Floating bookstore gets permanent berth on canal

The Word On The Water bookstore (left) is on a 15m-long boat now moored on the Regent's Canal (above), around the corner from the British Library in London.
The Word On The Water bookstore is on a 15m-long boat now moored on the Regent's Canal (above), around the corner from the British Library in London.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
The Word On The Water bookstore (left) is on a 15m-long boat now moored on the Regent's Canal (above), around the corner from the British Library in London.
The Word On The Water bookstore (above) is on a 15m-long boat now moored on the Regent's Canal, around the corner from the British Library in London.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

LONDON • 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 literature degree, other than teach the subject.

The store - a 15m-long canal boat - 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 canal, by relocating fortnightly. It is doing so well that Mr Paddy Screech, 51, and Mr Jonathan Privett, 52, finally took their dream vacations this year.

The store's prosperity probably has been helped by a book business that has been doing well in Britain. Sales of physical books rose 8 per cent 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 being obsolete, just like the 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 theatre, and then into the showboat craze of the late 1800s.

When they met, Mr Privett was living on a canal boat, 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.

"Overnight, she stopped drinking and turned into a little old lady who drank only tea," he said.

He realised then that he was done with social work. He went for a walk, stumbled on a canal and met Mr Privett. The two later cooked up the idea of the store.

Things went downstream fast. Forced by rules to move every couple of weeks, they often found themselves on parts of the 14.5km-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," Mr Screech said.

A new chapter began when the authorities gave 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.

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.

Mr Privett said: "Our problem is reverse shoplifting."

People are constantly sneaking books onto their shelves, without asking for payment, he added. "Sometimes, we find one we know for sure wasn't there before and it's been signed by the author."

People have suggested the men sell trinkets and cards, or coffee and drinks, but they have resisted such commercialisation. "I didn't study English literature for three years to serve coffee," Mr Privett said.

Mostly, he added, they are in it for the "lifestyle perks" - for example, "an unlimited supply of books" which leads to limitless book conversations.

"Do you know how much I'd have to earn to have this many books?"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline 'Floating bookstore gets permanent berth on canal'. Print Edition | Subscribe