Launching a new bookshop and wine bar during a pandemic-induced lockdown takes some drive and dedication, which pretty much describes long-time booklover and global bookseller, Chrissy Ryan, owner of BookBar, our July Bookshop of the Month.
Located in North London’s vibrant Finsbury Park, BookBar BookShop and Wine Bar serves up an exciting blend of thoughtfully-curated books and wine - all underpinned by a fabulous desire to make books social, and to reach “a younger and more diverse audience”. Read on to discover more about this inspiring new indie, and huge thanks to Chrissy for taking the time to talk to us.
Describe BookBar’s ethos in three words.
Making books social.
Was running a bookshop a long-time ambition of yours? What’s your backstory?
I had been working in and with bookshops throughout my career, first as a bookseller in an independent bookshop, then selling books to bookshops all around the world. The more I sold books, the more I realised that books are about connection, so I was inspired to create a space that appealed to the social element of reading. I wanted to reach people who wouldn’t usually visit physical bookshops, so combining the bookshop with a wine bar that is all about bringing people together through books would attract both aspiring and avid readers.
(Photo Credit: Martin Nosek)
You launched BookBar during lockdown. Did you always plan to open at this time? What were the biggest challenges?
When the pandemic began I was running a bookshop in the Maldives, and when I returned I knew that now was the time to start putting my plans and ambitions for BookBar into action.
Getting BookBar ready to open of the course of the pandemic meant that my entire approach had to be much more flexible, and I learned to just take each set back as an opportunity to grow in a different direction. For example, the fact that we were ready to open from January, but couldn’t because of the lockdown, meant that we had to build up the community online. When we ‘launched’ the physical bookshop for click and collect, our Instagram and Twitter following quadrupled overnight and we spent three months talking to local people when they collected books over the threshold, and those further afield online. It meant that when we did open our doors on 12th April we already had ‘regular’ customers and the support was phenomenal.
We also launched the BookBar BookClub, which now has upwards of 160 members, and has been a huge milestone in creating the community we want to build around BookBar. Subscribers receive the book 4 weeks in advance of the event, send in their questions and comments to us and we’ll interview the author, while everyone chats and joins in in the comments. We’ve had amazing authors like Ingrid Persaud and Clare Chambers join us already and we’ll be interviewing Brit Bennett and Curtis Sittenfeld for our June and July book clubs. It feels like a real community.
Did you always want to find premises in the Finsbury Park area? Why there?
I wanted to reach a younger and more diverse audience than the audience that traditionally visit bookshops, so it was important to be in an area that has a vibrant community but is also well connected to the centre of London to attract people to visit from further afield.
I’ve lived in the area for years so know it really well and although there’s a great literary scene in North London, it felt like there was an opportunity in the area to create a vibrant and buzzy social space that revolves around books. I wanted to make Blackstock Road a destination for book-lovers and a place for people to discover books in a new way.
What was the best thing about finally being able to open your doors in April 2021?
It’s been amazing to be able to see what was once something that existed in my head brought to life. To see people connecting with one another over books and wine has been a complete joy.
What’s important in a great bookshop,? What sets you apart and makes you special? Could you tell us about your (brilliantly named!) Shelf Medicate service?
The thing that sets BookBar apart is the focus on the social side of reading. BookBar is a place in which to socialise, the music is always buzzing and books are a vehicle for starting conversation. I think that every bookshop is different, but for me it’s about the booksellers. The most important skill for any bookseller to have is emotional intelligence and empathy. It’s our job to understand what makes someone tick and recommend a book based on the individual. We all read to feel something – from connection to learning and it’s our job to find out what it is that a reader wants to get out of reading and find the right book for them.
That’s what inspired the Shelf Medicate Service. I knew that so many people didn’t know where to start with reading and the idea of choosing a book put them off reading altogether. I knew we could do better than the algorithm and help people to discover books they would never usually have picked up for themselves. So, we launched the Shelf Medicate Service to prescribe a bundle of books based on a theme or mood. There’s the Gin and Tonic for the Soul – the most uplifting books, the Armchair Traveller – the most transportive books, and the Commute Buster – books so gripping you’ll miss your tube stop. You can tell us a bit about some books you’ve enjoyed and we’ll select books to suit the mood you’d like to be in, or leave it entirely up to us.
