I remember growing up as kid near Camden Town in London. Once a grimy, hardscrabble warren of Victorian industrial canals in the Northern center of the city, it had evolved into a low rent artistic and musical neighborhood by the 1980s. Camden Lock Market grew from a run down antiques/junk sale alongside the old locks and horse stables into the massive Rock N Roll tourist trap you can find today. Still, a pretty damn cool place to check out if you’re ever in London.
What fascinated me then (and still do now), are the old canals that ran through the borough. Once hauling barges of goods up from the river Thames into inner areas of the city, the canals are worth exploring in their own right and certainly give you a very different perspective on a city that is rapidly gentrifying and losing a lot of that gloriously sooty character it had when I was growing up.
Even more interesting is that there have been, and still exist today, small communities of houseboat dwellers living on these canals. Being that the canals are so narrow, the boats tend to be, of course, quite narrow themselves, but often up to 50ft long.
Living without central heating, sewage lines, normal electricity hookups and disconnected from the hustle and bustle of a city hell bent on well, Money, being the denizen of one of these brightly painted canalboats must be like living in a different century. A squatter gypsy life on the water.
Although some of the first canals were constructed in the later 1700’s for industrial traffic, we can assume that many folks were already making their homes there, as many had always done on the waterways of Europe. Indeed, there are entire communities of people living in these boats throughout the canals of Britain, free from the landlubber tenant serfdom of the capitalist classes.
As trucks and road traffic eventually superseded waterways as the primary mode of commercial transportation by the 1960s, these longboat dwellers have been basically left to themselves to create alternative communities as they saw fit.
Then there’s these guys: Word on Water
After years of wandering London’s canals, a step ahead of the law, two English graduates turned squatters find success in their 50s with their floating bookstore.
These two highly educated fellows have been squatting on the back canals of London for decades, seemingly living on the edge. But it was with no small amount of perseverance and vision that led them to create what must possibly one of the coolest fucking bookstores on the planet. Even if it has to move every two weeks, keep strolling down the Regents Canal (connecting Little Venice and Camden Market) and you should be able to find it.
Started almost 10 years ago in the midst of large chain stores going out of business, the owners decided: ‘Well, if all the bookstores close, we’ll still be here.’ Their original incarnation then sank into the brackish waters of the canal when someone forgot to close a plug in a toilet below decks.
But neither Hell nor Highwater would keep the store’s owners: Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett, from realizing their dream. Now a thriving fixture on the waterways, Word On Water even boasts a small stage on top where any passing musician can play an open mic set.
According to Paddy and Jonathan, they never have to worry about customers stealing from them: fans of the barge surreptitiously leave their own used books on shelves as donations to the stock. In a day and age where bookstores are becoming a thing of the past and humans are probably reading less and less anyway, isn’t it nice to see something that was never really intended to be make money being given so much support from total strangers?
Originally, the biggest perk from their endeavor was simply an “unlimited supply of books”, but with their newfound success, both owners have been able to take some small international vacations. And good on em’: sounds like they wholeheartedly deserve it.
For me, I could download as many books as I want on a Kindle, but where’s the fun in that? It’s not only reading a book that’s enjoyable. Simply the act of spending a free afternoon walking to a favorite bookstore and then whiling the hours away leafing through photography, art and history is enough to feel like it was an afternoon well spent.
A good used bookstore always draws me in, like a great cafe, to simply peruse, read, find a comfortable chair and explore the inner workings of an another human being’s imagination. There’s no rush to buy something or move on- in fact you never have to feel pressured to buy anything at all. A good bookstore is there simply to be present in; a welcoming space…
I can honestly spend hours in a good one and I hope to find Word On Water berthed somewhere on the London canals next time I visit.