There were no slow degrees of consciousness

books baguettes bedbugsBooks, Baguettes and Bedbugs
by Jeremy Mercer

I’ve seen this book recommended by lots of people over the years, but I must admit, all I knew about it was that it’s about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, a tourist attraction I’ve never visited, and knew of only as a famous bookshop associated with some famous authors and artists. So I learned a lot, and completely fell in love with the shop and its story.

I’ve been to Paris twice, and travelled through it another two or three times, and it’s a little crazy that a famous English-language bookshop near the city centre wasn’t on my list of attractions to visit. It certainly will be next time, though it won’t be quite the same shop that Mercer describes.

First, I learned that the current incarnation of the bookshop, on Rue de la Bûcherie, is not the same as the first bookshop by that name, which was opened and run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 until 1940. That shop had its own wonderful history with colourful characters who have popped up in various things I’ve read, but Mercer for the most part skips past all that to the second Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which was opened in 1951 by George Whitman. He originally called his shop Le Mistral, but changed it in 1964 to Shakespeare and Company in tribute to Sylvia Beach, following her death.

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Local bookshops: Bloom & Curll

Bloom & Curll

Bloom & Curll is so close to being the perfect bookshop for me that I feel I should apologise for not being a regular customer. It has a quirky, arty feel and look but is still most definitely all about the books.

They are piled everywhere, almost higgledy piggledy yet meticulously organised. Old and new sit side by side, with some classic Penguin editions serving as both booklover lures and eyecatching art. Section labels epitomise the style of the shop – they are either handmade paper cutouts in classily chosen colour and pattern combinations, or bright childlike magnetic letters. The book selection leans towards the literary end of fiction, with some specialised areas for philosophical, theological and sociological works. The shop is small enough not to overwhelm me with choice, while still stocking more books that I want than I can afford.

I love the location of Bloom & Curll, nestled among the indie stylings of Colston Street, Christmas Steps and nearby Upper Maudlin Street, but I worry that that also works against it – on my every visit I have been the only customer. However, the shop window promises chess classes and apparently this Thursday they’re hosting a book launch, which looks worth checking out. Hopefully such events will keep attracting new customers through their doors.

Bloom & Curll, 74 Colston Street, Bristol

The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.

The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8