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Bookshop of the Quarter: Winter 2016

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, which opened its doors in June 2006, is on John Street, right in the heart of Bath. There Nic and Juliette Bottomley have created a bright and relaxing place in which to browse and buy books, and will always provide a warm welcome.

Bookshelves span three floors of an attractive Georgian building with added features of interest such as a converted claw-foot bath book display, a wall papered with pages from Tintin and a luxuriant Bibliotherapy Room with comfy armchairs, a fireplace and free tea and coffee. Longtime supporters and stockists of Slightly Foxed (and doing sterling work in promoting our edition of Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love which is frequently featured on their shelf of favourite recommendations), Mr B’s is a haven for any booklover in Bath.

Nic Bottomley very kindly told us more about life inside the Emporium . . .

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

Each indie bookshop has its own special atmosphere and characteristics, and I think we’re no different. In our case it’s all about the books themselves, and we have a lovely light, labyrinthine space which accentuates them. We sell almost entirely books (as opposed to any non-book stock) and all that we do is hooked on conversations about books.

These conversations go on all the time in an informal way on the shop floor – we are pretty opinionated even by independent bookshop standards, so many of our regulars come in to seek recommendations and give their feedback on whatever we sold them last time. But by way of our Reading Spa gifts, there are also more structured book-chats taking place more or less all day and every day in the Bibliotherapy Room upstairs in the shop.

We don’t mind if people want to come in and just browse solo and without our interjections, but ours is certainly a place where dialogue between staff and customers is always available!

What first inspired you to become a bookseller?

My wife Juliette and I decided to create a bookshop when on our honeymoon. On our first day in Seattle we visited the Elliott Bay Book Company, for my money one of the finest bookshops in the world, and were inspired by the idea of creating a book mecca with extremely high levels of customer service here in the UK. The plans first got under way two days later on a B&B terrace in Alaska, but it took a year or so for us to unpick our previous lives as lawyers, move from Prague back to the UK and then work out how on earth the world of bookselling works.

The idea of bookselling as a second career fell into our laps after that revelatory visit to Elliott Bay. We had always known we wouldn’t move away from our old careers for any half-way house. It had to be for something that was connected with something we loved. And books certainly ticked that box.

What are your all-time favourite reads and why?

That’s a mean question, and sufficiently broad that I could fill pages on it.

It all has to start with The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Never has anyone captured so well the human spirit’s ability to adapt to adversity and just keep on going. That was the root of my life-long love affair with rural American fiction.

More recently Philip Meyer’s American Rust tapped into blue-collar America’s desperation in the most effective way I’ve read since Steinbeck. Other American novelists I go back to again and again are Tim Gautreaux (whose The Next Step in the Dance we even published under our imprint Fox, Finch & Tepper), Kent Haruf, Tom Drury, Annie Proulx, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Donald Ray Pollock and Glenn M. Taylor.

I also love Central European literature and would have to include Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains in any list of favourites – a perfectly formed novella of the community around one small Czech railway station during World War II. Beyond Hrabal though, from that part of the world, I’d also urge people to try Jiří Weil, Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Čapek, Joseph Roth and Sándor Márai.

On the non-fiction side I’m a big fan of essayists and of quality sports writing which I feel is an undervalued genre. The collection Frank Sinatra Has a Cold by Gay Talese is a brilliant collection of essays on culture and sport from one of the great American journalists. And the finest sports novel is perhaps The Natural by Bernard Malamud.

Who would be your dream bookshop party guests?

A group of wealthy investors looking for an opportunity with the promise of high enjoyment and low returns.

Or, if we’re thinking along more literary lines, David Sedaris to keep us all laughing and Giles Coren to cast a critical eye over the nibbles. For entertaining book chat I’d go for Mohsin Hamid, Muriel Barbery and David Mitchell. And Springsteen would need to take care of the entertainment of course.

Who has been your favourite customer?

My favourite customer is always the one I’m recommending to next, particularly if we have any overlap in reading taste.

We have so many odd things that have happened over the years – primarily due to the bizarre behaviour of my lovely colleagues.

One odd moment that springs to mind is when I gave a talk to a local society about running a bookshop after we’d been open a year or so. After the talk a lady came up to me and said that she’d ‘zoned out’ during my talk (never the feedback you are after) and that whilst she’d been in her daze a ghost had appeared to her who lived in our shop basement. He’d told her his name (I think it was Cedric or something along those lines) and that he was a friendly ghost and that we shouldn’t worry about him because all he ever did was muddle up the order of our books a bit in the downstairs room. To this day I suspect the whole thing was an elaborate set-up by one of my colleagues looking to plant an excuse for shoddy alphabetising.

What are your top book picks for this winter?

Fiction-wise the big one for winter, is Autumn, bizarrely, by Ali Smith. We also adore The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and, because there’s always such an overlap between what we recommend and what sells the most, I think that’s going to be right near the top of our charts this season.

For children we’re loving Santa Claude by Alex T. Smith and The Book of Bees by Piotr Socha which, in my opinion, is just as wonderful for adults as it is for kids.

And I think we’re going to do very well by Atlas Obscura when it comes to non-fiction and gifts.

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights
14/15 John Street, London

Tel: 01225 331155

Twitter @mrbsemporium

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