Settings for books

Books to share and for sale appear in the most surprising places. Outside the local primary school near where I live in Islington, North London, there is a black glazed cupboard fixed to a fence backing the school playground. ‘Free Library’ says the sign at the top of the cupboard. Almost daily, people give and take books; the turnover is quite rapid. Whatever your literary tastes, you are bound to find a book which appeals, be it about history, philosophy, art history, travel, psychogeography, a memoir, crime novel or romance. Roald Dahl’s name features frequently among the children’s books.  

Throughout the country there are quite a few telephone boxes in villages with shelves attached and well stocked with books. In effect they are mini libraries often looked after by unofficial local volunteers, open every day of the year and minute of the day. One telephone box based in Westbury sub Mendip, Somerset has been written about worldwide, possibly because it was one of the first redundant boxes to be given a new life under BT’s Adopt a Kiosk scheme, which was established in 2008 to encourage communities to make ‘good’ use of redundant telephone boxes. In 2009, when the mobile library stopped visiting, a villager suggested buying the village telephone box from BT and fixing shelves to the box, and the box is still going strong! 

Indeed, incidentally, over the past sixteen years, people have devised quite creative uses for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s telephone boxes such as miniature art galleries, mobile repair shops, food banks and an office and local  information booth; one is a mini night club. The Community Heartbeat Trust has installed defibrillators in some across the country. So far, 6,600 boxes have been transformed.

In Alnwick, Northumberland, one finds Barter Books, one of Europe’s largest second hand bookshops, housed in part of an old Victorian railway station designed by William Bell in 1887. The bookshop is made up of seven rooms, which used to be areas in the station. The old waiting room remains a place to sit, although nowadays one may have lunch or a cup of tea or coffee (there is a café and ice cream parlour, too!), read newspapers, and enjoy the open fire. Part of the old outgoing platform where the trains stopped is the biggest room in the shop. There is a map listing the various sections covered. Along one vast wall, stretching to the ceiling from above the bookcases is a mural created by Peter Dodd, revealing almost forty life size famous writers in the English language: Charlotte Bronte, Salman Rushdie, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, F Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. There is also a model railway running along tracks resting upon and continuing in between the bookcases. Visiting Barter Books makes one feel as if one is entering an enchanted realm.

The shop employs about 70 people aged between 16 and 76. It is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day. It was opened in 1991. The shop attracts 350,000 customers a year and sales average 3000 books weekly. Barter Books does offer a barter system as its name suggests; one’s ‘old’ books may be swapped for stock, but you must not take in more than ten hardbacks or twenty paperbacks per visit.  One of my friends has a credit! During the summer of 2021, a time of Covid restrictions, we had to wait on a very long line to have the chance to venture inside. 

If you are passing through Kings Cross, try to take the time to walk along the Regents Canal towpath flowing near the railway station where you will come across Word on the Water, literally a bookshop selling new and used books from a Dutch canal boat dating from the 1920s, now permanently moored on the canal. Books are displayed outside and inside on dark wood shelves. It looks as though one could discover books to be treasured in every nook and cranny of the boat. You can rest on old comfortable sofas and chairs once inside. The wooden floor is covered in old Persian style rugs. One always hears jazz or folklore recordings as walks near the boat. There is also the rarity of seeing one two or three musicians on the roof, perhaps with a saxophone or trumpet. 

Please let me know if you know of an unusual place where one can find books.