I’d heard great things about The Book Barge, a floating independent bookshop nestling aboard a converted narrowboat and chugging about the country, but had never spotted it in real life, so was pleased to receive a copy of its owner’s memoir, The Bookshop that Floated Away, for Christmas from my sister.
A Bookseller All At Sea
All the best independent bookshops have proprietors that are mavericks, and Sarah Henshaw certainly falls into that category. Although knowing the theory of what successful bookselling requires, e.g. accounting and people skills, she disregards it, preferring her own romantic vision.
At times she even seems to go out of her way to avoid common sense, e.g. removing the boat’s cassette toilet before she sets out on her round-Britain tour, adding an unnecessary challenge to the already tricky task ahead of her.
She also doesn’t set much store by the rules of the waterways, whether speed restrictions, health and safety precautions, or licensing requirements. As someone who has done a fair amount of sailing, I was perplexed and horrified by some of the risks she took.
Saved by the Kindness of Strangers
Fortunately the kindness of others often rescues her from the crises she wades into, from her ever-indulgent parents who have funded her venture, to her long-suffering ex-boyfriend Stu (possibly no longer ex, as the book is dedicated to him), as well as strangers who respond to her cries for help on Twitter.
She is also willing to swap books for services, such as food, drink and haircuts, instead of selling them conventionally for money. Very New Age and anti-capitalist, but not always successful, e.g. when the volunteer hairdresser whose offer she accepts turns out not to be a hairdresser at all. Yikes!
Home Safe – Phew!
All things considered, she does well to complete her six month tour of the British canal system with her boat and her sanity just about intact, even though her finances are in shreds – literally, because she invests in a shredder to dispense with her huge pile of final demand letters. Only being Sarah Henshaw, her choice of shredder is a live rabbit. Of course.
Ambivalence to Amazon
Throughout the book, she espouses the cause of keeping bookshops open, in the face of competition and erosion via Amazon and the ereader, which she sees dual architects of their destruction. However, at the same time, she’s presenting herself as something of a kamikaze bookseller, to the point where she even becomes desperate enough to consider asking Amazon to sponsor the Book Barge, as a kind of penance for the success of their online business.
Black Beauty Allusion
I would have been completely thrown by Part II of the book, had I not read a review that explained it is a tribute to Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. In it, the barge writes its own memoirs, in the style of that eponymous horse. It appeared somewhat at random in the narrative, but by that stage, I’d acclimatised to the author’s habit of straying of at tangents. It must be said that there is a lot more in the book about herself than about bookselling or books, and in some respects it reads like a journey not so much to sell books but to “find herself” – more On the Canal than On the Road, Jack Kerouac style.
While I love the notion of the Book Barge, it was clear that it was never going to become commercially viable or a long-term prospect in the form it takes in the book, so I was much relieved to discover via its website that it’s now morphed into a more sustainable business model, by diversifying (in league with Stu) into a supplier of small libraries and accessories for the bibliophile, and opens just one day a week, on Saturdays. I believe Sarah Henshaw also now works as a journalist for a canal magazine, for which she’d be very well suited, to bring in an additional income stream. Very sensible – and an indication that those six months adrift matured her thinking and her grasp of reality.
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