I have fallen in love many times, though I wouldn’t say I fall in love easily.
I’m not talking about romantic love, or even people. I’m talking about bookshops.
The first bookshop I knew, I was never really in love with. A generic high street name selling magazines, newspapers, stationery, cards, wrapping paper – and, at the back, some books. The shop itself was not enticing – too busy, too packed, no reverence for the paperbacks stacked in awkward alphabetical order, children’s and young adults conflated to one section. But there were books, and I loved it enough for that.
My sister gave my curiosity freedom
I’d go in through the right hand door – the lightest one, easiest to open – and make a sharp right to march past the magazines, past the stationary and then back around on myself to the back centre aisle, one side full of children’s and young adult fiction. I knew those shelves intimately from studying them every Saturday. I visited the ones I wanted and listed them in my head, which ones I would spend birthday money on first. I irritated old ladies trying to reach floral notecards, shuffling past me where I crouched between the too-close metal shelves. It’s where my father queued all morning, just to get me Harry Potter.
Eventually, I found Waterstones. Old enough to go further afield with friends for shopping trips, travelling on buses with bags of pick and mix between us, I spent snatched moments exploring the depths of a larger shop with more than one shelf of books. Whole sections dedicated to history and art, sci fi, historical and romance all separated out. Tables full of careful choices, made by people who loved books as I would. I moved out of Young Readers into Fiction, where there was so much more to sift. I learned what it meant for a selection to be curated, chosen by a person and not an algorithm.
I went further outside of my happy little zone visiting my sister at university, and being shown the largest bookshop I’d ever seen. There was a cafe in the corner where she sat and waited for me to drink my fill. Before I was old enough to go shopping alone, I had this first experience of browsing for as long as I wished, without the toe-tapping impatience of companions, finding everything fascinating and able to stay as long as I wanted. My sister gave my curiosity freedom.
At some point, I started shopping online, but it was not ever, ever the same.
A warren of nooks and passages created between tall shelves, where Narnia seemed slightly closer
At University, I fell in love with an independent bookshop. Second hand and new books, tumbled shelves and careful stacks, books across two floors, and in the corners, boxes which you sifted through for yourself. A warren of nooks and passages created between tall shelves, where Narnia seemed slightly closer. I began to browse beyond stories, seeking essay collections and theoretical works, staying long after I intended, spending hours flicking through tomes, on subjects I’d never thought of before. Finding books my father had mentioned and I’d dismissed, I piled up volumes along the walls of my student flat, until the mould began to threaten them. I read things I disagreed with and wondered how to argue with the authority of printed text, and settled for writing essays to respond in the same medium. I went to poetry readings and novel launches, working up the courage to speak to Real Life Writers.
Today, I am in the midst of two bookshop love affairs.
My hometown has an independent bookshop now, drawing away from the metal-shelved chain I used to settle for. They serve tea, coffee and cake, have little gift displays, and small but wonderfully chosen, beautiful books. I visit every time I’m there, as faithfully as I go to see my parents. My mother orders two teas and finds a spot where she can see the road, to watch the world go by. Every year now, this is how we watch the Christmas parade. We sip and chat and catch up, admire the posters and event notices on the walls, the carefully drawn landscapes of my home county on charmingly printed tea-towels. I’m always interested in what their book group is reading, and I wish I was a part of it, but I live far too far away. My mother watches me browse, persuades me that I don’t need all the books, especially not the ones I already have with a different cover. Eventually I’ll settle on my haul – almost always one more than the limit I set myself to start.
I feel I’m browsing fiction within fictional walls
The city nearest where I have settled has several beautiful bookshops, and one has become my favourite of all. I take people there when they visit, a new tourist stop to showcase the landscape of the city I’ve adopted. It combines all the fictional bookshops I fell in love with before I visited the best ones I love – Belle’s bookshop in Beauty and the Beast, with ladders on the walls, Flourish and Blott’s in Diagon Alley, characterful floorboards and wooden furniture, books shelved up to the ceiling, teapots visible on shelves at the bottom of a spiral staircase. The paradox is not lost on me, that I feel I’m browsing fiction within fictional walls.
I get lost in these places. I carry home daydreams in cloth bags, wrapped in colourful covers and with the names of my idols stamped across the front. I visit their stories in my dreams, and thank the magical dispensers who situated me with such an army of fictional friends to call to mind.