Book barge: How to stay afloat as a bookseller

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The Independent Culture

What's the most unusual way you've paid for a book? A few days ago, I bought one for the use of my shower, from Sarah Henshaw and her Book Barge. Henshaw is touring Britain's waterways for six months on her pretty, custom-fitted narrowboat, trading tomes for all the necessities of life – including food, washing facilities and a bed on dry land. When I met her she had moored her barge in east London and, tired of washing her hair in pub toilets, she was keen to barter for my bathroom.

"It was a cheap way to set up a bookshop," the twentysomething explained of her aquatic emporium. "I always wanted to set up an independent bookseller, especially as so many were closing." Her boat was moored for a couple of years at Barton-under-Needwood in Staffordshire, but this May she cast off in a bid to "keep independent bookshops afloat" via her cashless existence (although she still sells books for cash, she is committed not to live off the proceeds). So what are her prices? "Well, a £7.99 paperback is a pub lunch," she says, "and a good night out is probably more like a coffee-table book." The only things she has to use cash for are new stock and filling up with diesel.

The Barge's merchandise sits behind ribbon on listing shelves and is entertaining to browse: I came away with a new novel by "the most influential living Catalan author", from a publisher I hadn't encountered before. And the bobbing bookshop is easy to find – its route around the UK is on Henshaw's website, along with an entertaining blog and a list of author talks and other events that she holds aboard, which can include music and barbecues.

So far the craft has been burgled, used as a night-time diving-platform and cyber-criticised by more experienced nautical types. "They see me going by, see I have a Twitter feed and post criticisms of my steering!"

Henshaw has history with unusual shops. Not so long ago she converted a butchers' bike and toured Wales, selling books on cycling. "I want to see how many ways there are to sell books," she says.