Gig Review: Reopening of Toppings Bookshop in Bath

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“After 14 happy years on the Paragon, this weekend is our final one in our familiar spot before we set up shop in York Street next to the Abbey. Tuesday 26th is officially the last day we will be open on the Paragon, and our new York Street bookshop will open at 10.30am on Saturday 30th October.”

Toppings Bookshop on the Paragon is no more. The warm and welcoming warren where I have attended many cosy literary events closed its doors before I could revisit after lockdown. However, the bookshop has not gone! Rather, it has moved down the hill and reopened by the Abbey, in a former Friends Meeting House – how appropriate. It is now rather grand.

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Last Saturday, Robyn and I took the train to Bath on what was described as ‘soft launch’ day to see what Toppings has become. Behind the familiar blue doors, it is impressive. Rather than the welcoming cups of tea in the usual dotty mugs, we were handed glasses of fizz. There were a pleasing number of customers browsing the stacks.

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Moving an entire bookshop in just a few days is no mean feat so kudos to the hard working staff for making the new premises look so well stocked and appealing. There were still a few spaces to fill high up, and boxes left in some of the nooks and crannies we peeked into. On the shelves, though, were many temptations.

Robyn was particularly impressed with the room given over entirely to fantasy and sci-fi. I overheard one customer cooing over the crime fiction room. I was pleased to find treasures from many of my beloved independent publishers. I was also happy to note that the ladders were still being employed.

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The back room at the Paragon housed many fine books relating to art, and these are now shelved on the mezzanine level. Here, as elsewhere, are tables and chairs. When staff are less busy answering customer queries, and tea in dotty cups is reinstated, there will be somewhere pleasant to sit and contemplate potential purchases. Or maybe the seating is provided for students and writers to work while surrounded by such an inspiring environment. 

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I enjoyed browsing the tables on the ground floor, seeing what books the staff had selected for these. I also noted they could easily be moved for events, offering a large space for seating attendees. No more peering around stacks when an author proves popular as at the old premises. I suspect the bookshop will not have to hire larger venues as often as previously.

I posted a selection of these photographs on Twitter and was asked about access for those with mobility issues. This was such a valid question I emailed the shop for details. They replied promptly to confirm the existence of a lift system – an outdoors lift that can be used to reach the shop entry level; a lift can also take customers up to the mezzanine. Customer bathrooms are available on the lower level that are accessible via lift and ramp. I hope this helps inform those who would find the many steps I have shown a barrier.

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Obviously we chose to support this new venture with purchases. So, what was in the bag? I hear you ask.

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Having so much enjoyed Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, I had to have her debut. And having read so many glowing reviews from fellow readers of the Mathias Énard, it somehow jumped into my bag too. Never let it be said that book bloggers don’t encourage sales, including to themselves.

Toppings in Bath is open 8.30am to 9pm, 7 days a week and hosts many fine events. It is well worth checking out: online  and now in York Street by the Abbey.

Independent Bookshop Week 2019 – featuring #TheBristolBag

A number of weeks ago I was sent a tote bag depicting iconic Bristol landmarks in colourful artwork. Doesn’t it look gorgeous? In exchange I was asked to write about its design and functionality. I decided that, in order to do this, I needed to travel to the city and test it on location. The best way to test a tote bag is to fill it with books.

This week is Independent Bookshop Week – what better time to carry out my plan. On Wednesday afternoon I caught the train to Bristol intending to explore some of the city’s independent bookshops – previously I had only visited Waterstones and Foyles. A quick search in Google showed that other bookshops existed, although some were a little too far from the centre and spread out from each other for me to visit on foot in the time available.

Walking from Temple Meads Station to the harbour and then through Queen Square, I made my way up Park Street where I hoped to find the Last Bookshop. What a treasure trove it turned out to be.

 

Having browsed the shelves I struggled to limit my purchases – I will definitely be returning to this bookshop. My tote bag was now being put to good use and coping well with the added weight. It is constructed from good quality cotton canvas and has comfortable shoulder straps, easily taking my raincoat and new books.

I checked my phone for directions before making my way to the next independent bookshop Google had located.

 

Bloom and Curll is a small and eclectic bookshop featuring packed shelves, double packed in places, and tottering piles of both old and new titles. There was plenty to tempt me. I was even offered Jaffa cakes by the proprietor to keep me going while I made my selections.

 

What books did I buy on my day out, I hear you ask.

The top four are for myself and the bottom for my daughter – her reward for accompanying me. I did not come across any titles from my beloved independent publishers, but each of my purchases have been on my radar for quite a while.

Now I just have to find time to read them before my ever growing TBR pile falls over and inflicts serious damage.

