The London bookshop map

Back in early 2011, as we embarked on our bookshop tour to find filming locations for The Last Bookshop, I remember wishing there was some kind of map or guidebook for bookshops.

When I later mentioned this thought in passing to Sabrina Izzard of Hall’s bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, she very helpfully provided us with a copy of the 2010-11 edition of the Directory of Antiquarian and Secondhand Booksellers. It’s a handy volume, indexed alphabetically as well as by speciality and geography. It covers the whole of the United Kingdom as well as a smattering of European and American shops (plus one Australian and one South African shop!). But it’s still no map. A map, I thought, would be just the thing.

Imagine my delight then, when yesterday afternoon – whilst browsing the shelves of the Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace – I spotted a complimentary folded white rectangle entitled The London Bookshop Map. Now, as it happens, the majority of our filming took place in Kentish locations (some excellent bookshops outside the South-East of England sadly proved a little too far away given our crew’s severe shortage of cars!) but this map is just the sort of thing we could have done with last year. It is ideal for anyone seeking independent bookshops in the capital.

When I showed our producer Rose, she was saddened by the swathes of Greater London marked with no bookshops whatsoever. And though I agreed, it occurred to me that perhaps the map was not comprehensive.

You see, I discovered a couple of new bookshops in South London this weekend. The first of these is Chener Books on Lordship Lane in Dulwich, which was on the map. But the second of these (a nice little shop and gallery called the Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham) was not on the map.

I wondered if Kirkdale was a new establishment, but a glimpse at their website showed me that – far from it – they are possibly the oldest bookshop in South East London, having been open since 1966!

But I was in luck: it appears the London Bookshop map will be reprinted every six months to address any omissions, new openings, or (hopefully not so many) closures. And as fate would have it the next edition is due out this coming weekend, on Saturday 17th March!

So while my map bears the subtitle 87 independent bookshops, the new edition rather promisingly proclaims 96 independent bookshops. Meaning that, from next weekend, you can pop into one of the capital’s independent bookshops and pick up a freshly up-to-date London bookshop map.

The official site is thelondonbookshopmap.org 

Who fancies doing a national map then . . ?

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That synching feeling

This weekend I caught up with my co-director Dan Fryer, the one man audio editing machine, to see how close we were to unleashing The Last Bookshop. We had been hoping to announce the film’s completion in February 2012, but somehow the calendar is now saying March.

Dan fixed me with the shell shocked expression of a man who had just spent several hours trawling through web forums searching for solutions to complicated IT problems.

He explained that The Last Bookshop is indeed, ostensibly, finished, but that the data is sitting in two halves: the audio half and the visual half. The audio half sounds brilliant, and is finally finished after the mammoth edit and polish mentioned in my last post. The visual half also looks brilliant, and was finished last year. The problem came when Dan put these two halves together…

They don’t fit.

Things start off fine, but gradually the audio and the visuals become less and less synchronised until you start to feel you are watching the dubbed Kung Fu version of The Last Bookshop. Seeing as Alfred Hoffman doesn’t actually have any ninja fight sequences in the film (more’s the pity) this is very definitely an issue.

Not Alfred Hoffman

So, how has this happened?

The Last Bookshop was shot at 24 Frames Per Second (FPS) which Dan faithfully assures me is actually 23.98 FPS – the kind of pedantry I enjoy.

The film has been edited in Final Cut Pro, while the audio has been edited in Adobe Audition – to get the best out of both packages. In their separate halves, the audio and video match the right length, and all is fine and dandy. However, when the finished audio is exported from Audition into Final Cut Pro to be reunited with the visuals something odd happens. Final Cut Pro seemingly assigns our audio a Time Code rate equivalent to 25 FPS. Which is especially odd because audio doesn’t have a frame rate. Audio doesn’t have frames. Nevertheless, the resultant discrepancy knocks the audio and visuals increasingly out of synch

How do we solve this? Altering things in the ‘Easy Setup’ area hasn’t helped. Dan’s not sure. Maybe we can process the visuals to match the new rate of the audio? Or perhaps we should cut the film into 30-second chunks and painstakingly match the audio up a step at a time, until the whole film is synched up.

That sounds like either madness or genius. But then I’m not overly technical. When I put this to Dan he said, “I’m not really sure I know what I’m talking about either. It’s all very mathematical and annoying.”

The Bakery: refreshingly honest about our collective technical incompetence.

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Sounds of The Last Bookshop

The final leg of post-production on The Last Bookshop has proved a mammoth undertaking. Perhaps even slightly more mammoth than we were expecting, hence the slight delay. Personally, I was expecting a reasonable sized elephant of a task – but no, this has definitely been a full-on prehistoric woolly mammoth of a job. With massive tusks and an attitude problem.

I suspect a number of you are wondering what we’ve been up to of late.

