Written by Sarah Henshaw
In early 2011 I realised the bookshop I’d been running for the last two years would probably have to close. It operated from a converted narrowboat permanently moored in a newish marina development near the brewing town and Marmite metropolis of Burton-on-Trent. For the first few months it had bobbed up and down quite happily there, enjoying the patronage of local readers, a growing number of eccentrics and the odd moorhen. There are a number of reasons why things changed, I suppose. The whole nature of independent bookselling was – still is – under threat from online retailers and digital content. Then there was the recession too, casting a gloomy shadow over news headlines and sales forecasts. But mainly there was the undeniable fact I was a godawful bookseller.
I remember quite clearly the first time I gave stock away for free. I was talking to a man from Land Rover Coffee – a subsidiary of the car giant I hadn’t previously known existed. He was flying over to Costa Rica the following week to visit some farms. His daughter was accompanying him and he was looking at a Penguin Books branded bag for her to carry some hand luggage in. “Oh, just take it,” I said breezily, as he presented it at the desk, “and tell me more about Costa Rican coffee plantations,” which sounded an infinitely more exciting conversation than with the HSBC business banking woman who had been leaving increasingly irate messages on my answer phone all day. We talked about hot drinks and how The Book Barge had come about, which is a short story to tell:
How I met Joseph, the boat that became The Book Barge, is a very modern love story. We found each other online. On the Google search engine, to be precise. I had entered ‘Narrowboat for sale’ and there was a picture of Joseph, who lived in Warwick at the time, hanging out on the side of the Grand Union dressed all in black, which is a French existential look I particularly dig. After a flurry of emails we arranged to meet up. It was late January 2009 when I first saw him. As invariably happens, the profile photo he’d posted wasn’t quite the whole picture. Joseph had cardboard blinkers over the bow windows and a measles of rust above the waterline. Threads of frost were laid out over the grill of a three-legged BBQ stand, which stood extraneously against the front door. But the black lip over his roof was warm to touch, and it was as though the numbed sun had stretched out its fingers to him as well because his sides were clutched with darts of pale light. I wanted to never let go. Joseph was £25,000 and that much money made me cold again, for I had no idea where to find it.
Having been politely, but consistently, turned down for bank loans to buy the boat, I can still remember my surprise when my parents offered to put up the capital instead. We agreed a repayment strategy but after just six months of trading it became apparent that, to bastardise a popular saying, it’s a gift that keeps on giving no return. My boyfriend was also lavish with his finances. A scrupulous saver, he threw 13 years of his hard-earned dollar at turning 60′ of slowly rusting steel into a fully functional bookshop in just four months. And then there were the painting hours they all put in, the enormous paving slabs we hauled over precarious jetties for ballast, the floor-laying, fascia-building, soft furnishings sewing, two new staircases, partition walls to pull out, central heating and electrical work to be completed, an unwanted cassette toilet to clean up and store in a garage. A gas hob, sink, shower cubicle, cupboards and a 4ft-width bed all also went. In their place, hundreds and hundreds of books given largely free of charge by complete strangers in response to a plea I placed in the local newspaper. People power, I learnt then for the first time, is some force.
The Land Rover man returned the following day. He bought the book bag’s worth in coffee beans with him. It seemed a good swap, until I remembered I don’t drink coffee. More importantly though, it seemed a useful corrective to the assumption that indie bookshops couldn’t be price competitive – that value for money has just one currency.
That summer I vowed to spend six months doing everything I could to save the shop. The best thing about a floating premises is that if the business doesn’t come to you, you can chug its way instead (albeit at the prohibitively sedate speed of just 4mph). Birmingham, Oxford, London, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham – they can all be reached by water, with dozens of smaller towns, villages and canalside pubs between to ply your trade. Cash strapped and without any domestic conveniences aboard, the bartering now became even more important. Showers, a spare bed, Victoria Sponge, new shoes, Hugo Boss perfume and a haircut were all swapped en route. In London a particularly kind gentleman did a month’s grocery shopping for me at Sainsbury’s – plus free delivery to the boat – with the value of his till receipt redeemed in books. Ocado suddenly seemed comparatively caveman. In between there were long stretches of delicious solitude bookended by the small kindnesses of complete strangers.
When I returned to the Midlands in November 2011 I fashioned some of these stories into blog posts. I wrote about how a peripatetic summer had changed my relations to people and perceptions of self too. I’d learned how to steer a boat and, finally, how to sell a paperback or two. I’d learned that the value of a book is a strange, unfixed thing – that sometimes they’re worth a pub meal, while at other times a customer could invest a whole new friendship. A few weeks into the project an editor called to express interest in turning these posts into a book. The Book Barge’s journey for a publishing deal? That seemed the ultimate trade.
Sarah Henshaw’s The Bookshop That Floated Away will be published by Constable in April 2014, 978-1-4721-0805-0, 272pp, paperbk.