Just when we’re told that real books and bookshops are on the way out, along comes a book guaranteed to reawaken anyone’s passion for all things bookish.
Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by the Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings brings together an inspiring band of well-known writers, each exploring their enthusiasms for a city bookshop that has meant so much to them.
Yiyun Li’s story of life in the English book-deprived China of the eighties is one of my favourites. Her discovery as a child of the Arabian Nights (she is confused by the abundance of cucumbers and naked people). Her revelation of what it is to be a compulsive reader, reading everything from street signs to the soles of new shoes. The joy upon finally getting her hands on an English-Chinese dictionary in Beijing’s mysterious Foreign Language Bookshop and discovering what lies beyond the curtain that says ‘Foreign Visitors Not Allowed’: a bookseller illegally photocopying copies of Reader’s Digest and where ‘a girl found her prince.’ A gem.
Equally wonderful is German author Daniel Kehlmann who writes oh-so-perceptively about Dussman’s bookshop in Berlin. Found in the extremely ugly central district of the city, he argues the bookshop fits in so well; it doesn’t have any charm or atmosphere either, just the best book selection in Berlin:
‘Berlin and Dussman – the same thing? Absolutely. Cold and impersonal. Uncharming. But still worth visiting and liveable and full of culture, both in the mainstream and at the weirdest fringes, and marked by a high level of education and somehow fantastic in the most unobtrusive way.’
As he says: ‘those who want atmosphere should light themselves a candle in their bathroom’.
Ukrainian writer Andrei Kurkov takes us on a fascinating journey to Communist and post-Communist Ukraine and the Bukinist bookshop in Kiev. On the way we learn that sales of Russian family book heirlooms are what helped bookshops survive, not to mention Kurkov’s search for a book by an Estonian poet that ends in triumph.
The author of The Yacoubian Building Alaa Al Asway writes about Cairo’s El Shorouk book during the anti-Mubarak revolt: a lesson in how bookshops can be places of discussion and dissent. Which is something Turkish writer Elif Shafak picks up in her evocative discussion of reading and Istanbul’s radical bookshops with their smells of tobacco, coffee and linden:
‘Anything and everything that was counter-culture was lumped together in an astonishing mixture and scattered amongst the books on sale. It was pure confusion. And confusion was, and still is, what we Turks do best.’
And if the Arabian Nights was Yiyun Li’s preferred childhood reading, for Shafak it was her grandmother’s Big Book of Islamic Interpretation of Dreams: another big book for an expanding mind.
Pankaj Misha’s tale of the New Delhi bookshop Fact and Fiction is perhaps the saddest in the collection as its owner sells only the highest quality literary titles but must finally admit defeat and close the store. Misha’s account brings out the sheer dedication of bookshop owners and the societal forces that work against them.
Ali Smith, closer to home, fondly remembers being a teenager in Melvens and Leakey’s in Inverness:
‘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, but then saw me browsing by myself in downstairs in Melvens, regarded me differently afterwards.’
It’s a feeling that many bookshop hauntees may share: ‘though I knew immediately it was a sort of snobbery, well, it was one I rather liked.’
Other writers in the collection include Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor on her childhood store in Nairobi, Ian Samson amusing on working in Foyles, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s dream Bogota bookshop and Steffano Benni on the thoroughly quirky La Palmaverde bookshop in Bologna, ‘one of the cultural miracles of 1970s Italy.’ One or two of the other essays were a little too writerly self-obsessed where the author sometimes lost the bigger picture but this is a minor criticism compared with all the riches in this utterly compelling volume.
Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings, Pushkin Press £12.99