Friday, 18 September 2009

The Shops


I love shopping and not just for books. Bookshops, cookshops, or department stores, I love to be laden down with colourful bags. I am a big shopper especially in the lead-up to Christmas when I take great pleasure in seeking out the perfect gifts for loved ones. I also enjoy online shopping, which is a wonderful invention. The Shops by India Knight is a fun, useful guide to shopping with recommendations interspersed with irreverent wit and anecdotes.

As well as physical shops Knight covers mail and web order capable shops (including Persephone Books). For the most part, this book is of particularly good reference to those living in the UK, especially those in London, but whilst reading it I thought of my Anglo-adoring friends across the pond who would find some of the recommended shops as providing them a home away from their imaginary home.

Knight celebrates shopping and her love of it but is inclusive of those who don't share her passion as there are people out there who don't like shopping, you know. However, everyone has to shop in some capacity -whether it be simply for food- and this a great resource for making it easier. The Shops covers beauty shopping (including hair, make-up, and where to receive that best facial or brow-shape) to what to look for in a wedding dress -a personal choice when it comes to the shop- to organic butchers; it is a comprehensive guide to all types of shopping.

Although I love shopping and noted down some recommended shops and sites to visit and ideas for gifts and pucrhases, what I enjoyed most about this book was its conversational tone and its allusions to literature. To a certain extent this book was also a book about books as well as shops. In her introduction Knight recalls that her grandfather "taught me how to stand in bookshops, appreciatively sniffing the air before diving in - this was in the days when bookshops were small and didn't smell of Starbucks." Reading this line I knew that India Knight was a kindred spirit and there followed several literary references that spoke to me more than any to Imelda de Marcos would have done. I found allusions such as "rather in the manner of a Barbara Pym heroine finally finding love with a curate" and "don't forget Penhaligon's Bluebell-though no one who's read I Capture the Castle ever could" endearing but can see it as potentially distancing to a non literary shopper (and they exist too). However, for anyone picking up this book who may not be a big reader, they are opened up to a selection of great books with a whole "box" (a section of recommendations, on this occasion two pages) devoted to "bed books" those books "particularly blissful to read in bed, as in comfort books - not as in the best books ever written". The list includes some Persephones, Virago Modern Classics, classics, beloved Children's novels. and some bodice rippers. I Capture the Castle is described as "[v]ery probably number one comfort-read of all time-and, if not dipped into since adolescence, much darker than you remember it."

These heartwarming sections were the highlight of this reading experience, one that only took a couple of hours. The Shops combines high culture -an allusion to Mrs Dalloway in a section on the joyful and therapeutic buying of flowers- with low culture -uncomfortable reference to Knight's father and stepmother's orgies and one surprising illustration of vibrators in the sex shop section- that isn't entirely balanced. Knight certainly plays to a readership of potentially every type of shopper and hence person, which is certainly the wisest course in regards to sales, but overall I would have preferred one cohesive approach; saying that, Knight obviously loves shopping and had intensely researched every shopping section so the mixing of cultural idioms is likely a representation of her likes and expectations of an all-encompassing guide.

Some of the tips given in this book I have noted down and will be sharing. Recently my aunt and uncle -who are expecting their first child- visited the baby department in the store John Lewis and completely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of products and variety (vests/babygrows/onesies some with poppers on the sleeves, some without, some with long sleeves and some with short or none at all, completely flummoxed them) they left and went for pizza instead; I wonder whether they would fare at least somewhat better with the mother and child shop recommendations provided in the book.

I did find a fair share of the shops featured as high-end but when I am more solvent I intend to visit. India Knight does attempt to be inclusive though and features some high-street stores, defends Ikea against snobbery, and devoted an entire box to her praise of Argos (the catalogue shop where you order and collect in store after waiting in a horrendous queue for your number to be called); I have to disagree with her like for Argos though as I actually think it is a hell dimension here on earth. The book was originally published by Penguin in 2003, with an edited edition in 2004, so I'm not sure how many of the listings are potentially out-of-date.

A passage I liked to give you a sense of the writing style:

I really think it's such a pity that a delight in food should be seen by some as a problem, or indicative of 'issues', or even as an illness. I mention it because I resent, I suppose, the idea that our family's absolute love of food should be seen by anybody as peculiar or wrong, when I consider it to be absolutely joyous, generous, nurturing, celebratory, and all those other words you might find used about food in a magical realism novel (remember them?) involving recipes.

