Tag Archives: bookshops

In the Space of a Year

Space is elusive.  It’s slippery, difficult to pin down.  Space is at once personal and public, material and metaphorical.  It can cheer you up or get you down.   Space is political.  It can confine or liberate.  Space is contested and hierarchical.  Of the numerous permutations of space governing our lives, three defined 2015 for me.

  1. Interstitial Space

Accompanying me as I write, is the rough rapid beat of a hammer interspersed with the staccato rhythm of the nail gun.  The musicians responsible, not visible from my vantage point, are perched high in the scaffolding that surrounds our ill-fated chimney.  I am of course resigned to the intrusion, this background music has been playing in the personal and public spaces of post-earthquake Christchurch for nearly five years.  That I’m present at this unsolicited performance is rather more difficult to reconcile.  With an assuredly generous time-frame of nine weeks for requisite EQR (Earthquake Recovery) repairs, we moved out of our home and into rented accommodation at the end of February 2015.  Astonishingly nine weeks ballooned to eight months, necessitating a second move.  Ultimately, with our insurance accommodation allowance exhausted – although, squandered, is closer to the truth of it – on October 17, we returned to a partially repaired home.  Gradually we have reclaimed the garage and the dining-room has been divested of excess furniture, the outliers returned to their rightful rooms.  The lounge, however, remains divided territory, so disappointingly I have not been ‘unpacking my library’. No I haven’t!   Twenty-fifteen was a year of living-between spaces – a metaphoric fluid shift from the intracellular space that is home, to the interstitial space – where you and your stuff don’t really belong.  But it is, as Seneca observed, “the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide”[i] And so, as 2016 begins, we remain – like many other families in this city – in a state of disequilibrium, homeostasis not yet restored.


  1. Empty Space

“One day there is life…And then, suddenly, it happens there is death”,[ii] opens Paul Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man, written following the sudden death of his father.  Auster’s narrative, the first section of his book The Invention of Solitude, is part meditative, part forensic investigation, and it was this I reached for and reread in the days following my father’s death on April 2nd, casting aside Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, – an equally affecting account of the impact of a father’s death – which ironically, I was half way through when Dad died.  That I relinquished MacDonald in favour of Auster, had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with utility.  I needed a mirror.  And on the Richter scale of grief, MacDonald’s seemed at a magnitude far greater than mine, while Auster, dry-eyed and accepting, came closer.  Auster’s father was in good health when he died, my dad had small cell lung cancer, with local spread into the mediastinal lymph nodes at the time of his diagnosis in June 2014.  But, like Auster’s father, dad also, had died suddenly.  Swiftly, confounding even the doctors and nurses at the hospice, to which he’d been admitted two days prior, for symptom management.  Abruptly, and without undue fuss, dad it seemed, had just disappeared.  In the days subsequent, bereft and struggling to assemble him again for the eulogy I must write, I wondered if dad had ever really been here.  And that’s not to say he shirked the responsibilities that came with marriage – he and mum were just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary when he died – and fatherhood.  But, to me at least, dad was always just out of reach; inscrutable.   I reread Portrait of an Invisible Man, to both absolve and console myself.  That it was alright to feel as if you’d never really known your father, because, as Auster wrote, “If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”[iii]  I’d found Auster’s narrative more than twenty years ago.  It was revelatory.  Insofar as, in Auster’s portrayal, certain words, certain passages, were like windows through which I would catch glimpses of my father.  Even to the story Auster recounts, when his father – described as “always a man of habit”[iv] – in the week after shifting house, absentmindedly returned to their former home, made his way upstairs and lay down in the bedroom as he typically did before dinner, all the while blissfully unaware that anything had changed.  Remarkably, dad – also a man of habit – had done almost the exact same thing, but realising his mistake, somewhat sooner than Auster’s father, had stopped short of opening the front door.


Caroline Bay Carnival Christmas 1968

Although the trajectory of their lives differed – Auster’s father was divorced and, at the time of his death, had lived alone for fifteen years – as children, both had survived significant events.  And, as Auster speculated, “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.”[v] It was only after his father’s death, and quite by chance, that Auster discovered his grandmother had murdered his grandfather.  I, on the other hand, had grown up knowing something of dad’s story.  His mother died soon after his birth and his British born father returned to England.  So, effectively orphans, dad and his older brother, were taken into care.

I had reached for Portrait of an Invisible Man seeking absolution and consolation, but in rereading what I really found was some perspective.  Whether because of, or in spite of, the circumstances of those formative years, dad wore life with equanimity.  And perhaps, in the end that was all I needed to know.


