A Love Letter to Bookshops - Veronica Henry


I was born a bookworm.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read: it was almost like breathing to me.  A sixth sense.  My main aim in life was to scuttle away and curl up with a book: in my bedroom, under a tree, in the bath.   The only place I couldn’t read was in the car, because it made me feel sick, so journeys to me were a waste of valuable time.
I didn’t really have any other interests.  I didn’t need any, because my fictional worlds took me to all the places I needed to go and I experienced everything vicariously.  All I wanted for my birthday or Christmas was books.  And the only place I ever wanted to go was the local bookshop, wherever we happened to be living (I was an army brat, so we moved every two years.  Bookshops were comfortingly the same wherever we lived).
Bookshops are a gateway to another world.  Enter a bookshop, and you never know where you might end up, or who with.  There is nothing like the tingle of expectation as you step over the threshold.  Time spent in a bookshop is never wasted, as you run your finger along the spines of potential new paramours: who might your latest passion be? 
The best bookshops mix the comfortingly familiar with the tantalisingly new, juxtaposing old favourites with the latest discoveries.  They make it easy for you to take risks.  A good bookseller will understand your tastes and lead you into pastures new.  It’s never a risk.  Books make us who we are.
Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when the bookshop was in danger of disappearing from our high street.  The digital threat was a real one as people rushed to download the latest reads onto their shiny new devices.  Bookshops began closing at an alarming rate, rather like pubs.  Those in the know predicated that books would disappear altogether: there was no need for them. They were outmoded and took up too much space.
Thankfully, there has been a backlash.  The love of books as tangible, three-dimensional objects that are to be cherished has won the day, and bookshops are on the rise again.  Bookselling is still a challenge, but booksellers are rising to that challenge by making their emporiums fresher, brighter and more alluring places to be.  They open coffee shops, even cocktail bars. They put on events, have visits from authors, hold monthly bookclubs, and are more often than not the driving force behind local literary festivals.
Whenever I do a talk, I ask the audience which they prefer: real books or e-books.  The vote has come down firmly in favour of the real book of late.  People love the weight of a real book in their hands, the feel of the pages, even the smell …
And a house is not a home without books on the shelves.  A bookshelf, after all, is a glimpse into who you are as a person.  And as John Waters famously warned, if you go home with someone and they don’t have books in the house, don’t sleep with them.  I have to admit to slightly mistrusting people who claim not to read, rather as I mistrust people who don’t drink …
When I was thinking up the setting for my fourteenth novel, I tried to think about the place where I was happiest.  I always like to set my books somewhere I would like to be.  I was actually in a tiny bookshop in the Cotswolds when I realised I had a feeling of calm, contentment and excitement that to me was perfect happiness.  That was my light-bulb moment: my next book would be set in a bookshop, because I knew my readers would be able to relate to that feeling, and I could explore what books meant to each of my characters and how they had shaped their lives.
And the title, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, is not just about finding romantic love.  It’s about the love of books: something that can sustain you throughout your life, and provide escape, entertainment, education, comfort, wonder.  And it’s a love you can share. There is nothing more satisfying than recommending something you have read to someone else, knowing they will love it as much as you do.  And books make the ideal present: I spend hours browsing to find the perfect tome for a friend.  And the best thing is they are so satisfying to wrap – all those straight edges with no lumps and bumps!
But if we are to keep bookshops alive, we need to use them, and to encourage the next generation to make them part of their life and view bookshops as a treat, a pleasure, an adventure, a gateway.   So they become a necessity.  Something we can’t live without. 
Thus my challenge to you in Independent Bookshop Week is to go to your local bookshop and come out with something that might change your life.  For those of you who haven’t picked up a book for a while, here are a few suggestions to wean you gently back onto reading: some of my favourites, old and new.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – ambitious
The World According to Garp – John Irving - tumultuous
Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe - hilarious
Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain - outrageous
The Idiot Brain – Dean Sherratt - humourous
Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann – scandalous
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson – ingenious
How To Eat – Nigella Lawson – delicious
Jeeves and Wooster – P G Wodehouse – riotous
Finn Family Moomintroll – Tove Jannsen – gorgeous

Veronica Henry’s new book, How To Find Love in a Book Shop is published by Orion in hardback on 16 June 2016, £12.99