Pleasant distractions

Shrewsbury shop window - welcome, books, coffee, browse, tea

As Shaun Bythell of Wigtown Bookshop demonstrates in the pages of his diary, people who depend on book sales for a living in the 21st century tend to have a definite Black Books air about them, especially when austerity bites – but Booka doesn’t.

Booka shop front, Oswestry

We’re on our holidays in Shropshire, mooching about along the towns of the Welsh border. We’re in Oswestry today. It’s elevensies time when we spot the Booka bookshop/café. Perfect.

Booksellers write books

The Diary of a Bookseller, Wigtown bookshop

I went into the shop thinking about blogging about bookshops so naturally, the first thing that caught my eye was ‘The Diary of a Bookseller’ by Shaun Bythell, so although we didn’t go anywhere near Wigtown, The Book Shop will have a mention in the holiday blog. I’m a publisher and bookseller, and I’ve heard enough Bythell quotes on my rounds to know that bookshop owners find plenty to feed their schadenfreude in Bythell’s diary and, having got my own copy now, I find it’s perfectly possible to enjoy it.

The Diary of a Bookseller, rather like many good bookshops, is a carefully tended disorder. We learn in one day’s entry that Bythell is not to be tempted into making a stand against the corporate horrors of publishing and distribution giants, despite the lectures from his (in his view) unrealistic assistant. A bit further on, we learn about a mysterious smell of cat piss, and other evidence of a furry intruder. Some entries later, we get a detailed explanation of how Dillons and Waterstones precipitated the crisis in the book trade by sabotaging the net book agreement. After considering the resultant, beleaguered book world where Amazon are merely picking the last shreds of meat from the bones, Bythell’s reader hits a single sentence, alone on the end of a day’s entry – “Smell of cat piss getting stronger.”

Booka event posters, including 'the magic of numbers'You will hear more about the cat. Meanwhile, booksellers get their small revenges. It’s fun accompanying Bythell to book auctions and house clearances, and sniggering over the comments of customers – and when he enlists his Facebook followers to thwart Trip Advisor. Meantime, the booksellers who read this can keep a foot on the floor by noting the books ordered/books found (that is, how many of the books ordered online turned out to actually be in the shop where he was expecting to find them) and the till-total at the end of each day whilst Bythell chats his way through, whilst we all wonder how he makes a living. I hope this book is helping a bit.

Booksellers run events

Back to Booka – where there is not the merest hint of cat piss. The second title that caught my eye here was ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak. If you haven’t read Booka event posters - including 'eternal boy'it yet, there’s an edition around now with the opening pages of the next book in the back, just to annoy you even more. The third thing that caught my eye was ‘The Science of Sleep’ by Alice Gregory, then ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ … and on, I always did need a wheel barrow when I visited bookshops. Anyway – Booka is a good, light, well-stocked bookshop, with plenty to see (upstairs is particularly good, don’t miss it) and has a regular range of events, from freebie children’s workshops through local author talks to celebrity signings, as well as offering a dependably good cup of coffee and a selection of cakes.

Booka event posters, including Prue Leith
Events, coffee, cakes and conversation at Booka, Oswestry

Booka café counter

Booka café, including cappucino and scones

Booksellers run cafésreading and chatting in the café

Booka shop display, flowers, books, coffee


Llangollen bookshop cafeThere’s a café-bookshop in Llangollen too, a shop in a completely different mood. It’s the kind where you can get breakfast, and come back at twilight, to wrap your hands round a mug of tea and watch buses go by after a day spent tromping around in the hills. We also enjoyed the Turkish radio station the waitress has chosen as a reminder of ‘back home’. The books are secondhand, the shelves the shadowy kind where you rummage for forgotten delights at two for the pound, and there’s one of those massive play-world things at the back, which I’m told children like. I don’t think mine did, but there appear to be children in this one, and they aren’t crying. It looks rather like the back-alleys of the spaceship in Red Dwarf (apparently there’s a famously huge secondhand book collection which we completely failed to notice so either they need better lighting or this might be the worst book-blog ever).

On to Shrewsbury (the header pic to this article is part of the window display by Pengwern Books in Shrewsbury.)

Swords, pens and big guns

Shrewsbury coffee outlet with bookshelves

So whilst most bookshops now seem to also be cafés, from the other side of the tracks, some corporate coffee outlets are now leaving books around the place. Oddly, as I discovered today in Shrewsbury, you’re not allowed to buy them. I came across Red Runs the Helmand by Richard Mercer in a coffee shop in Shrewsbury. You might think it was a book someone like me would run a mile from but – a book by a military man, comparing the life, the doings and the aims of UK soldiers in Afghanistan now with the same in 1880 – there’s stuff there one should know about – but not today. I’ll have to go to my own local indie bookshop when I get home, and see if Tim at Bookbuster can find a copy of it.

Jim at BookaMeanwhile, himself found (in a Shrewsbury bookshop) The Golden Thread – the story of writing by Ewan Clayton. The author claims there have been two real game-changers to writing along the way – vellum was the first, and print the second – and both changed not only the manner of writing, but what we wrote and why. Now that we’re in the grip of the third writing-revolution (moving online), Clayton says we have yet to see (or decide) how this third age of writing will affect what and why we write.

Booksellers wear market gloves

As Bythell notes, even amongst those who wander into bookshops, there are not that many who regularly buy books so, unless your money really is down to the ‘food or heating’ stage, do consider buying some, otherwise bookshops will give up selling them. Like everything around us, bookshops are changing. Please look after the good things. I’m signing off now, because the holiday book pile is getting higher, and there’s a market with a bookstall in it to visit today…

4 responses to “Pleasant distractions”

  1. Nice to read this Kay. As an ex bookseller I too make a beeline for the bookshops wherever I go. I started out at Housmans (then the Peace News bookshop), then the fabled Compendium in Camden Town. Then went on to found the women’s bookshop Sisterwrite. Did a fair bit of feminist publishing too. Loved that world. Am back with books in an eclectic library at Schumacher college (as a volunteer). The world f books was what I wanted to go back to when I retired. I hope you have had a wonderfully distracting week away after the full on Filia. It was good wasn’t it – I keep remembering bits… Best wishes, Lynn

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Nice post Kay. I can’t resist articles about book shops or books about bookshops any more than I can resist walking in to book shops…just to browse (or so I assure my long suffering wife)…only to come out with arms full of books. I got a signed copy of Shaun Bythell’s book when he visited Featherston…our Book Town here in New Zealand earlier this year.
    I’d bumped into him the day before the event, in a bookshop naturally, and we had a good old chat. He’s actually a very nice bloke. I wrote a little post about Featherston and meeting Bythell… below.


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