Bargain barge keeps bookshop buying afloat

Word on the Water Pic: David Chang

Word on the Water Pic: David Cheng

The Regent’s Canal in north London is not only home to the capital’s boat dwellers, it has also become an up-and-coming floating marketplace for many small independent shops who cannot afford the rising rents.

One of the first of these shops and perhaps the most distinctive, is Word on the Water, a book barge selling second-hand cult classics and contemporary literature, plus books on politics, philosophy, canals and children books. The barge travels along the canal, which runs from west London to Hackney and east London.

The shop’s co-owner Jon Privett, who has been in the trade for thirty years since his college years, picks all the books himself from charity shops and donations. “I am the book specialist [in the company]. It is sort of a hand curated selection that we put on the front,” said the fan of Nobel Prize winning American author William Faulkner.

In fact, the book barge itself is so much more than a bookshop that it can be better described as “a working art exhibition that finances itself by selling books”. Privett’s partner Paddy Screech decorated the 1920s original Dutch barge with (of course) books and a quirk collection of artifacts, including a clock without hands, a drift wood and a vintage motor bike from the Sixties, each with their own meaning and significance.

The duo started this floating bookshop in 2011 with the backing of  an anonymous Frenchman with whom they share ownership of the business. What made them move to the canal was their determination to buck the trend towards the disappearance of small independent booksellers from the UK’s streets during the recession.

“When we started the shop, the publishing and bookselling industry was very pessimistic. [People thought] Kindle would be taking over. The books were going to disappear. We were sure that wasn’t the case. We were kind of taking a gamble on that people still like books,” added Privett, 49.

And they made the right gamble. “Doing business on a boat gets you a lot of attentions,” he said. People walking by the canal are attracted by this quirky-looking boat bookshop and are clearly willing to spend a few pounds on the books, sold at an affordable £5 for two paperbacks or one hardback.

But you cannot make a fortune with a floating bookshop, Privett admitted: “It’s below average income. We live in a culture where everything is so driven by money, but we are not as money-driven as most shopkeepers.”

Jon Privett, co-owner of Word on the Water Pic: David Chang

Jon Privett, co-owner of Word on the Water Pic: David Cheng

It is the job satisfaction which keeps the partners running the shop. He said: “We love the feedbacks we get from people. Sometimes people come inside [the floating bookshop] and actually cry with joy seeing such an unusual beautiful thing or finding the books they want.”

On the future of books, he urged: “If you don’t want to see books disappear and being replaced by screens, buy books and show support!”

Word on the Water opens every afternoon and evening on the Regent’s Canal, which runs through Camden, Islington and Hackney. You can find out its exact weekly whereabouts on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

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