As we look towards bright spring days here in Hoxton Square, we find our minds turn to warmer climes, and particularly to Book/Shop in Oakland, a beautiful space that’s lined with books and flooded with light.
Bookseller Erik Heywood has designed a shop for people who ‘are allergic to cheap bestsellers; they delight in the out-of-the-way and the rare, the well-made and the hard-to-accomplish’, which is very much a sentiment we share at Slightly Foxed. In addition to selling specially selected titles to discerning booklovers, he puts on events, travels further afield with pop-up shops, and shares reading lists and recommendations from all manner of readers through the bookshop blog.
Erik is an enthusiastic supporter of Slightly Foxed, with whom we enjoy a Helene Hanff-style transatlantic correspondence. Needless to say, our Slightly Foxed Edition of 84, Charing Cross Road is a firm favourite with both Erik and his customers. This connection through a shared love of books has been strengthened this year with the arrival of Book/Shop staff-member Brianna in London. Brianna is on a study abroad programme and while she’s in London she has been giving the Slightly Foxed office a willing and very welcome hand.
But now to Book/Shop, as we browse its bookshelves with Erik, and learn how it became bricks and mortar.
Please tell us about your bookshop. What makes it special?
My shop is less a traditional bookshop and more a ‘shop about books’; a fan letter of sorts to the reading experience and the culture of book-loving. In the shop we sell a selection of rare and vintage books that changes every two weeks, and a highly edited offering of magazines (including Slightly Foxed). However, selling books is only about a quarter of what we do. We also sell furniture for books (designed by myself and fabricated for Book/Shop), artwork related to books and reading, and reading accessories. We also organize events related to the experience of books. For instance, for two years in a row we ran a film festival called ‘The Book Was Better Film Festival’. We made an open call for submissions of original short films, six minutes or less, based on only one chapter from a book. Our thinking was that if someone could create a compelling moment from a book, and the viewer wanted more, there was only one place to go: back to the book. We received dozens of submissions from all over the map and had screenings in New York and the Bay Area. This is just one of many examples of the type of event we try to arrange around books.
What first inspired you to become a bookseller?
My parents taught me to read when I was three and it’s been a favourite activity ever since. My earliest reading memory was when I got stuck on the ‘th’ sound in words like ‘mother’ (in the classic Dick and Jane books) and my dad explained it to me. In my young brain it felt like knowing that rule unlocked the whole world of reading, a final hurdle toward total mastery. In fourth grade I was given an award for ‘Best Use of the Library’. By High School my friends would know for certain they’d find me cutting class in the library, or out under a tree with a book open on my face, breathing in the smell as I memorized poetry (I know, I know. . .). This is also when I started really noticing the design of books; I especially loved Faber’s covers from the 60s. I started doodling fake book covers at night as my homework languished. By my twenties I had started buying books in earnest and could never resist going into any bookshop I passed (this continues to be true). I would subsist on part-time jobs so I could read 8-10 hours a day in libraries. When I moved to New York in the early 2000s, I worked in interior design jobs which allowed me some freedom to roam the city, so I spent a lot of time in libraries and bookshops there. Around this same time I started Books at Home, a blog about bookshelves, which evolved into Book/Shop. Truly, I feel like I’ve been on a path to bookselling all my life.
What are your all-time favourite reads and why?
I love letters, diaries, and books about books. One of my happiest discoveries was a first edition of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, Vol. I, bought for $2 at the New York Public Library book sale section (when they had one) at the mid-Manhattan branch. I knew nothing about it, but it had a beautiful typographic cover, and a quick glance through its bookish gossip and civilized literary one-upmanship caught my interest. I dug into it on the subway ride home to Brooklyn and was instantly hooked. Eventually I collected all six volumes of the correspondence, and it remains one of my favourite reads – I’m on my third read-through now! Sometimes it pays to take chances.
Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?
I would love to have a party for everyone that found me online in the first year and a half of my business, before I had bricks and mortar and was essentially a secret shop. Meeting customers is one of the best parts of this trade, and there are so many early supporters I’d welcome the chance to thank in person.
Who has been your favourite customer/what is your favourite bookshop anecdote?