17 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. I think I might have to find a copy in the library and have a quick flick through. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

Sophie said...

Oh I love this book! I am also indebted to it, as I was told about it by a friend, who also told me about eyebrow threading at the same time, having read IK's raves about it in the book. I am now a complete convert.

I know that some of the internet sites she mentions are now out of date (a couple of the food delivery sites, from memory -- I don't have the book with me in Oxford so can't check) -- pity there are no signs of an updated edition coming out...

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, definitely flick through a library copy. It won't take long and some of the sections are really interesting, especially the ideas for children's gifts, some of which are more things to do than buy.

Sophie, I love eyebrow threading! I haven't had it done since last in Glasgow so it was fabulous to take note of places in London that offer it.

An updated edition would be great. I'm sure she has discovered lots of other fabulous places between then and now.

verity said...

I had this from the library when it first came out and really enjoyed reading it. I liked the fact that it was so much more than a directory; I like India Knight's writing very much (she writes for the Times) and think she sounds like an interesting person.

Plus, a pink book is always great!

JoAnn said...

Such fun...and a perfect addition to the 'pink shelf'!

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I enjoyed her writing too and the personal (if sometimes TMI) interspersed with the useful. Definitely so much more than a directory. I love pink books!

JoAnn, pink books just pop out at me! There is something that screams fun about them.

Rachel said...

I would never normally pick this up but it doesn't sound as awful as I'd imagined it now I've read your thoughts!

I read India Knight's columns in The Times but sometimes I find her a bit North London if you know what I mean! All ladies what lunch and which private school to choose and aren't nannies dreadful etc. Even so she does write well and I always get a laugh out of the outraged Guardian reader comments at the end of her articles!

Jenny said...

Oh dear, I can tell this book would make penniless me feel very depressed. Which is a shame because I really do love shopping. When I become rich I am going to buy ten new pairs of shoes...

kimbofo said...

I think I'll be giving this one a miss. I'm one of those people who loathes shopping unless, of course, it's for books!

PS> India Knight's Significant Other is Andrew O'Hagan.

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, she doesn't come across like that in the book so much although at the time of writing it she lived in East London and not North.

I read about Persephone's feature in the book somewhere and that's what inspired me to read it.

Jenny, it is depressing reading it whilst having no money :(. Perhaps that is also a blessing though as there are a few things I felt inclined to buy and normally would have.

Kim, if you loathe shopping then this book is definitely not for you!

I read about her being with Andrew O'Hagan (I looked it up because in the book she mentioned her SO being Scottish). I haven't read any of his work but really should.

Rachel said...

Well in that case, as she's not going to go all North London on me, I might just use it for Christmas present inspiration as you so highly recommend it, Claire! If it's got Persephone books in there I presume it features some nice quirky places to get presents that are lovely but not too expensive.

Paperback Reader said...

Some of the gift ideas are quirky and apparently reasonably priced and others are undoubtedly high-end (for instance a fossilised dinosaur's egg from Fortnum & Mason). I liked some of the suggestions though and her approach to gift giving, which is very similar to my own (that there is nothing more wonderful and that the gifts do not have to be ridiculously expensive). Bear in mind though that India Knight is a professional writer living in London, she is relatively comfortable and her taste in shops reflects; she isn't always conscious of her reader not being as affluent as she is.

Darlene said...

Oh my goodness, this does sound like it would assuage some of my Anglophile longings. I have been known to pull up the Fortnum & Mason website and stare at the hampers, wishing myself through time and space...okay, just had to slap myself there. Phew! Off to see how much this will cost on TBD...see ya!

Paperback Reader said...

Hee. May it assuage some of your Anglophile longings, Darlene. I did think of you whilst I was reading. If nothing else it will provide you with even more British sites to lust over. I must pop by F&M some time soon and take photographs for you and soon enough it will be time for Liberty's Christmas department. Sigh.

savidgereads said...

I will look out for this when I hunt down (am breaking my book buying ban but for good cause) another book tomorrow in the second hand streets of London town!

Oh and in Tooting at the moment eyebrow threading is 99p... Shilpa Shetty just opened a salon here!

Paperback Reader said...

99p?! Are you serious? Interested to find out what the other book you are hunting down is.

Darlene said...

Yes Please!!!