We also have a Shelf Medicate subscription service, which is like having your own literary matchmaker on speed dial. You’ll have a consultation with our bookish experts and then we send a book a month, entirely based on your tastes. We encourage subscribers to keep in touch with their thoughts each month so we can tailor every single book to them personally.
What’s your all-time favourite…
-novel to recommend to adults?
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is the novel that I recommend to anyone who’ll listen. It follows a Korean family in Japan over four generations and eight decades, and simultaneously feels epic in scope, whilst creating an incredible intimacy with the characters.
-non-fiction to recommend to adults?
We’ve got some amazing books around social and identity politics, and memoir is really popular too so I have to say Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is one of my all-time favourite books, and I think everyone should read Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self. I also love talking to people about John Carreyou’s Bad Blood about the Theranos scandal - pitch perfect journalism so gripping it reads like a thriller.
-picture book recommendation?
For a fun story for all the family to enjoy, it’s got to be Cats Ahoy by Peter Bently. I never get bored of reading that one. I’ve also found What Happened to You by James Catchpole to be a really original and brilliant story that helps to explain physical disability to children. And the sentimental bookseller in me will never stop recommending Oliver Jeffers books. My favourite is A Child of Books. His illustrations are so gorgeous and I find the whole thing totally mesmerising.
-children’s fiction recommendation?
I absolutely love adventure stories for children, so I’m constantly recommending Abi Elphinstone’s novels.
Which books have you been recommending recently?
I can’t stop talking about Fault Lines by Emily Itami, which transported me straight to Tokyo. It’s cuttingly funny, but also brilliant on loneliness, motherhood and identity. I am also so excited about the novel Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. The synopsis does not do it justice, but it’s phenomenal on mental illness, family and love, and is simultaneously sad and hopeful. Finally, Natasha Brown’s Assembly, which is an extraordinary book that is powerful in the way it plays with form and considers societal and familial expectations on the narrator, a black woman working in an investment bank. I’m also pressing Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters into every customer’s hands.
What’s your favourite area of your bookshop?
That’s too hard to say! I love walking up the road and seeing people sitting out front in the sun drinking coffee or wine whilst catching up and reading, and the whole place just buzzing. We’ve just launched our Book Cellar, which is an area that just feels so cosy and buzzy, that is a great spot for a drink surrounded by shelves of books and wine. You can book the Book Cellar to host your own book club too.
What are you most proud of (so far)?
We’ve only scratched the surface of what I imagine BookBar to be, but at the moment, I’m most proud of the way the vision to make books social and fun has come to life so vividly. I’m really proud of the community we’ve created already and can’t wait to see it grow.
Tell us a secret about books.
There is a book out there for everyone. All you need to do is let go of what you think you should be reading and read what you want to read and the rest will come. BookBar has been created to help you do exactly that.
Apart from your own shop, which other bookshop(s) do you love spending time in?
I spend every day at BookBar, but I still find that the most relaxing thing to do when I have a day off is to visit bookshops. I used to sell books to all the bookshops across London and each one has its own unique feel and community so I couldn’t possibly single out one.
I will say how much I love Burley Fisher in Haggerston, who champion indie presses, put on brilliant events and are always doing something different and breathing new life into bookselling. They started out just as I moved into publishing from bookselling and Sam was a similar age to me when he started Burley Fisher with his business partner Jason, so I feel an affinity there and am so grateful for their support of BookBar so far. I love Foyles on Charing Cross Road for the scale of it, and all the amazing discoveries I make every time I visit. The Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh is also brilliant.
My hometown is Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, so I’ve loved seeing The Suffolk Anthology make its home there. I could go on and on and on - there are just so many wonderful bookshops doing brave, innovative and creative things.
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If you enjoyed these insights into bookshop life, read more of our Bookshop of the Month features.