Early in 2009, Nottinghamshire lass Sarah Henshaw wrote to her bank manager, asking for a loan of £30,000 to help set up a bookshop on a canal barge. To improve her chances, she decorated the letter with drawings of Ratty and Mole in a rowing boat.
The bank manager said no, and probably prospered. But Henshaw persevered and opened The Book Barge, in a canal of dark-brown water with the odd dead trout floating past. The new premises attracted a modest number of customers and water fowl.
Her life was dipping to a low point, personally and professionally. So Henshaw buys a FUD, and sails away, across and around a fair bit of England. In the next few months, she travels 1600km, struggles through 700-plus locks, sells 1400 books - or swaps them for places to stay or shower, and things to eat.
She met a lot of Wonderful Old Characters. There's Ted, who hung his faithless girlfriend's knickers from a church steeple. There's an adhesive author called The Acquisitor.
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She talks to Hamlet's statue in Stratford; cleans her teeth in the pub on the hill; tries to moor outside the Guardian's HQ as a profile-lifting ploy (it works, and she gets six months' free herbal tea); gets stalked via texts; starts to sink in a lock. And yes, her shop does float away, more than once.
So it's a picaresque, often picturesque narrative, with a neatly, affectingly ambivalent ending. It rambles along. One thing leads to several others. "But I digress," she writes, Indeed she does, entertainingly enough.
A lot of books and book people get quoted. There's a protracted rewriting of Black Beauty as told by the barge, which never gets beyond coy. For a book-seller, her grammar graunches a lot: "us children dive ... a boy called John who I met."
It's light, positive, intermittently New-Agey. Beware of any author who's "quietly discovering a sense of self". Respect one who takes on Amazon and survives (she also wrote to the behemoth's founder for help, and got no reply). She's another reason to support your local independent bookshop this week.
The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw (Constable & Robinson $24.99)