Vive le livre and long live bookworms
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.