This weekend sees us celebrate Bookshop Day (9th October) in the UK, an online initiative celebrating and promoting independent bookshops.
We asked Georgina Harding, one of the five authors shortlisted for The BBC National Short Story Award 2021, to write us this guest post about her favourite bookshop memories, the books she has found, why these spaces are so important, and more.
I can’t say I have a single favourite bookshop any more. My memories of bookshops are hopelessly nostalgic, from a time when small independent bookshops were so much more plentiful. I treasure memories of a little bookshop in Brighton when I was a student, somewhere just back from the sea front below Seven Dials where I used to live, I can’t remember its name, where I made wonderful discoveries of Gary Snyder and other poets I’d never heard of, and carried the books off to read them on the beach. That lasted until one of the partners who owned the shop ran off with the money to Katmandu. Or so I was told. The truth might have been very different. Those were the days when, though not a Londoner, I made pilgrimages to Compendium in Camden Town, and, in America, to City Lights in San Francisco. Such possibilities there were in those days for idiosyncratic bookselling, and somehow or other, there seemed to be enough money in it to keep them going — unless someone decamped to Katmandu.
It’s a much harder commercial world for bookshops today. There are wonderful giants like Foyle’s and Blackwells. But if you’re a writer of books such places can sometimes be overwhelming: so many books there, you think, who needs another? Who needs mine, amongst all these marvels? The bookshops that make me happiest are the small ones, where I can hope to find a table or a seat or just perch on a set of library steps to browse — and that’s often how you find the books you don’t know about already, the ones that surprise you and open new doors and set you on new paths. (What was the last such? Perhaps In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, the title caught me, the words speaking so clear on the plain Fitzcarraldo cover.) Sadly I don’t find myself close enough to be a regular at any particular bookshop nowadays, but there are some I grab the chance to visit when I find myself in the right place. John Sandoe’s, off the Kings Road, which seems like a slightly old-fashioned home with every book individually selected. Toppings in Ely — though Ely never seems to be on the way to anywhere. The Stoke Newington Bookshop. And then, on a quite another level, for a break on the A1 whenever I’m driving to Scotland, Barter books in Alnwick, an entire former railway station given over to secondhand books, where you can read with a cup of tea by the fireside in one of the waiting rooms.
Georgina Harding is the author of six novels, including Harvest (Bloomsbury, 2021), The Spy Game (2009), which was shortlisted for the Encore Award, and Painter of Silence (2012), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Georgina Harding lives in London and on a farm in the Stour Valley, Essex.
Buy the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 anthology here.
Listen to a reading of Georgina’s shortlisted story, ‘Night Train’, on BBC Sounds here.
Don’t miss Georgina speaking alongside fellow shortlist Richard Smyth at our online event with The Northern Short Story Festival from 7:30pm on Saturday 16th October – tickets here.
The announcement of the winners of the 16th BBC National Short Story Award will be announced in a special short story edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7:15pm on Tuesday 19th October.