Review: The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

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The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell book cover
The Bookshop Book (2014) by Jen Campbell is a celebration of independent bookshops, and the distinct individualities that each represents. Packed with stories of three hundred bookshops from six continents as well as interesting book-ish facts, and snippets from authors like Ian Rankin, Jacqueline Wilson, Bill Bryson, and Rachel Joyce, this is an almanac for the committed bookshop buff. Around half the bookshops featured are from Campbell’s native Britain, but she packs her bags and sets off further afield too, discovering many gems along the way, from the shop in Arizona that stocks only its owner’s book to one that serves the herders of the Gobi desert, to the bookshop in Kenya that sells cows as well as more traditional fare. The whistle stop tour of bookshops is an exciting enterprise, and as a whole the book is a delightful, patchwork collection of shops and, importantly, their shopkeepers – for, after all, what is a shop without the humans who bring it to life, weaving their own personal stories with those of the shop itself?

As with her Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops books, Campbell has a real knack of speaking to the inner bibliophile – teasing out the most tantalising details of each particular shop she visits and inspiring the reader to discover more delights themselves. By including snippets from authors as well as bookish facts, Campbell manages to create an inclusive, comfortable feeling atmosphere within the pages of her own book, which any book lover will appreciate. It’s this connection that she shares with the reader, and which connects all readers together, that makes Campbell’s books so readable. Her first book having been borne out of a blog she wrote – a medium where reader and writer are far closer – it’s perhaps not surprising that she is able to so effortlessly create this bond. As a reader, one can’t help but be held completely in Campbell’s thrall as she jumps around the map and from one quote or fact to another. (Amongst a plethora of titbits, it was particularly pleasing to learn that part of the M6 is made from pulped copies of Mills & Boon novels, two and a half million of which were mixed in with asphalt and Tarmac to create the road service.)

The book is divided into different countries, and this, along with the interviews, quotes, etc. makes The Bookshop Book incredibly browsable. Again, like the earlier Weird Tings Customers Say in Bookshops, it’s a book that can be dipped in and out of with ease, and so makes a lovely coffee table item or a casual read – something to be picked up when one wants something light and enjoyable. Indeed, if one does read it cover to cover, the pages race by as one is lost in the snippets of information, carried along by Campbell’s easy style.

For bookshop lovers everywhere, this is a tantalising journey around the world of bookshops. Campbell writes about the places she features with real affection, transporting the reader into their realm and uncovering the unique delights and idiosyncrasies of each. The beauty of a book like this is that avid readers may already have visited some of the shops featured, or, if not, Campbell’s love letter to the humble bookshop might well spark a few pilgrimages around the world as readers, enraptured by Campbell’s own journeys, set out to explore some of the delights she has uncovered first-hand.

Inspiring more people to visit unique bookshops, both local and further afield, can be no bad thing. While independent bookshops – well, independent everythings – are under threat from the homogenised experience provided by big corporate suppliers of our luxuries, Campbell’s book is a timely reminder that individuality is to be celebrated, that the story of a bookshop can be as enthralling as any of those encased in the books it stocks, and that discovering all the pleasures available to the bibliophile is a rare and precious thing, which is, simply, irreplaceable.

Aware first hand of independent bookshops’ difficulties and delights, Campbell is on sure ground when she chooses to offer her own thoughts about the state of the current market: she appears convinced that independent bookshops are going to thrive going forwards, offering that personal experience that only indies can, and which readers, sick of the bland chain store experience, crave. Books that celebrate bibliophilic delights are always going to be lauded by those who dwell amongst the stacks of our libraries and bookshops, but these institutions are going through an existential crisis. Will they survive and flourish as Campbell suggests? The answer is in the hands of the readers themselves – if that warm fuzzy feeling the bookshops evoke is worth more to you than the convenience and cost-efficiency of the alternatives, then there is only one solution: use them. The Bookshop Book certainly puts the case as well as anything for not just protecting but enjoying the humble bookshop.

This is a great little book for bibliophiles everywhere, what more can I say really?


Useful Links
Reviews of The Bookshop Book on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Bookshop Book on Amazon (US)

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1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Before someone points it out, I know full well that having Amazon links on my site is a bit hypocritical if I want to save bookshops. I think two things about this (1) yes, it is – I’ve gone for the most convenient option, and it's largely inexcusable, and (2) I have different feelings towards bookshops than I do libraries. Bookshops are businesses – they have to work as that, in whatever way they can; libraries are social enterprises that support communities and make books available to the masses. They are intellectually and personally nourishing, and ecologically sustainable – they don’t exist to make money, their value has to lie elsewhere. I’m a serial library user, and in fact I only really buy books that I want to keep (read, nice hardback editions, which rarely come off of Amazon) so practically everything I read comes from a library. I love the fact that dozens of people will have read the same copy of a book that I have, I love interacting with library spaces and the people in them. Do I love bookshops? Of course I do, but they’re a different thing for this dopey library bod.