Looking for books
WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN AN HOUR BROWSING THE SHELVES OF A BOOKSHOP? AND WITH IT THE PROMISE OF MORE PLEASURABLE HOURS TO COME
Now that’s a fantastic book!”. I’m flicking through the pages of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: including Books, Street
Fashion and Jewelry in my local bookshop when I get this enthusiastic endorsement from the shop’s owner. I’d have dismissed the book if I’d seen it online – that title, for starters, and the fact that it resembles an auction catalogue, more than a novel. But in my local bookshop, with time and space to browse, and a personal endorsement – I bought it.
I’m so glad I did. Leanne Shapton’s novel tells of the coming together and falling apart of a relationship through objects. And that’s one of the delights of a physical bookshop, being introduced to new things that might not have otherwise crossed your path.
But there’s a lot more that I have to thank this bookshop for. I discovered a new favourite author, Laura Dockrill; I found the first issue of an intriguing looking magazine there – it was
Oh Comely and I now work for it; and when I contributed to my own first book, we held an event there. All that’s not counting the many recommendations and discoveries made there, disproportionate to its modest size. I now live in an entirely different neighbourhood, but I haven’t taken myself off the mailing list, always tempted to make the hour trek for another visit. And that’s the pull of a good bookshop.
Local bookshops are so much more than ‘just’ a shop. They’re community hubs, as well as a way into hundreds of different lives, minds and worlds. Knowing this, a campaign was launched earlier this year to give bookshops the same business tax relief rates as pubs, a bid to protect them from current high-street woes. Since Amazon opened in 1995, more than half the UK’s bookshops have shut. We’ve all ordered online but the best way to support our bookshops is, of course, to visit them in person. They’re the antithesis of the speedy, unthinking
click and buy, allowing you a chance to dip into different styles of writing to see if they appeal – indeed time to give due judgment to a book by its cover. But there’s more. Through their cafes, book clubs or author events, they reflect the passions of their owners, staff and community – look at the ‘beloved bookstores’ illustrated by Jane Mount on these pages, a long way from the unwelcoming den epitomised in the TV series
Black Books. Let’s be heartened by the fact that last year the number of independent bookshops in the UK increased for the first time in a decade (although only by one) – find a local through the indie bookshop week listings at indiebookshopweek.org.uk/ bookshopsearch.
Altogether a different – but no less delightful – beast is the secondhand bookshop. I’ll confess that what really gets my pulse racing is a tiny shop overflowing with teetering stacks of used books, three layers deep. I picture a specific shop when I think about this, one right outside my railway station when I first moved to London, which I always fell into on my way home to cram in an hour of bookish fun before it closed. With each book costing a pound at most, my reading habits were never so diverse.
Secondhand bookstores mean you can sample “oh I’ve never got round to trying” authors without guilt, or rediscover delightful but out-of-print stories. I have a battered list of authors I specifically look out for – recently enhanced by Christopher Fowler’s The Book of
Forgotten Authors (Riverrun), which contains biographies of 99 authors who have fallen from popularity, but are well worth seeking out. Plus, when secondhand book shopping, there’s always an extra frisson of excitement of what else you might discover: notes in the margin, an intriguing inscription, perhaps a hidden love letter – it’s a snooper’s paradise.
Bookshops aren’t just about escaping. They’re also a haven for knowledge, like walking into a living, breathing encyclopaedia. Specialist bookshops do the research for you, waiting for you to come in and scoop up the spoils. What could be nicer than planning your holiday with a bit of primary research in a shop such as Stanfords in London’s Covent Garden? Crime »
aficionados can don their deer stalkers and head to Belfast’s No Alibis, while Bristol’s Arnolfini has all your coffee table/art book needs covered. They can be places for change, too – just look at London’s Gay’s the Word – not only in promoting gay literature but also as a centre for campaigning, as so memorably brought to life in the film Pride.
GO ON A BOOKSHOP CRAWL
The joy of a bookshop outing is that you can get an immense amount of pleasure with a short time commitment. If you have more time on your hands, you could try a bookshop crawl. The UK is blessed with several ‘book towns’ – that’s (usually rural) towns or villages with a high concentration of secondhand book shops. The idea is said to have started in Japan at the end of the 19th century, but perhaps the most famous example is Hay-on-Wye, which became a book town in the 1960s and is especially worth a trip during its annual, world-renowned literary festival. We’ve now also got Wigtown in Scotland, Sedbergh in Cumbria and Atherstone in Warwickshire, with more examples now found around the world. Larger cities probably have enough stores for you to devise a day of bookish browsing for yourself, but if you need a bit of a helping hand, Ninja bookbox organises annual bookshop crawls (see ‘More’ at ninjabookbox.com), to date held in London, Bath, Oxford and Canterbury. And Blue Stocking Books ( bluestockingbooks.co.uk) organises walking tours specifically around inspiring London bookshops.
1 STRAND BOOKS. New York, USA This store in Manhattan’s East Village boasts ‘ 18 Miles of Books’ (which, if you’re wondering, is more than 2.5 million of them). It’s owned by Nancy Bass Wyden, whose grandfather founded Strand Books in 1927. At that time, Fourth Avenue was called Book Row and there were 47 other bookstores nearby. Strand is the only one left.
2 POWELL’S. Portland, Oregon, USA Almost synonymous with Portland with over five Powell’s stores around the area (although the first Powell’s was in Chicago). The flagship store, City of Books, is the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world – and occupies an entire city block.
CITY LIGHTS. San Francisco, California, USA 4 Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, it’s both a bookseller and a publisher. Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges related to his publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (found not guilty) and the store remains closely associated with the Beat poets.
3 BOOKS FOR COOKS. London, UK An institution for hungry fans. The upstairs test kitchen prepares recipes from a chosen title and serves lunch daily to 40 or so enthusiastic foodies.
5 GAY’S THE WORD BOOKS. London, UK When Gay’s the Word Books opened in 1979, much of its stock had to be imported from the States, because the UK didn’t publish enough gay books. In 1984, titles by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood were among those seized under accusations of pornography and conspiracy to import indecent books. The charges were eventually dropped, but no apologies for the wrongful accusations were ever given.
7 SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY. Paris, France The Left Bank store is a tribute to Sylvia Beach’s bookstore of the 1920s, which is famous for publishing Ulysses. George Whitman opened the current incarnation in 1951 – it’s now in the hands of his daughter Sylvia. At least 30,000 writers and artists, including Ethan Hawke, Darren Aronofsky and Geoffrey Rush have been ‘Tumbleweeds’, sleeping on benches-cum-beds tucked into the store’s aisles.
6 TOPPING & COMPANY BOOKSELLERS. Ely, UK Get a free cup of coffee or tea as you browse handsome shelves with well organised books of all kinds, including many signed and collectible editions. Note the signs, hand-written by Mrs Topping herself. Branches can also be found in Bath and St Andrews.
Illustrations & bookshop captions © 2018 by Jane Mount. Extracted from Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany (Chronicle Books).