The Pleasures of a Proper Bookshop

I AM a sucker for a bookshop – I mean a proper bookshop, a shop with piles of books everywhere, every sort of book from travel to biography, thrillers to coffee table art-books, food books to Russian novels, thoughtful reflections on life, the universe and everything to … well, anything really.

I can walk by the supermarket bookshelves without a second glance at the display of chart-topping best-sellers because the “autobiographies” of footballers, “celebrities” and soap stars don’t interest me. If I want ghosted fiction I would rather have the real ghosts of Wilkie Collins or The Woman In Black!

I come from a bookish family and I am more lost without a book on hand than some people are if they don’t know where the nearest bar is! Ideally I have three on the go – usually an undemanding novel for when I am tired but not yet sleepy, a history or biography to get my teeth into and a dipping book, for planes or trains or just waiting in the car or any time really when I have a few spare minutes.

So I have to avoid bookshops because I am incapable of coming out without a bag groaning with exciting purchases.

But if you are in Cambridge, as we were last week, and you love bookshops, you simply cannot pass by Heffers without going in.

Heffers is a proper, intelligent bookshop. Your every reading and visual sense is on high alert for new treasures, old half-forgotten friends and unexpected discoveries. We bumped into a friend who had been at the same concert the previous night and like us cannot resist Heffers. We agreed this is a serious bookshop for serious readers. It is now part of the Blackwell group but it still feels like Heffers, with that broad eclecticism you expect in this city that is home to one of the world’s greatest universities.

Together we spent several minutes being very soppy over an artbook called Kittenhood, enchanting and beautiful photos of kittens of all sorts from elegant pedigree orientals to irresistible fluffy tabbies and torties.

More seriously we found books we have been looking for unsuccessfully in more commercial high street bookshops, where the buying policy is doubtless more focused on through-put and the bottom line and less on diversity and eccentricity and the many byways that stimulate and satisfy an inquiring mind.

Heffers offers so many possibilities and we duly took advantage, leaving lighter in the purse and heavier in the hand, with new discoveries, a welcome replacement for a lost favourite and a massive read (Parade’s End in full – the television serial was so compelling that I really had to go back and read the original).

However, you don’t have to go to Cambridge to find a good bookshop because in this region we are very fortunate. The shops may not be as big as Heffers, but in Castle Cary, Sherborne, Salisbury and Bath there are bookshops with expert and helpful staff where you can be sure there will be something new, unexpected, unknown or forgotten, waiting to be discovered.

So next time you are visiting these towns, take time to visit the bookshops: Bailey Hill Bookshop in Fore Street, Castle Cary; Winstone Books in Cheap Street, Sherborne; Cross Keys Bookshop in the Cross Keys Chequer arcade in Salisbury; Topping & Company Booksellers and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

There are several well-stocked Waterstones in local towns, including Salisbury, Bath and Bristol, some of which are very supportive of local literary festivals, most notably the Waterstones in Yeovil town centre.

Do support real bookshops – there is nothing to compare with the timeless appeal of standing immersed in a book, unmindful of the world around you, making new discoveries, effortlessly led from one topic to another.

As that remarkably eccentric and thoughtful musician Frank Zappa put it: “So many books, so little time.”

Fanny Charles