Tag Archives: bookshops

Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.


The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy



Filed under Kurkov Andrey, Non Fiction, Smith Ali

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse–A book that gave me ideas about…books.

I recently read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and if you want to read the full review, go to Mostly Fiction.

Just a brief synopsis. The plot concerns a bookshop in Paris which sells only ‘good’  books. A marketing strategy you cynically ask? Well perhaps, but the shop is the brainchild of two idealistic, avid readers, Van and Francesca who are both disillusioned with the publishing industry and bookshops. From this disillusionment, the idea grows to open a bookshop  called The Good Novel that sells “All the books no one is talking about”–this boils down to selecting titles that may or may not be in print but are some of the best books out there.

I initially felt a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I could see an elitism forming right before my eyes, and I bristled at the idea of people telling me what is and isn’t good. Of course it would be naive to think that this isn’t already taking place in the book world, and so I empathise with the frustration of these fictional characters. After all, I recently went to what is considered a decent book shop armed with a list of books published by the smaller publisher houses. I came back empty-handed. The idea of elitism, by the way, is addressed by the comparison of The Good Novel to any niche bookshop–let’s say a shop that sells only SF or mystery novels.

I relaxed when Van and Francesca asked 8 mostly under-appreciated writers to form a secret committee with each member submitting a list of the best 600 books they’ve ever read. The books are crossmatched, a master list is generated, and the bookshop is then stocked from the master list. The plot follows what happens to the shop and its owners, and as you can imagine some people (rejected authors) are rather pissed off when they discover (the horror, the horror) that their books are glaringly absent.

OK, now to the stuff I want to mention here. The story is a mystery, but underneath the mystery are some really interesting ideas about publishing; hence this blog post.  The bookshop creates a place that readers naturally gravitate to for their books. Van says:

“We are aiming to reverse the precedent between supply and demand. It’s not demand that’s going to lead, but offer. People will come through the door of the bookstore because they know they can find a rare selection of novels there, in addition to the regular titles they might be looking for. And then they’ll visit the website in a similar frame of mind.”

I chewed that over. Supply and demand…supply and demand…and then I started thinking about how, in the last few years, my spending habits have changed when it comes to the books I buy and read. For example, I rarely buy in bookshops anymore. Why? Because the ones I go to don’t stock what I want. While I still enjoy the small poky bookshops, the bigger chains are nightmares for readers like me. There are kids running around screaming, piles of sticky unshelved books, and there are far too many copies of books I know I’d loathe being shoved in my face. Plus the fact that even though there’s lots of stock, there are very few books that actually have much appeal.

I used to go the library and look for favourite authors or through the new releases. My local library has become an unpleasant place to hang out, and the selection seems narrow. Part of this explanation could be that at this point we are talking about sheer cumulative reading. Here’s an example: I read a lot of Simenon. My library has a few volumes on the shelf but I’ve read them all.

That takes me back to the sorts of books I am looking for.  These days when it comes to new releases I seem to be most interested in the books from the smaller presses. Just as I know Harlequin does not publish anything I’m interested in, over time I’ve identified publishers who consistently produce books that match my tastes.

Europa Editions published A Novel Bookstore. It’s a French book and according to those in the know, only 3% of the books sold in America are books in translation. Perhaps the current wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers will change that number. I hope so. Not that I am interested in stories of women who get sanitary towels shoved down their throats, but I think that it may cause publishers to ease up a bit and start looking for other books that might sell as well.

Bitter Lemon Press, Serpent’s Tail, Pushkin Press, OneWorld, Dedalus, Hesperus, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books Classics are all publishers I try to follow. I know I’ve left out some names. The smaller presses don’t have the money or the clout of the big houses, and what’s even more annoying they sometimes don’t even appear in the bookshop. So publishers if you read this, GET A SUBSCRIPTION NEWSLETTER GOING through your website. If you want us to buy your books, then connect with us.  I don’t buy every book that comes from NYRB, but when I get their newsletter, chances are I’ll buy something.

Another idea that came through in A Novel Bookstore was the idea of subscriptions (as in a type of book club)–customers sign up and then are automatically sent titles from the bookshop . In the case of the fictional Paris bookshop, this was a bit dodgy as people could feasibly have already read some of the titles on the shelves. But again, this got me thinking. Hard Case Crime had a book club (Hard Case Crime is on hiatus at the moment as Dorchester moved solely to e-book format). I was a member of the Hard Case Crime book club, and it was a really great idea. I never knew what they would send me every month, but I can tell you that I was never disappointed.

And now a final observation. I read a fair number of crime books. I’m not in publishing so I’m not in the know  but I can tell you that something is happening in the world of crime fiction. I hope it’s a movement. Crime publishers are connecting with crime writers and crime readers. Are readers of crime fiction more organised or are they just more devoted? Here’s Stark House Noir who are producing some classic noir that’s largely forgotten along with their first exclusive novel Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella.


Filed under publishing