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Local Favourites: Belfast Bookstores

Local Favourites: Belfast Bookstores

As I push open the door to a bookshop, the smell transports me back to my great Aunt’s house in Antrim. I’m leafing through pages, browned from years of use and neglect, wondering who had held them before me and where they had been. The scent of adventures, laughs, tears and lives lived are on my hands. Dusty corners and forgotten words. Entering a bookshop is like arriving at my place of worship, where sins can be forgiven and the body calms.

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In a society where there is so much uncertainty, exploring a bookshop can provide us with the solace that we are robbed of in the outside world. In here we can gain anonymity and lose ourselves in someone else’s story. When I read the first few pages of a book I wouldn’t have discovered while browsing Amazon, I disappear in the aisle I’m standing in. I can’t hear anything but the words of a stranger in my head as I lose myself in another book.

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Being relatively new to Belfast meant that I had to venture out and discover places to while away a rainy afternoon and I was delighted to discover that there were plenty of literary caves to disappear in the city. Researching for this post also introduced me to a few more places that weren’t on my radar before and I feel like I’ve been welcomed in to a new clan. Because it’s not just about the shop, the smells and the books. It’s also about the people who inhabit them, who strive to keep the place alive and encourage the literary passion to every newcomer.

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With the Belfast Book Festival approaching (7th – 17th June) I thought I might share a few of the bookshops and the community of bibliophiles I have joined since I moved here. And it is a community worth joining since this wee island has spawned the world’s greatest scholars, bards, poets and legends. I feel like I am in good company.

No Alibis

Located in Botanic Avenue, No Alibis is an established institution in Belfast, most renowned for their savage collection of crime fiction novels. Dave, the owner, is something of an institution himself as he supports and engages a whole community of literary lovers in the area. He hosts a wealth of events; book readings, poetry readings and caters to the future Heaney’s of Ireland through Saturday morning kids readings.

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You wouldn’t miss the front of No Alibis

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Some of their beautiful displays

On my last visit I found a signed copy of a collection of work by Paul Durcan as well as my favourite local magazine, Freckle. Noticing my purchases Dave casually informed me that a local favourite, Sinead Morrissey, was reading her poetry up in Queens that evening and that I should take myself along. I could barely contain my glee that I had met this man!

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Making trees happy

As I was about to leave Dave asked me what genre I was in to – a question that induces a cloud of panic to come down over me because I never quite know the best/right response. Watching my eyes glaze over, he handed me a first proof copy of an historical fantasy he thought I might enjoy. I asked if it was anything like ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ – a beast of a book which took me months to finish but adored completely. His eyes lit up and answered, “Spot on – it’s serendipity, you have to take it!!”. And what he meant was for free. No charge. For a first proof! I stumbled out of his shop with my books, in a lovely cotton bag which was also a freebie, giddy with excitement that I might have just joined a community I had been yearning to be a part of for quite some time.

Keats & Chapman

What struck me the most when I walked in to this joint on North Street was the depth of the place. Keats & Chapman looks quite pokey from the street but the shop carries on down a long and book-crammed corridor right to the most niche genres. You could easily spend a day in here if you had the time and the owner Bill is well aware of that since he has placed a few random chairs in quiet sections so no customer feels rushed.

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The shopfront of Keats & Chapman

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And on and on it goes

The second hand books here are very well priced (usually around £2) but with such a selection you will no doubt come out spending more than you had planned. My personal favourites were the amazing collection of old Irish wildlife guides, such an Instragrammers dream! Although be warned – there is no card machine so you will have to stick to traditional cash to pay for the armful of books you decide to take home.

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Books from floor to ceiling

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A favourite guide!

Belfast Books

John of Belfast Books is a man whose passion for literacy and community is contagious. Born and bred in North Belfast, he decided to open a bookshop on his home turf as a way to engage the local community and to bring some footfall to the streets he grew up in. North Belfast is an area of the city that has been neglected in the past but it’s locals like John that keep the spirit of the place alive and there is no better way to strike up a conversation than over a decent book.

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The shelves of Belfast Books

John runs his law firm from the top floor of the three storey building and the bottom two floors are dedicated to the housing the thousands of books they have constantly streaming in. The shop is a sight to behold and steps need to be taken carefully as to avoid the tower of classics as you come through the door. To a customer this would be seen as charming but John explained how desperate they are for volunteers to step in and help catalogue the high volume they are struggling to cope with.

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“Cheaper than that South American river”

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Peter, a loyal customer with a love for World War aircraft books, stops by the shop for a coffee and a chat

And there really is something for everyone in Belfast Books. The shop is mostly known for it’s huge collection of books on the Troubles (hello tourist trap) but there is pretty much everything you can think of; ancient history, ecology, classics, sci-fi and horror (the latter being hidden in the back of the first floor like a dirty secret) which you can all buy using your trusty Belfast Books loyalty card. If that wasn’t enough, John also helps host creative writing workshops, hosts a wicked Twitter account, provides book reviews and is working with the community to start a farmer’s market in a nearby warehouse. North Belfast won’t be short of footfall for much longer!

