Bookshop Alchemy

This morning I closed the last page of 18 Bookshops, author Anne Scott was closing the door on the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St London. This slim volume is a paean to eighteen bookshops past and present all with literary or personal importance to the author. Reading these essays it occurs to me that Scott is also describing encounters with bookshop alchemy. Alchemy, according to Robertson Davies in his description of theatre alchemy is “something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been bought into contact with it.” Whether the late great Davies would countenance such comparison I’m uncertain. However, the following passage does indeed suggest a “glory, an expansion of life and understanding”, for Scott, who over the decades was “bought into contact with” Compendium Bookshop in Camden and importantly with bookseller Mike Hart.

“A fellow Scot named Mike Hart arrived to work at Compendium in 1982. On my visits across the next decade, he turned my reading to Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Alastair Gray’s Lanark, and a closer understanding of James Kennaway’s novels. These were all Scottish and easily bought at home: but at Compendium Mike would take a book in his hand, turn it over and think, then open it fast at a page, and read from it, so swift and clean and quiet that I heard the words straight from the writer’s mind, the pretences of paper and print exactly gone. A paragraph, a stanza, and he would finish, leave the book open at the place, and go away”.

The truly book obsessed will, I suspect, agree this happy alchemy is not experienced in every shop, new or used, claiming the status of ‘Bookshop’. Left to fossick to my heart’s content in a newly discovered bookshop my family is often bemused when I emerge moments later declaring miserably “It’s not a real bookshop!” Call me a literary snob if you must, I prefer idealist as I’m invariably on the lookout for the bookshop of my imagination. It is a mix of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret bookshop in New York City, and the long departed Marks & Co. in London.  Although I’ve yet to find this bookshop perhaps, as Seidenberg says, it is “hiding in plain sight”!

As one, among those described by Nicholas Basbanes as the Gently Mad, I unashamedly judge the merits of a particular location relative to whether there is a bookshop, preferably second-hand, within cooee. Pukerua Bay, at the southern end of the Kapiti Coast, is meritorious not because it’s the birthplace of Sir Peter Jackson but because it’s home to Archway Books. The shop sits unassumingly beside its vivacious neighbour; the ice-cream crowned Pukerua Bay Store. Archway’s books beckon quietly. Inside and you are beguiled with shelf after heaving shelf of used books. It also has a shelf marked ‘Books about Books’. Yes, a ‘real’ bookshop.
It seems fitting then that 18 Bookshops was purchased from another ‘real’ bookshop, Smith’s Books in Christchurch. The pop-up shop in the Tannery Emporium, on the corner of Garlands Road and Cumnor Terrace opened in November last year, twenty-one months after the February 22nd earthquake. I greeted owner Barry Hancox with a heartfelt “Thank God you’re back!”

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Although Smiths continued to trade on-line following the quake, I confessed I found little joy clicking on a one dimensional shelf lined with untouchable books. Writing in 2001, publisher and editor Jason Epstein agreed that although Internet booksellers and e-books would fundamentally alter book distribution less certain was how they would change retail bookselling. He pointed out that “a civilisation without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.”  In quake-hit Christchurch the unimaginable happened. Suddenly, either by destruction or decree the city was without Smiths Books, Liberty Books, Fortuna Books, Pacific Books, Scorpio Books and the London St Bookshop in Lyttleton. Lamenting a few broken and inaccessible book-shops seemed trifling; this time death accompanied destruction. I remembered a 1992 London Review of Books cover photograph, it had mesmerised me at the time and I’d seen it again recently in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. It shows three men perusing the shelves of the Holland House library in West London, badly damaged by a fire bomb in 1940.  Manguel’s description of this image now seemed particularly poignant.

From: A History of ReadingAlberto Manguel

From: A History of Reading
Alberto Manguel

“Through the torn roof can be seen ghostly buildings outside, and in the centre of the store is a heap of beams and crippled furniture.  But the shelves on the walls have held fast, and the books lined up along them seem unharmed.  Three men are standing amidst the rubble; one, as if hesitant about which book to choose, is apparently reading the titles on the spines; another, wearing glasses, is reaching for a volume; the third is reading, holding an open book in his hands.  They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction.  They are not choosing the books over life outside.  They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again – among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants – an understanding”.

Why did I feel the loss of these shops so acutely? If I needed a book surely Whitchoulls or Paper Plus would suffice? No. My book buying has always been more than just a market transaction, the book more than merchandise. It dawns on me that ‘real’ bookshops represent how I want to buy books. The atmosphere is different somehow; an egalitarian society of books where the long forgotten rub shoulders with today’s bright young things. I am not assailed by the latest publishing sensation or the ‘must read’ from this week’s celebrity book-club. I feel at home in these shops. A deliberate and pernickety book-selector I’m usually reading against the current as does the splendid Alan Bennett who, when asked about his preferred reading matter said; “If a book is all the rage I tend to wait until the heats gone off it before I read it. I don’t like to be in the forefront with books.” Here there are no remainder tables, no impression of beleaguered book-sellers hurrying unsold stock back to the publisher. The books wait quietly, (it’s they who choose you); their sellers’ patient, knowledgeable and generous. Many of them modern day alchemists pointing out paths to reading perfection.


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