On board London’s only bookshop barge, Anoosh Chakelian discovers a vibrant alternative world of poetry, music and novel browsing.
“It’s because it’s the canal. Put a few moorhens around and people start remembering that they’re human beings,” says Paddy Screech, the co-owner of Word on the Water, the London Book Barge.
The capital’s only floating second-hand bookshop – which has been open for nine months, travelling between Camden Lock, Angel, Hackney and Paddington – stops for two weeks at each mooring to sell books donated by the public and by charity bookshops.
It is owned by Paddy, “The Doctor”, and his co-partners, John Privett, “The Professor”, and a mysterious Frenchman called “The Captain”.
The French Captain owns the boat, Paddy the Doctor keeps the business running at front of shop, including the necessary wood-chopping for the stove, and John the Professor, who runs a stall in Archway Market called Word on the Street, knows the book trade.
Rolling a cigarette with what he calls his “boater’s hands”, Paddy explains why he began the business: “What we wanted was to have art and music and culture emitting from this boat all the time. In the summer when we’ve got acoustic musicians on the roof, it’s just lovely, and it even works in the rain!”
He’s right. Even though we’re shivering on the towpath, the folksy riffs blasting from the sound system on the barge roof bring in lots of customers.
The book-buyers are an eclectic bunch, ranging from North London mummies in Angel filling hessian bags with Penguin Classics to wide-eyed tourists boldly straying from the Tube, excitable children teasing the boat’s two lethargic cats and cravat-wearing artists from Hackney Wick.
Paddy believes his business is drifting in to the mainstream, as it caters to an emerging spirit of the modern age, particularly among the young.
“We live in times where young people have Debussy moustaches, and listen to Sixties and Seventies music. They are interested in the past. I don’t remember there being a youth cult before where the past was so fascinating. There’s a hunger for authenticity ... Younger people are becoming interested in things that machines can’t do: talent.”
The book barge’s popularity is a side effect of Amazon coldly dictating books for us “to consider”, and the Kindle-dazzled masses losing touch with tangible novels.
His motto sums it up: “Quirky is the word”. The barge chooses and curates its own stock. “We’re not aiming at what people want, we’re trying to make people want what we give them, and business is going very well – we are exceeding our projections quite significantly. This is a bookshop where you are taken on a journey down the shelves and keep bumping into things that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”
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