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Three Cheers to the Bookshop Bar!

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Alex Laffer

Staff Writer

Alex Laffer is a writer, editor and researcher. He’s just finished his PhD, which involved listening to hours and hours of people talking about books; all things considered, not a bad way to pass the time. Born in Britain of Australian and Vietnamese descent, he’s interested in the negotiation of identity and empathy in literature. His reading habits jump from science fiction to natural history and most things in between, but he’s particularly fond of Japanese literature, the work of Salman Rushdie and books that do fun things with form. Alongside the day job, he’s currently trying to organise a poetry night in South London and write fairy tales for his nieces and nephew. He doesn’t like camping. Twitter: @exlaffer

After a recent trip to Cornwall – the beautiful Western tip of Southern England – I now know what I want to do with my life. Open a bookstore bar!

I don’t mean just a bar with books in it. I do love these sorts of establishments but due to people’s ‘borrowing’ habits they tend to end up with a strange detritus of unwanted books – the third novel in a series of five, or second tier releases trying to ride the wave of last year’s publishing phenomenon.

I don’t mean a literary-themed bar either. However, these do deserve an honourable mention, these places where book lovers can indulge their nerdery. A couple of my favourites in London include The Owl and The Pussycat, in honour of Edward Lear’s most famous inter-species couple, and the rather spectacularly named Callooh Callay, taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky – London bar owners seem to have a thing for nonsense poetry.

What I am envisioning is a full-on bar containing a bookshop – or vice versa, depending on your preference or current need for alcoholic or literary sustenance. A place where people can browse the bookshelves to find the latest bestseller or a classic read, and celebrate their purchase with a pint or book-themed cocktail. Tequila Mockingbird anyone? (I can’t claim credit for this most excellent pun. Check out Tim Federle’s book of the same name for some other crackers!)

I would be joining a fine tradition of bookstore bars here in the UK. The three below are great and well worth a visit, each taking a slightly different approach but all excelling in providing a space for readers to get together and celebrate their love of books while partaking in a drink or two. With many independent book shops struggling, it is perhaps unsurprising that owners are looking to diversify what they offer. These book shops redefine the traditional experience. They focus on reading as a shared activity, and book lovers as a community. I think they are great.

Beerwolf Books, Falmouth

Tucked down an alley, barely visible between the flanking shops, Beerwolf Books is a hidden treat. It is housed in a beautifully preserved 18th-Century building. You enter through a distinctive red door and go up a creaking staircase to the bar, all exposed brickwork, wooden beams and red paint. The bookshop element occupies its own alcove. Patrons are politely requested to leave their beer by the entrance so as to not risk damaging the books. As book lovers, this is a request that I think we can all sympathise with. It’s a lovely place to go for a drink, with the added satisfaction that you are among like minds. Falmouth is a great place to visit, and Beerwolf Books is worth a trip in itself.

The Book and Record Bar, West Norwood, London

Fittingly, this shop is situated in an old pub, of the kind London used to be so famous for – complete with glazed tile exterior and hanging sign. It was set up by Michael Johnson, a local vinyl collector and dealer. As the name suggests, alongside a selection of some 5000 secondhand books there is an extensive collection of records to choose from – perfect for book lovers and music aficionados alike.  Given the owner’s passion for music, it has a reputation for hosting great nights. There is something wonderful about seeing D.J. decks and enthusiastic dancers in amongst the books.

The Society Club, Soho, London

If your tastes run to the exclusive, then you may want to join The Society Club – part bookshop, part private members club, with a bit of publishing on the side. It specialises in presenting and curating rare and out-print works from twentieth century literature, photography and art. Drawing a diverse clientele from the literary and arts world, its black and brass interior oozes old-school class. I admit that I am a bit ambivalent about the idea of private member’s club. However, this is hardly the Diogenes (Mycroft Holme’s club of choice) and the pricing is aimed at inclusivity. So, to quote their own invitation: ‘Come, drink, and soak up beautiful books – be merry and wild and gay.’