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Posts Tagged ‘word on water’


Photo: Lucy Young/Evening Standard
Jonathan Privett, co-owner of Word On The Water inside the barge.

I love stories about unusual libraries and unusual bookstores. Here’s one from the New York Times about a bookselling endeavor powered by the famed eccentricity of Englishmen.

Rod Nordland writes, “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. …

“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. …

“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. …

“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. …

“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.

“ ‘[We] were just sitting there on the towpath, crying,’ Mr. Screech said. …

“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.”

Read the whole saga here.

As small blurbs filling out New Yorker magazine columns were once titled, “There’ll always be an England.”

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