Early on in the days of having my physical shop, a very sunny, eccentrically dressed grey-haired lady came in and, after having a look around, mentioned casually that she had once run a press. When I asked her what is was called, she turned and replied with mock-regal air, ‘Shameless Hussy Press’. As it just so happened, I owned a George Sand novella reprinted by Shameless Hussy Press in 1976, purchased at a library book sale when I was sixteen. I had wondered about that amusingly named press for decades and now its founder had actually had walked into my shop. I found out that Alta Gerry, the poet who founded the press in 1969 and who now stood before me, had started Shameless Hussy as the first feminist press in the US. She brought – and continues to bring – extraordinary things from her archives for me to sell at the shop. I value her work, and her visits are always a bright spot in the week.
What are your top picks for 2018?
I’m looking forward to seeing what the new editorial staff at The White Review do with the magazine, and I always love when Alberto Manguel writes about books, so I’m looking forward to Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, due out soon. Like many people, I have bookshelves bursting with books I haven’t read yet (so many I forget what’s even there) and I look forward to exploring my own shelves in 2018 and making discoveries at home.
482 49th St D
Oakland, CA 94609
Tel: +1 510 907 9649
As Brianna was cheerfully helping us with all things Foxed this spring, we took the opportunity to gain further insight into life at the Book/Shop by asking her a few questions too.
What does a typical day working in the bookshop involve?
My apartment in Berkeley is only a twenty-minute walk from Book/Shop, and even though the weather is always beautiful, I seem to leave too late to walk and find myself hopping in my car and dashing over. If Erik is already there, I’ll find him behind a pile of books behind the counter, excited to show me what he’s brought in since I was last there. But if I open the shop in the morning on my own, I have a little routine: I’ll switch on every single lamp (there are many, many lamps in the shop), put out the two Book/Shop signs, place the little wooden table outside, and restock our ‘5 buck books’ section in front of the shop. And since the stock is constantly changing, and Erik is always bringing in new treats, I do a sweep over the new books and familiarize myself with them. I’ve discovered the strangest titles and authors during these morning sweeps. Erik will often pop in and out, letting me know what needs to be done – whether this is covering new books, pricing and restocking items, reorganizing or tidying up, there’s always something to do. But on quieter days, I’ll rummage through the boxes of books and jotting down my favourite quotes from random passages I find, creating long lists of disconnected quotes and authors that I keep just in case. And when customers come in I’ll always greet them with a smile and chat about where they’re from or what they’re interested in. Most of the people who walk into the shop are friendly and respectful of the delicate books, making my job much easier.
What or who has been your favourite book, special edition or author discovery when working at Book/Shop?
Besides Slightly Foxed? Working at Book/Shop means having access to a treasure trove of special finds, ranging from rare books on brutalist architecture to Berkeley-published feminist zines from the 1960s to first edition classics that are impossible to come across anywhere, but somehow Erik finds a way.
And of course Slightly Foxed is at the top of my list of favourite publications. I’ve gone from reading the quarterly behind the counter in the shop to actually working alongside the Foxed ladies in Hoxton Square! But some of my other Book/Shop discoveries have been The Skirt Chronicles, a beautifully executed publication from Paris; every Le Corbusier book Erik comes across; John Betjeman’s collection of essays on English architecture; First and Last Loves (which I brought with me to London) and a lovely little anthology of poems by e e cummings that Erik once gave me out of the blue. The list goes on!
Tell us about a Book/Shop experience or event that you have most enjoyed
There was one time when it actually rained, and when it rains in California no one leaves their homes, so the shop was particularly quiet. I wanted to be helpful, and after some serious thought, I took up the daunting task of clearing out the space behind the counter and reorganizing everything that had been piling up over the years. Pre-Brianna-clean-up, there wasn’t any space to move behind the counter at all and looking for anything specific was a futile mission. So, I put my foot down. Six hours and ten trash bags later, I achieved the seemingly unachievable and the counter area looked brand new! Erik was shocked when he came in the next day, and I got messages all week asking where I’d placed his enamel pins and labels and bits and bobs. Most definitely my proudest moment at Book/Shop.