 

The Bristol Bag was designed by a Bradford on Avon based company, Overt Design, who have created colourful tote bags featuring iconic landmarks for five local locations.

The Corsham Bookshop #BookshopDay

I will be away from home on this year’s National Bookshop Day so sought out an independent bookshop to visit a week early – how organised am I? This high street gem was well worth the journey. And of course, I came away with a new book to read.

Opened in 2002, The Corsham Bookshop is situated in the heart of the eponymous Wiltshire market town. The current proprietor has worked there from the beginning, buying it from the original owner in 2008. As she had previously worked for Waterstones she brought experience to the business.

I visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon and the shop had a steady stream of customers. One child was sitting at the back quietly reading. Another came in with her father who then tried to explain that this wasn’t a library so selections needed to be made with care.

Although relatively small, the stock is carefully curated and attractively displayed. As well as books there are literary gifts available alongside notebooks, cards and wrapping paper. There is also a selection of classical music CDs. I suspect the proprietor knows her customers well.

    

Our chat was brief but welcoming and friendly. On discovering where I lived she pointed me towards a series of children’s books whose author has recently moved to my village. A quick but careful flick through convinced me that I would enjoy reading these so I purchased the first in the series. I will be reviewing it soon.

Corsham is on the A4, west of Chippenham and east of Bath. If passing through I recommend you pause to admire the pretty little town, and visit its bookshop.

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Twitter: @CorshamBookshop
Instagram: The Corsham Bookshop
Facebook: The Corsham Bookshop

Gig Review: Kit de Waal in Bath

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Since reading Kit de Waal’s captivating debut, My Name Is Leon (which I review here), I have been looking forward to meeting the author and hearing her talk about how she came to write such an authentic, perceptive book. Thanks to Toppings, one of Bath’s beautiful independent bookshops, I had this opportunity last night.

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Toppings had a wonderful window display for the book and event. Apologies that my camera struggled to capture it in all its glory due to the reflected sunshine.

Having spent the afternoon exploring the city and enjoying the warm weather I was relieved to enter this sanctuary and rest my weary legs whilst imbibing my glass of complimentary wine. As I watched the place fill up I was able to listen to readers discussing the book and how it had touched them.

Kit started her talk with a little personal background. Like the eponymous protagonist of her novel she is mixed race, although she gave no indication if this caused her any difficulties growing up. She did say that her home was always filled with children, cared for by her mother at a time when child minding was not so tightly regulated. Parents could fail to collect their children for days at a time and her mother would cope.

Kit’s career spanned periods working in law courts and at social services before her own adopted children needed her to stay at home to provide care. Driven to distraction by being in her house all day after many years spent in demanding jobs she decided to try her hand at writing a book. She wrote an astounding thriller that, for some reason, nobody wished to publish. An MA course in creative writing offered some explanation as to why, and it was around this time that Leon came to life.

Kit now sits on an adoption advisory panel so has first hand experience of the difficult decisions that must sometimes be made by adults regarding vulnerable children’s welfare. All of this background and experience has been channelled into her candid, poignant tale of a young boy who is separated from everything he loves and cares for through no fault of his own.

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Kit gave two readings from her book. These brought to life the challenges the characters faced, especially Leon’s mother, Carol, who it would be rather too easy to condemn for the way she neglected to provide adequate care for her young boys. Kit pointed out that many of the parents she deals with through social services have had difficult childhoods of their own. Carol was a teenager when she gave birth to Leon and suffered from depression and reliance on drugs. Most parents love their children even if they cannot provide for their needs without support, perhaps through lack of knowledge, ability or circumstance. Like Leon, however badly they are treated, children most often continue to love their parents.

Questions were invited from the audience. These were mainly about Kit’s writing and her own experince of dealing with young people put in care. She pointed out that, whilst early intervention may enable more families to stay together, this is expensive. In the current climate, funding is made available for crisis management but less so for long term support. More adopters are needed, but relatively few are willing to take on large family groups of children, meaning that decisions to split up beloved siblings must be made.

Kit told us that some of the characters in her book will be revisited in a collection of short stories that she is currently working on. I am always on the look out for well written, innovative short story collections so am excited to hear that one is being prepared by such a talented writer.

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As we queued to have copies of our books signed I discovered that a twitter friend was also in the audience. It was lovely to meet fellow book lover and blogger Claire Thinking (pictured above with Kit). You should all go and follow her on twitter now: Claire Thinking.

Thank you to Kit and Toppings for an interesting and enjoyable evening. It was lovely to listen to an author who seemed so at home with her audience. You should also of course, read her book.

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‘My Name Is Leon’ is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy now.

