Bookshop of the Month: Word on the Water
A visit to Regent’s Canal would not be complete if you haven’t found yourself on the floating bookshop, Word on the Water. The first impression is pure eye candy, with cascading pot plants and bookshelves hanging perilously over the side. But step aboard, browse the books, chat with the owner, and you could go deeper than you expected.
A conversation with Paddy Screech, one of the owners, reveals a story of passionate commitment. The idea of setting up a floating bookshop was born when Paddy moored his boat next to Jonathan Privett’s 15 years ago. The two discovered a shared love of literature. Paddy studied English Literature at Oxford. Jonathan was sudying for a Masters in American Literature while selling books outside London Tube stations. He then set up his own stall in Archway Market named Word on the Street, the template for the boat’s name. When a friend and business partner, Stephane Chaudat, offered them a 1920s Dutch barge in 2011, the idea of making a living by selling books became concrete.
Not plain sailing
Running a floating bookshop has not been exactly smooth and easy. In the first seven years of Word on the Water’s life, the biggest challenge was to secure mooring space. Suspected of being a ‘party boat’, they were denied a permanent mooring by the Canal & River Trust and were forced to move every two weeks. Given the difficulty of transporting books and the unpredictability of the weather, which often prevented them from displaying books on the outside shelves, it was an uphill battle for Paddy, Jonathan and Stephane.
At one point, they were so low on funds that they had to choose between coffee and cigarettes because they could not afford both. On another occasion they lost a large amount of stock and furniture when the boat was flooded by a volunteer accidentally opening the wrong valve. Recently, after 12 years of continuous service, they took the boat out of the water so the hull could be cleaned and a canopy added over the stern, creating room for a new children’s section but temporarily forcing the business to close.
This has not prevented the trio from being optimistic and creative. Being vulnerable to weather conditions, they have learnt to read the sky. Using their cash sparingly, Stephane has made fixtures and fittings from scaffolding boards darkened with wood stain. Decorations have been made from discarded wine boxes. Every scrap of material has found a use. As you enter the boat, you will find hand-made butterfly ornaments and postcards arranged in a scrapbook-like manner – all designed by fellow local waterborne artists.
The trio’s friendship has not faltered in 12 years. Their business plan was no secret recipe for success, it was simply to look after each other. They specialized in different parts of the business according to their strengths. United camaraderie kept them afloat.
The efforts of the three partners came to fruition with the rise of BookTok, Booktube and Bookstagram and the new love of reading during the Covid lockdowns. Their solidarity, positive outlook and resilience allowed them to sail through the pandemic and emerge stronger on the other side. Today, you will find crowds of customers inside, outside and even on top of the boat. It has been laid out on three levels to make the absolute most out of its limited space. The first level is the pavement by the entrance, where books can be displayed in good weather. The second level is inside the boat, where booklovers can enjoy a drink while browsing. The third level is the roof. where musicians can perform and customers can take in the sky. At night and weekends, it is a venue for private-hire events. On one occasion the comedian Stewart Lee used it while he was touring and a thousand people attended the set.
Something for everyone
What makes Word on the Water so special is that instead of using an algorithm to select an array of books based on the tastes of consumers, its owners personally curate the collection. They base their choices on one principle: to offer books in which every customer may see themselves. They set no genre or era in which the book must have been written or published. They offer a variety of classical and modern literature, poetry, plays and non-fiction, cult, queer and feminist literature. They have commissioned an American lesbian playwright to write a new work for the shop. They also have a space for ‘Grit-terature’ – books written by survivors who have gone through truly horrifying experiences. Thanks to their deeply thoughtful approach, Word on the Water shows all its customers that they belong.