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Living by the book: The floating bookshop

When a writer decided to turn her barge into a travelling bookshop, little did she know what a chapter of accidents she would face

I suspect that the first time I heard the phrase “living by the book” was in primary school. I was brought up in South Africa and attended a convent school run by an order of German nuns. We had scripture lessons twice a week and it would’ve been in one of these that the saying was repeated, probably alongside a complementary Christian code, such as “follow the straight and narrow”. They were rules for a good life, I would’ve learnt. That an eight-year-old girl might one day grow up to take them literally would never have crossed my teacher’s mind.

In 2011, I spent six months living by the book. Books, plural, would be more precise. I had a 60ft floating bookshop on a converted canal boat and one long summer to save it from closing down. Chugging around the country and swapping stock along the way for the domestic conveniences I lacked aboard was how I planned to do it.

The Book Barge opened in June 2009. I had previously worked as an entertainment journalist in London and selling books from a towpath didn’t occur to me until I moved back to the Midlands and struggled to find another media job. The boat was bought with money borrowed from my parents. I agreed a repayment strategy, but after just six months of trading, it became apparent that, to bastardise a popular saying, it’s a gift that keeps on giving no return. My boyfriend, a carpenter, helped to refit the boat as a retail space and we found a permanent mooring for it at a local marina development.

Aboard the Book Barge, Sarah Henshaw travelled more than 1,000 miles in six months through canals in England and Wales

I had no intention of ever moving it or living aboard, so the cassette toilet, gas hob, sink, shower cubicle, cupboards and a bed were all removed. In their place, metres of MDF shelving and hundreds of books given largely free of charge by complete strangers in response to a plea I placed in the local newspaper. Books, lots of  – and somewhere to put the money. That should just about cover it, I thought. I bought an old cash register from eBay that made a delightful “trrrrring” whenever I pulled open its stiff wooden drawer.

It was a childish approach to business but, for those first few months at least, it worked. Sales surpassed my expectations. I cycled home each evening with takings rattling against the tin in the front wicker basket, chin back, the chain tick, tick, ticking an approval.

Why things went downhill was as much my fault as a fate shared by independent bookshops across the country. Yes, it became harder to compete with online retailers who could afford to massively discount their stock. Then there was the growing popularity of e-books to consider, too. Compounding the problem, however, was my own retail naivity. It put pressure on my relationship with my fiancé.

In May 2011, cash-strapped and now single, I moved on to the boat and untied its mooring lines. I would spend the next six months following the straight and narrow canal network of England and Wales and something, surely, would come up.

The idea of swapping stock made romantic and pragmatic sense. A whiteboard went up above my desk and I was quietly thrilled to find customers were eager to trade a paperback or two for whatever necessities were listed daily upon it. To keep things simple, I mainly stuck to three Ms – Milk (for tea), Meals and a-Musement (the last one, admittedly, needed a bit of work). There were also one-off barters of a haircut, new shoes, a birthday present for my dad, and Hugo Boss perfume. But it resonated more deeply than that. For the last two years, I’d been bemoaning the unfair playing field from which independent booksellers compete against online and supermarket retailers to lure in cost-conscious customers. An experiment like this, I thought, could be a useful corrective to the easy acceptance that value for money has just one currency. At the very least, encouraging readers to understand a book’s value as an item equivalent to, for example, a pub meal rather than a “3 for 2” chain-store marketing reduction could only be a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, it could even make some readers reconsider where and how they buy their books.

Over the course of the journey, living by the book became a little more sophisticated. I employed social media to alert followers across the country to the things I needed, whether they lived canalside or not. An engineer from Cornwall offered email advice when the boat’s batteries developed a fault, and many more far-flung supporters orchestrated link-ups with friends and family who lived closer to accommodate me for odd nights. Posting details of my route ahead on Twitter prompted one man to leave a basket of fresh vegetables at a lock for me outside Bath.

For a heady few weeks in London, I was able to write out a lengthy shopping list, hand this to a customer, and exchange books to the value of the till receipt and bagged groceries they returned later that day. Ocado suddenly seemed comparatively caveman. Victoria sponge cakes, which I let slip were my favourite, tiered daily on my desk. They proved useful lock-shirking collateral. Channelling Lady Justice, I learned to carry a plate in one hand, a windlass in another, and blindly mete out both to the first runner that crossed my towpath. That analogy isn’t an idle one. For the first time since opening the shop, I felt a strange sense of both reprieve and vindication – that I’d narrowly escaped something terrible (a punishment I probably deserved for my business mismanagements) but that I’d also been proved right for persisting. It was a giddy, light feeling that I held on to tightly.

When the Book Barge became Sarah Henshaw’s home as well as a business, she started bartering paperbacks for essentials including food and occasional treats such as a haircut

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The boat was broken into in Warwickshire, untied twice in London, vomited over, urinated against, and flooded when I got trapped in a lock in Yorkshire. In Bristol, I was forbidden to trade from it. I was re-reading Treasure Island at the time, and full of vague notions of valour and sea fights. Nothing must stop The Book Barge from opening here, I thought, so I typed an outraged blog inviting potential customers to hop aboard disguised as “friends” instead. The next day a “Crew Only” sign was erected on my pontoon. I took to the internet again to appeal for coxswains and bowhooks, petty officers and midshipmen, galley slaves, seamen, warrant officers and commodores. “YOUR ADMIRAL NEEDS YOU!” was the gist of the post. Whether to scrub the decks, batten down the hatches, hoist the mizzen, splice the mainbrace or shiver me timbers, I didn’t care much what pretext they adopted to come aboard as long as they made sure to tell the jobsworth at the gates that they were only here to heave ho with all hands on deck and not to buy the books. It worked – for a while. It also prompted two of Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s finest to visit the shop and instruct me to cease. A few days later, the council offered a market stall instead.

Did that summer make me a better bookseller? Perhaps not. What it did do, however, was inflame the dogmatism of my formative years. Living by the book seemed the soundest advice; shutting up shop was now inconceivable. I returned to the Midlands in November, having chugged 1,079 miles through 707 locks. Never previously one for numbers, I started to like the look of these – at least until a photographer from the local newspaper made me spell out the mileage in books and pose awkwardly on the bow surveying them. Not long afterwards, I cut down my opening hours to pay off accumulated debt, first by taking copywriting shifts, then with school librarian work.

If six months on the canals taught me anything, it was to understand that a journey can’t always be navigated without a little outside engineering. I think of all the time taken up opening and closing locks, watching water pile in or pour out of them, and all the greasy paddles to be constantly lifted and let down again. It’s like that, I think. Knowing where you’re going is all very well but to chart a reasonably direct line towards it, with all those ups and downs, you’re going to need some James Brindley pragmatism.


The Bookshop That Floated Away, by Sarah Henshaw (Constable & Robinson, rrp £7.99) is published on Thursday. To order it for £7.69 with free P&P, call 08430 600030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk