At the weekend I gave a talk at the sixth annual Boring Conference. “Boring” as those in the know call it, is an all day fiesta of mediocrity, an event packed with tedium where subjects which initially seem hilariously tiresome reveal themselves to be fascinating. I’m a big fan.
My talk was on Paper Bags from Independent Bookshops. Paper bags of all types are a subject I have long held a passion for, but I thought, just to keep the talk short, I’d narrow the scope to those from Independent Bookshops.
I read a poem as part of the talk which I cannot post here as the poem is under consideration for a poetry magazine and publishing on blogs would discount it from consideration. I can assure you, the poem was really good.
Here’s the talk:
I’m Edward Long and I’m a poet. Being a poet is a wonderful label to be able to give yourself. It’s a cover-all excuse for all of my curious behaviour. And it’s something I definitely take liberties with.
I always wear odd socks, I talk to myself in German, and I live in a constant state of wistful nostalgia for the past in general and my own past specifically. My talk is going to demonstrate this last one very clearly.
I’m here to talk about Paper Bags from Independent Bookshops. I spent a lot of time in independent and secondhand bookshops because big chain bookshops don’t stock the poetry books I want and I like to be surprised when I go into a bookshop, I want to discover something unexpected. I’m going to go through three paper bags and take you through where I got them from.
Whenever I buy books from independent bookshops, I tend to leave them in their paper bags on my desk for a few days afterwards. Almost to keep them as a little present to myself, like bonbons from a sweetshop. As you now know from my poem the paper bags join my other sentimental papers like plane tickets, postcards and museum maps.
Here are three paper bags from my collection:
I went into Skoob Books on my lunch break due to feeling a bit stressed. I wandered around finding that the poetry nook was full of THREE MEN! I could barely see the anthologies let alone get to the collections. I was shocked, This never happens! Because I couldn’t browse the poetry section I went to the penguin section and bought myself a gorgeous penguin book of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. The bag is very modern with the website on it as well as the phone number. It seems unusually narrow but it has folded side gussets which provide a bit more space. You’d be okay with any other Virginia Woolf paperbacks for this bag, but something over 300 pages might be a bit of a stretch so definitely no James Joyce. The person who served me folded the top over, creating and very pleasing sealed book parcel.
Stoke Newington Bookshop
So I went to Stoke Newington Bookshop on a weekend when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I dragged my boyfriend along to Stoke Newington so we could have lunch and have a wander around Abney Park Cemetery, one of my top five favourite cemeteries of all time. Obviously we had to go to the bookshop. So here I bought three of those black penguin books and a collection of poetry by Alice Oswald called Woods, Etc. FUN FACT I already had a copy of Woods, Etc in my bag but it was a hardback from the Poetry Library and I loved it so much I decided I needed my own copy. I’d say this bag was very spacious. It felt almost like a bag you’d get from a bakery with a seedy loaf in it. I especially love the way they decided to smush Stoke Newington together into a sort of incomprehensible keyboard smash. I love the drawing of the outside of the shop. And I love that it’s a white bag with blue print as usually you get a brown one. It makes it seem even more retro than it is. You could fit a hardback Hilary Mantel novel in here. It’s by far the biggest bookshop bag I’ve ever seen.
Gay’s the Word
Gay’s the Word is an amazing bookshop in Bloomsbury which focusses on books for the LGBTQ community. Lots of politics and identity theory, lots of art books, magazines, and hands down the best second hand gay and lesbian erotic novel section I’ve ever seen. I cannot recommend them highly enough. I work close by and go there on my lunch breaks just to really fulfil my destiny as a bookish gay nerd. They do not have branded paper bags there. They do offer plain brown bags. To protect anonymity I’ve used a stunt paper bag from a Swedish bakery. The absence of a branded paper bag says a lot about the power of a branded paper bag. Gay’s the Word is a specialist bookshop for a community whose members may not always wish to be advertise that they have been there. Instead of a branded bag they will slip a discrete bookmark into your book. I have several of these knocking about and, as you can see, they’re a bit fabulous. I bought Andrew McMillan’s poetry collection, Physical, which is filthy.
Of course there’s something incredible about paper. It feels right to hold paper in our hands. It feels right to open a book, turn the page and feel it between our fingers. The paper bags are a part of that too. They cover the books in this crinkly skin that makes the books special. The bags are souvenirs, little testaments to your visit to them. For me going to bookshops is so personal and so important that every aspect of it has become ritual.
I love that the designs and the sizes of the paper bags vary. It makes me sad when I see that bookshops only offer plastic bags. It’s just not the same, Waterstones! There’s something so gorgeously tactile about the paper bags and their printed designs, each completely unique to the shop, probably designed by the owners decades ago and left unchanged.
I can encourage you all to visit your local independent bookshop as I can guarantee they’ll have books there you won’t expect to see and when you buy something make sure you get a paper bag and keep the books in there for a bit, like bonbons from a sweetshop, keep them as a little present for yourself.