Hip shops: Topping and Company Booksellers
by Jess Carter
09 September 2019
What: books (obvs)
Where: The Paragon, Bath BA1 5LS
When: Mon-Sun 8.30am-7.30pm
Saber Khan and Kathleen Smith have been running this indie Bath bookshop for 12 years, ever since it first opened its doors. And boy, do they have history with books.
They both started out selling them at Waterstones – way back when the shops were owned by Tim Waterstone himself. It was here that Kathleen met Roger Topping – she was the art buyer at the Deansgate branch that Roger managed, and ended up running the cookery section (“I don’t think I could really cook before that – it’s how I learnt,” she says).
When the chain of bookshops was sold to a larger company it became more corporate, so Robert Topping left and went to work at London’s indie Pan Bookshop, where Saber was also peddling pages.
Robert went on to set up Topping and Company Booksellers in Ely in 2002 and the Bath branch followed in 2007. He called on Saber and Kathleen to run the Bath outfit, which they agreed to – despite neither of them having ever foreseen such a move in their future.
“I had no intention of ending up as a bookseller, but when you work with Robert, something just catches,” says Kathleen.
“And I was happy in London,” continues Saber. “I really didn’t think I’d ever move. But then I spent the day in Bath and just fell in love with it.”
Kathleen takes charge of the food and drink section – and has curated a sizeable collection of culinary tomes. A core selection of classics from the likes of Michael Pollan, Harold McGee, Elizabeth David, Madhur Jaffrey and Jane Grigson is joined by an everevolving range of contemporary titles.
“We roll with interests and developments in the food world,” she says, “so where our vegan collection used to be a tiny cluster of books at the end of the vegetarian section, it now takes up three whole shelves.”
Of course, the team here have seen the popularity of countless different ingredients, cuisine types and chefs ebb and flow over time – and this is as apparent in their author events as their book sales. (They often host talks, tastings and even suppers – where the bookshop is turned into a restaurant for the evening – with all kinds of cookery authors, from the high-profile likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigel Slater to lesser-known names and newcomers to the scene.)
“When we first opened we had an event with Mary Berry,” says Kathleen. “I cooked lunch and she bought traybakes. There were about 40 people there. Next time she came, after the first series of Bake Off, we were in a theatre with an audience of 300.”
Middle Eastern-style cookery is a huge trend that the shop has witnessed take off over recent years – Sabrina Ghayor’s Persiana was especially influential in this, says Kathleen. Straightforward, fuss-free cookery also maintains its long-standing appeal.
“The Roasting Tin books by Rukmini Lyer have been bestsellers for ages,” Kathleen says. “They appeal to the way we all want to cook. Oven to table. Simple, quick, tasty.”
Just a couple of the incoming volumes that Kathleen and Saber are excited about for the autumn are Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan and Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter by Nigel Slater – both of which are out in October, and both authors are hosting events at the bookshop in the same month.