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#BehindTheScenes with “Word on the Water” – London’s Book Barge

8th May 2021


We’ve been selling books aboard our 100 year old Dutch barge – originally called ‘Dianti’ but now known as ‘Word on the Water’ – for ten years now, and have thus become experts in a truly tiny field. For a number of years we were itinerant, popping up in a different part of capital’s extensive system of rivers and canals every 14 days.  It gave us the opportunity to navigate the entire 18th and 19th century industrial canal system that once pumped the arteries of Industrial London, and also helped us to slowly become known throughout the city.  Now however, thanks to the support of our crew of thousands of followers, who all organised an email campaign and petition when we were in danger of closure for being forced to move so often, we are permanent fixtures in Granary Square’s beautiful development just behind Kings Cross station, alongside the famous Central St Martins art college and King’s Place, the music venue and home to the Guardian and Observer newspapers.

The boating community in London consists of around 5000 people, on an assortment of old English narrowboats, river cruisers, retired sailing boats, Dutch barges and tkalks and converted lifeboats – Jon our co-founder used to live in the old 1950s lifeboat from the Irish ferry which had been transformed into the floating equivalent of a Hobbit’s house. It is, in effect, a village hiding in the embankments and bridges of the city’s parallel waterworld.

Selling books from a boat rather than a regular shop is different in many ways, the most immediate of which is space.  We once counted, and a full complement of books for us is around 3000. This is barely a tenth of the level of stock that a conventional shop can carry.  The result, though, has been genuinely good for us. It disciplines us and demands that our curation is fiercely selective.  We need to sell a lot of stock each week to ensure that our shelves keep changing, and this means choosing books that we hope will be pretty much irresistible.  We have really learned that books that are beautiful objects in addition to being thought-provoking or immersive texts can make all the difference.

The fact that all of our customers are out, by the canal, walking slowly in solitude or with friends, means that we see Londoners at their very best. The barge is a rare oasis of calm in a frenetic city – people there have paused, are taking a breath. Many booksellers publish books gently or scathingly recounting the foolishness and rudeness of their customers, but we will never be able to do this, as something about the water, the towpath, the moorhens and the great age of our ark seems to bring out the friendliest, calmest, charm in our visitors – which we get to bask in all day like seals lying in the sun. I’m not exaggerating – the consistency of the phenomenon is remarkable. Everyone, all day, is quite lovely.

And yet this is London, one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world – from South Korean, Italian and American tourists to elderly visitors who have lived virtually their entire lives within the confines of the borough they were born in – people from all age groups and cultural backgrounds, we see them all.

Something about our tiny, human-scale project in the midst of tower blocks and corporations – Google is just building its UK headquarters on the far side of the water, looking like Blake’s dark satanic mills in its unfinished state – seems to bring out the solidarity and support of our customers too. It’s a posh, recently-redeveloped area, so I think we maybe make a nice contrast.

There’s a stove burning smokeless fuel, which keeps us, the dog and the parrot cosy in the winter months, and the vast majority of our electricity comes from solar panels and a dark green windmill that now stands where a mast once did. This helps to power the modest 12v sound system on our roof – now converted into a small performance stage – so most days in the warm weather there will be a jazz musician, a folk group or a kora player and this is also where our poetry slams and book launches take place.

We sit outside all day every day – we always have some of the first suntans in town – which means that we get to chat with everyone walking past, rather than just those who choose to come in, and I think this has really helped us build up relationships in the area. Bookshops really matter as a way of building community in urban spaces – they are like secular places of worship, where hugely diverse populations can all find something in common – a love of the gentle erudition and inspiration of reading and browsing. And the fact that it’s a barge – moored in the city and yet in some way not quite of it – makes our tiny shop a liminal space, an exception to everything around it, and offers an opportunity to escape – from the land, from the day, and into a b

Catch Word on the Water on Twitter @wordonthewater

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