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Word on the Water: How London’s most famous floating bookshop made it to King’s Cross

PUBLISHED: 10:23 26 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:25 26 March 2018

Jonathan Privett at Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria Belton

Jonathan Privett at Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria Belton

Victoria Belton

Running London’s most famous floating bookshop hasn’t always been plain sailing – but right now is a ‘golden age’ for booksellers, owner Jonathan Privett tells the Gazette.

Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria BeltonWord on the Water. Picture: Victoria Belton

In 2011, English student Jonathan Privett and former social worker Paddy Screech brought a fantasy to fruition by deciding to open a floating bookshop.

They did this on a 1920s Dutch barge, given to them by their friend and business partner Stephane Chaudat, and wittily calling it Word on the Water.

It had humble beginnings: Jonathan, then homeless, had been arrested for selling books on the street near Angel. But a manager at Archway Market spotted him and offered him a stall – which became Word on the Street. By now living on a boat, Jonathan met social worker Paddy, and the idea for the floating shop was born.

But Word on the Water faced choppy waters. For years the partners endured economic hardship because of being forced to relocate along the city’s canals fortnightly by the Canal and River Trust, and the boat flooding when a volunteer opened the wrong valve, causing them to lose most of their stock and furniture.

Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria BeltonWord on the Water. Picture: Victoria Belton

The barge was finally given a permanent mooring on Regent’s Canal near Granary Square in King’s Cross after thousands of people signed a petition to save it, including authors Michael Bywater and Elizabeth Speller.

“We liked the look of Granary Square,” said Jonathan, “just the newness of it. Our roots are in east London so it’s kind of nice to be in this part of town.

We get a mix of people, including a lot of American tourists, because the New York Times ran a feature about it. That really was quite a game-changer – there are five or six New York Times readers a week coming.”

When Borders closed in 2009, he said, it left a huge gap for independent retailers. “The harder the trade has got,” he said, “the more the greedy, lazy people have left it and the better it’s gotten. Publishing is better, wholesaling is better, even the writing is better. Really, books are in a golden age at the moment.”

Jonathan Privett and Star the dog at Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria BeltonJonathan Privett and Star the dog at Word on the Water. Picture: Victoria Belton

The 50-foot boat is stacked from bow to stern with an eclectic range of new and used books and warmed by a cosy fire in the barge’s back room. It hosts a range of musical guests from jazz to folk artists on the top deck.

Surrounding the stage is a hodgepodge of items collected over the years, from the insides of a piano to a piece of driftwood they “pulled out the River Lea the day before we opened for the first time”.

Find it on the canal towpath, seven days a week.

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