Let us embark on a new journey through Britain! We will discover wonderful places from a new perspective. A marvellous trip among bookshops, getting to know their stories and owners. Louise Boland, the author of Bookshop Tour of Britain, tells us more about her work and suggests which trails to follow.
Your book is a joy. How did the idea come along?
Thank you! The idea probably first came from booksellers. In 2017 I had started a small literary publishing house called Fairlight Books, and I started visiting bookshops to meet with owners and booksellers. I was keen to understand what they were wanting to stock and what their customers loved to read. When I mentioned that I was on a sort of working holiday, driving around Britain and visiting bookshops, many of them said what a joy that must be and expressed a wish to embark on a bookshop tour of their own. From there it was a natural leap to… you must write a book about your travels visiting bookshops!
When did your journey start and how long did it take you to cover the whole country? And how did you choose which bookshops to include?
My first trip took place in the late summer of 2017. I drove from where we live in Oxford – which is pretty much the centre of England and is about as far from the sea as it is possible to be – south to Bridport, a few miles from the south coast. There, at a bookshop aptly named ‘The Bookshop’, I held my first ‘official’ bookshop tour visit, met with the owner and spent a fantastic hour or so talking books and bookshops. From there, I drove along the Jurassic Coast all the way to Penzance at the south-western tip of Britain, visiting many bookshops along the way. It’s a gorgeous coastline of rugged, fossil-rich cliffs where some of the first complete dinosaur fossils were found (hence the name for that stretch of coastline), and I mingled walks to sandy smugglers’ coves with stops-offs at bookshops in all the little towns on the way. Finally, I followed the coastline round and north back up to Bristol and home.
I had such a marvellous time, meeting interesting people – bookshop owners, managers and booksellers – and visiting so many gorgeous bookshops that I immediately got a map out and planned an even bigger trip for the following year. On that second tour (which was a little like my own Grand Tour) I drove up the west coast of England, dipping into Wales on the way and then travelled on to Scotland. Just as the tour does in the book, I circumnavigated Scotland in a clockwise direction, stopping at wonderful bookshop after wonderful bookshop, then returned home via the east of England. That trip took about three weeks in total and was a truly life-enhancing and inspiring holiday.
On all of my tours, I aimed mostly for smaller towns where you often find really unique bookshops, but I also lingered in Britain’s beauty spots – the Brecon Beacons, the Lake District, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Scottish Highlands, so the bookshops included in the tours in the book are driven by that. Over the next couple of years, I took smaller trips to visit other areas of Britain such as the Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines and parts of Wales. Those areas of Britain closer to home, such as the Cotswolds, London and the South Downs and their bookshops, I already knew well, so of course, they feature in the book too.
If you were a tourist and had just a few days to spend in Britain, which book trail(s) would you recommend first?
For a visitor who hasn’t been to London before and who is a bookshop fan, I’d possibly suggest a great idea might be to combine the London Tour and the Cotswolds Tour. Across those two trails, you visit some of Britain’s oldest and most iconic bookshops, get to enjoy the metropolitan buzz of London, the historic university town of Oxford, and visit some chocolate-box-quaint English villages where you’ll find an abundance of ancient stone pubs with oak beams, roaring fires, and cosy reading nooks.
Alternatively, Edinburgh in Scotland is a great bookshop-visiting destination with many unique indie bookshops scattered about the city. If you have enough days, you could extend your trip with a visit north from there to some of the Highland bookshops detailed in the book, travelling through a stunning scenery of lochs (the Scottish word for lakes for those who don’t know the word) and rolling purple mountains. So much of it is very beautiful, but I found the vistas of Glencoe to be particularly breath-taking as I drove through on my way to visit bookshops in Fort William and Ullapool. Alternatively, you could head south from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders for a few days touring the bookshops and stately homes and castles that can be found there, including Abbotsford, the home of one of Scotland’s most famous writers, Sir Walter Scott.
Britain has always been a wonderland for bookworms. Why do you think bookshops are so important to the British people?
That’s such a good question! I guess from a personal experience, books were integral to the happiness of my childhood as were libraries and bookshops. When I was younger, we didn’t have money to spend on fancy gadgets or exotic holidays. The weekly visit to the library and the solemn choice of which four books to take home to read that week was big excitement. The experience of being surrounded by books, sifting through them, making the week’s selection and choosing which adventure to go on next – that was a great joy, and I suppose others must feel the same way. I have an e-reader which I bought when they came out, but it’s always out of charge, and for me, it just can’t replace the delight that the physicality of a book or a roomful of books holds.
Can we already ask you about your future literary projects?
Writing Bookshop Tours of Britain was really a lockdown project that I did over the summer of 2020. We had pushed back the publication date of our summer titles at Fairlight Books, so I found myself with an unexpected quiet space amidst all the trauma. I was working from home, as many of us were, and realised it was the perfect time to finally get round to writing the bookshop book, as well as getting all the pictures together for it. It involved lots of liaising with bookshops who had been forced to close their doors, so it was a lovely project for everyone to feed into, knowing what a difficult year it was going to be and focused on the future when we can all travel more freely again.