As you walk along the Regent’s Canal near King’s Cross, you see the water dotted with boats of all sizes and colours. You peek through the windows, curious, trying to get a glimpse of what it’s like inside.
And as you walk past, Dickens and Wodehouse suddenly peer at you from a barge. On closer inspection, you find that this is, in fact, a time machine of sorts. The written word can transport one back ages. And this 100-year-old wooden barge does exactly that.
A large signboard reads ‘Word on the Water’ and a smaller one reads ‘books needed’.
“Come in, let’s go in where there’s heating. it’s getting cold,” invites Jon Privett, founder and one of the three partners of ‘Word On The Water’, a book barge that sells new and second-hand books.
Down the barge’s passageway are more books of every genre — nearly 4,000 books in all. And with an on-board dog to keep you company, there’s never a boring moment aboard the Word On The Water.
“I’ve been selling books for 24 years,” says Jon. “I started out selling them on the pavement, and then I got a market stall… I started this with my friends in 2011,” he says.
How did he hit upon the idea of selling from a boat? “I looked at some shops, but you have to pay a lot of money to start one. Even if the space is not a very good one, it’s still upwards of a £1,000 a week to run a shop,” he explains. “And a shop doesn’t have the unique attraction of a boat.”
The business doesn’t have any rent to worry about, because the boat is owned by one of the partners. The mooring though, is rented and Jon says it took a huge chunk of time and effort to secure a spot.
“A mooring is not something you’re automatically entitled to… We had a petition on Change.org and campaigns on tv and newspapers and finally the Canal River Trust gave us this permanent mooring spot,” says Jon.
Steering the topic back to books, Jon tells us that about a third of the books come from charity shops. “I go down there myself and choose what I know are good books,” he says.
Another third are donated by the public — there’s a sign on the boat that says books needed. “London’s a very transitional place, and people don’t normally live in the same place for more than 3-4 years. This means excess books and we’re grateful to those who give us theirs,” says Jon.
The third portion of the books — and according to Jon, the part that’s most interesting for him — is sourced brand new from a wholesaler. “I get to pick out great literature. If people are going to talk about us and write about us and come here on purpose because we have a great shop, I don’t want people to go away disappointed,” explains Jon.
“Now I have the books people ask for. Because it’s better value to spend more and get the book you want. You can get a random book for next to nothing, but the book you want to read is a precious thing,” he points out.
Asked what kind of books people like to read, the well-read 50-something speaks about a recent statistic he came across. “London gets about 18 million visitors a year, and according to the survey, 70% visit for history and culture… Many visitors here pick up books about London, or literature set in London, including classics,” he says.
And now, Word On The Water too has become a quintessential part of London’s culture and is becoming a part of history. In fact, Jon says that Facebook recently suggested they list their page as a ‘tourist attraction’ because of the number of check-ins from there.
The tourist attraction part is understandable, because it’s not just a book barge. In summer, it doubles up as a performance venue, with live music on the top deck. “It’s basically an art installation that sells itself by selling books,” says Jon.
Starting on the streets and sailing on to become popular tourist spot visited by the likes of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Jon really does have the wind in his sails.