Good books change people. Belgravia Books is an independent book shop with lots of advantages over shopping online.
Words by Alex Briand.
Ebury Street is the kind of place that Belgravia as a neighbourhood does so well: a sleepy side-street, friendly and unassuming.
Yet it is also right in the thick of things – accessible to office workers, school-runners, tourists and locals alike.
In other words, it’s the perfect place for an independent bookshop.
I visit Belgravia Books on a breezy Saturday morning.
It’s airy and healthily stocked, and as with all good bookshops there’s a sense that you could cast your eye anywhere and find your new favourite writer, or be introduced to a new perspective.
That savvy curation is down to Andy Barr, the shop’s manager.
It was opened in 2011 as an offshoot of the publisher, Gallic Books, which has been running since 2007 and today operates out of the shop itself.
The publisher was started exclusively to bring new translations of French novels to an English-language readership.
Now, it has widened to also bring books originally published in Australia or New Zealand to a UK readership.
The bookshop, of course, stocks all of the publisher’s books . It’s bestseller is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, which sold over a million copies in its native France.
But otherwise it has no specific allegiances in terms of what it stocks: “Just cracking stories,” says Andy.
One of his jobs as bookseller, as he sees it, is to bring the right book to the right person.
“We do a lot of recommending,” he says.
“It’s ascertained, and it varies from customer to customer. Some people will say, ‘I don’t care; I just want a great book,’ but most people will have something in mind, or at least certain tastes.”
The shop has established itself in the community with a growing legion of loyal customers, which only improves the recommendations.
“Over the last eight years, we’ve established relationships. It’s a sense of belonging, and watching the business grow thanks to word of mouth.
“It’s having customers come in, and them not needing to speak. Because I can say, ‘Right, I’ve got this for you,'” he says.
Advantages over online
Does he take the opportunity to push his favourite books?
“Only if I think they’ll like them. And what I will never say is, ‘You should read this.’ There’s no book that I think is that important. There are so many different ways of reading.
“To say, ‘this is important’, is to actually say that the rest aren’t. That doesn’t sit well. It is always case by case.”
Because of this, the shop’s advantages over an online superstore are obvious. With hundreds of books published every week, places like Belgravia Books offer that all-important guide.
And Andy is optimistic: “As an independent bookshop, you have to offer something different.
“There is no point trying to compete with online retailers and supermarkets, so you need to be showing people different books alongside the books they come in to expect.
“I buy things that my local customers will like, or won’t have seen before. Or, something that deserves attention.”
Good books change people
He added: “Lots of people do make a conscious effort to buy from independent bookshops. If you lose these shops you lose more than just convenience.”
He means community, insight and the human touch. Andy talks about books with the genuine sense that the right book can change a person – and it’s hard to argue.
So if you’re ever stuck for what to read next – history, fiction, non-fiction, or an explosive novel from halfway across the world – come and pay the shop a visit. It could just change the way you think.