“We do not sell to people who talk too loudly.”
Sick from the overdose of narcissism on social media, this is my love-at-first-read moment.
An extremely exhausting long-distance flight is saved, just in time, by triple chocolate dessert and the discovery of a lady in a boat. Not just any boat, one from which she sells books. The tale of how Sarah Henshaw turned into boat-bookseller-lady is the kind that makes one want to jump off that desk in the corner office and dash to the canal side. Sadly, not all of our adventures will prove this lucky, or full of gumption and enterprise.
A lithe, young woman sitting cosy on a stool surrounded by books, stares back at me from the in-flight magazine article on her company, ‘The Book Barge’. The last word makes me take a closer look at the photograph. The low ceiling, slim space and functional stairs, yep, definitely a boat; in fact, a ’60 ft cruiser stern narrowboat’, as the website informs.
Books and boats make a penny-ringing, belly-tickling combination. I am thinking of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Sarah, it seems, had epiphanic visions of Ratty Arms from The Wind in the Willows.
She has been in business since June 2009, swapping printed pages for haircuts, among such other cute dealings and has written about it in The Bookshop that Floated Away. If the sparing lines on the site and her blog, which she insists on calling ‘log’, are any indication of the author’s wit and imagination, this book tops my summer reading list. I’m already searching for the nearest marina.
Sarah took a travelling break of six months from her job as an “entertainment journalist” in London, a sabbatical which decided for her that she was never going back to the grind again. This I can definitely relate to; all HR departments would put a vacation embargo on employees if they knew what dangerous, run-away ideas travel wroughts. I suspect Sarah herself wasn’t aware that the ‘real’ entertainment was about to begin.
She was strolling around the marina, lovely preoccupation in the jobless spare time she had, when the book-boat idea first appeared. Now, if this isn’t the kind of inspiration I need to resume my evening walks – many a great ship has launched from the waterside, maybe my tug boat will, too? Where is that marina, now?!
When was the last time any of us has sent those gritty number crunchers in stuffy suits – bankers, in case you haven’t guessed – a ‘business proposal’ compiled in the form of a book, complete with title page and quirky chapter headings? Sarah had done just that. The financiers were less than impressed, however, and wouldn’t back her venture. Alas, how many charming ones get an early dunking because of similar poverty of imagination in the world? But Sarah’s boat was meant to float and she even managed to surprise herself with The Book Barge’s initial turnover.
Then the economic slump, e-books and competition from online book sellers began to play rookie with her rudder. This is the point she began to consider bartering her stock for quirky non-monetary deals, traveling through the canals of the country. Six months, 1,079 miles, 707 locks and a load of funny insights that I look forward to reading all about in The Bookshop that Floated Away.
Till that book gets delivered, ruefully through the same online retail channel that nearly did her in, maybe I’ll sit down with a cup of tea and re-read, in Sarah Henshaw’s own words, the author-cum-independent bookseller’s misery of economic survival and her ingenious measures.
I remember ranting about the corporatisation of the book trade a while ago, but if the answer to being done in is such gutsy, fine prose, perhaps all is not lost.
[Did I mention the resident book barge connoisseur, Napoleon Bunnyparte, who savours a good read the only way a rabbit should, with his teeth? To read how he averted Waterloo and other such sparing “Words from the Water,” turn to the website of The Book Barge.]
Photo: Sarah Henshaw on The Book Barge by Burton Mail