In 2009, Sarah Henshaw approached a ‘pinstriped bank manager’, asking for a loan of £30,000 to buy ‘a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books.’ The manager said no, scorning her creative business proposal which was made to look like a book. However, her family and then-boyfriend Stu soon lent her the money to purchase ‘Joseph’ from the Internet, and get her idea off the ground (or onto the water, so to speak). Six months later, Henshaw and Stu opened The Book Barge.
The Bookshop That Floated Away begins with a hand drawn map, which includes the route that the Book Barge took on its 2011 voyage. The key which accompanies it reads: ‘1,079 miles, 707 locks, 1,395 books bought/bartered.’ In her introduction which follows, Henshaw sets out just how often she was asked why she owned a bookshop on a boat – almost daily, it turned out. ‘Usually,’ she writes, this curiosity was exercised to ‘preface a pun they actually believe to be original – about it being a “novel” idea. Or one “hull” of an idea. Or, when the American tourists are in, a “swell” idea.’ Her response was generally to point out the cost effectiveness of taking a bookshop onto the water rather than to pay extortionate rates for high street premises, ‘or how the quirkiness attracts greater footfall, [and] the advantages of being able to move on when business is slack.’
Although this may sound like an idyllic life, Henshaw’s is rather a frank memoir. At first, she is moored in Burton-on-Trent, where her family live, but business proved to be rather slow. Despite starting off relatively well, she recognised the way in which the book industry was ‘changing fast’, particularly with the advent of the eReader. She took to the water, deciding to spend six months ‘chugging the length and breadth of the country. Books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities, and cake. Along the way, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, floated away altogether.’
Henshaw speaks plainly of her lack of toilet and shower facilities on the boat, and the problems which the business – and her lack of expertise in running it – had with Stu, leading to their breakup, and then to her largely solo journey. There were also a few days when she just wanted to pack it all in and go home. Overall, however, the experience is largely a positive one; she reflects: ‘… I felt complete confidence and satisfaction in what I was doing. It made me indescribably happy.’
I found the first section of The Bookshop That Floated Away to be highly readable, and although some of the jokes which Henshaw makes were a little cheesy, it had a great tone to it. My enjoyment changed, however, when I got to the second section, which is narrated from the (obviously fictional) perspective of the Book Barge. It is relatively brief, but I did not feel as though it added anything particularly to the memoir. Rather, it reads like an experiment in creative writing, included ‘just because’. Reading it felt rather cringeworthy, and it did lessen my enjoyment of the whole. There are also some rather strange imagined conversations which she has with various wildlife throughout; again, these added nothing to the whole for me, and felt a little jarring.
Henshaw does have a flair for the (melo)dramatic, and I did find that this became rather tiresome as the book went on. There was also only a loose structure at work, and the memoir jumped back and forth in time at odd intervals. There are some nice moments here, though – for instance, when she takes a detour by bicycle to the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye, in order to help a writer friend sell his own memoir, and when she recounts some of the odd experiences which she has with the general public. I found some parts of The Bookshop That Floated Away far more engaging than others, and overall it did feel as though there was a kind of inconsistency to the book.