  1. Breathing Space

Yes, it was a holiday, but it was also a means of escape from the diet of disinformation fed to us by EQR for the past seven months.  We sought refuge in Wellington for a week at the end of September.  And needless to say, I resolved to visit as many bookshops as time – and family patience – would allow.  I reasoned it would be an antidote to EQR-angst, a salve for the spirit.  Thankfully the capital is blessed with many fine bookshops and, as I discovered, book hunting adventures boosted by a new publication, Book Wellington: The Booklover’s Guide to the Capital, designed by Fitz Beck Creative.  Whimsically described, “like a pub crawl for books” by the Association of New Zealand Booksellers, the map offers the truly obsessed with directions to, and descriptions of, eighteen bookshops.  Familiar with many of them, I began my pilgrimage at a favourite, Pegasus Books, situated on the Left Bank of Cuba St.


Pegasus Books Left Bank Cuba St Wellington


Spread over a warren of rooms, John Hoskins bouquinerie offers a rich array of books, from antiquarian to nearly new.  I lingered contentedly amongst shelves that served a bouillabaisse of Poetry, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Classics, Mythology and much more besides, before chatting briefly with John.  A bookseller for fourteen years – Pegasus first stamped its hoof in Newtown – John was upbeat about the book business, telling me he saw no sign of a downturn.


Pegasus Books Wellington



Pointing enthusiastically towards a stack of booklets atop a low shelf, just across from his desk, he asked if I’d be in town long enough to catch some of the events at the inaugural Featherston Booktown, of which he would be part.  Sadly, I would not.  Nonetheless, I popped one of the rather eye-catching black and white booklets into my bag as I was leaving, at least I could read about what I would miss.

I journeyed on further up Cuba St, bound for The Ferret Bookshop, where I would, as owner Terry encourages, poke my nose in.


The Ferret Bookshop Cuba St Wellington

Opening its doors in 1979, happily, The Ferret can boast of longevity not enjoyed by its mammalian namesake.  And although requisite earthquake strengthening over the past few years has twice seen The Ferret scurry further up the trouser leg of Cuba St, Terry’s eclectic collection of books remains constant.  Tucking my purchase, the first UK edition of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, into my bag, I left The Ferret and headed back down Cuba St towards Manners St and Arty Bees Books.


The Ferret Bookshop Wellington

With acres of space in which to house more than 100,000 books, Arty Bees is, as it claims, the largest independent seller of new and used books in Wellington.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Arty Bees, never mind, because you’re bound to find other books you didn’t know you were looking for.


Arty Bees Books Wellington

But, if you find yourself truly out of your depth, as I did on a second visit with my teenage son Max, happily, help is never far away.  Matt Morris, Sci-Fi sage and Arty Bees manager – although alchemist better describes what it is that Matt does.  Let me illustrate.  We arrived at the counter and I asked Matt if he could suggest some Sci- Fi titles.  He turned to Max, smiled and asked with alacrity, “robots or magicians”, (it was magicians) “action or beautiful worlds”, (it was beautiful worlds).  Then he stepped from behind the counter, and with a wave of his arm, said “follow me, young man”.   And with that they were gone.   After much deliberation with Matt, Max settled on Magician by Raymond E. Feist, while I jotted down names of the other authors Matt recommended; Fritz Leiber, David Eddings, and Elizabeth Moon. 


Arty Bees Books Wellington

We left Arty Bees carrying books and wearing smiles.  “That guy was quite cool” Max ventured.  I nodded in wholehearted agreement, and told him he’d probably just experienced that wondrous phenomenon, bookshop alchemy.  Those serendipitous, magical moments that no algorithm can replicate because, they’re intrinsically human.  And why, often when you leave one of these sacred spaces you feel in possession of a gift rather than a purchase.


[i] Seneca. The terrors of earthquakes. From Natural Questions, in Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by, C.D.N. Costa, 2005, Penguin Books, London, pp. 112-113.

[ii] Auster, Paul. Portrait of an invisible man, in The Invention of Solitude, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p.5.

[iii] Ibid., pp.19-20.

[iv] Ibid., p.8.

[v] Ibid., p.36.


Three Cities and a Bookshop

Possessing a sharp eye for spotting a bookshop, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealing in: All Kinds of Old & Rare Books in Urdu & Persian, came briefly into view from the mini-bus window.  As far as I’m concerned no holiday is quite complete without discovering at least one bookshop.  New Delhi it seemed would be no different.  Although requesting a stop in the middle of a congested New Delhi road just to satisfy my bibliophilic idiosyncrasies did seem foolhardy, particularly as I am unable to read either Urdu or Persian. So whether – apart from their signage – Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, dealt in any kind of English books would, for the meantime, remain a mystery[i].


