Celebrating Independent Booksellers Week 2014: Our Unknown Unknowns

Posted on 2014/06/28 , tagged as mark forsyth

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Independent Booksellers Week 2014 starts today, which means Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted has been released into the world and is now available exclusively from independent bookshops. In this essay, Mark Forsyth explores why only a bookshop can give you that precious thing – what you never knew you were looking for – the unknown unknown, so we thought we would celebrate by sharing our own unknown unknowns discovered indie bookshops!

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Celebrating Independent Booksellers Week 2014: Our Unknown Unknowns

Leena (Publicity & Digital Sales Executive)
Moving to a new area is a little disconcerting, but I always find my gravity in knowing where the nearest good bookshop is. A quick Google search told me that the Muswell Hill Bookshop was right around the corner from my new haunt. I went in the next day to see if the contents of the tin matched the label and was greeted by a warm warren of shelves and cubbyholes stocked high with a beautifully curated collection of titles. Among them was Recipes for Sad Women by Hector Abad – a translated title with the driest of humours and language so elegant it easily wets the eye. Of course, with advice on how to boil tears and skewer a dinosaur, none of the recipes are actually real, but as Abad reminds us: ‘the cure s in the air the words exhale’. ​

Henry (Publicity Director)
I stumbled across Winter’s Bone on one of the back tables at John Sandoe when I first moved to London in, when was it, late 2007? Before it became a very good Jennifer Lawrence film anyway. I’d never heard of author Daniel Woodrell, but the bleakness of the cover appealed. I like bleak sometimes. Woodrell’s sparse, beautifully measured prose creates the perfect tone for the novel’s setting – the Ozark mountains of Missouri. The story of teenager Ree, struggling to keep her family together while trying to find the truth about her father’s disappearance in a harsh environment and even harsher community, remains one of my favourite books to this day. In short, thank goodness for out-of-the-way bookshop tables!

Kate (Commissioning Editor)
I bought True Grit on one of my many meanderings through Foyles at St Pancras. It was the nearest bookshop to my office, and I often went there for work research, present buying and just for the sheer joy of perusing its carefully curated shelves. On this occasion, I was killing time waiting for a train, and I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but I happened across this in the fiction section and – remembering the film and having a strange fascination with grim American Westerns and spiky female leads – decided to give it a go. I’m halfway through, and its combination of sparse description and fantastic characters is everything I’d hoped for – think The Road meets The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Celebrating Independent Booksellers Week 2014: Our Unknown Unknowns

Kiera (Series Editor)
I usually wander into Gosh! Comics in Soho with no idea of what I’m looking for. I’ll be in the area and will find myself, somehow, standing outside the shop, gazing at the rainbow of comics, graphic novels and illustrations that fill its windows. (Must be the tractor beam they keep in the basement.) My best accidental purchase was Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, originally by Madeleine L’Engle. It’s so beautiful and comforting, I find myself reading it again and again.

Andrew (Sales and Marketing Director)
I bought Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days on a whim last summer from Herne Hill Books in south London. The shop is probably the smallest I know, so they have to be very select with the stock that they carry. Like all of Puskin Press’ recent output the cover is beautiful, and the story – a fictionalised account of the last few weeks of the lives of German Jewish writer Stefan Zweig and his wife in Brazil in 1942, where they’d fled persecution in Europe – immediately appealed. I probably read more non-fiction than fiction though I love Zweig’s stories and so this book probably couldn’t be better calculated to appeal to me! I devoured it in a few hours beside the nearby Brockwell lido…

Michael (Sales Executive)
As is so often the case, a few years ago I found myself in King’s Cross Station needing to kill the time freed up by a cancelled train. My well-practiced drill in these circumstances is to hurry past the crowds cooing at J.K. Rowling’s half-constructed luggage carrier to take sanctuary in Watermark Books. After browsing the display tables I invariably end up in front of the sports shelves in the back. The book I took away on this particular day – Ian Hawkey’s The Feet of the Chameleon – is unlike any football book I had or have since read, unpicking the complex role football plays in African life. It’s a fascinating history of a continent which is too often ignored by the footballing world.

Celebrating Independent Booksellers Week 2014: Our Unknown Unknowns

Stacey (Marketing Executive)
I visited the lovely new Foyles Charing Cross Road bookshop on the day it opened and I was determined to buy a book I’d never heard of before, which tends to be a rare occurrence as nearly all my book purchases are based on recommendations or are books I’ve read about before. I bought A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz because I thought it had a beautiful cover! I’m looking forward to delving into the world of Maud and the Hawthorne sisters…

Peter (Chairman)
The last book I bought was Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis and I bought it in Watermark Books in King’s Cross Station. Flash Boys is excellent, appropriately moving very fast as it’s all about money trading, legal and illegal. I love Watermark Books because they’re always on the ball and helpful and I browse in there every time I’m waiting for a train.

Philip (Managing Director)
The last book I bought from an independent was at Galaxy in Sydney, Australia. I’ve popped in frequently over the years as they have a wonderful selection of old SF novels from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Lo and behold they had a favourite of mine, the original copy of which had long disappeared. Harry Harrison’s, Bill the Galactic Hero, it might not have won any prizes for literature but I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it after so many years from my economy A380 Singapore Airlines seat en route back to Blighty.

Visit iconbooks.com/events for details about Mark Forsyth’s Independent Booksellers Week author tour and read more about The Unknown Unknown here. Find out how to win a special leatherbound edition of The Elements of Eloquence plus National Book Tokens at iconbooks.com/theunknown. Follow Mark Forsyth on Twitter @inkyfool.