Browse: The World in Bookshops

Browse: The World in Bookshops


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A celebration of the greatest kind of shop in the world, by an award-winning cast of writers including Ali Smith, Michael Dirda, Elif Shafak and Daniel Kehlmann.

A cabinet of curiosities, a time machine, a treasure trove - we love bookshops because they possess a unique kind of magic. In Browse, Henry Hitchings asks fifteen writers from around the world to reveal their favourite bookshops, each conjuring a specific time and place. These inquisitive, enchanting pieces are a collective celebration of bookshops - for anyone who has ever fallen under their spell. Contributors include Alaa Al Aswany, Stefano Benni, Michael Dirda, Daniel Kehlmann, Andrey Kurkov, Yiyun Li, Pankaj Mishra, Dorthe Nors, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Elif Shafak, Ian Sansom, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Saša Stanišic, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

A dazzling collection of original essays about the bookshop by fifteen bestselling international authors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782272120
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 584,325
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Henry Hitchings is an award-winning writer, reviewer and critic. He has written for the Guardian, London Review of Books, TLS, Financial Times and New Statesman, and is currently the Evening Standard's theatre critic. He is the author of several acclaimed books on language, literature and culture, including Dr Johnson's Dictionary, How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read and The Language Wars. In 2008, he was shortlisted for the title of Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and in the same year his book The Secret Life of Words won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award.

Read an Excerpt


The World in Bookshops

By Henry Hitchings

Pushkin Press

Copyright © 2016 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78227-212-0


Bookshop Time Ali Smith

From time to time over the past few years I've done volunteer stints a few hours a week selling books at our local Amnesty International second-hand bookshop, Books for Amnesty. I live in a university town in the south of England and the book donations that come in, sometimes seven or eight in a plastic bag, sometimes a whole vanful, a house clearance, someone's whole library, are endlessly interesting, tend towards the eclectic and are almost always unexpected repositories of the lives they've been so close to.

Open this copy of Ballerinas of Sadler's Wells (A. & C. Black Ltd, 1954) with its still bright-orange-after-sixty-years cover and its black and white photo of Margot Fonteyn on the front, its original price of six shillings on the back (now selling at £2). In blue ink on its first page, in neat child's handwriting: Christmas 1954 To Caroline From Christopher. Tucked in beside this there's a postcard of a swaggering tabby cat wearing a collar, and written on the back of it in an adult hand in faded blue, DARLING CAROLINE, PLEASE do send me a list of things you would like to have so that I can have some help to find YOU a birthday present. I shall be stopping at LIZZIE'S next week so please tell Nannie that my address will be Trumpeter's House. Lots of love xx from Mamma xxxxx I thought Papa's present from you lovely.

Or inside The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini (Allen and Unwin, 1930) a ticket, single, dated 20th July 1936, Chatham and District Traction Company.

Or inside an American first edition of The Buck in the Snow by Edna St Vincent Millay (Harpers and Brothers, 1928) a business card for Miss Katzenberger's Piano Lessons and an address in Queens, New York.

We leave ourselves in our books via this seeming detritus: cigarette cards with pictures of trees or wildlife; receipts for the chemist; opera or concert or theatre tickets; rail or tram or bus tickets from all the decades; photographs of places and long-gone dogs and cats and holidays; once even a photo of someone's Cortina. Now when I donate books to the shop I have a flick through to make sure that anything tucked into them isn't something I might mind losing.

The volunteers, like the books, are of all ages and all lifewalks. They all have some things in common; they're doing this for nothing, for Amnesty, most of them because they really love books, many of them because they love the shop, and all of them because they're community-minded. It's quiet in there, browsy, passers-by getting out of the rain, regulars who love the place and know that its stock can be curiously timely — it's not unusual to hear someone exclaim out loud at finding just the book she needs or he's been looking for all this time — and the occasional rogue, like the slightly drunk man who chatted to me for a bit at the cash desk then said, as he left: I was actually planning on shoplifting from here but since you're Scottish I won't. I called after him as he went out the door: If you're going to shoplift don't do it from a charity shop, for God's sake. He gave me a wave and a smile through the window.

