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Posts tagged ‘Bookshops’

Bookshops of London and other places

Down a small side street off the King’s Road near Sloane Square there is a small and perfectly proportioned bookshop. It’s cool shady shelves and rich hardback stock is like a glen of sleeping dragons in the heart of London’s brash and bustle. 

Like any good bookshop it is a place of thoughts as much as of sales; a harbour for thoughts, paper bound, cloth bound, shelf-bound thoughts and it is to this, among several other similar harbours (I think of the Edwardian splendour of Daunt Books in Marylebone, the clinking quiet of the London Review Bookshop, the rambling excellence of Foyles) that my idling brain has fled from its daily labour and innocently wondered whether, if there really is an afterlife, it must be as an independent bookseller in London, Paris or Istanbul. 

The richness of London’s book selling scene is that its reading scene can support diversity. In other cities where I have bought books (Moscow, Newcastle and I am told Zurich) books can be prohibitively expensive and small, independent bookshops are if anything a thing of the future having played little part in the past.   

In Beirut, in downtown Hamra, I lived for a while near a newsagent that specialised in adult and second-hand literature with amusing if not enlightening hand drawn cover art. For a tiny city with its share of issues to cope with it was well serviced by bookshops. The Virgin Megastore, rising above the old rubble of the newly re-built Downtown area was packed thick and deep with books of every type and language like a sprawling metaphor for the country. Antoine’s in Hamra was two floors of raw discovery, brimming with students, text books, comic books and sparkling with literary gems. From this delight I mined a sequence of nobel laureates who have come to form my own canon: Calvino, Saramago, Pamuk, Hemingway as well as Kundera, Le Clézio and de Saint-Exupéry. The copy of The Old Man and the Sea which I picked up there is one of my favourites, devouring it in one long gulp on a balcony overlooking the mediterranean sun – all of us sprinting for the horizon. I bought a copy of The Tropic of Cancer from a bookshop in Damascus, nestled in the side of a hotel, as unlikely a place for Henry Miller as for anyone and a copy of Coming up for Air for 10p in a street market near Damascus University. And in their winding, Levantine way, those cities seemed to hold back their greatest discoveries from me – each revelation suggesting another (and rumours of a nightclub with a library, a bookshop on an alleyway down a backstreet on the right past the shawarma restaurant which I could never find and so on).

The bookshopping experience of any city has become like a window to its heart. The large extravagant, Barnes & Noble-type monsters that have failed are no place to buy a book. The small, intimate, even arcane, bookshops like Shakespeare & Co in Paris, like John Sandoe in London (where once they bought and sold books only by weight), like Nomad Books in Fulham or Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market or Simply Foxed at Gloucester Road or any number of second hand and seconds bookshops on the Charing Cross road – these are portals of discovery through which books whisper their secrets to those who are willing to listen.

 London’s book selling scene is a lively hotchpotch of Edwardian galleries, varnished parquet flooring and thick, still air. For those who disagree that the fall of Barnes & Noble and the Amazonisation of everything is the toll of the bell for bookshops it should be the source of great pride to note the expansion of the great British book selling names – six shops of Daunt, six shops of Foyles and one yet to open (and three of those in St Pancras and Westfield of all places), a recently refurbished John Sandoe and independent local bookshops surviving, even expanding, diversifying and supporting a deep-rooted culture of British reading which is second to almost none. And all this as succour to those of us hoping these shops will be there, at least until we die.

The Editors

A book in the long grass (on books and cover)

I have always enjoyed browsing the shelves of a library or a bookshop. I am quite covetous about the physicality of books, I eye them and think about them in the way that some people drool about sausages and steaks or cheeses and wines. Since I was a child I have held this acquisitive relationship with books. There are some bookshops that I cannot go to because the shop is too well judged as a honey trap for the materialist reader. John Sandoe is filled with examples of the cunning conceits of deceptive restraint employed by booksellers to engage the juices of my raw materialism. A quiet, naturally lit, dusty, wooden, cramped shop stacked high with £30 hard back books, some if not many of which are available for free on my Kindle and which are most difficult to resist.

Books are often judged by people’s reactions to them from the outside. If you want to know if you will like a book, it is perfectly natural to turn to a review of it to see how it has been received. The article will likely be a reflection of the reviewer’s own experience of reading the book,  flecked through with anecdotes of childhood and personal interest and hopefully, if skillfully written, flecked through with the essence of the book itself. A good reviewer might lift the review into a piece of writing of itself, something to be enjoyed without recourse to the underlying text if needs be. But ultimately, as a reader looking for a book, you are looking for reflections of the book in the reactions of others. So it is with their covers.

That is why the cover is both the browsing reader’s friend and a mercurial and beguiling enemy. It is no surprise to me that I lusted after a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley when it was first released. The hardback edition of it was one of the most delightful books I have seen in a shop in years. I was on the cusp of buying it several times on the basis of the cover alone. When I finally read a review of it, I discovered that it was a murder mystery set in the D’Arcey household (of Pride and Prejudice). Even the beautiful yellow cover papers and the gentle, matt-touch of the dust jacket with its extravagant black script is not enough to lure me into a new circle of hell reserved in my mind for post-Austen crime novels. I thought I was in love, I was wrong.

The cover of my copy of the The Tin Drum on the other hand, once the horrible dust jacket has been removed, is one of the most delightful objects in my house. A thick rectangle with cream paper bound in red card with black writing stamped on the spine, it looks as edible as a thick slice of victoria sponge cake and its reading makes up in fibre and delight for all the empty calories its exterior, though edible, might suggest. The physical fact of The Tin Drum is only asserted by the copy on my shelf – a work of metaphysical genius, expressed physically to a passing viewer of my shelves as a work of physical beauty. The physical genius of Death Comes to Pemberley is that of a siren, calling me as a reader onto the rocks of its evil beauty.

It was my intention to use this article as a guide for readers looking for books in bookshops. I admit that it is not. “Look at the way the publisher has responded to the book in the choices it has made,” I wanted to say. Instead, I have ranged across just two of my little fictional, dalliances of the last two years. What I have discovered in my commercial promiscuity amongst the many booksellers of London, and can give to you for free, is what you the reader and I the writer already knew: there is no formula to follow in choosing books but to browse and browse and browse the shelves – you will soon come to recognise the books that were made for you, that call to you, that read the way that you wish them to be read but new books come to us by many means and not least of all among them, our curiosity.

The Editors