Monday, 19 January 2015

Word on the Water - London's unique book barge

by Catriona Troth


It sounds like something from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – a floating bookshop run by the ‘Professor’, the ‘Doctor’ and a mysterious French ‘Captain’. But you don’t have to fall through a door into London Below in order to find Word on the Water. It is moored, currently, in Granary Square, the recently developed space between the Regents Canal and Central St Martin’s University of the Arts, a short stroll from King’s Cross and the British Library.


Word on the Water is a small but eclectic second-hand bookshop whose home is a 1920s Dutch barge. One of its three co-owners, Jon Privett (‘The Professor’) has been selling books on a stall at Archway Market, called Word on the Street, for 23 years.

Five years ago, he and Paddy Screech (‘The Doctor’)were both living on the canals. Paddy was looking for a way to escape from his 9-5 office job, while Jon was looking for a way to expand his market stall. Between them they came up with the idea of a book barge.

By chance, at the right time, they spotted a ‘for sale’ sign on an old Dutch barge. They approached someone for a loan to buy it and were refused. But the suggestion was made that they ask the owner if they might rent the barge.


This turned out to be an inspired idea. The owner was a Frenchman, Noye (‘The Captain’). He was willing to rent them the boat – provided he could be a silent partner in the business. Noye’s artistic and mechanical flair allowed them to refit the whole boat, equip it with shelves inside and out, and fill it with small delights – like the insides of a grand piano that form a sail-like backdrop to one of the boat’s external displays of books.

Word on the Water opened on 14th July, 2011, at the Shoreditch Festival. For the first three years of its existence, it moved around from location to location, including spending time at the Olympic Floating Market at Mile End during 2012. But, as Jon tells me, it was getting harder and harder to find places to moor. The canals were becoming more and more crowded, and they were spending more time mending and moving than they were selling.

Then they stumbled on a spot outside Paddington Station. It was ideal – too industrial to be attractive as a residential mooring, but perfect for trade, with plenty of footfall from people coming to and from Paddington station.

The partners made a proposal to London’s Canal and River Trust (CaRT), asking them for a permanent mooring at Paddington and suggesting that they set up a floating market. CaRT gave them permission to stay while they considered their idea. But then, towards the end of 2014, they decided to put the concept out to tender, and asked Word on the Water to bid at auction for their own idea. As it happened, they were outbid by a major property company, British Land, which already owns several development sites around Paddington.

And this was when Word on the Water really hit the headlines. Signatures were collected on a petition protesting the decision. The story was covered by, among others, Ham and High, Private Eye, London Live and BBC London, and it began to look as if the protest might succeed. After all, CaRT is a charity and needs public support. However, although they agreed to meet Word on the Water when the petition reached five thousand signatures, CaRT stood by their decision.

So for the moment, Word on the Water have been offered this mooring at Granary Square. However, there is, as yet, no guarantee that this will be allowed to become permanent either. Meanwhile, the partners are also talking to CF Commercial about a possible role in the Here East development at the Olympic Park. In a few months time, the book barge might have a choice between of two permanent moorings. Or it might again be homeless.



On the day I visit, the present temporary mooring at Granary Square seems idyllic. It is cold, but the sun is shining on the concrete steps leading down to the canal, giving it the feel of an amphitheatre. The speakers on top of the barge are playing Edith Piaf – a small tribute to Paris in the week after the Charlie Hebdo murders.

I am greeted first by Star, a friendly collie-cross determined to get in on the action, and then by Jon Privett, who leads me through to the children’s section in the bows, where there is a comfortable bench seat and a woodburning fire keeping the place cosy. As he settles down to tell me the history of the barge, I can feel the boat moving very gently underneath us.

Following the furore over the Paddington mooring, Word on the Water has become the centre of an online community of support, and Jon is enjoying it.

“I’d never even been online before I started this. But now, I can post a picture about a book that’s just come in, make some comment about it, and before I know it, there’s a hundred ‘likes’ and a dozen comments. People know about the barge who'd never have heard of it before.”

In spite of everything, Jon is clearly an optimist. “A few years ago, it was all doom and gloom. It was all Amazon this and ebooks that, and people predicting the end of the industry. But that’s changing. People are starting to value books that are beautiful and well made.

“Bookselling used to be a lazy job,” he tells me. “You set out some books and people came and bought them. It’s not like that any more. You have to offer people something different. An experience.”


Word on the Water is certainly an experience. The small space is packed with treats for the eye. The crimson upholstered armchair. The tiny, exquisite model of a library, sculpted from paper and mounted in a book ancient Olivetti typewriter. And the stock is a treasure trove. Apart from the children’s section, it’s kept in no particular order.

“We used to keep everything organised. But customers would move things. You could have everything laid out from A-Z in the morning, and by the end of the day it would be a shambles again. So now we don’t bother.”

Keeping a bookshop on a barge has its own unique problems. Halfway through our interview there’s a shout from a passing boat - a book has been spotted in the water. Jon rushes up on deck to fish it out and brings it back down to dry by the stove.

The books comes from a mixture of direct donations and books that come via charity shops. “Some shops let us have first pickings of any new donations.” And their pricing system is simple - £5 for a hardback and £3 for a paperback. But don’t be fooled into thinking that means the books are any old rubbish. A quick browse and I’ve snatched up three – a beautiful hardback called Writers in Black and White, featuring contributions from authors such as Alex Wheatle, Joanne Harris, Hanif Kureishi and Jim Crace, and paperback copies of Monique Roffey’s White Woman on a Green Bicycle and Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I – and I have to tear myself away before I spend any more.

“What is the most exciting book you ever found in a box of donations?” I ask. Jon cites a first edition Gormenghast, “in such perfect condition it looked like a fake.” And a beautiful Art Deco Madame Bovary he has kept for himself. “But I love them all,” he says. “Often it’s the combinations,when I can’t believe I found this with that.”

Which sounds like a perfect description of the experience of browsing Word on the Water’s stock. So if you are in the neighbourhood of King’s Cross, give it a try while you still can. Because despite Jon’s optimism, the book barge’s future is not yet secure.



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