The Barnes Bookshop, London
The Barnes Bookshop possesses so many elements we applaud and think necessary for a thriving, friendly independent bookshop. It listens to its local community and is very much at the heart of the bustling high street. It has a rich and varied children’s section, and encourages young readers to delve into all sorts of books, broadening imaginations and creating many a budding book lover. It employs a rather furry ‘marketing manager’, Scout the bookshop dog. And, of course, it has consistently stocked Slightly Foxed.
The Barnes Bookshop is one of three independent bookshops owned by Isla Dawes, with the others located in Kew and Sheen, who has worked in the book industry for twenty years. Here she tells us more about the Barnes branch, recalls her life in books and recommends some gems in time for Christmas.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
There has been a bookshop in this building for twenty-seven years now and for the last ten years it has been called Barnes Bookshop. We aspire to be a good local bookshop servicing the literary needs of our local community – and I like to think that we pretty much fulfil that role. We are lucky to be in such a great spot; Barnes is a wonderful place to have a bookshop. The residents are very supportive of their local shops and are aware of what a special place it is to live in and that the high street is a large part of what makes it so.
As a bookshop we stock a wide range of good quality fiction with particular attention to the reading group market as we have many on our doorstep. We also have good history, biography and cookery sections, along with smaller sections on art, travel, poetry and current affairs and we have a section for Barnes authors too. Perhaps our biggest draw is our excellent children’s section which covers literature from the chewable book section (or books to really get your teeth into) all the way up to teenagers. We employ several children’s specialist booksellers who are always on hand to give their expert advice to many a worried parent or proud grandparent.
We’re lucky enough to have the Barnes Literary Society for which we supply all the books – they organise a fantastic programme of lectures each year. Recently we have become involved with the wonderful Barnes Children’s Literature Festival which took place in April this year – it was a huge success and it is scheduled to last over two days in May next year. This is the only festival dedicated to children’s literature and I expect it to go from strength to strength, and of course we supply all the bookselling for all the events. It is an awful lot of work but also a lot of fun and to see children running around on Barnes Common waving books about is a real joy.
These days we are more than just a bookshop though and we have become the local toyshop too. We stock a good range of well-chosen toys, mainly keeping to craft kits along with some beautiful wooden toys from Orange Tree Toys – we will admit to stocking less classy items though as there are few things more pleasing in life than a wind-up dinosaur or some jumping beans. It is not all about the children in our non-book offering as we are well known for our greetings card selection along with a good range of gift stationery items which make fantastic presents.
I like to think that the thing that makes us really special though is the atmosphere. We pride ourselves that we know many of our customers well and that even if you are not in a buying mood you will always get a warm welcome along with a chat, a joke with a staff member and quite possibly another customer. It is a very social place to be and it is a shop where many people just pop in to say hi and maybe pass on some new snippet of Barnes gossip. Also we have a shop dog, Scout who is a great attraction in her own right.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
One of my key childhood memories is of my father reading to my brothers and me. We would all sit on the floor round his armchair every night and he would read to us from classic children’s books. He read us all the Narnia books, Watership Down, The Hobbit and many more. So I blame my father mainly but also my mother as I do remember her teaching me to read on the stairs. Reading has always been important to me throughout my life and I cannot imagine not doing it. Now I still read a lot of children’s books (and can claim it’s work) but also a lot of modern fiction. I particularly like good historical fiction from Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Geraldine Brooks, and a lot of contemporary American fiction like A.M. Holmes and Meg Wolitzer.
When I left university with an interesting but useless arts degree I was a bit lost and not sure what I wanted to do, so I sat down and thought about what I enjoyed in life and figured that a career in publishing was the answer. It isn’t easy to get that first foot on the ladder in publishing so I applied for a job running the children’s section in an independent bookshop on Wandsworth Common called Beckett’s Bookshop. My only claim to a knowledge of children’s books was that I had written my dissertation on the Narnia books and my love of books as a child. I got the job and expected it to be a stepping stone into publishing, but to my amazement I discovered that I love selling books. There is nothing more pleasing to me than finding the next exciting read for someone and when they come back for the next exciting read it is a complete thrill.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
This is a very tricky question and I could write pages and pages. However as a child some of my favourite books were The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, recently re-published by Faber, The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols, sadly out of print, and The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, published by Puffin – all of these books are very funny and The Worst Witch made me want to go to witch school.
When I think about great works of literature I would like to include Jane Eyre as it is a great love story, Crime and Punishment for the brilliance of the psychological cat and mouse between the detective and Raskolnikov. For a modern great work, Midnight’s Children, which shows great feats of imagination and humour.
Some of my favourite more recent reads are Wolf Hall which shows such mastery of dialogue – few writers are capable of that. I loved May We be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes; she is always very funny and on the subject of funny books possibly the funniest book I have ever read is Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton Patterson – a must read.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
I would have to have Hilary Mantel, and also Patrick Ness, Jane Austen, Amitav Ghosh, Sarah Dunant and Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Who has been your favourite customer?
This is a tricky one so I am going to go for two people. Firstly there is Isabelle who comes in every week and buys hardback fiction and lots of it. She is an absolute joy – not only is she an all-round lovely person but, very pleasingly for me, she and I have almost identical taste. We chat about what we have read and what we want to read, and I am always interested in what she has enjoyed as it’s pretty likely that I will love it too. I also love the fact that books are her one vice and when she has finished them they get handed round her family – it shows a wonderful generosity of spirit.
The other person I would like to mention is Jack. Jack is now about 16, and I have been selling to him since he was 6 years old. Jack and I also have similar tastes and he is a self-confident boy who always asks for my advice and takes it and then comes back and tells me what he thought of the book – he is a complete delight.
What are your top book picks for autumn?
For children there are two novels I am most excited about. The Marvels by Brian Selznick is a wonderful combination of graphic novel and conventional storytelling; he is a great artist and the book itself is beautifully produced so therefore a book to keep. The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon is beautifully written with a real classic feel to the writing, and with its wonderful illustrations this is a real treat.
For adults I love The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, a historical novel re-imagining the life of King David. On the non-fiction front The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a well written and well researched look at trade routes and how they have shaped the world today.
If you’re a Barnes Bookshop customer please do add your comments below.
The Barnes Bookshop
6 Church Road, London
Tel: 020 8741 0786