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.