Jen Campbell is a published poet, short story writer and the author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, which was a Sunday Times best-seller. Her latest novel, The Bookshop Book, is the official book of the 2014 Books Are My Bag campaign and has been described as a love letter to bookshops all around the world. Jen stopped by the blog this morning to talk about the magic of books, bookshops, and falling in love with good stories. It’s a beautiful piece and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I put a question up on the ‘Weird Things…’ Facebook page last week: ‘What was your favourite childhood book?’ The comments section exploded: people reminiscing over the Moomins and Roald Dahl, The Animals of Farthing Wood and Jill Murphy. Some said they used to read under the covers at night with a torch; others recalled being read to, or a teacher recommending a book they fell in love with. Some couldn’t remember the title of their books, just flashes of colour or a feeling they conjured up; a feeling of security and warmth.
Books do this to us because we all love stories. Stories offer up places to escape to; characters who become alter egos; different worlds that we want to get to know. It’s why I love reading; it’s why I love working in a bookshop and it’s why I write books myself. Human beings have been making up stories for things we don’t understand, or can’t explain, for as long as we’ve been around to do so: moral tales and fairy tales, myths, legends and everything in between. We have a desire to want to unravel things, even if we can’t. We want to empathise and we want adventure. Books allow us to do that. They allow us to explore.
Helping children pick out stories that they’ll hopefully love is one of the best parts of my job as a bookseller. I once had a little girl in our bookshop who told me she loves bookshops because they are houses for stories. A boy once said I should get a dragon to guard the shop when I wasn’t there. When I asked him if this mightn’t be a fire hazard, he rolled his eyes and said: ‘Well, duh, you’d have to get a trained one.” There’s a never a dull moment – a girl even lost her hamster in the shop last week (thankfully we found him; he hadn’t escaped from her pocket at all, but had eaten away at her coat lining, buried himself inside it and gone to sleep. Crisis averted!).
I’m not sure that there’s anything better than falling in love with a good book – though, on second thoughts, perhaps falling in love with a good bookshop beats it. Good books are portals to other worlds; good bookshops give us directions to where those worlds are. Reading is all about an experience, which is why I think bookshops are so important; they add to that experience. It’s why I wanted to write about them for The Bookshop Book – that, and the fact that bookshops themselves are full of stories – not just those on the shelves, but those hidden away. The stories of the booksellers who fell in love with reading and decided to make it their vocation; the stories of second-hand bookshops and all the people who owned the books before they got there; the stories of the authors who put those books on the shelves in the first place.
So, I took my love of stories, and went hunting for them. The Bookshop Book looks at over three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops around the world and the stories that brought them about. The One Book Bookstore in Arizona run by a guy who set up shop to sell his own book and nothing else; The Book Barge, run by Sarah Henshaw – one woman’s quest to prove that books were worth something, by travelling around the UK in a bookshop boat, bartering books for food; Wigtown Book Town in Scotland, home to one of the best bookshop love stories, and a bookshop that performs weddings. A bookshop shaped like a cat; a bookshop that also sells cows; a secret bookshop without an address… The list goes on.
I hope that these real life bookish stories are ones for people to fall in love with, and I hope that they inspire readers to track down more books and more bookshops (not that book-lovers generally need such encouragement!). Bookshops are magical places, and they are full of stories. Stories that want to be heard.
About the book
Every bookshop has a story.
The Bookshop Book explores bookshops in barns, disused factories, converted churches and underground car parks. Bookshops on boats, on buses, and in old run-down train stations. Fold-out bookshops, undercover bookshops, this-is-the-best-place-I’ve-ever-been-to-bookshops.
Meet Sarah and her Book Barge sailing across the sea to France; meet Sebastien, in Mongolia, who sells books to herders of the Altai mountains; meet the bookshop in Canada that’s invented the world’s first antiquarian book vending machine. And that’s just the beginning.
From the oldest bookshop in the world, to the smallest you could imagine, The Bookshop Book examines the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at over two hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents (sadly, we’ve yet to build a bookshop down in the South Pole).