Location scouting 3: Kent road trip

On Saturday we all piled into Matt’s car and embarked on the Kent Bookshop road trip. Oh yes, does it get any more rock and roll?

I think the picture on the left (taken outside Barely Read Books in Westerham) pretty much sums up the attitude of the many bookshops we visited.

As we had hoped, the bookshops of rural Kent were friendly places run by chatty owners with the odd additional staff member or volunteer.

The first port of call on the tour was Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester. Purportedly the largest second-hand bookshop in England, I have been meaning to visit Baggins ever since I heard about it years ago, but I’ve never actually been to Rochester.

Here’s one thing I have learnt: Rochester is excellent for second-hand books!

Everything you’ve heard about Baggins Book Bazaar is true. Unless of course you’ve heard some lies. But what I’m essentially saying is that it is vast. Really vast. And warren-like. It is composed of several levels of sprawling corridors of densely-packed books; there are small atriums and side-annexes of books, and little cul-de-sac larders of books. It really is like being shrunk down to visit a rabbit library. Or a library in Hobbiton – from whence the name presumably derives.

There are so many interesting angles and passage ways that I’m certain you could theoretically film a nice portion of scenes here. The chap we spoke to was most helpful and perfectly happy for us to take some reference photos. It was a very promising start to the day. But more importantly: it is an excellent bookshop. You really could get lost in browsing for hours and hours. This is a must-visit for any bibliophile within browsing distance of Rochester.

A mere spitting distance from Baggins can be found a rather more modest, but no less charming shop by the name of City Books. The window had recently been smashed in, and we found the owner setting a table of nick nacks out in front of the boarded-up damage. He soon led us inside and revealed an Aladdin’s cave of items.

As this picture shows, the place was crammed with Victorian glass bottles, old annuals, magazines, books, coins, bits of cars. It was all the best treasures you could imagine digging out of an old attic, condensed into two floors. Bob, the owner (or should that be curator?) had a story to tell about seemingly every item we set eyes upon. A number of Bob’s artefacts were archaeological finds, and some dated back to Roman times. I was also amused to find inside a Borough Guide to Solihull (the town where I was born) inexplicably sitting on a dusty box, replete with monochrome images of the shopping centre thirty years before I ever saw it. City Books is a delightful shop to peruse, and indeed we made a few purchases.

Bob reassured us that the world of storytelling bookshop owners was not a mere fancy on our part, but was alive and well here in Kent. It seems the county is the perfect setting for our story, and so we continued on our journey…

In Tonbridge we found the above shop, which goes by the memorable name of MR. BOOKS. Happily, on the day of our visit, it was enjoying a half price sale. This well-stocked cavern of books is owned by a friendly chap called Mark, who had a lot of very interesting things to say on our film’s subject matter. As it happens, he recently gave a talk on a similar topic, and was even good enough to allow us to conduct a mini interview with him (which we shall be posting on this blog soon). It was fascinating to hear what an actual bookshop owner had to say about the mechanics of running a shop these days. His observation that the Internet can actually be the friend of the second hand bookshop owner (as a source for supplies and so on) rather than taking the Luddite approach that it must be the enemy was particularly encouraging. Mark also talked about the attitude certain people can take towards bookshops, as well as the attitude certain bookshops can take towards customers (which was particularly apt given some of our experiences in London).

Mark’s shop is a great little place, and we were extremely grateful for his being so kind and generous with his time. It took only the briefest of browsing for me to find a book which I was itching to buy (a history of the Crystal Palace: something I’ve been meaning to buy for years).

When we got home afterwards we were especially pleased to discover that Mark had blogged about our visit (and how he was initially suspicious that he was having his leg pulled) over on the Tonbridge Blog where he said some very kind things about our project. We’ll be returning to his lovely little shop very soon I suspect.

Also on our list of destinations was the aforementioned Barely Read Books in Westerham. This is an extraordinary shop, which is better seen than described. As you can see from the picture to the left, every inch is filled with books, so if any one wishes to get past you it requires you both reversing out of the shop and swapping places; the corridors are simply too narrow to fit two people. I can just imagine a scene with either of the main characters hemmed in by walls of books. Again, the owner was a friendly chap who was perfectly happy for us to take reference photos.

Last but by no means least was Hall’s bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. It has been a couple of years since I last visited Hall’s. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Hall’s was a real source of inspiration when this film began to form in my head. And I was extremely heartened to find that Hall’s is even more atmospheric and attractive than I remember it being. Quite simply it is a joyous shop. Unfortunately, Sabrina the owner, was not around on the afternoon we visited. But we told Jane, the friendly lady at the desk, the premise for our film, and she assured us that the shop often attracts attention from film makers and photographers. It is hardly surprising, as the shop is quite simply picturesque from every angle.

Our road trip was at an end. Every shop we visited in Kent had its own distinct identity, and each one was worth visiting for its own reasons. We recommend them all.

Between us, we had bought a number of gems on our journey, collected from these various worthy shops. But thus far Dan had bought nothing. Not to be outdone, he took this last opportunity to find himself a purchase. And he made quite possibly the most eccentric impulse buy I think I’ve ever witnessed…

He bought all seventeen volumes of the complete Oxford History of England.

Seventeen hardback books. In five carrier bags. To get home from rural Kent.

It was a strange day, but I enjoyed it a great deal.

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