Written in Ink – A Visit to BookBar in North London

Independent bookshops are part of the soul of any area, as enriching to community life as public libraries and independently-owned local shops. In our own modest way, we, at Story of Home, find that stories are central to how engage with our clients. But when it comes to the great stories written by fiction and non-fiction writers, we look to the experts for inspiration and guidance.

Cue Chrissy Ryan who, as the owner of BookBar in Highbury, is bringing something very special to the lives of people in North London. This indie is far more than a bookshop and offers the sort of book-buying experience that cannot be replicated online.

Chrissy Ryan, Bookbar Highbury, N5

What can Londoners expect from BookBar?

BookBar is a bookshop, wine and coffee bar, events and social space. Our ethos is about bringing avid and aspiring readers together through books, so you often find customers relaxing with a coffee or a glass of wine. Some customers come in for a drink and leave with a pile of books and vice-versa.

How would you describe BookBar’s taste in fiction and non-fiction?

We have a lot of contemporary fiction, and love highlighting exciting new writers as well as established favourites. Our non-fiction has a focus on memoir, essay, current world affairs, and socio-political issues, plus large feminism, gender and queer sections, an extensive poetry section, as well as plenty more!

Sharing books and discussing them is your great love. How does BookBar embrace this?

Everything we do is about highlighting how social bookshops and reading can be, so we host lots of events. We’ve hosted authors from Hanya Yanagihara and Monica Ali to Caleb Azumah Nelson. We have a monthly virtual book club, in which we interview an author as part of an online event that people can join in from all around the country. This month we’ve got Ann Patchett. Last month we hosted the supermodel, Emily Ratajkowski.

BookBar is at 166 Blackstock Road, London, N5 1HA

We host a Books and Bangers evening, where we stay open until 11pm, turn our basement ‘Book Cellar’ into a cocktail speakeasy and have a live DJ. Our sharing table in the centre of the shop is designed for people to mingle. Friends come for a glass of wine in the evening and end up sharing a bottle with a stranger sitting next to them, bonding over book recommendations. We’ve had people meet that way and return as a group for other events. This side of what BookBar does really means a lot to me. It moves me so much to see the community grow.

When Story of Home visited BookBar we were intrigued by Shelf Medicate. Tell us more.

Our Shelf Medicate Service is designed as an alternative to the algorithm. We put together bundles of books based on a theme or a mood, wrap and box them beautifully and send them to you or a loved one. Our prescriptions include Gin and Tonic for the Soul (the most uplifting reads), The Commute Buster (page-turners that transform your commute into the best part of your day), and Baby It’s Cold Outside, our selection of winter warmers. We also have a subscription service, where you have a coffee or glass of wine with one of our booksellers and they will choose a book for you each month.

What have North Londoners responded to especially about BookBar?

I think people have responded to the fact that we’re creating an extremely welcoming experience. There is always music, chat, laughter, and books everywhere – it’s organised chaos. I still get goosebumps when I walk in and see people socialising amongst the shelves or at our outdoor shop-front tables. The whole team are passionate about books and love to match-make readers with their perfect read, and that’s the other reason people come here; because they trust our recommendations.

Did you work in bookshops in other places before London?

I worked in bookshops and with bookshops all around the world and saw great examples of bookshops as community spaces. I saw the impact bookshops can have on books and readers. I knew there must be a way to get people who didn’t usually visit bookshops through the door. What I’ve discovered is that once they come, they stay.

Why did you choose the Highbury and Finsbury Park area as BookBar’s home?

Firstly, because I know and love the area, and I suspected there were lots of people who would love having this sort of local bookshop. I was also keen to host lots of events, so it needed to accessible, and this area couldn’t be better connected.

Clocktower at the top of Highbury Hill, Highbury, London, UK

What was the first novel you remember loving?

I remember crying during my year 7 English class when we read Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Around the same time, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses blew my mind. I read some of the steamier scenes to my best friend at break time. That was a very formative read. I read and loved Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca after a girl I thought was really cool in the year above me told me it was her favourite book. I loved reading Margaret Atwood in the Sixth Form. When I started working in publishing, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was a game-changer because it was the first book I worked on that went on to have a huge impact on readers, and was also the book that made me love epic and immersive stories that span generations.

What novels and non-fiction set in or about London would you recommend?

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is a love-letter to London and to black art, music, writing and expression. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and her most recent novel Love Marriage are brilliant London novels.

Where do you live and what do you like about the part of London you call ‘home’?

I live in Finsbury Park. I moved to London at the age of 21 to start a Masters. I spent a few nights sofa-surfing in a flat above the Happening Bagel Factory on Seven Sisters Road and liked it and found a flat five minutes down the road. I’ve been here ever since. Not only is my shop on Blackstock Road but my partner and I met on Blackstock Road too! What I love most about this area is the community. I can’t leave my house for bumping into customers and friends in the local shops, pubs and restaurants. It feels like a tiny village, but with the expanse, opportunities, and diversity of London all at once.

What are your favourite haunts?

I love exploring London’s villages. My first publishing job was selling books to bookshops, so I learned the geography of London via its bookshops, and still navigate it that way. I enjoy a walk or run across Clissold Park and a mooch down Stoke Newington Church Street, or a walk through Highbury Fields and along Upper Street. Running along the Parkland Walk to Highgate Wood and back used to be Sunday ritual before I ran my own business!

Bookbar, Highbury

But I’ll mainly be found on Blackstock Road either in Patron, a superb French bistro that does amazing cocktails, Little Sardinia, where the pasta is outstanding, and in shops like Gathering Moss and Nourished Communities. Tuesday is a brilliant night for the pub quiz at The Woodbine and I’m always game for a drink at the Bank of Friendship, where you can cozy up by the fire in winter – with a book, of course.

BookBar is at 166 Blackstock Road, London, N5 1HA. https://www.bookbaruk.com