Here are some of the things he could've lifted that day. A Leonard Woolf novel called Sowing, signed inside Elizabeth from Leonard, Christmas 1962 (the Leonard who wrote it?). Another Leonard, a biography of Bernstein, definitely signed by the actual Leonard himself in a sloping hand. A copy of Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, signed and dedicated by Munthe to Lady Astor. A ragged copy of A Girl Like I by Anita Loos, in which someone has scrawled in claw-hand on the first page, pArts Of tHis boOk are VERy sAD.

For every book I donate myself — and this is the problem with a shop like this — a new-bought old book or two, or three or four, tend to come home with me. So much for culling. But what can you do, when you pick up Hunter's Guide to Grasses, Clovers and Weeds, 1978 (now £3); flick through it and find out that there are kinds of grass called Timothy and Lucerne, that Timothy came from the US in the 1720s, and Lucerne can't be hurt by drought because its roots go so deep? Or 1964's National Rose Society Selected List of Varieties (now £2.50); open it at any page and look what happens: Oberon, Ohlala, Old Pink Moss, Opera. Ophelia. Optimist, the. The entry after Optimist, the, simply says: "See Sweet Repose".

My favourite find so far has been a copy of Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers, not worth much in money terms, apparently, being a second edition. But open it and on its first page someone's stuck a photograph, a young woman in a bathing suit sitting in long grass by the bank of a river, looking in a mirror to do her make-up. Above it, in black ink, in a sweeping hand, F.N.LW. from P.A. Sept. 1933. The first bit of the book has been well-read. The later pages are still uncut.

Then there's the Frescoes from Florence exhibition catalogue 1969, an Arts Council publication covering the late 1960s European tour. This book, I'd noticed, comes in quite regularly. It always sells. When I saw the third or fourth copy come in I picked it up and leafed through it at the desk. "As is explained by Professor Procacci in his introduction, the removal of these frescoes often laid bare the underdrawing, or sinopia, beneath." I opened it at a page where there was a description of a sinopia in which a woman was holding a small boy by the hand, "later eliminated by the artist, who painted over that portion".

The restorers uncovered him, invisible for centuries, and there all along.

All the years I was growing up, Melvens was the only bookshop in Inverness. It did a roaring trade in tourist books, books about the Jacobites and Mary Queen of Scots, books with "the Surgeon's Photograph" of the Loch Ness Monster on the cover. My father's electrical goods shop was about two minutes away, and when I was a small child I used to hang around Melvens trying not to be noticed, the afternoons between school and the end of the working day when I was waiting for a lift home in the car. It was pointless to pretend to be a bona fide customer when you're only eight, have no money and anyway everyone working in the shop knows you're Smith the electrician's youngest girl, in here again.

Still, I managed to read a lot of books without getting thrown out. Ghosts and Hauntings: it was full of real photographs of real ghosts! The book about the Brahan Seer, the ancient man who could see the future through a little hole in a stone he kept in his pocket, who foresaw the Clearances and the Second World War and the coming of the oil industry. He foresaw the infidelity of the husband of his patroness, the rich woman up at the big house, but when he told her about it she was so angry she rolled him down a hill in a burning barrel of tar, but not before he'd foretold the tragic downfall of her whole family and all its descendants, and flung his stone into the sea with the prediction that only a strange and misshaped child of the far future would ever find it again. Highland Folk Tales: like the one about the man who killed his friend so he could steal his money, and buried the body under a big stone at the side of the road, then years later was eating his dinner with a set of cutlery whose handles were made of bone, and the bones he held in his hands began to speak, we are the bones of the friend you killed, they said, and he looked down and his hands were covered in blood.

But this isn't a library — even the nicer woman who worked there had to chase you by saying it, it was her job, and books were dear, I mean expensive. Though that they were dear with the other meaning of dear was clear to me too because of the way my mother and father respected books. Money's never wasted on a book, my mother'd say. One of the very few things that she'd kept with her from her childhood all the centuries back was a small blue book marked with the stamp of the school she attended till her father died and she had to leave to go out to work, Rip Van Winkle, about the man who falls asleep for a hundred years. That book, with her name on it from before she'd married our father, was tucked at the back in her wardrobe in behind the clean rows of shoes, and one sunny June afternoon when I was nine, recovering from a bad case of mumps and had been off school for three weeks, she sent me up town by myself to test how well I was, by giving me five shillings and telling me to buy whatever I wanted with it in Melvens.

