Book Review: The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw


Henshaw, S. (2014) The Bookshop That Floated Away Constable ISBN 978 1 47210 805 0


A book about a boat? A boating book? Well neither really, though a boat is central to the story, as are the canals upon which it floats. No, this is a book about books and this true story of how Sarah Henshaw set up a floating bookshop is a rather romantic adventure story that meanders towards a satisfyingly positive and optimistic conclusion. By turns it’s a witty, stubborn, touching and ultimately a rather life-affirming tale of achieving against the odds.


In early 2009 a strange sort of business plan landed on the desk of a pinstriped bank manager. It had pictures of rats and moles in rowing boats and archaic quotes about Cleopatra’s barge. It asked for a GBP30,000 loan to buy a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books. The manager said no. Nevertheless The Book Barge opened six months later and enjoyed the happy patronage of local readers, a growing number of eccentrics and the odd moorhen. Business wasn’t always easy, so one May morning owner Sarah Henshaw set off for six months chugging the length and breadth of the country. Books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities and cake. During the journey, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, floated away altogether. This account follows the ebbs and flows of Sarah’s journey as she sought to make her vision of a floating bookshop a reality.

Book Barge name

This is a book laced with love, from a love of life, through the love of her life; to a love of literature and books in general. The book follows her journey of discovery, both actual and psychological, as she battles to save her floating bookshop The Book Barge from sinking beneath apathy and the much heralded death of independent book selling in the face of Amazon’s juggernaut.


On her six month bookselling and profile-raising journey, books are bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities and cake. Joseph, the 60ft. ‘Book Barge’ suffers a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, was either lost or floated away altogether. Henshaw tells a good story, alternating confidently between lyrical, prosaic and practical, between melancholic and bawdy humour.

The only section that doesn’t work for me is extended parody of Black Beauty written from the point of view of the Book Barge ‘Joseph’. I admit I skipped those thirty-odd pages but thoroughly enjoyed the rest, including the 130 ‘Praise Be!’ statements listed at the end.

A modern fairy-tale, all the better for being pretty much true, well worth a read.

Further Reading:

The backstory, in Sarah Henshaw’s own words, HERE and HERE.

and Reviews




Sarah Henshaw tells her story, on video to the BBC, HERE.

Oh, and the Book Barge website’s HERE.



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