We visited four of our favourite independent bookshops for #BookShopDay


On Saturday October 7, bookshops, publishers and authors from across the country are preparing for #BookShopDay - the annual centrepiece of Books Are My Bag's nationwide campaign to celebrate bookshops. To get you in the mood, we met up with four brilliant bookshops - Libreria, Gay's the Word, Dulwich Books and Mr B's Emporium.
 


65 Hanbury Street, London, E1 5JP

What makes Libreria special?

I suppose it’s a combination of the architectural design but also how we thematically laid out the shelves. So we’ve got, you know, different shelves like Utopia, Time and Space, Brain and Being. We’re mixing up fiction and non-fiction, going against the conventional kind of store layout to enhance creativity and discovery, and I guess to re-imagine what a bookshop is.

Architecturally, the shop is quite striking. The architect’s brief was based on the Borges’ short story of The Library of Babel which is this kind of magical infinite library that has every book ever written. We’ve got this beautiful big mirror at the back and a barrisol ceiling at the top to enhance the sense of infinity and the shelves going on forever.

Tell us about how you help customers find the perfect book?

Well, the first question you ask is ‘what do you usually like?’ And from there you work forward. We’ve got 5,000 titles in here so you can’t know everything, but we point the reader in a direction that corresponds with their interests and help them to explore the shop themselves. It’s about dialogue, the social element of reading. We love to discuss books, to talk about ideas, and that’s what we do with customers.

What is your favourite independent bookshop besides your own?

Probably Skoob, a second hand bookshop in Russell Square. It’s an amazing second hand book store that’s kind of like Aladdin’s cave, and I guess not too dissimilar to our shop either. Because they’re all second hand books a lot of them will be out of print, so you’re more inclined to stumble across something that you wouldn’t have necessarily seen before. There’s that sense of discovery. So yeah, I love Skoob. It’s brilliant.

What are the core values of your bookshop?

Always trying to re-imagine and be as creative as possible for our customers, for the people who come to Libreria and are looking for something a bit different. We want to present an experience that is completely different from not only your normal retail experience, but also your normal bookshop experience. The thematic shelving means that there’s always an element of surprise, and I suppose that’s partly key to why our customers come back as well

We also have author curators, which is a very important part of what we do. At the moment we have Philippe Sands, QC author of East West Street. We’ve got Hannah Barry, curator of the Hannah Barry Gallery and Bold Tendencies. We’ve had Shami Chakrabarti, we’ve had Edward Franks. In amongst the shelves, we are always trying to surprise and bring something new. We’ve exhibited work in here - we had an instillation for Art Night London, where we projected a film onto the back mirror, which was quite spectacular visually. 

Gay's the Word


66 Marchmont St, London WC1N 1AB

What makes Gay's the Word special?

A lot of people tend to think of bookshops as predominantly intellectual or literary spaces, and they are, but I they’re often also emotional spaces. Gay’s the Word has a long history of being a community space, a space of sharing ideas, with people creating their own personal stories through their interaction with other members of the LGBT community in this space.

There’s a lot of heart in this bookshop. It’s quite a benign, kind-hearted place. It’s a privilege to tend it and curate it. I describe it as piloting a homosexual Tardis. That’s my analogy for running the bookshop, privileged access to some incredible authors who are my rock stars of thought. Interactions with customers are something precious that both myself and my colleague Jim value greatly. There are some amazing people that come in here. Customers become friends and there’s that circuit of affection. It’s a real privilege to be in a job where you have that with people.

How do you help customers find the perfect book?

A combination of factors. The first is listening, asking questions, finding out information about the person who’s buying or indeed if they’re buying on behalf of someone else. I think not overwhelming the person selecting with too many options. A good bookseller should know their books really well - it’s about presenting options to people that you feel like they’re really going to connect with. If you think about it, that’s an incredibly privileged position for a person to be in. You’re making suggestions for something that someone’s going to take not only into their mind, but into their heart, into their emotions. I think doing that sensitively and giving the act the respect and time it deserves is really important.

What is your favourite independent bookshop beyond your own?

I like the happy accident of coming across a small independent when you’re travelling around. I was in Dorset recently and I went into the bookshop there, in Bridport. It was a small, local, but very well-stocked, independent bookshop. I really love those experiences in villages and small towns across the country when you go into a bookshop that’s been curated with love and attention. I think that’s one of the things that make the UK great, the wealth of excellent independent booksellers in the towns and villages that we have. We’re very fortunate to have those and they should be supported.

Which book has had the biggest impact on your life?

I would have to say actually, the Bible. I know that might be an unlikely selection for an atheist, homosexual bookseller in London, but it was the first book that I really became aware of. In that sense, it was my pathway to the mechanics of writing and literature. It’s a contentious book that can be used for both good and wrong I think, but there’s a lot of beauty and heart in it. The Bible has probably had the biggest impact on me of all books.

