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Here In Africa: Bookshops I have Know

“All bookshops seem to have this wonderful aura of chummy friendliness,’’ writes book-lover Barbara Durlacher.

I recently joined a play-reading group who put on Helene Hanff’s famous play, 84 Charing Cross Road and greatly enjoyed participating in their activities. Being so immersed in the idea of a characterful bookshop in Charing Cross road, brought back memories of Blackwells Bookshop in Oxford and what a treasure house it is and how, entering those hallowed portals, and stepping over the worn threshold into the inviting interior was like opening the door to wonderland. From the first moment, you are attracted by the stacks of the latest novels; enticed by expensive coffee table books in all their colourful splendour, or inveigled into the purchase of a delicate botanical picture or an interesting looking book as a present for a favourite aunt. Orange and white jacketed Penguins stand alongside Virago Classics, while the sales pitch ‘Three for Two’, makes it almost impossible to resist a clutch of popular paperbacks.

A short extract from Blackwell’s google entry reads:
“It is rare that a bookstore becomes a tourist attraction, but Blackwell's is not just any old bookstore. For one thing, it lays claim to the largest single room devoted to book sales in Europe, the cavernous Norrington Room (10,000sq ft) which boasts three miles of shelves. In truth, Blackwell's is not one Oxford bookstore, but nine! The main store at 48-51 Broad Street is the largest, holding 250,000 volumes, but there are also specialised stores for Art, Music, Rare Books, Paperbacks, Maps and Travel, Medicine, Children's Books, and a University bookstore. The main store also has a large used-books section (but) how, in cramped-for-space Oxford, did Blackwell's manage to create enough space for the Norrington Room? They excavated under neighbouring Trinity College Gardens, that's how! So while students walk and hopefully - study - above, shoppers peruse endless shelves of books underground...”

All bookshops seem to have this wonderful aura of chummy friendliness. I’ve just watched a tv program about Paris and the famous bookshop Shakespeare and Company at 37 rue du Bûcherie which showed this ancient and much loved venue well-known as the place where the talents of writers who later became world famous were first recognised. In its 1920s incarnation the shop was a familiar meeting place for Hemingway, Arthur Miller and others, and the encouragement and help they received from first owner Sylvia Beach was instrumental in many a success. Her efforts were repaid when she and her shop became famous after she managed to persuade a French publishing house to accept James Joyce’s Ulysses when everyone else had turned it down.

To quote from an account in a recent magazine: “Shakespeare & Company is a bookstore like no other. It stands on the Left Bank in Paris, with a view of Notre Dame, and for almost a century its multi-level, labyrinthine rooms have housed thousands of volumes and almost as many struggling artists and writers.

Its eccentric and generous owner, George Whitman (who encourages the myth that he is related to the poet Walt Whitman), occupies a third floor flat in the building. He lives by the rule ‘be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ and seldom turns away anyone who asks for shelter. Beds share the space with books; residents squat rent-free in return for helping with chores, occasionally participating in upstairs tea parties attended by bemused book-buyers and mad poets.”

After the Second World War Beach sold the business to American George Whitman who continued the tradition of friendship and practical assistance she had established. In true bohemian style, George continued to welcome visitors, and cooked large stews and provided a bed for any writer who could not afford alternative accommodation. Anyone could stay if he promised to read a book a day and worked in the shop for a couple of hours. Imagine what a joy it must have been to lie drowsing amongst reminders of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Maugham and how difficult to resist the temptation to read through the night sipping from your best loved books. Imagine how many times when that solitary light gleamed through the hours until the first rays lit the mansard roofs of Pairs the next morning.

At one time Charing Cross road also boasted a whole street full of similar locations. Each crowded bookshop clearly illustrated the owner’s taste with titles a dedicated reader would fall on with silent cries of joy. Tables on the pavement held marked down copies, “remaindered” stock and even some second-hand rarities. These tables were wonderful browsing grounds for an office worker’s lunch hour where one was tempted to spend those last carefully hoarded shillings on an impossible to resist rare bargain. The joy and anticipation of what was to come and then the pleasure of settling down after supper to read Jerome K Jerome’s Two Men in a Boat or an early Elizabeth David with her lyrical descriptions of Mediterranean and French food were irresistible.

Fancy a journey across pre-war Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Time of Gifts? To read this author was to share in his experiences of a unique lifestyle which disappeared for ever with the Second World War. Then, there were Lawrence and Gerald Durrell’s accounts of their lives in Alexandrian Egypt and The White House in Kerkyra (Corfu to the English) in The Alexandria Quartet and My Family and Other Animals or the courage and sense of loss so starkly expressed by Hemingway in his Spanish Civil War epic, A Call to Arms.

All and more of these treasures were to be found on some secluded shelf or dark corner of these wonderful shops. Every dedicated reader knew the shops by name and, if not resident in England or Paris, would have given his eye teeth to spend time browsing through their enormous, and usually irreplaceable, stocks.

Learning from these famously successful models, bookshops have adopted the same format for displaying their wares, and a few years ago attempted to recreate a comfortable “homey” ambience in their shops to encourage customers to linger. Many of the more modern ones have expanded the pleasure with the inclusion of a coffee shop where patrons can peruse the daily newspapers or a book amidst the hustle and bustle of like-minded customers. Here one can buy a coffee, a sandwich or a cake to enjoy while glancing through a possible purchase, and comfortable chairs are another “stay-awhile” feature of the best ones. There’s nothing nicer than relaxing for thirty minutes or so deciding between the rival merits of the latest Booker prize-winner or the biography of a famous person. Or, what about gardening in small spaces; growing cactus or aloes, or the skills needed to breed exotic birds?

Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town in the ‘60s and ‘70s was an example of a truly original ‘literary’ bookshop. The owner in those days had a fund of knowledge about his stock, although his abrupt instructions to “look for yourself”, were off-putting to the novice book-seeker. It was a place where anything and everything could be found and this included, on occasion, several valuable items of Cape Dutch furniture, copper and silverware, to the extent that it was difficult to decide whether it was a junk shop or a bookshop.

Incidentally this owner (rightly famous amongst booklovers) was always barefoot with seriously uncut yellow toenails and a long grey-white ponytail, resembling a relic of the Great Trek. Despite appearances, he traded on the shop’s fame which had reached far and wide, as many British tourists visiting Cape Town from the Union Castle mail-ships made a bee-line for Upper Long Street when they holidayed in that lovely city.

Anything is possible, and with a little imagination and plenty of time, there are many treasures to be found. The spirit of the true Dickensian bookshop lives on and every true booklover knows this is where his heart lies and is more than willing to spend time and money indulging his passion.

Blackwells, Oxford; www.blackwells.co.uk
Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue Bûcherie, Paris: www.shakespeareandcompany.com


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