The two men who run London’s only floating bookstore, Word on the Water, are living proof that there really is something you can do in life with an English lit degree, other than teach English literature.
The store — a 50-foot-long canalboat stuffed to its bulkheads and overflowing onto the towpath with books — has a permanent berth on the Regent’s Canal, around the corner from the British Library. This comes after years of its owners staying one step ahead of eviction from the canals, by relocating fortnightly.
It is doing so well that Paddy Screech, 51, an Oxford-educated Cornishman with a close-trimmed beard and a soft-spoken manner, and Jonathan Privett, 52, a gaptoothed Yorkshireman who has trouble staying still for long (except with a book), finally took their dream vacations this year.
Mr. Screech, who describes himself as “Buddhish,” meaning sort of Buddhist, went to Laos. Mr. Privett, once nicknamed the “Sidewalk Professor,” went to Paris and New York, in part to check out the street bookstall scene.
The store’s prosperity probably has been helped by a book business that has been doing remarkably well in Britain. Sales of physical books increased 8 percent last year, while e-books continued a significant decline. By comparison, book sales in America have remained flat for years now.
“Books have been considered on the verge of obsolete and so have canals,” Mr. Screech said. “But these are things people always liked. The canals survived because of that, and so will books and bookstores.”
The men got the idea for the store from a book, of course — “Children of Ol’ Man River,” in which Billy Bryant recounts how his British immigrant family arrived on the Mississippi River, homeless, living on a floating board, which they built into a theater, and then into the showboat craze of the late 1800s.
When they met, Mr. Privett was living on a canalboat, part of a subculture of boat dwellers who berth on London’s canals for free — as long as they keep moving periodically.
Mr. Screech had been working with homeless people and drug addicts, while caring for an alcoholic mother at home. “Overnight, she stopped drinking and turned into a little old lady who only drank tea,” he said.
He realized then, he said, that he was done with social work. He went for a walk, stumbled on a canal and met Mr. Privett. The two then cooked up the idea of the store.
Mr. Privett had the book-business experience. Before settling on his canalboat, he had at times been a homeless squatter who supported himself selling used books from street stalls.
A French friend, Stephane Chaudat, provided a boat big enough to be a store, a 1920s-era Dutch barge; he remains their partner.
Mr. Privett had a stock of used books. Mr. Screech borrowed 2,000 pounds from his then-sober mother as capital, and their business was born in early 2010.
A few weeks earlier, on Christmas Eve 2009, Borders had closed all of its British stores, and the future of bookstores looked grim everywhere. “I said to Jon, ‘Aren’t we enthusiastically entering a dying medium?’ ” Mr. Screech said. “He said, ‘Well, if all the bookstores close, we’ll still be here.’ ”
Things went downstream fast. Forced by the berthing laws to move every fortnight, they often found themselves on parts of the nine-mile-long Regent’s Canal with industrial buildings and no customers.
“In the summer, we would make enough to keep going for brief periods, but in the winter it was like a Samuel Beckett play, all blue faces and long coats, barely enough money to get by, borrow from friends, cut down on food,” Mr. Screech said. “For years, it just felt like it was going to sink.”
Then it did. A friend used the sea toilet on the book barge and left an inlet open, and the boat sank to the bottom; even their prized copy of “Ol’ Man River” was lost. Shortly later, the boat Mr. Privett lived on sunk as well, and he lost all of his family photographs.
“The two of us were just sitting there on the towpath, crying,” Mr. Screech said.
Finally, out of money and short on hope, they reverted to the playbook from Mr. Privett’s past, and decided to squat — tying up on the canal at Paddington, near a busy rail station in a neighborhood being redeveloped rapidly.
“We just parked stubbornly outside the tube station, we squatted there and thought we’d see what happened, and for the next six months ostentatiously stayed there,” Mr. Screech said.
To their surprise, they discovered they had what Mr. Screech called “an invisible community of people silently watching us,” patrons who had found them over the years, including some prominent authors and others with big social media presences.
As the canal trust peppered them with legal notices, fines and threats to have the boat barge lifted out of the water and broken up, their supporters got busy, too. One rallying cry of a Twitter post, from the science-fiction author Cory Doctorow, was retweeted a million times, Mr. Screech said.
The canal trust responded defensively. “We are absolutely not trying to shut down the book barge, Word on the Water, and there is nothing stopping it from continuing to benefit from its roving trade license, which allows it to pop up at different locations.”
Eventually the authorities gave in and agreed to give them a permanent berth, at the current location, just as it was being redeveloped into a mixed-use area with trendy shops and restaurants and plenty of foot traffic, known as Granary Square. A crowdfunding campaign raised the money to make the move.
Now they run an easygoing operation, often not even monitoring customers who climb aboard the barge, but remaining in their folding lawn chairs out on the towpath. “You can’t buy heroin with books,” Mr. Screech said.
“Our problem is reverse shoplifting,” Mr. Privett said. People are constantly sneaking books onto their shelves, without asking for payment, he said. “Sometimes we find one we know for sure wasn’t there before, and it’s been signed by the author.”
Their roof has an open mike for any musician or busker, and poetry slams and readings there can sometimes attract hundreds. Success hasn’t much changed the classic canalboat shabbiness, with assorted junk on roof and gunwales, and odds and ends of potted plants and bags of smokeless coal (for the cozy stove below decks).
Mr. Screech and Mr. Privett have a collection curated to appeal to the many tourists who pass by, but also to a hard-core of radical and leftist readers; Noam Chomsky and Jack London are big sellers.
“Basically my formula is half are the best books that I’ve read, and the other half are ones I want to read,” Mr. Privett said.
For a while they were selling “I Love Dick”, the feminist memoir-novel by Chris Kraus — before it became a television hit with Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn — from the outside book racks. “People kept stopping to take selfies with that book,” Mr. Privett said. “Well, what do you expect, with a title like that?”
Many people have suggested that the men sell trinkets and cards, or especially coffee and drinks, but they’ve resisted such commercialization.
“I didn’t study English literature for three years to serve coffee,” Mr. Privett said. Mostly, he said, they are in it for the “lifestyle perks” — for example, “an unlimited supply of books,” which in turn leads to limitless book conversations.
“Do you know how much I’d have to earn to have this many books?” he said.
This year there was finally enough income for other perks. Mr. Privett was able to take his daughter Megan, who is 15, on a trip to New York with him (she lives with her mother; her parents never wed and no longer live together). “For years I had been promising her a trip to New York and finally I was able to do it,” he said. “I was able to be a role model for her, and show her if you follow your dream and work hard, you can do it.”
Word on the Water is not taking any chances with success. There’s a bookcase blocking the door to the sea toilet now. Instead, staff and customers use the loos at an upscale pub nearby. Nobody seems to mind.
Source: The New York Times