’ and Country Bureau for rural English clients. More than being a fun read, which it was, it opened my eyes to a way of life I’d never experienced, and what it’s like to live and work in the Peak District.
Unique specialty sections reflect individual owner interests at shops like Nonsuch Books in Bourton-on-the-Water, mentioned in the previous post. In its section on Speedway in England, Clive bought his father a book about the history of Ipswich Speedway. Ipswich is in Suffolk County and we hadn’t seen the book in any shops there, but there it was in the Cotswolds, in Gloucestershire County. We didn’t set out to buy a book for Clive’s father, but thanks to this accidental discovery, we did.
Books such as the memoir from Bakewell may be possible to locate on the Internet today, but firstly you have to know they exist. If I hadn’t visited Bakewell Books, I wouldn’t have known.
We also enjoy browsing at larger independent bookstores. My first visit to Hatchards on Picadilly was only a few years ago, the first time Clive and I went to London together. I had looked high and low in Australia, the U.S., and England for the English version of Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness) by Corinne Maier, and thought I’d have to order it online or wait until we got to Paris. Hatchards had it on the shelf.
My son graduated from university in the U.S. Midwest this past May, and I will greatly miss the wonderful two-story bookstore on his college campus. Sometime in the future I hope to explore Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. I’ve heard great things about it for years, but thus far have had only a tantalizing taste of it at their branch in Portland International Airport.
Larger independents might not have the owner visible and sitting quietly in the corner, but each still has its own unique feel and character.
Chains Are OK, Too
Notwithstanding my love of independent bookshops, chains can surprise with excellent local offerings. Asia Books in Bangkok has a rich selection covering Thailand and Southeast Asia. At WHSmith on Hamilton Road in Felixstowe, Suffolk (where Clive grew up), we found a small guide that’s become a favourite, the British Automobile Association’s 50 Walks in Suffolk, and Charlie Haylock’s amusing and insightful Sloightly on th’ Huh! An Affectionate Look at the Suffolk Dialect. I learned from the latter how to better understand Clive’s father when he says things like, “never moind, then” or more accurately, “n’er moind, ay.”
What chain stores lack for me, even those with enormous choice and good local sections, are the interesting variations in the character and “look and feel” of independent bookshops. Chains by definition are more uniform in their offerings and presentation, whether the WHSmiths in Europe (where the disturbingly-titled “Tragic Life Stories” section greeted us at their shops in England last year) or the Barnes and Nobles in the U.S. Chains have a more antiseptic feel to me, and don’t offer as much potential for surprise and unexpected discovery as independent bookshops.
Used Books and B&B Trades
As much as I prefer the smell and feel of stores selling new books, sometimes it’s fun to explore an antiquarian or second-hand bookshop. There’s one called Treasure Chest Books in Felixstowe, which claims 45,000 volumes and has a huge range on the history of Felixstowe and nearby Ipswich. We’ll no doubt stop in next month when we’re visiting Clive’s family; last year I found an Alan Wainwright book on Scotland there. It always amazes us that in these shops with books piled to the rafters, the owner knows exactly where everything is.
Many B&B owners encourage book trading, and their shelves are also places to find used books. In 2006, Clive read a thick paperback novel and offered it to me when he finished it, saying it was a great read. I declined, so he left it on the shelf of the B&B where we stay when visiting his father. Later I wished I had it, and he said, “Maybe it will still be there next year.” It was.
Whole Streets of Bookshops
If I had all the time in the world, I’d spend as many days as it took to fully explore Fuzhou Road in Shanghai and Jimbocho, aka Jinbōchō, in the Chiyoda neighbourhood of Tokyo. We’ve only visited each of them once, for much too short a time, and longed to look over their shops and selections of books, prints, maps, and other mysterious paper.
Last year we found Shanghai’s Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Road, but there are many others there begging for a browse. In Jimbocho, we didn’t find any books but tried to purchase a Hokusai print to take home to Sydney. Unfortunately my currency translation was off by a factor of ten, and when we learned the real price, we reluctantly left the print with the shop owner.
One of my travel goals is to spend more time in Shanghai and Tokyo, and as part of that to become more familiar with their streets and neighbourhoods filled with bookshops.
Getting Them Home
We do try to allow for space and weight in our checked luggage for book purchases along the way. Clive estimates the weight of 1 book = 250 pairs of socks.
In the years after I first moved to Australia, I’d return to the U.S. for summer visits, go crazy in bookstores, and mail boxes of books back to Sydney. This was as expensive as having them shipped via amazon.com or amazon.co.uk, and I haven’t done that in a long time. I try to limit my travel purchases to books that are unique and books that will fit in checked luggage coming home.
I know my checked luggage isn’t as light as it could be. But for us, books are the ultimate physical souvenir. Clive and I both had a lot of books when we met, and now we’re building a new, joint travel library. We agree that books are valuable not only in their own right, but as cherished remembrances of our travels together.
I’ll end this series here. My passion for travel and books continues.
Travel and Books Part 1: Will There Be Room for Clothes?
Travel and Books Part 2: Clive’s Magnificent Trip Book
Travel and Books Part 3: Always Room for Another Book
Travel and Books Part 4: No Two Bookshops Are the Same
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