The special aura of the new-owned book, the healthy shine and promise of it: as I came into adolescence, lucky for me Melvens opened a new downstairs room full of poetry and fiction, which is where I bought my first Lawrence, Mann, de Beauvoir, Hardy, Spark, Dickinson, Stevie Smith, the bright bright orange of Plath's Johnny Panic, the L.P. Hartley trilogy about the people with the ridiculous names, and where I first understood that bookshops were also something to do with a differently layered understanding of who you might be, since the people who knew me a bit from life in general, or knew my mother and father or sisters and brothers, but then saw me browsing by myself downstairs in Melvens, regarded me differently afterwards — very like one of the girls in the year above me at school had started treating me differently when she worked out that I didn't just know who Joni Mitchell was, but that I knew all the lyrics off the Blue and Court and Spark albums — and though I knew immediately it was a sort of snobbery, well, it was one I rather liked.

My English teacher caught my eye one day on the way out of class. There's a shop opened in town I think you'll like, she said. She told me there was a new second-hand bookshop, in a small room up the staircase next to the Market Bar.

My mother looked aghast when I told her. The Market Bar! she said. I'm not going to a bar, I said. It's a shop. It's called Leakey's.

The smell of paperback ink and paper was its own intoxication. The books seemed to tower higher than the room. I went, and so did most of the money I earned on a Saturday, £10 a day working in the restaurant at Littlewoods where the other Saturday girls made fun of me for spending my pay packet on so many books every week, and the full-time women were unexpectedly kindly about my being so bookish. What did you get this time? John Wyndham. H.G. Wells. Joseph Conrad. Epictetus. Turgenev. Graham Greene. Anything. Everything. A thick green Tennyson collection I saw on the shelf in there one day then had a dream about that night; I told my mother about the dream the next morning. Here, she said to me the next time I was going across town, holding out a note, her purse open in her hand. Buy that book you dreamed about.

I still have most of the books I bought at Leakey's, which had moved from its staircase to a riverfront store many times the size of the narrow room, and happens right now to be one of Inverness's true attractions, one of Scotland's largest collections of second-hand books and maps, and a stunning and welcoming and balconied book-lined paradise with a huge log-burning stove at the heart of it, the promise of something warm to eat always in the air, still at home nearly forty years on in a huge converted church tucked behind the river bank.

I remember reading a piece by Larkin where he writes about how — forgive my paraphrase — if you allocate every ten years of lived life, say, to a weekday, say Monday is the first day of the week and it goes from nought to ten years, and Tuesday from ten to twenty, and Wednesday from twenty to thirty, and so on — then an understanding of where we are in a life will produce a pretty sober vision of the weekend. Myself I've gone from one end of the country to the other and from Monday to Saturday — and I'm still spending my Saturday money in Leakey's. A couple of years ago I was searching for a copy of George Mackay Brown's first collection of poems and I filled in one of those online alert me forms in case one ever turned up, though I wasn't that hopeful — 1954, quite rare, very slim, paperback, not very many published. Late one evening — ping — an email in the inbox. The Storm. George Mackay Brown. Seller: Leakey's Bookshop, Church St, Inverness.

I bought it immediately. Mr Leakey, with whom I have, for forty years, been on polite nodding terms but with whom I've never spoken much more than a hello, a thank you and a goodbye, sent me this email back from his bookshop — one of the best bookshops of my life, now one of the best in the world. The decades are piling up around us, he wrote. And it is a nice copy. It falls into that (distressing, large) category of books that one will see once, if one is lucky, but not again.

May we all have such luck in our bookshops.