The film has involved a collaboration between all sorts of talented people, friends old and new. From our actors (Joe and Alfred) to our fabulous musicians (Arlet) not to mention Bakery regulars such as Adam Droy and his band of Millers (Mikey and Chris) and of course the West Country powerhouse that is Alaric. Last but by no means least, the friendly bookselling folk who all kindly donated their glorious shops as filming locations for our film.

But the time comes when all these people have made their worthy contribution, and all that remains is for myself and Dan Fryer (the directors) to tackle the aforementioned mammoth alone. Truth be told, audio editing is – more often than not – a one man job. So it has frequently fallen to Mr Fryer to wrestle alone with this elephantine beast.

And so, on odd evenings and occasional weekends here and there, Dan has been staring at hypnotising banks of soundwaves and faders that look something like this. Dan Fryer is a man who has been known to fall asleep at his computer, wake up the following morning, curse those lost hours and resume editing.

Long-term followers of The Bakery will be aware of our famous whiteboard which is often the key to unlocking whichever project we are currently working on. Of late, I have been using it to build up an index of sound effects and their timings.

It has then fallen to me to consult this, and attempt to replicate these sound effects within the confines of the house.

First of all, this always needs to be done at about 3am otherwise there is simply too much background noise, either from the outside world or from housemates cooking and generally thundering around. Secondly, it requires a lot of initiative to make sounds with limited props at your disposal. Sometimes it has been easy to flick through some books to provide the sound of pages, but I have also had to run up and down our staircase, and indeed stroll in circles around our landing in order to have enough footstep sounds.

Yes, that’s right: I’ve had to foley almost every single sound effect heard across the whole 20-minute film.

Incidentally, the word “Foley” is named after Jack Foley (1891-1967) and refers to recording sound effects especially to match up with film footage. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing: watching the film and attempting to record sound effects that match the movements seen on screen. Easier said than done. Especially when – after I proudly deliver a folder full of mp3s to Mr Fryer for him to throw into his audio cauldron – he informs me that there are problems with some of the recordings…

Some of you may be wondering why there aren’t already sound effects in the film. Well, in some instances there are. But generally (especially in the case of footsteps) they are of too poor a quality. In other instances, the sound effects are missing altogether. This was usually because on location the sound simply wasn’t good enough (due to road works, shouting in the street, or even cases of real life weirdly not sounding as good as a sound effect would). Also, our microphone set-up was geared towards picking up dialogue when we were filming in the bookshops, with Gaetan pointing his boom at our actors’ mouths rather than at any additional noises going on in the scene.

Ultimately, we want the sound design on The Last Bookshop to meet the same standards as the visuals, and that takes time. But the hard work is nearly all behind us. So we hope you’ve not been getting too impatient for the announcement of our film’s completion. The hour is near at hand…

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National Libraries Day 2012

Fans of basic cultural amenities will today be celebrating National Libraries Day. A tide of support to remind those in power that it is a very good idea to keep as many of these places open as possible.

Of especial note this year is the publication of The Library Book a collection of writings from authors such as Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and others, exploring the importance of libraries through memoir, polemic and short story alike. Proceeds got to the Reading Agency‘s library readings programme.

For my own part, I’d like to chip in with two particular memories which, in their own small ways, hint at the greater good of keeping books available to all of society.

First, a memory from the early 1990s: Myself and my brother are visiting South Yardley Library, where we join a crowd of supervised children in a corner, all putting blindfolds on. We are given blindfolds too. As we plunge into a disconcerting world of darkness, we follow instructions to walk carefully forwards and duck under an unseen entrance.

To this day I remember the hesitant steps we took, as the storyteller guided this unexpected Fellowship down deep ravines, through thick forests and across dead marshes. At first, our imagination was stimulated with words alone, but soon our faces were being brushed by the tendril fingers of Ents or the trailing webs of vast spiders, as we stepped over bridges and crawled down mining tunnels.

Or perhaps we were simply clambering around strategically placed tables and chairs, scattered with cushions, dangling ropes and half-filled washing up bowls? Either way, what the clever organisers of that modest weekend amusement achieved with words and some basic props has stayed with me all these years later. It was as vivid an introduction to Middle Earth as anything Peter Jackson would conjure up a decade later.

My second memory comes from years afterwards, when academic libraries had become a familiar sanctuary for my studies. Searching for some book or other that the campus library did not have, I visited the public library on Canterbury High Street.

Inside, I was struck to see a familiar homeless man, who I was used to seeing begging on pavements outside, quietly engrossed in a book at one of the reading tables. With his scruffy unkempt appearance he was a striking sight in this context. I couldn’t help thinking how excellent it was that everyone, no matter how down on their luck, should have somewhere in the warm and the dry to while away some time picking from a selection of books.

Put simply: libraries can help the disadvantaged, and inspire the young. Reason enough to keep them open in my books.

