This is the first in our series on bookstores in cities around the world. This week, Heather takes us on a tour of her hometown of Cambridge.
Well-known for its ancient colleges and beautiful parks, Cambridge is actually not known for its great bookshops. I mean, it is by me – I’m one of those people who loves their local Waterstones – but in terms of independent bookshops it doesn’t do very well. Which may just mean that it’s the same as everywhere else at the moment.
After a quick crowdsourcing on Facebook, I was recommended seven bookshops, six of which I visited. Two chains, two indies, two charity shops. The seventh was an indie I didn’t manage to visit but for the sake of a house-buying programme style ‘Wild Card’ I shall discuss it briefly at the end.
Firstly, we have the chain bookstores. Heffers (Blackwell’s) on Trinity Street has a sign that leads you directly to the large children’s section at the back; the shop otherwise carries your standard array of fiction and non-fiction genres, including a second-hand, politics, art, etc. section in the basement. It doesn’t quite match the size or grandeur of the basement which is the Oxford Blackwell’s Norrington Room (sorry Cambridge), but Heffers’ three floors are lovingly laid out, beautiful to browse through and stock an impressively sized board game collection.
Waterstones (Sidney Street) is an impressive four-floors tall (if one should regard a successful chain’s ability to rent nice buildings impressive), which seems pretty standard for a city Waterstones these days. (My small hometown in Wiltshire still has one of those adorable mid-2000s one-floor Waterstones. Ah, the old days.) Again, I wouldn’t necessarily say that Waterstones does anything particularly special. It has a pretty small board game collection, a nicely sized fantasy/sci-fi/graphic novel area, a café on the second floor and regularly hosts book clubs and author events.
who on earth buys a DVD from a charity shop?
Cambridge is home to a plethora of charity shops, including multiple Oxfams. The Oxfam Bookshop on Sidney Street was my first stop, partly on recommendation from a bestie, partly because it was next door to Waterstones. It separates out General Fiction from Literature which upon investigation seems to mean historical and ‘chick-lit'[*] fiction versus classic, poetry and lit crit. But me moaning about current categorisations of literature is probably another article for another day. As well as books, the shop also sells chocolate and DVDs which always makes me wonder who on earth buys a DVD from a charity shop. I mean, aside from the two humans who were browsing it at the time I was visiting (and that one time I regretfully purchased Sleepless in Seattle only to have it break half an hour in).
A children’s and young-adult literature connoisseur myself[**] I was pleased to see that their section included important gems such as Malorie Blackman and Darren Shan as well as contemporary popular YouTuber Zoe Sugg. Glancing at my notes now I see that I scribbled “no HPs????” with literally that many question marks, only to have hastily crossed it out and jotted underneath “HPs&hunger games”, which I guess makes more sense. The shop had sweetly promised “Comics & Graphic Novels!” only to sport a rather sad shelf of falling over graphic novels and a box beneath of sprawling comics.
“What would happen if you set out to write a 20,000 word novella in just one 27 hour session for charity?” I am excited to find out.
I had decided going into this tour that I would buy a book from every indie and charity shop I went to; I then remembered that I am moving out in three months and already have hundreds[***] of books to move, so decided instead to just buy any books I found that looked interesting, to add a little flavour to this already tasty article. On my way out of the bookshop, bereft of purchases, I spotted A Town Called Madness, which has a nice, if clearly amateur, illustration on the front and a blank back cover. An entirely unedited and self-published novel, in the intro author Claire Travers Smith asks, “What would happen if you set out to write a 20,000 word novella in just one 27 hour session for charity?” I am excited to find out.
I will just briefly mention the Oxfam Shop on Burleigh Street as it isn’t purely a bookshop, though it was recommended to me on the basis of the first-floor book collection. In-between ball gowns, old crockery and weirdly specific artwork, the general fiction, genre fiction and non-fiction collection includes: poetry with the sign “BBC Poetry Season: TS Eliot is your winner!”; timely Shakespeare; the book What Men Really Think on a “50p/£1 for three!” shelf; and a foreign language section which included Odysseus by James Joyce – a Finnish translation of the hardest to read book ever? I was sorely tempted (though only for the hipster status it might have afforded me, as I know no Finnish whatsoever).
I was slightly disappointed by The Haunted Bookshop, run by Sarah Key & Phil Salin (St Edward’s Passage), which was the only bookshop I hadn’t been to before, nor had even ever heard of. Comprised of one small front square room, the shop also sells online, where you can browse a fraction of their collection and place orders for current stock. Though understandably small (rent prices in Cambridge are famously outrageous), the bookshop just didn’t have enough of a range or an order to satisfy my browsing, though I did spot a book called Fat Free Cookery which was published in 1958 and included a recipe for “gelatine fish”. At £25 I did not buy it for comic value alone.
I realised I had never read a Wodehouse before and maybe this was the sign I had been waiting for that I should
G. David Bookseller is a favourite amongst locals, having been in Cambridge since 1896[****]. It was recommended to me as “that bookshop that sells antiquarian books and also P.G. Wodehouse”. This led to my second and final purchase of the tour, Jeeves in the Offing, as I realised I had never read a Wodehouse before and maybe this was the sign I had been waiting for that I should. G. David is simply a lovely bookshop, with a few small rooms (including a tiny basement which holds philosophy, science, etc.) carrying general fiction and non-fiction beside the huge collection of second-hand/ collectible/ antiquarian books. I lightly stroked the spine of a very early print run of The Fellowship of the Ring before turning my eyes away, knowing that there was no point in looking at the price.
There was a Christopher Morley quote stuck up on the wall of the antiquarian room, lovingly printed and cut out by hand:
when you sell a man a book
you don’t sell just twelve ounces
of paper and ink and glue
you sell him a whole new life
which I appreciated. I thoroughly look forward to the whole new life a first reading of a Jeeves novel may bring me.
And lastly, I couldn’t write this article without second-hand recommending the following: there apparently exists a warehouse style bookshop called Plurabelle on Coldhams Road where the owner is surprised if you visit, and which, as its opening hours are Monday to Friday 10–4, I never will.
*eurgh, sorry humans everywhere
**which really makes me wonder – unlike the superfluous DVD comment – how does one get the job of connoisseur?
****not that I’m suggesting that that’s the reason it’s popular, I don’t think many people round here are 120 years old or anything