I’m a huge fan of these two novels, Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and the brilliant, extraordinary Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. They’re both in the Southern Gothic tradition and both mid-1950s. Carson McCullers and Capote were friends for a while. They’re just full of brilliant, rich characters, slightly twisted scenarios and some heart-stoppingly beautiful writing. I love both those books very much.

What are the core values of your bookshop?

Community, comprehensiveness and compassion. There’s something essentially affirming for an LGBT person, especially if they’re from a society or a country that doesn’t have an enlightened approach to LGBT people, to come in and to be physically surrounded by a collection of writing that affirms their identity. That’s an incredibly profound, political, philosophical, powerful experience. I’ve seen people break down in tears in that moment, and I’ve totally appreciated why. It goes back to Gay’s the Word being an emotional space. It’s a small little shop, in a small street in Bloomsbury, but it stocks a rich comprehensive range of literature, much of which has, in many ways, attempted to be suppressed over the years. So the fact that it exists and celebrates our right to articulate and our identity and ourselves is even more powerful. 


6 Croxted Road, London, SE21 8SW

What makes Dulwich Books special?

I think the first thing I would say is very strong community involvement. We have been here for thirty-five years, so we are very, very embedded in the community. We work very hard with all sorts of partners like schools across the borough; we work with the local church. We have fantastic booksellers - between us we have one-hundred-fifty years’ experience of working with books, either in publishing, agenting or bookselling. So we have very deep knowledge of the books we are selling. We also have strong relationships with our customers, we know each other really well, and then we have a fantastic events program both within the shop and all around the local area. We run two local festivals every year and so we get a lot of live authors coming here to participate in that.

Tell us about how you help customers find the perfect book?

One of the most important things for helping customers find the right book is our ‘shelf talkers’. All of the staff read very widely and everybody who works here, when they’ve read a book that they’ve really enjoyed, makes sure to write a ‘shelf talker’ which then goes onto our recommendations tables, which are dotted all over the shop. Wherever you look you can find these recommendations and they sell very, very well. We also have a newsletter that we send out every month which has a different variety of books that we recommend for people. We’re all very well informed - we attend lots of the publishers’ evenings, so we know what books publishers are coming out with; we’ve met the authors and have read their previous books.

What is your favourite independent bookshop beyond your own?

I would say McNally Jackson in New York. They’re similar to the Dulwich Books, in that they do a lot of work in the community, they have loads of events and have a very loyal customer base. They have great staff as well.

What are the core values of your bookshop?

We believe in stocking a huge range of books, and absolutely not underestimating the customer. If you display and talk about books properly, you can put out choices that may not be so obvious. We’re also quite political; we’re all quite politically engaged here so we have certain beliefs about the democratic engagement that an independent bookshop can give you.


14-15 John St, Bath BA1 2JL

What makes Mr B's special?

The thing you have to do as a bookshop, which is what makes every shop different, is to have a physical identity. This shop is a series of rooms where you never know what you might come across, whether it’s a carved full-sized human under a glass desk or a glass table interestingly made from Penguin titles, or a full sized tree, or a wall covered in tinting. It’s about having an interesting space, and loads of my friends who have got other bookshops around the country have their own take on it. So that’s something that makes us all different.

How do you help customers choose the right book?

The thing that we do – even more obsessively than most independents – is to talk about books constantly. We focus all out attention towards having conversations about books. We have these reading spas which are an hour and a half spent sitting one-to-one with our team and talking about what kind of thing you like, and then having suggestions thrown at you that you hopefully haven’t come across before. Similarly, we have a reading subscription, which is very bespoke. It begins with a questionnaire so we get to know people’s tastes, then they receive a wrapped and wax-sealed book every month which has been handpicked for them.

What is your favourite independent bookshop beyond your own?

The bookshop that inspired the creation of Mr B’s was Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle. A couple of years ago I also went to a brilliant children’s bookshop called Second Star to the Right – they were the only people who might not shut up more than us about books. Just brilliant children booksellers.

In the UK, it’s difficult to limit it to one. I was in a relatively near neighbours of ours with my kids about three weeks ago, Yellow Lighted Book Company in Tetbury, and seeing the shop through their eyes made me realise how perfect their children section is. They’ve got a huge, indulgent leather sofa there, the kind of thing that’s normally reserved for the grown-ups, but they have that in the children’s section. My kids could have spent hours there.

What are the core values of your bookshop?

We try to convert one book agnostic every day and enthuse ten book addicts every day. We’re a home for people that are geeky about books, and an open door to those who don’t know what to do in a bookshop, or where to start, who have fallen out of love with reading or who have never been in love with reading. They’re the people that are even more important in a way, and it’s one of the best parts of the job to be confronted like that. 

 

Visit Books Are My Bag to find out more about #BookShopDay and find your local bookshop