It won’t be a surprise to hear that I love to nose around bookshops, bookstalls, book fairs, book blogs… all things bookish. If you’re reading this, then you probably do too. So you will know what I mean when I say I get excited when coming across a bookshop I haven’t visited before.
I recently discovered Word on the Water, a secondhand book emporium on board a 50-foot Dutch barge just a few minutes walk from St Pancras Station. Arriving in London on the high-speed from Faversham I headed off along the Regent’s Canal in the direction of Islington and there it was… London’s only floating bookstore.
Even before stepping on board it was clear I had arrived at a bookshop of rare distinction. Lined with bookshelves both inside and outside, a subtle choreography sets the ideas flowing and gets you thinking. On the outdoor deck, jostling for space among the pot plants and sculptures, were some of my favourite authors, both contemporaries and classics. Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living – unmissable with its bright-yellow flyleaf – alongside Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal, a lost classic of 1960s French literature. Others that I hadn’t read, such as Noam Chomsky’s Optimism over Despair and Mary Beard’s Women & Power, alongside David Szalay’s brilliant short story sequence Turbulence.
Warmed by a log burner and literary joie de vivre, the homely shabbiness of Word on the Water makes it a real literary gem. It’s not a place one visits just to browse and buy books, but to talk about them. To my left a conversation about Chomsky, to my right a self-declared witch warming her toes and telling tales of Dick Whittington’s cat… which somehow led me into a conversation about 1960s youthful rebellion. My thoughts drifted to how at home this bookworthy vessel would be on Faversham Creek among the sellers and traders found at Standard Quay.
Word on the Water has been in existence since 2010 and has had more than its fair share of problems to keep going, from trying to compete with online retail to the lengthy process of securing a permanent mooring and, not least, a leak that meant the boat nearly sank to the bottom of the canal!
Until fairly recently bookshops were closing down all over Britain. We are now seeing a changing trend. Independent bookshops opening, independent presses starting out, literary festivals springing up around Britain. Books on barges has potential to catch on… next stop Faversham, I hope!