I was not discouraged.  On the contrary, this first sighting of genus bookshop was an auspicious start considering I’d resolved to go cold turkey for this family trip to India.  Travelling with youngsters meant concessions must be made.  There just wouldn’t be time for circuitous journeys in search of bookshops.  Consequently I had not compiled my usually extensive list of book locales at our intended destination.

Our holiday was necessarily organised and of manageable duration.   We’d taken our cue from that little known 17th century travel advisor, Francis Bacon who remarked, “Travel, in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.”  Further salutary advice issued in Of Travel served as a blueprint for our journey.  Just as Bacon championed the holiday diary, so too had Ali, presenting both children with a small diary in which to record their experiences along the way. As Bacon recommended, the ‘book’ “describing the country where he travelleth” – ours was the Eyewitness India Travel Guide – was packed and even while struggling to grasp the brevity of our 21st century travel itinerary, he would nonetheless be satisfied his requirement that one should, “not stay long in one city or town; more or less as the place deserveth, but not long”, would indeed be met.  And of his suggestions for “the things to be seen and observed”, our seven day Golden Triangle Tour: New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra encompassed a fair proportion: “the walls and fortifications of cities and towns”, “antiquities and ruins”, “treasuries of jewels and robes; cabinets and rarities”.  As well as all this seeing and observing we would also be doing: an elephant ride to the Amber Palace and a cycle rickshaw ride through the snaking streets of Old Delhi.

But as Sanjeev, our driver – although automotive contortionist is perhaps a more apt description of the driver’s art in India – manoeuvred the mini-bus through the interstices of an incessant traffic flow, both Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu and my pre-departure resolve evaporated.  Hadn’t Bacon said something about seeing bookshops?  Of course encased in our tour cocoon the opportunities for breakout were limited, but on New Year’s Day our last day in New Delhi – the tour officially over – suitably armed with city map and directions to New Ashok Nagar, the nearest station, we took ourselves to town.  Eight stops later the Delhi Metro disgorged us and a steady stream of other New Year’s Day travellers at Barakhamba Road.  Trusting our map and Ali’s innate sense of direction, the numerous offers of ‘help’ by persistent navigational salesmen were politely rebuffed as we headed towards Connaught Place.  Our walk, however, proved further than anticipated and in retrospect we probably should have got off the metro one stop later at Rajiv Chowk, the Inner Circle of Connaught Place.   Wishing us a “Happy New Year”, a passing New Delhiite stopped and asked where we were headed.  Mindful of our limited time his offer to hail us a tuk tuk was now gratefully accepted.  An hour later with various purchases made – some obligatory, others not – and gaining precious extra minutes on three wheels rather than two feet, I asked the driver to take me to a bookshop.  Looking utterly bemused and perhaps fearing he had somehow misheard me, he queried “you want to go to a bookshop Madam?” A firm but friendly, “absolutely, yes please” left him in no doubt about my intentions.  Once again, like The Taxi that Hurried he whisked us away, propelling his tidy little yellow and green tuk tuk through the crowded streets.  We were jiggled and jerked on its only seat until suddenly he stopped and we tumbled out.   From across the road I spied the Jain Book Agency and after a seven day abstinence, hurried headlong towards it.

SAMSUNGClimbing single file, the narrow staircase led us to a small room in bloom with books.  Tending this literary garden were two gentlemen who greeted us warmly, “Namaste, Happy New Year” and somehow managed to make room for four more among this profusion of paper.  I spent a happy half-hour surveying the shelves, eventually realising this tiny space was an annexe of the much larger shop two doors down.  This was filled with all manner of books from Indian law, politics, and education to Indian railways.  Finally, with only one book in hand – the 2014 New Delhi edition of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin with Indrajit Hazra – my family ushered me to the door. SAMSUNG

Ali had set her sights on the Janpath Market.  Unbeknown to me this perambulation would also lead to New Bookland.  Perhaps just because it was New Year’s Day, this quirky circular bookshop, on the edge of the Janpath Market, wasn’t open when we arrived and its booksellers only just setting up as we were leaving, no matter a photograph would suffice.  SAMSUNGAs we made our way back to the station I felt quietly content, recalling that Bacon had also encouraged travellers to see and observe “whatsoever is memorable in the places where they go”.  And even though I’d glimpsed but a fraction of New Delhi’s bookshops and book markets those that I did see and observe were indeed memorable.




[i] Since returning home I can confirm, thanks to Mayank Austen Soofi’s 2013 article, The Old Delhi Dictionary, Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, founded in 1939, does indeed stock English language books.  Another lovely find was a December post from Glory to Ruins titled, The Urdu Charisma of Calligraphy, a conversation between the author and Khatib Mohammed Ghalib, owner of Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu, about the dying art of Urdu calligraphy.

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.