I picked up Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist in December on one of those days when none of my books at home and on my Nook seemed to be enticing enough. When I feel like that I usually go to a book shop – on this particular occasion the Gower Street Waterstones – to browse and look for inspiration. There was (and still is) so much hype around The Miniaturist that I was naturally curious about it… and after flicking through it I decided to give it a go.
And it was a good read – intriguing and slow, in a good way. The kind of slow that makes you want to read more without making you feel that you are missing out when putting the book down and going about your daily tasks. The characters lingered in my mind but I knew they would be there waiting for me in the same place I left them. (I know it sounds silly but some books are so thrilling and packed with action that the minute you put them down you feel you are missing out, that the action is going to carry on without you.) Reading The Miniaturist gave me some rest from all that December rush and last minute shopping; it transported me in to the world of 1686 Amsterdam which at times felt a bit two-dimensional, theatrical … but the setting was different – I don’t think I have read a novel set in Amsterdam before – and I know too little on the topic to question the historical accuracy of the novel. So I just let the book carry me away. I didn’t fall in love with it enough to add it to my ‘re-read list’ but I enjoyed it a lot at the time of reading. Most importantly The Miniaturist inspired me to do two things: 1) to go back to The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker, which I skimmed through for work a while ago but never read it fully, and learn more about the history of sugar trade which The Miniaturist explores to some extent 2) to visit a small, mysterious miniature toy shop in Gospel Oak I once walked past. I started with number two:
It was about two years ago when walked past it and its window display caught my eye. It was so old and dusty I assumed the shop was abandoned. As I stared at the display with fascination – cob-web covered dolls houses and some old-school toys – an old lady opened the door and asked if I wanted to come in. I got a bit flustered. I didn’t have much money on me and I knew I would be the only customer in the shop and would feel obliged to buy something, so I politely declined. But I always regretted that I suppressed my curiosity in that moment and didn’t go in to look around. Especially, when after some research I found a few intriguing stories about this shop and Kristin Baybars who owns it.
When I began reading Jessie Burton’s novel, which features a very magical dolls house indeed, I decided I must visit that shop in Gospel Oak. And I did on the 30th of December, my first day back in London after Christmas. It was cold, grey and very quiet, most of the Londoners were either hibernating or still away on their festive breaks. I doubted the toy shop would be open. But it was! And after knocking on the door (you must knock to be let in, the door isn’t open all the time) a lovely lady let me in. The owner wasn’t there, but her friend or helper was very accommodating and it was mesmerising to look at all those tiny little things stocked around. From mini cutlery to mini Coca-cola bottles and jars of pickles… It was a whole universe of tiny treasures. There was even a mini computer there – the dolls housing industry isn’t staying that much behind!
I had a careful and indulgent look around and bought a bird’s cage to honour Nella’s, Burton’s protagonist’s, beloved parakeet; a sewing machine which reminded me of the one my grandma used to have, and a tiny jewellery box with a ring in it. The shop assistant showed it to me when I jokingly asked if she had any mini-jewels. She sure did and I had to have it! I left charmed by the shop and content with my treasures wrapped up in a small box. There was something immature, childish, in feeling so happy with my mini-purchases, but perhaps that’s why it was so exciting.
The Miniaturist inspired me to visit Kristin Baybars’ toy shop which is one of those places that make me feel how magical London can be. If you live in London you should definitely make a trip there, or watch the short movie ‘This Little Place’ which was filmed there and conveys its atmosphere very well.
I am now planning a visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green which has old dolls houses among their exhibits…