Bookseller Crow’s Reader in Residence reflects on her relationship with the shop, prompted by Independent Booksellers Week 2015:
It’s a peculiar thing, book-related guilt. There are many varieties: I-spend-too-much-money-on-books; I-buy-books-that-I-don’t-read; I-only-joined-a-book-group-to-have-a-night-to-myself; I-should-read-more; I-spend-time-reading-when-I-should-be-washing-up; I-don’t-read-enough-by-women. I don’t suffer from any of those any more, but I do have a new source of personal torture – Cheating on Bookseller Crow.
When I moved to Crystal Palace, a friend in the area insisted that I visit Bookseller Crow, and I obliged, before even unpacking any boxes. The atmosphere struck me at once – a relaxed space where books take centre stage – and then the selection of new releases had me dizzy with excitement. The prime ingredients of a great bookshop, to my mind, are the ability to roam and browse freely, and a fantastic range of books. But as any independent book shop devotee will tell you, there’s more to it than that.
We now have the ability to roam and browse freely from the comfort of our sofas, with an obscene range of books at the end of our fingertips, to say nothing of low prices and the convenience of having something delivered to your door. I know I’m not the first bookworm to say ‘ducks to that’: for a start, this purported ‘convenience’ thrives when we know what we want, but is not especially good at helping us discover things. That’s not just because what we’ve liked in the past is not an infallible guide to what we’ll like in the future (we’re transforming our tastes and our sensibilities every day, every time we read), but it’s crucially because we don’t always know what we think when we finish a book. Reading is a sophisticated activity: we bring something to each book that we pick up, to make meaning, to participate in the final act of creation. Reading is active, and the action doesn’t always end neatly as we turn the last page: we often need to ‘put something out there’ to anchor the experience of reading.
Getting to grips with what we discover when we read, and what that will help us discover in future books, is a human endeavour. It’s not about formulas, or logic, or ‘sentiment analysis’. Worthy bookshops know this, and are a source of book chat – whether over the counter as you decide between this and that; or at more formal gatherings like book clubs and writer events. Bookshops trade in these two commodities: books that have a price tag; and book chat, that is priceless. For me, paying cover price for a book, paying a small price for a ticket to hear an author read, and committing (almost) exclusively to buying all my books from Bookseller Crow is a very small price to pay for the space it affords me: to think, to learn, to be.
I’ve had a number of deeply profound reading experiences, though I’d be hesitant to say that any particular book has ‘changed my life’. Where books have failed, Bookseller Crow has succeeded: the shop has a superbly positive impact on my daily life through the shop’s twitter account (frankly hilarious and sometimes borderline anarchic), its book club (a terrifically opinionated bunch of people full of integrity, depth and a streak of hedonism), its regulars (always have a smile, if not some astonishing insight about life, the universe and all the fish), and the writers that have crossed the threshold (Miriam Toews, Tom Drury, and Andy Miller are some of my highlights).
Of course, the shop is merely a symbol – something that people flock to. It’s not really the shop that brings me such benefit, but the people that work, shop and hang out there. That’s why, when I occasionally buy a book on impulse somewhere else, I feel bad: I’m missing out on an opportunity to develop a relationship, one that’s been growing for over a year now. This relationship has introduced me to things like the brave independence of Galley Beggar Press, it provided an opportunity to ‘read myself fitter’ and it recently blew me away with a recommendation of All Involved.
Independent Bookseller’s Week gives us pause to think about what makes this bookshop great – and to note that it makes a mammoth effort to engage its customers all year round. There’s lots that makes Bookseller Crow unique, that make it a King amongst independent book shops. Its customers – or perhaps it’s more apt to say friends – fierce loyalty is only the tip of the iceberg.
Bookseller Crow’s Reader-in-Residence has a top tip: abandon the frustrating search for your next book, and let Jonathan be the only ‘moment of truth’ you need: join Flight Club for a book a month, hand-picked by Jonathan and sent directly to your door.