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Word on the Water

This project is created by Xiaolin Li, MSc Digital Anthropology, University College London '17.


Word on the Water is a floating bookstore on the Regent’s Canal, now permanently mooring around Granary Square. It is one of a kind - not only because it is a novelty in the London book market, but a unique platform bridging various aspects of the urban life in London. This project attempts to explore this unique London market by means of digital technologies, displaying the ethnographic data and anthropological research results through digital media. 


This research focuses on the book market itself and the broader context of London canal. The research questions are as follows:

  • What is the story of Word on the Water's survival and development over the last few years?

  • What is the daily operation of Word on the Water like?

  • Apart from being a bookshop, what other social functions does it have?

  • How does the urban landscape interact with the bookshop?


Books have been considered on the verge of obsolete and so have canals. But these are things people always liked. The canals survived because of that, and so will books and bookstore.

- Paddy Screench

The three owners of the bookshop met on the canal. Paddy had a respectable job when he first moved on to the canal. He was managing the drug consulting service for people who has drug addiction problems, helping them get housing and medical care etc. Paddy had really good education, graduating from English literature major of Oxford University. Before the bookshop, Jon and Paddy used to work together on the street market in Archway selling second-hand books. When the bookshop opened, Paddy quitted his job and worked in the bookshop full time.  

Stephane was also living on the canal when Jon first met him. Stephane has a nickname Noy, because he lost one eye in an accident and the nickname was derived from 'no eye'. They met at a party on the canal. Jon was invited to DJ at the party and Noy helped him out with his equipments with his truck. That was how they met and it turned out that they had a lot in common: they both had kids, both had boats, both liked to party, had similar political opinions, had similar attitudes and beliefs about society and the way of living. They became pretty good friends. Noy was the one who owned a beautiful boat - a 1920s-era Dutch barge that now they used as the bookshop. Noy offered his boat for free on the condition that he was a partner of the business. 

At that time, Paddy and Noy didn't know each other. As Jon said, Paddy and Noy were like opposite end of the spectrum of the kind of people he knew. Noy is a genius in his own way and always sees things differently, while Paddy is well-educated and 'knows what he is talking about'. Jon was like a bridge for their friendship and future business cooperation. He was the one that persuaded the other two guys into the business, giving them courage, energy and commitment. The story of the bookshop all began from their friendship. 



Word on the Water has been floating on the London canal for more than seven years. During these years, the survival and development of the bookstore was a rocky road. It had ups and downs, peace and struggle, before finally settling down on the Regent's Canal in 2017. Click here to see the bookstore's story in mapping.


Click on the picture below and let's take a closer look inside the bookshop.




I volunteered to work in Word on the Water while doing my fieldwork there. I went to the bookshop every Thursday afternoon for 3-4 hours to work with my main informant - the bookshop owner Jonathan Privett, and sometimes I went on Tuesday or Saturday to meet other informants. My fieldwork started from January and ended in April. During the course of my fieldwork, my participant observation focused on the following aspects: the daily life and work on the bookstore of the owners; the daily operation of the bookstore; the customers and visitors of the bookstore; the events held by the bookstore.     


​I conducted interviews with each of my informants, including bookshop owners, customers, writers, musicians, bookshop owners' friends etc. Interviews mostly took place in the bookshop, lasting 10-45 minutes each, and were recorded and later transcribed. 


​During the course of my research, I took photographs, videos and recorded videos to capture the visual senses of the market. Particularly, I made a visual guide of the bookshop along with visual and textual explanations of the details of the bookshop.    


Canalrivertrust.org.uk. (2018). Canal history | Canal & River Trust. [online] Available at: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

Canalrivertrust.org.uk. (2018). Long-term moorings | Canal & River Trust. [online] Available at: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/boating/mooring/long-term-moorings [Accessed 3 Apr. 2018].

Facebook.com. (2018). Word On The Water - The London Bookbarge. [online] Available at: https://www.facebook.com/wordonthewater/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

Hanson, M. (2018). Save Word on the Water, the wonderful floating bookshop. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/08/save-word-on-the-water-floating-bookshop-canal [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

King's Cross. (2018). King's Cross - welcome to the neighbourhood. [online] Available at: https://www.kingscross.co.uk/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

Mappinglondon.co.uk. (2018). London by Water | Mapping London. [online] Available at: http://mappinglondon.co.uk/2014/london-by-water/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

Nordland, R. (2018). London’s Canalboat Bookstore Finds a Berth, and Success. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/29/world/europe/london-canal-bookstore.html [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

Time Out London. (2018). The best boat bars in London. [online] Available at: https://www.timeout.com/london/bars-and-pubs/the-best-boat-bars-in-london [Accessed 2 Apr. 2018].

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