 

 

Gig Review: Matt Haig in Bath

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On Monday evening, not so fresh off the plane from Belfast, I made my way to the City of Bath for a literary event that I just couldn’t miss, despite being exhausted from my long weekend away. The wonderful Toppings Bookshop were hosting Matt Haig, author of The HumansA Boy Called Christmas, and the book he had come to talk about that evening, Reasons to Stay Alive. This had been on my wish list for some time so I was eager to buy myself a copy and to meet an author whose twitter feed I follow avidly.

Toppings host many author events, often in local churches or other larger venues, but this one was to be held in the bookshop itself, just one of the reasons I had been so keen to attend. The constraints of space would ensure a more intimate experience. Arriving early I picked up a very welcome glass of wine and settled down in a front row seat. As the shop started to fill up and extra seating was put in place I realised how lucky we were that the event had not been moved elsewhere to accommodate the crowd.

I had not read the book but knew that it was non fiction and dealt with the author’s personal experiences with depression. He started his talk by outlining how this illness had come out of nowhere, suddenly, viciously. He mentioned the support he had been given by his family, and the failure of medication to deal with his particular symptoms. He read to us an early chapter of the book which brought to life how close he had been to death.

Obviously he did not die. The second half of the talk focused on the positives to have come out of his experiences. He believes that having a thin skin means that he can feel more and that this is a good thing. He has heightened appreciation, can recognise and empathise with other’s struggles. He knows now that the worst episodes of mental illness will eventually pass, even if they may also return. From what I have heard of his book he says this all much more cogently than me so do go read it!

After sharing another chapter from near the end of the book Matt asked for questions from his audience. This part of the event was not what I had expected. Instead of asking about his writing, or about other’s reactions to the book, the questions focused on how to help people the audience members knew who were suffering mental illness. Perhaps Matt is used to this, he certainly dealt with it gently. I wondered why these people did not seek out experts in the field rather than asking for solutions from an author, albeit one who has experience of these issues.

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I had purchased a signed copy so did not feel the need to join the lengthy queue which snaked around the shop at the end. I should, perhaps, point out that the wine glasses in the picture above were not Matt’s. He had talked of his decision to cut back on many of the lifestyle drugs it is common to imbibe and throughout the evening sipped only on water.

I made my way to the train station and was updating my twitter feed with a picture of the event when I noticed that Matt had entered the lounge and was also tapping away on his phone. I had just tagged him and was entertained by the thought that we were communicating via social media whilst within feet of each other. I decided to talk to him.

What is the protocol for this? An author travels to a city, performs at a bookshop, and then leaves to catch the train home. Sitting in the station is someone who was at the event. How do they feel about a stranger sitting down opposite and talking as they both wait for the train?

I have no idea what Matt thought. He was gracious, answering my questions and indulging in idle chat as we waited for the five or so minutes until our train was announced. As we moved to the platform he made it clear that he would not be sitting with me. I had never intended to impose myself on him in this way. Perhaps it was my social anxiety kicking in and I read too much into his words. He had mentioned that he was still adjusting his body clock after a long haul flight so was probably exhausted.

I noticed as I moved away from him that a young girl approached to let him know how much she enjoyed his books. I hope that he felt flattered by the kindly meant attention. I have since posed the question of protocol on a Facebook Group I belong to, Book Connectors, which exists to bring bloggers and authors together. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, that authors wish to talk to their fans.

As I made my way home I pondered social etiquette and expectations. I had wondered at the audience members looking to Matt for answers to problems in their lives. I had looked to him for some small measure of friendship when he knew nothing about me. I wonder how he saw us.

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Reasons to Stay Alive is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy now.

 

 

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

Bath Spa is a city that has so much going for it: fabulous architecture, preserved history, natural hot springs in which it is possible to bathe, beautiful arts venues, and a vast array of shops. These shops include two of my favourite independent bookshops, one of which I finally managed to visit in person this afternoon. It proved to be even better than my impressive internet association had suggested.

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Tucked away in one of the pretty side streets that make up the city centre, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights is aptly named. The wondrous collection of books is laid out for the casual browser’s delectation over a warren of three floors with numerous nooks in which to settle down and enjoy the cosy atmosphere. Upstairs they even provide complimentary coffee which may be enjoyed whilst reclining on a comfy armchair by the fire.

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To reach this upper floor one must climb some stairs at the far end of the shop. I was not the only person who stopped mid ascent to admire the Tintin comic strip wall.

 

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If the cornucopia of books demands that you stay longer than anticipated then never fear, customer toilets are provided and both give users plenty to look at. No time need be wasted.

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I have highlighted only a few of the many quirky characteristics and interesting displays in this oasis of literature. If you get the chance then give yourself a treat and check it out.

The book selection is extensive and tantalising; the staff are friendly and knowledgeable; the atmosphere is second to none.