You may or may not have seen it, but earlier this week I found the place at Word on the Water, the London bookbarge. Needless to say, the name alone had my wordplay side gripped from the moment I saw it. After I left, I could not stop thinking about how it had come about, and got on the Facebook to ask for a word with them to fulfil my craving.
Thankfully Jon, the owner, agreed to talk with me when I went back to visit later in the week. The afternoon was warm and sunny when I went back to meet Jon, and being the amateur I am I had prepared a pen and paper set of questions. Almost immediately I regretted this decision as Jon had so much to say I tidied them away pretty quickly. Let’s skip the rest of the rigmarole I keep typing and erasing and get down to what we actually spoke about…
So, I suppose my first question would have to be when did you start up the bookbarge, and how did you come up with the idea?
Jon: Well in 2011, we started up here because…well I had a bookstall, I still do, it runs on Saturdays at Archway, word on the Street that is. But anyway, so my mate he lost his job and came to work on the bookstall. And we were living down the canal at the time and one morning he said to me “Wouldn’t it be good if we could just stay at the canal and didn’t have to go to work?”. And so that’s what happened.
Wow, that’s literally the dream, wouldn’t it be good to have work come to you. So, does the barge have to move along the canal, I imagine barges aren’t often stationary?
Jon: At first it did yeah, it was hard to get the mooring here in Granary Square, so we had to move around. It took a lot of work, and a lot of money, with the Camden Council to sort it out. So when the council began the… updating of the area it was after a huge campaign and fight on social media and in the papers that we did get the mooring here.
Suddenly there were a flock of customers looking to buy their books and get on the tube just before rush hour, so Jon switched from his casual, friendly self to a casual, friendly seller. Although the transition was subtle he was ready for questions and anything else a customer might ask. In fact, the questions he fielded when someone asked about the pricing differences between two copies showed that he knew his stock incredibly well.
Jon: Sorry about that, bit of a flurry there.
Not to worry, it’s nice to see there is still this huge demand for physical books. Have you notice the change in the industry that came with e-books and kindles?
Jon: Well the thing is e-books are like e-cigarettes aren’t they? I mean it’s great to have on the train but you’re gonna want a real one when you get home anyway. And I think, that’s not a bad thing either. The industry is different now. It used to be clogged up. The lazy booksellers are gone, there’s no profit in shelves of crap anymore, it’s all online. With your amazon and what else, it’s cut out the deadwood.
That’s an interesting take on it, I must admit I’m surprised at that. So what is it that’s left then?
Jon: Well look at my shelves, you won’t find a lot of romance or thrillers really, I do have some, have to keep yourself open to all the marketplace, but not many. Y’see if you’ve got the skills to curate a bookshop you could be doing something that pays better money so you’re doing it for yourself essentially.
So what is on the shelves?
Jon: Well outside you’ve got your second hand books, which I get from donations of sometimes I source them in charity shops. There’s a whole mix of them there. (There truly is a wide catchment of books and genres outside). Then inside is your new books and some hardbacks of classics and other hardbacks. I usually source them from publishers I trust, or failing that I take a look in Waterstones windows see what people are reading. Then log onto Goodreads and it has all I need to know about how good people think it is and how many people are reading it.
The hardbacks of classics are quite big actually, do you find you sell a lot of those these days?
Jon: Well, the way I look at it is if it doesn’t sell today, it’ll sell tomorrow. You know what I mean. Like as I was saying many bookshops closed because they wanted the quick sell but that just not how it is now.
Here more customers eager to purchase some great finds from the second hand books approached. The jazz music from the two musicians on deck swelled to take Jon’s place and keep me company until he returned.
Wow, well this has been amazing to talk to you, just one quick question before we wrap up, how often is the jazz live here?
Jon: It’s usually spontaneous, so I don’t want them to play, only when they want to play I let them play. There’s about 8 to 12 of them… the musicians.. who come and just play.
Tearing myself away from the jazz was no easier the second time than it was the first, but we left our discussion there. I must admit this is the first interview I’ve ever conducted for public consumption so as I walked away from the barge I had a fizzy feeling of excitement. I cannot thank Jon enough for his patience with my awkward questioning, most of which was edited out thanks to the fact that I had to write this up and could leave the bizarre questions out.
Word on the Water is open every day 12-7 in York Way, Granary Square N1 C London