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Interactive futuristic books

The make-believe future seen in The Last Bookshop is a world where paper books are all but forgotten. Where physical shops have become a thing of the past, and “money” is an old-fashioned term for the defunct notes and coins replaced by online credits. It is also a world where all forms of communication, media and entertainment have evolved together into an interactive holographic technology overseen by the mighty GamaZone corporation.

Some cynical commentators predict a dystopian future along these lines might not be so far-fetched. Others remain more optimistic.

Either way, it cannot be disputed that decades from now, technology will indeed have progressed in as-yet-unimaginable directions. The cultural history of the written word will undoubtedly have undergone yet more plot twists and cliffhangers, whether those are played out on paper, screen, or both.

But our film isn’t really about the future so much as it is about the present. It is about exploring this odd era we find ourselves in, where old established ways of life are called into question and changed so utterly by technology that is relatively recent and fledgling. We mould our lives around Facebook, around our mobile phones, just as since the 1950s we have moulded ours lives around TV viewing (nowadays increasingly online).

Many people will tell you that the only way publishers can make money is by printing tons of celebrity books that are essentially parasitic upon the entertainment industries in general. So it’s interesting then to see how portable entertainment technology responds to the issue of books. How it furthers their story, if you will.

One of the latest flashy pieces of kit is of course the iPad (although ironically I understand it doesn’t support Flash… ahem, little IT joke there). I was recently made aware of an interactive iPad app featuring a character called Morris Lessmore, which is more than a little bookish in nature. Here’s an advert for it…

Now, I’m not in a position to review the iPad app. Most obviously because I don’t have an iPad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I live a life of relative poverty peppered with the occasional purchasing of actual books. I’m not a complete luddite: I make films, I blog… I’m capable of making lame jokes about Adobe software. But I don’t for example have a snazzy phone. I don’t use social networks. I had a go on a Nintendo 3DS this Christmas and my brain nearly boiled at how futuristic it was.

Nevertheless, as an interactive reading experience you would have to be a real misery guts to deny that The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore looks pretty startling. And that’s not simply because I’m a fan of silent films and Morris clearly owes a debt to Buster Keaton. I can well imagine a child (including children who have the inconvenience of being adults) getting drawn in by all the usual swiping, scrolling and prodding of the iPad’s touchscreen as they manipulate the animated environment. I’m also impressed to read in an interview, the lead artist saying that “every functionality had to be something that kept the reader in the story, or moved the story forward (rather than) bells and whistles that don’t serve the story, and in fact often pull you out.”

The Morris Lessmore website makes it clear that their project is in fact not simply an iPad app, but a film and a physical book too. Indeed, the iPad app appears to have been a later consideration.

All of which is food for thought when we consider how the story of books and bookselling might progress from here. And how advancing technology might replace, hybridise with or perhaps even harmonise with book-based storytelling…

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Animated books

I was recently made aware of this delightful short film entitled ‘Organizing the Bookcase’ which seemed perfectly appropriate for this ‘ere blog…

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Credits sneak peek

Have a butcher’s at these screen grabs from The Last Bookshop’s finalised credits sequence, fresh out of The Bakery kitchen. As you can see, the design has changed slightly from the concept art that we posted back in August, in that credits will now be displayed on the insides of various antique books, rather than along the spines.  This exciting development means that the film is now 90% complete. Which means we are now very close indeed to an announcement of the film’s completion. Watch this space…

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Bakery advent calendar

Tomorrow is the first day of December, and I thought followers of The Last Bookshop blog might be interested to know about some of our related Yuletide japes.

The Bakery (our creative collective responsible for producing The Last Bookshop) will be blogging a daily advent calendar.

We shall take it in turns to post up videos, photographs, audio trinkets and any other bits and bobs that we like, for your enjoyment. The advent blog will inevitably veer from the opaquely bizarre to the self-explanatory, but hopefully there shall be plenty of Christmas cheer and amusement along the way.

Grab yourself a mince pie and head along to webakestuff.co.uk/blog

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A visit to Totnes

The end of October may have seen Dan and Owen tweaking The Last Bookshop’s  soundtrack (oh yes, there are now some lovely new twinkly piano bits) but I myself was gallivanting in Devon for the wedding of an old friend.

On our film’s limited budget, it hadn’t been practical for the location scout to take in any bookshops too far afield; so I was keen to use this opportunity to browse some of the bookshops that were logistically denied us. My dad half-remembered a certain bohemian vibe to the nearby town of Totnes, and so the family and I trotted off to find amusement in the drizzly afternoon.

If you’re in the area, give Totnes a visit. It has bags of character, an attractive church, and a thriving centre of independent shops. It felt reassuringly alive. Largely absent were the clusters of vacant lots and closed down shops which seem to dog so many English towns.

