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Bookshop of the Quarter: Spring 2016

Topping & Company, Bath

The bookshop is just as attractive as its beautiful and celebrated Georgian surroundings, inviting customers to browse shelves, enjoy a cup of coffee, and attend many a lively literary evening thanks to its full and varied events programme. We spoke to fiction buyer Matt to find out more about his book-filled life at Topping & Co.

Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?

Just imagine: A fresh bouquet of lilies greets your entrance into the shop. Your eyes, channelled by packed shelves on either side of you, run up the length of the building, resting on the tables stacked with signed editions, tucked in protective layers of plastic. Your feet tap lightly on the wooden floor as you make your way into the depths of the shop, and the air carries the faint smell of coffee.

A smiling bookseller behind the counter on your right greets you warmly, and offers you a freshly made hot beverage to accompany your adventure through the shelves. You assent, and as you do so your attention is caught by the names on the events programme. You talk with the bookseller about your favourite authors and books, giving and receiving enthusiastic recommendations, and they tell you about all of the incredible people they’ve met through working here, people with whom the shop has built strong friendships over many years of business.

The following day, you return to the bookshop, a C.V. in your hand.

What first inspired you to become a bookseller?

I can only answer this question ambiguously, I’m afraid. It all happened too intuitively to pinpoint an exact moment of inspiration. I grew up in a house with walls lined with bookshelves, and a regular family pastime was to spend hours and hours in bookshops all over the country, finding treasures of both the known and unknown variety. The piles of volumes I bought with my sparse pocket money were scattered throughout my bedroom; reading time before bed was strictly thirty minutes, but that could be stretched with the power of a small torch and constant vigilance.

As I grew older, I naturally spent more and more time (and money) in bookshops until, eventually, I found myself working in one.

I suppose the simpler answer to the question might be: A love of books, and a deeply ingrained desire to be surrounded by them and people who feel the same way.

What are your all-time favourite reads and why?

This is always a difficult question to ask a bookseller. We read and love so many books that picking a few favourites is akin to asking us to pick our favourite bites of food from the past ten years’ worth of meals. In terms of overall lasting impact, however, I think I can pluck out a few notable titles.

The book from my childhood that has lodged itself the most securely into my brain and heart is The Wind Singer by William Nicholson. My dad read it to me and my siblings while on a camping trip, over a backdrop of crackling fire and occasional mooing from a nearby field of cows. It is a true epic, beautiful and ghastly in equal measure.

Later, two books defined my transition into adult literature. Firstly, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger left my jaw on the floor with the intelligence of its prose and depth of its characters. For someone lost in adolescence, it was a comfort. Next came After Dark by Murakami. This  is perhaps my favourite book in existence, simply because I can still feel the resonance that comes from finishing a great book almost ten years after reading the final page.

Finally, to round things off, I want to mention Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. It is perhaps the perfect novel, swollen with humanity at the pinnacle of vulnerability. This one was recommended to me by an employee of the very same bookshop I now work in.

Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?

Murakami, Chaucer, Austen (she’d probably be trouble) and Louis Theroux.

Who has been your favourite customer?

This is another difficult one. It’d be criminal not to mention the two customers who are so regular that they have their own dedicated boxes of books in our staffroom. Mr Martin and Mr Romaine are two of the loveliest gentleman, and both stunningly well-read and intelligent. It is easy to lose hours talking to either one of them.

However, there is one gentleman who stands out in my memory. He entered our shop one quiet afternoon and approached the front desk. After a moment of collection, he asked us if we had any books on the subject of assisted suicide; he had just travelled from the hospital, where a doctor had told him he was suffering from terminal brain cancer. After sitting him down with a coffee and passing him everything we could find, not only on assisted suicide, but on facing death and mortality, I ordered one last book in for him. He had no phone number or email address, so I couldn’t contact him when it arrived in the shop, but he told me that he hoped he would be in ‘some time next week’. I told him that I hoped the same. The book was delivered to us a few days later, but two weeks passed without the customer returning.

His re-entrance into the shop after three weeks of absence was an incredible relief. He was smiling, and had a bounce in his step. He came to the desk, thanked us heartily for our recommendations, picked up his book and left with a nod and a grin. I haven’t seen him since.

What are your top book picks for spring 2016?

The first thing any book lover should do, if they haven’t already, is grab a copy of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I read it a couple of months before release and immediately knew it was a special work by a special author. He has since visited the bookshop and is perhaps the most impressive individual I have ever met. Also in fiction, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift is going to create a big splash this year. He’s a fantastic writer, and early reviews are incredibly positive. April will see the publication of Kate Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses. Kate is one of the country’s brightest young talents – there is little doubt that the book will be a hit.

In other sections of the shop the season is no less exciting. May opens with the publication of Brian May and Denis Pellerin’s third stereoscopic book, Crinoline. This is a gorgeous volume filled with stunning detail, perfect for fashion lovers. Also in May, TV presenter Chris Packham’s moving memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar finds its way into bookshops.

If you’re a customer of Topping & Company, Bath, please do add your comments below.

Topping & Company
The Paragon, Bath

Tel: 01225 428111

Twitter @ToppingsBath

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