Vive le livre and long live book­worms

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Summer Reading Special - BRIAN TURNER

WHENI was a young man and trav­el­ling the over­land route to Europe, I first re­alised how book­shops echo their city’s ethos, ec­cen­tric­i­ties and sense of place. In the Ki­plingesque Pak­istani city of Pe­shawar I vis­ited Saeed Book Bank and, af­ter buy­ing a copy of Ge­orge Mac­don­ald Fraser’s Flashman and the Great Game, I asked book­shop pro­pri­etor Ak­bar Saeed — a dis­tin­guished fig­ure in tra­di­tional Pathan tribal dress — if he knew whether Fraser’s charm­ing scoundrel Harry Flashman was based on an ac­tual his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. Saeed has a prodi­gious knowl­edge of the sub­con­ti­nent’s his­tory, but could throw no light on Flashy’s ori­gins.

Fast for­ward nearly two decades: at the Lon­don Book Fair, by then in the book busi­ness my­self, I no­ticed among tweedy Pom pub­lish­ers and suited New York­ers the un­mis­tak­able Pathan-cos­tumed fig­ure of Saeed. His mem­ory is le­gendary and he im­me­di­ately re­called our con­ver­sa­tion. He had since con­cluded that Harry Flashman was mod­elled on real-life 19th-cen­tury In­dian army scoundrel Lieu­tenant Hob­son.

With the Afghan war en­gulf­ing Pak­istan’s north­west, Saeed re­cently re­lo­cated his Pe­shawar book­shop, with its su­perb se­lec­tion of ti­tles on Greco-gand­ha­ran art, to alRehman Cen­tre in Is­lam­abad.

Like Saeed, Pulitzer prizewin­ning author and book­seller Larry Mc­murtry doesn’t care for com­put­ers. ‘‘I have enough tech­ni­cal chal­lenges chang­ing my type­writer rib­bon,’’ grum­bles the author of Lone­some Dove in Booked Up, his sprawl­ing book­store in Archer City, Texas. Nor is self-pro­mo­tion tol­er­ated: Mc­murtry does not stock any of his own 42 books, nor will he sign any copies you may bring with you. And don’t men­tion Kin­dles; but there are 400,000 im­pec­ca­bly se­lected sec­ond­hand ti­tles to browse in four build­ings, all within walk­ing dis­tance of each other. If Archer City looks fa­mil­iar, you prob­a­bly saw it in the Peter Bog­danovich film of Mc­murtry’s The Last Pic­ture Show.

The year 1791 was the worst of times for Ital­ian book­seller Gio­vanni Galig­nani to open a Parisian book­shop: tum­brels were trundling to the guil­lo­tine and heads tum­bling into its bas­ket. He wisely de­parted for Lon­don, mar­ried a printer’s daugh­ter and re­turned in 1801 with his wife and fa­ther-in-law to open the Con­ti­nent’s first English-lan­guage book­shop and pub­lish­ing house, Li­brairie Galig­nani, a Parisian land­mark ever since.

This wel­com­ing book­shop at 224 Rue de Rivoli is still op­er­ated by the Galig­nani fam­ily. Its tow­er­ing oak book­shelves of English and French ti­tles ex­ude a re­as­sur­ing el­e­gance. W. M. Thack­ery worked here as a sub-editor on the English-lan­guage news­pa­per Galig­nani Mes­sen­ger but quit on achiev­ing fame with Van­ity Fair. Man­ager Marie Pac­card shows me the red, leather-bound vis­i­tors’ book: Wordsworth and By­ron were cus­tomers, Her­man Melville dropped by in 1845 to buy a Galig­nani Paris Guide; 99 years later, at the lib­er­a­tion of Paris, war correspondent Ernest Hem­ing­way added his sig­na­ture.

The 13th-cen­tury Do­mini­can church in the heart of the old Nether­lands city of Maas­tricht has un­der­gone var­i­ous con­ver­sions since 1796 when a French army ban­ished its clergy to sta­ble its cavalry horses.

In 2002 the Amsterdam book­shop chain Selexyz com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tects Merkx+girod to trans­form the near-derelict gothic church into a bib­lio­philes’ par­adise. From the former nave, a three-level gallery of black steel book­shelves laden with a prodi­gious range of ti­tles now rises heav­en­wards, where browsers can view the re­cently un­cov­ered me­dieval fres­coes. Sit­ting with other bib­lioidola­tors in the al­tar-turned­cafe, I de­cide this is my earthly book­shop heaven. Brian Turner is a re­tired book­shop man­ager.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.