And yet, a worry began to niggle at me as we ducked in and out of the various arts and crafts shops. I noticed one of the shops contained a full-length bookcase. As did the next shop. And shortly afterwards, so did another shop. I had the worrying thought that – like the treasured possessions of a deceased elderly relative divided up among the surviving grandchildren – the local bookshop may have been closed, dissected and distributed. Soon the randomly-located Beano annuals and Enid Blytons and ‘How it works’ Ladybird books of Computers started looking like evidence of a terrible retail fatality.

My pessimistic imagination was starting to run away with itself, fuelled by years of reading doom-mongering in the Guardian, and hand-wringing in the Bookseller, and indeed having witnessed enough closed-up shop fronts myself between interviews with shopkeepers telling of their diminishing returns and increased rents.

But, as the old saying doesn’t go: there was light at the end of the high street. I was soon relieved to be browsing the stock of the Totnes Bookshop (which I later learned was justifiably shortlisted for The Bookseller’s Best Independent of the Year back in February) before a purchase was made over the road at Harlequin Books. This latter shop in particular is crammed with an excellent selection of old secondhand books.

A short stroll towards the castle soon revealed a further bookshop, modestly nestled among crooked houses. A sign declared its pleasingly eccentric opening hours, and – typically – the weekday we had chosen to visit was not favoured. Perversely, this made me rather happy. Surely there is nothing more indicative of a shopkeeper’s retail confidence than in deciding to be regularly closed on a day that would evidently bring good custom. I peered through the window and saw intriguing volumes.

All told, the trip to Totnes was a satisfying step back in time. The place felt untouched by the fears abundant elsewhere in the country. That said, the fact that Totnes has its own unique currency surely can’t be motivated by anything other than a desire to keep local money artificially trapped within the town for fear of it draining away elswhere.

 

Though not a bookshop, an honourable mention must surely go to one of the best shops in Totnes, the Drift Record Shop. Just as I like to champion the bookshop independents, who provide a service, function and experience necessarily different to Waterstones; it is also satisfying to happen upon a quirky record shop whose eclectic stock and earnest enthusiasm is a million miles away from the unpleasantness of HMV. Accordingly, we relieved The Drift Record shop of no less than three CDs that afternoon.

The sense of timelessness continued as we moved on to Newton Abbot and Ye Old Cider Bar, reputedly one of only two cider houses remaining in the UK, where I had a mug of cider and a glass of the nicest mead I’ve ever tasted. Highly recommended.

As The Last Bookshop blog forges on with its mission to explore the current plight of bookshops as context for our forthcoming short film, Totnes seems to forecast a sunny outlook after the storm.

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Fry’s Planet Word

I’ve been greatly enjoying Stephen Fry’s current BBC TV series ‘Fry’s Planet Word’ which in recent weeks has explored the origins of language, the role of swearing and the history of writing, among other subjects.

Fry is so deeply associated with modern technology, with Apple and Twitter, that it was especially interesting to hear his reflections on good old fashioned paper and ink. Indeed his reputation is such that when we were planning The Last Bookshop, we joked that the Boy’s Gamazone hologram might be entirely voiced by Stephen Fry, perhaps as a posthumous tribute to Fry’s endorsement of the holographic technologies developed in his own old age.

The fourth episode of the series, titled ‘Spreading the Word,’ highlighted the importance of modern technology in preserving old texts, and in taking the written word into new environments. But it also took time to compose a personal ode to the wonder of physical books, with Fry describing how he felt when he first encountered a published copy of his debut novel.

It was in interviewing Prof. Robert Darnton, the Director of Harvard University Library that the programme addressed the fate of physical books, and how we currently live in a time of media transition. Prof. Darnton was the voice of wise optimism, asserting that history tells us “one media does not displace another,” before going on to draw parallels with the co-existence of print with radio, and later radio with television, and later still TV with the Internet.

Fry himself sounded a little less certain about the future of libraries. And in his passion for such book temples, brought my own thoughts resolutely back to The Last Bookshop film, and our desire to champion buildings filled with tomes.

The rise of technology need not necessarily mean we must end up in the book-bereft fantasy world in which our film is set. And yet, a glance at our society shows us libraries under threat and bookshops increasingly unable to stay open.


I’ll leave the last thoughts to Mr Fry himself:

“Almost everything I am, I owe to libraries.

“It’s like a will-o’-the-wisp; one book lights another book, which lights another one, which lights another one. I suppose libraries still, for me, have this extraordinary charge: when I get in one I feel this buzz, it’s almost sexual.

“There’s something about the fact that behind all these bound copies there are all voices, there are people murmuring to you, seducing you, dragging you into their world. These are wonderful, magical places. And I suppose if I have a campaign that I’m really behind, it’s that of saving our libraries. Because everyone surely has the right to access the voices of the past.”

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