A little bookstore, nestled amid rows of English cottages with picket fences, in Kilburn, northwest London, lets you play a bookseller for a day. If you dream of being surrounded by aisles of books, Offside Books is the perfect haunt, housing both used and new books. The bookshop, run by Mark Nessfield, is listed on Airbnb as an experience that people can pay for to play bookseller for eight hours a day.
Over five years ago, after a long career in data analysis and a brief stint in Madrid, Nessfield, 58, started the bookstore with his wife, Fatma. He named the store Offside as an homage to football, and also since the store was located off the main road. Offside is small, but an endless array of books seems to tumble out of its crevices. A plush beige sofa waits to be plonked into.
Located amidst a bustling Jewish and Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood, the store has sections on Jewish and Black history, a specific corner for LGBTQ literature and a section on local writers. A colourful children’s section houses interesting titles — an edition of Alice in Wonderland (1865), for instance, that describes it as a tale of “Augmented Reality”. Since it’s located near a bus stop, many of its customers are wayfarers who make an impromptu pit stop. Mark works on an attractive window display, and ensures there’s a carton of half-priced books placed outside.
It’s no secret that independent bookstores are quietly disappearing, often dying without a whimper while e-commerce giants are built on their graves. Adding to Nessfield’s woes is the impending Brexit. “A lot of EU workers have left for their hometowns,” he says. “Sales have plummeted by 50 per cent,” he says. Airbnb has not only helped him stay afloat, but has also allowed him to meet and interact with people of various cultures.
Every visitor is shown around the store, trained to operate the teller machine and gets to recommend titles to customers. Often, Mark conducts mini sessions, peppered with personal insights into the book business. At the end of the session, the visitor gets to decide the window display and pick a book to take back home.
Offside Books is not the first bookstore to offer this experience. Shakespeare and Company in Paris also allows aspiring writers to take refuge and inspiration from its bookshelves. At The Open Book, in Wigtown, Scotland, a customer gets to live in and run the bookstore for a week.
One of Nessfield’s favourite collaborators is a homeless person, nicknamed “cider-man”, who has a great eye for art books. Named after his love for cider, this man has sourced some rare and interesting titles for the store. The store also gets a lot of donations, in the form of boxes of books that people drop off. Sometimes, in those piles, is a rare edition that goes for a lot of money. Nessfield is just glad that the books get a new lease of life.
Shakti Swaminanthan is a Bengaluru-based teacher and writer. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Shop around the corner’