Imagine taking a quiet morning stroll down a North of England towpath, perhaps with your dog trotting happily ahead of you, tail high. Perhaps it is summer and the air is full of birdsong, and the water is alternately dappled with sunlight and green from the wavering reflections of the trees that line the canal. Or perhaps it is winter and the canal is stark and white beneath a covering of snow, and you are muffled up to your eyeballs, your hands thrust deep into your pockets to keep them warm.
All of a sudden you come across a narrowboat – not such a rare occurrence on a towpath, to be sure, but this one is different. In fact, it is a very special narrowboat. Elegant in tan and black – the colour of the tea-stained pages of your favourite novel and of the glossy paintwork of a nineteen thirties Remington typewriter – it has “THE BOOK BARGE” painted in capital letters across the stern. There are geraniums on the deck, two bicycles leaning against each other on the path, and a sign welcoming you inside for a browse and a cuppa.
No, this isn’t the setting of a children’s storybook – though admittedly the only place I’ve ever come across anything remotely similar is between the covers of a book (Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies, to be specific). The Book Barge is real all right. It was opened three years ago by Sarah Henshaw, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, as a floating bookshop and a cosy meeting-place for lovers of all things bookish, far away from the rush and profit-making urgency of big chain bookstores. Which means that opening hours can be somewhat erratic but that customer service actually means something.
Besides the usual panoply of bookshop events (author signings, weekly book clubs, and children’s reading hour), those who are so inclined can join the Friday morning Kniterature group (“knit and natter – and drink lashings of tea”). Those who are of a more solitary bent can make use of the Josephine, a rowing boat which “serves stowaways and daydreams”. And if you’re stuck for a gift, you can ask Ms Henshaw to make up a themed, personalised book hamper. Deliveries are made by bicycle or by dinghy (imagine sticking your head out of the porthole of your own houseboat to collect your latest order of books, handed up to you from a bobbing boat!). If I lived in Lichfield, I don’t think The Book Barge would ever be rid of me!
The imaginative power of places like The Book Barge is immeasurable. And yet, like so many other independent bookshops nowadays, it is under threat from chain stores and online retailers. Last year, in an effort to stay financially afloat and raise awareness of the difficulties faced by independent bookshops, The Book Barge took a six-month tour of the UK, trading books for food and other necessities. It helped, but only temporarily.
This year, Ms Henshaw has hit upon a new scheme: she is going to write a book. Not just any book: one that, to quote her, “tells the story of this bookshop and bookselling in general, one that shows how books can colour life and question it, how books can shape you and shove you or simply show you something delightfully unexpected.” She explains here how readers can become involved in the process. If the scheme works, The Book Barge will not only be able to stay open a while longer, but will be able to realize a long-standing dream: to cross the Channel and make its way down the Canal St Martin to Paris itself. If the scheme fails, The Book Barge will have no choice but to close.
And so, dear readers, I appeal to your generous hearts, to your consciences, and to the militant spirit slumbering within you, to prevent that from happening. You all love books or you wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. It is time to take action and stand up for what you and I believe in. Yes, Amazon offers discounts which, in the current economic situation, are understandably tempting. But as Oscar Wilde once pointed out, there is a difference between the price of something and its value…
Also, I really, really want to see The Book Barge chug up the Canal St Martin early one morning!
© Florence Berlioz 2012