Something that Doesn't Exist

Andrey Kurkov

Marina Libanova has a round face and curly blond hair. I don't know how old she is or how old she was when I met her fifteen years ago during my first ever visit to Chernivtsi, in the middle of the Bukovina region in the south-west of Ukraine, where I gave a talk in the intimate surroundings of her little shop Bukinist (from the French word bouquiniste, meaning seller of used and antiquarian books). She was about forty-nine then, and she's about forty-nine now. I can just tell. If you've never been to Chernivtsi — and I'm almost 100 per cent certain that you haven't — all I will say is that a hundred years ago the city's bookshops used to sell books in German, Romanian and Yiddish. And the majority of the city's inhabitants spoke German right up to the end of the First World War — it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after all. When the empire was replaced by the Romanian monarchy, German was superseded by Romanian in terms of both the spoken and the literary language of the city. A great deal has happened since then. The only problem is that the city's history has been chronicled principally by poets. There have always been too many poets in Chernivtsi; prose writers, on the other hand, have always been in short supply. This is still the case today, a quarter of a century after European political history, with its customary audacity and lack of manners, "drove" the city and its inhabitants out of the Soviet Union and into an independent, post-Soviet Ukraine.

I can clearly remember this 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 any more. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival. After the first couple of years of independence following the collapse of the USSR, out of one hundred bookshops in Kiev just ten remained. I was particularly upset about the closure of Poetry — the only shop in the city that sold nothing but collected works of poetry. During the Soviet era, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I found a book there called The Ballads of Kukutis, by the Lithuanian poet Marcelijus Martinaitis. I looked through it, read a few poems and bought it straight away. It cost me 79 kopecks. Or maybe I'm getting my numbers mixed up ... Maybe this happened in 1979? Memory is an unreliable thing. Selective memory is different, though. I can still remember several poems from this collection, word for word. The reason I remember them is because at the time I set those I liked best to music and turned them into songs, which I then sang, accompanying myself on the piano. I must have turned at least twenty of these poems by Marcelijus Martinaitis into songs. I still sing a couple of them, even now. I liked the poetry so much that I immediately assumed the author was long dead. It always seemed to be the case: I would discover some poems that I liked and do a bit of research on the author, only to find out that he had died. Always in that order. Which led me to the conclusion that good poetry cannot be written by living authors. So I didn't even bother trying to find out anything about Marcelijus Martinaitis. Then in 2004 I happened to discover that he was, in fact, alive! But I'll come back to that shortly.

For now, let us return to Bukinist, Marina Libanova's bookshop in the centre of Chernivtsi. Originally, before Marina's time, it was just an ordinary Soviet bookshop selling ordinary Soviet books. Then, all of a sudden, the Soviet Union collapsed, shattering into pieces and passing into history. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist but this little shop survived, weathering the crisis more successfully than bookshops in larger cities. Why? Because the crisis was like the "pause" button on a tape recorder or, in more contemporary terms, like the "pause" symbol of a digital music app on the screen of an iPhone or an iPad. Nobody cancelled it by pressing "play". The thing is, a pause in the development of society that is brought about by crisis has certain characteristics. People run out of money, and in order to survive they start selling things they don't need. Then they start selling things they can live without, and then, if the crisis shows no sign of abating, they start reluctantly selling things they would rather not sell at all. Domestic libraries occupied a special place in the Soviet value system; consequently they were viewed as treasured heirlooms for the older generation to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, who were expected to value them as much as the family silver and considerably more than the legacy of a twelve-place dinner set made by the German company Unger & Schilde after nationalization.


Excerpted from Browse by Henry Hitchings. Copyright © 2016 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

C o n t e n t s

Introduction: A Place to Pause

Henry Hitchings

Bookshop Time

Ali Smith

Something that Doesn’t Exist

Andrey Kurkov

The Pillars of Hercules

Ian Sansom

A Tale of Two Bookshops
Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Leitner and I
Saša Stanišić

All that Offers a Happy Ending Is a Fairy Tale
Yiyun Li

If You Wound a Snake…
Alaa Al Aswany

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Snow Day
Michael Dirda

Dussmann: A Conversation
Daniel Kehlmann

La Palmaverde
Stefano Benni

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress
Pankaj Mishra

Dorthe Nors

Bohemia Road
Iain Sinclair

My Homeland Is Storyland
Elif Shafak

Writers’ Biographies

Translators’ Biographies

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