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The Bookfinders

The outside of this popular student hole in the wall may not look too appealing but inside lies a gem that is infamous among the students of Belfast. You’ll find the overgrown shopfront of Bookfinders just a stone’s throw from Queen’s University which boasts a surprising collection of second hand books as well as a wee café down the back.

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Worth the hoke if you have the time! 

The shop itself is a bit through-other but if you have the patience and time to have a hoke then you won’t come up disappointed. It’s worth all the energy spent for a slice of cake and a big mug of tea to enjoy your new purchase – and try and squeeze in amongst the students draining the place of their Wifi!

Waterstones

I know, Waterstones is a dirty chain and shouldn’t be included in list of esteemed independent bookshops but I can’t ignore how much of an impact this shop made on me. I still remember visiting the Dublin store as a child and being completely overwhelmed with how beautiful it was to see so many books in one shop – on multiple floors!

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The Belfast branch is just as lovely today and I like to go for a wander on an afternoon when I want a few hours to myself. I might not be quite as likely to pick up a bargain like in the other shops (or be able to stay for a half a day cross-legged on the floor) but I am still as inspired by the beauty of so many books as I was as an eight year old.

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Happy reading!

6 Tips on How To Read More

6 Tips on How To Read More

I am obsessed with buying books especially when I’m in a new city or country. I have collected books from lots of different places and had to ship a boxful home when I came back from Australia – not the cheapest way to hoard I’ll tell you.

Despite this, I’ve not read the half of them! There are books lining my shelves and drawers waiting to be devoured but I find it so difficult to dedicate time to finishing them. So I’ve given myself a goal: read a book every month for the next year. Now this would only get me through about half a shelf but at least I can have something to talk about when the next person looks at my collection and asks me what I’ve thought about ‘Sons and Daughters’ or ‘Catch 22’.

To help me with this goal I’ve started to think of all the different ways I can read every day and I’ve thought of 6 which are:

  1. Carry a book in your bag/car

This seems fairly obvious but there are so many times in the day when you could just whack out a book and read for a few minutes e.g. waiting in the doctors clinic, waiting on a mate in the pub, waiting on your partner while they go in and get the groceries (which would definitely go down well). Just lots of times when you’re waiting about generally.

  1. Read on your lunch break

Now this is something I’ve had great success with over the last few weeks. We only get a half hour for lunch – I know, absolutely shocking and it doesn’t fail to horrify me every day – so I really enjoy completely switching off in the little time I get. I usually eat with a few of my colleagues in the most depressing kitchen known to man. Freezing and generally filled with crap conversation. I’ve now become the office recluse and hole myself up in the cosy board room where there is lots of light and no men talking about the price of diesel in my ear. It’s my little slice of daily heaven.

  1. Encourage your partner to buy a new video game

This one was an accidental bonus when Andrew bought the new Uncharted game a few weeks ago. I used to feel guilty going up to the bedroom or just sitting in silence beside him on the couch but now I have all the time in the world to read! To be honest he’s currently got the headphones on next to me in a world of his own and I can just open a book and be in a world of my own. It’s the best kind of relationship. Would highly recommend.

  1. Read on your commute

I drive to work so this one doesn’t apply to me but lots of city folk use public transport every day and probably spent 99% of the time on Facebook or Instagram. Bring a book and instead of gagging at the person opposite you who has so obviously refused to pop the mountain that has taken claim to their face and bury your face in Jane Austen!

  1. Start a book club with your mate

I’m known to be pretty competitive. It’s a bit of a running joke with some of my friends, mainly those who have experienced my wrath when playing Articulate. So I thought it would be a really cool idea to combine my competitiveness with reading #nerdalert. My friend Caoimhe is always reading although her taste tends to lean towards stories about oppressed women in the Middle East. Maybe we can meet in the middle and read something by Roddy Doyle. Anyway I look forward to beating her ass (wait, what?) when we choose a book to compete read together.

  1. Go to bed a half hour early

This tip is something similar to commuting because I know we all love a good Pinterest/Instagram session before beddy bies. How about though, we don’t spend 20 or 30 minutes scrolling through the same old crap and actually switch off properly. I’m sure there are about a bajillion studies on how it it’s more beneficial for our brain and our sleep to read a good book before bed instead of pinning another 10 healthy smoothie recipes you will more than likely never read again. Put the phone away.

So that’s the it! I hope it might light a fire under someone’s ass out there to start reading again. I’m half way through ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou and I am fast understanding why she is the most quoted woman to have ever lived. The woman was wise. I might even post a wee review about it… Would you look at that I’m a book critic now as well!

G’luck

xx