Friday, 22 February 2013

The Bookshops of Bath - A Dedication Part Three

Topping & Company Booksellers

The Paragon, Bath

Topping & Company Booksellers are probably best known for their fantastic author events: the majority of this Dedication will turn into an excuse to write up my experiences from two of these events.

Here is a shiny shop. It smells great, too. Books from floor to ceiling, books smothering every surface. Here is a bookshop that transports customers to another realm entirely. Here is a bookshop where every book is different from the one next to it. Topping & Company Booksellers feels like Mr B’s younger and cooler cousin.


When you first walk in you are asked if would like refreshment. The staff will serve you tea and coffee as you browse, with a side helping of great book advice. The shop is friendly and fresh, providing a fantastic service for any book lover. It’s a shop that makes you feel very intelligent, and harks back to the good old traditional days of bookselling.

But perhaps the most impressive asset of Topping & Co is their friends and acquaintances. Stephan Fry, Richard Dawkin and countless other authors have graced their doors, people who write to appeal to a wide audience. I have been to two author events hosted by Topping & Co. They are proper literary affairs, serving wine in a good sized and often historical venue around Bath, offering like-minded conversation and fantastic question and answer sessions.


My first ‘Toppings’ author event was held in St Swithin’s Church, where abolitionist William Wilberforce got married in 1797. I was on my own and was enjoying a glass of non-alcoholic elderflower cordial. I’d nabbed a seat in the front row and noted the demographics of the gathering audience: there were children, lots of children, gathered across the aisle at the front with their parents, and toward the back Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts gathered with the kind of people who go to every single literary event they can in the city. The book: The House of Silk. The author: Anthony Horowitz.

So this explains the contingent of children gathered excitedly, also partaking in non-alcoholic beverages. Is explains my presence here, as well: Anthony Horowitz is the author of the fantastic Alex Rider series. I’ve read these books since they came out and was entranced by their on-the-edge-of-your-seat action. They take me immediately into a brilliant world and when I read them I get a distinct I’m-reading-Alex-Rider feeling. I have recently delved into the fantastic world of Fleming and I owe my love for Bond starting from teenage secret agent, Alex Rider.

It’s always exciting to see favourite childhood authors and Anthony Horowitz had earned more respect from me: he was working with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to write the next TinTin script. Not to mention he wrote various episodes of Foyles War and Midsummer Murders.

The fact that Anthony Horowitz is able to sell in different genres – that he is so successful – made seeing him all the more special. It seemed that everybody there knew about Sherlock Holmes. The closest I’d got was through the fantastic BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch (which has a Horowitz seal of approval) and the Hollywood blockbuster. Horowitz quite rightly condemns the films as ‘Indiana Holmes – entertaining in their own way but nothing to do with Doyle’s Holmes.’

I gathered that The House of Silk was methodically researched and that Horowitz really had a strong idea of the feel of this Doyle-estate officially commissioned novel. He told us that he had tried to emulate Doyle’s style by writing with a 19th century tone whilst engaging a 21st century audience. He says he has retained humour and was determined not to go the way of Sebastian Faulks whose officially-commissioned Bond novel apparently doesn’t feel like Bond - they do not emulate Fleming.

Horowitz admitted that he won’t write another Holmes because he felt he couldn’t do it better.

It was a brilliant evening, hosted superbly by Toppings. Horowitz was inspiring and interesting, and the bookshop allowed for this.

In the audience Q & A session, I asked him what it was like working with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielburg, who are, in my opinion two of the greatest film makers.

Well, I haven’t been fired yet.’

It is praise indeed to Topping & Co for filling out such a venue – every seat was taken, and demographics covered a whole spectrum of human beings. A really fantastic evening – I cunningly avoided the rush of the queue to sign books by buying The House of Silk pre-signed from Topping & Co. (Fun fact, most days it opens until 8pm. This also makes it great.) 

Okay, I’ve yet to read the book, but when I do I think I’ll be thrilled.

‘I love the scratching of the nib, I love the splattering of blue ink...We are all connected by’s the blood that links us altogether.’


I attended my second Topping & Co author event, this time at the larger St Michael’s Church. Of course it was going to be popular, and the boyfriend and I were shoved with our non-alcoholic beverages somewhere near the back behind a pillar. At least we had managed to get seats.

We saw the illustrious figure of George R R Martin – who was supporting and Tolkien-esque Dwarvish beard – compressed under a captain’s cap. He wore braces – or, suspenders – and that itself earned a thumbs up from me. I couldn’t help but think he looked like a garden Gnome.

The entire audience was in awe of this great man who had spawned what is arguably the best television series ever.

It was entirely strange to hear him speak with a gravely, deep and very American accent. Especially strange when he read a relatively spoiler-free passage from one of his books.

He inevitably talked of Tolkien and the television series – which he proclaimed as a ‘faithful adaption’ but rather humorously thought he fans were a little strange, mocking, ‘Sirio has hair?! How dare you!’.

Every single chair was occupied and there wasn’t enough room for everybody. This time I gathered my wits to get my book signed. I was determined not to become a mess of a fan girl, as what happened when I approached Garth Nix at a Waterstones event. I needn’t have worried. Martin was talking to somebody – from Topping & Co? - and barely offered me a glance when he scribbled in my book. I shouted over my shoulder, ‘Nice braces!’ as I walked away.

Perhaps the Martin event was much more popular but Horowitz more interesting: I took six and a half pages of notes for Horowitz compared to a dismal two for Martin, the majority of which is taken up by a pants drawing of a wyvern.

The very fact that Topping & Co got such a popular author is tantamount to their own popularity and professionalism. At both events the venues were packed out, the interviewers efficient and interesting, and the merchandise stall at the back basically empty of books by the end. I really so miss Topping & Co and their delicious recipes for intense author-filled delights, as well as generous helpings of passion and drive.


Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Bookshops of Bath - A Dedication Part Two

Bath Old Books
9c Margarets Bldgs, Bath


Located up a quaint and often  unnoticed little
 street between the Circus and the Crescent.
 A number of quirky and interesting shops
 lay there, including a 
 antique shop and other shops and 
galleries that come and go almost monthly.
 There is one old shop that seems to stick,
 guarding the end of the street on the corner,
 spilling out its contents on a dry day on 
bowing, portable shelves, tempting a buyer in.

Bath Old Books has somehow survived the
 recent bookshop cull of modern society – 
a fact I lament in Obituary – and 
remains a testament to how bookshops must
 have existed back in Bath’s heyday. The shop
 is small and crowded with books from floor
 to ceiling. The first room proffers arts and crafts 
and other rare volumes: here I found an
 Andrew Lang (which, surprisingly, I didn’t buy)
 and here a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland.

Tunnel down twisting stairs and you’ll unearth more books, glowing gems of them all standing upright in higgledy-piggledy splendour. There are Victorian books and bindings that almost tempt you to buy if for their look alone.

Almost every subject in the basement is covered, and if you are a resident of Bath you will come to realise most of it is buried underground. Everything is interesting and everything is extremely tempting.

It is rather ‘specialised’ book shop in the way that you would not find any popular and much printed material on its shelves but rather good hand selected book-by-book for their worth and potential interest. Paperbacks are rare in this shop and it is altogether likely you will find a treasure.

This strain of bookshop is not a bad one. It harks back to an age when bibliomania was rife and the eagerness to collect those special kinds of books dominated the market. Bath Old Books are astute advisers and extremely knowledgeable about their stock. One gentleman even offered to source me out a specific book from other dealers. The bookshop is perhaps the last place in Bath where you can truly hunt out your book hunting passions, giving a hint of the dangerous but fascinating world of the book collector.