Bookshops: A Reader's History
By Jorge Carrion, translated by Peter Bush
Biblioasis, 296 pages, $32.95
Browse: The World in Bookshops
Edited by Henry Hitchings
Pushkin Press, 253 pages, $29
I'm writing this review at the front desk of Hunter Street Books, an indie bookstore in Peterborough, Ont. This store has been open a year and has a curated selection of newly published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels, kids' books, memoirs and cookbooks. The owner is a writer herself, so the buying slants toward her tastes.
I'm telling you this because I own this bookstore. So I know a little about bookstores – or at least a lot about mine. In Jorge Carrion's Bookshops and in Browse, edited by Henry Hitchings, a reader is immersed in bookshops around the world. Both books give you a whirlwind tour of the history of bookstores, highlighting small independents, their births and deaths, their quirky owners and customers and their effects on the reader/buyer. There are so many "aha" moments in both of these books for me: the odd but dedicated customers, the loud and adamant opinions on the end of bookstores, customers asking for a book by colour because they can't remember anything else about it, the emotions that arise when you are surrounded by books, the smells, the feel of books – all of this is familiar.
It doesn't matter if Carrion, who visits bookstores all over the world for his research, is in Paris or London or Turkey or China or Venezuela or Mexico. Independent bookstores are essentially all the same. One bookseller, Romano Montroni, from Bologna, Italy, rightly jokes that they are mostly places to be dusted – "One must dust every day and everyone must do it!" Little asides such as this are what make Carrion's book a success.
The relationships between customers and store owners and between store owners and other owners is explored in detail. Carrión comments on private and public collections, on bookshops versus libraries, on the political impact of bookstores throughout time. He discusses banned books and censorship. How do large and small shops compare? Who owns the bookshop – families? Individuals?
Mostly he explores the paradox of a bookseller, which another writer describes thusly: "A bookseller is the being who is most aware of the futility of a book – and of its importance."
Carrion's only weakness is his breathless piling on of facts. As if he can't help himself and needs to include everything he has ever thought, learned or seen of bookstores. But the more you read, the more you realize that this isn't really a weakness as much as it is infectious. His enthusiasm, his desire to tell the reader everything, is charming and certainly helps make this a full, deep book. I don't think there's any fact missing.
Browse is like Bookshops in that it gives you facts about bookstores from all over the world. However, the beauty of this book is that each essay is written by an individual author. Here we don't just get one person's opinion of bookstores, but many personal, often quirky views that present an overall picture of what bookstores mean to all kinds of people.
Ali Smith discusses the charity shop she volunteers at and what it means to hold preowned books in her hands. Audrey Kurkov looks at post-Soviet bookshops in Ukraine, "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." Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez discusses his dislike of reading online. He prefers searching for his books – "the peculiar pleasure of not finding the book, having to request it and wait for days or weeks or even months for it to arrive. The immediate satisfaction of online buying is no fun for me. Visiting several stores and in search of a book, tracking it down and hunting for it like a difficult prey, continues to be one of the pleasures that is turning me, bit by bit, into an anachronistic bibliophile."
There are private moments from authors from China, Egypt, Kenya, the United States, Germany, Italy, Norway, Turkey and on and on. Sasa Stanisic plays with the image of books as a drug and the bookstore owner as dealer. Iain Sinclair bemoans an East Sussex bookstore going out of business. My favourite is Ian Sansom's "The Pillars of Hercules," in which he talks about working at Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. He is funny and wise throughout, as in his description of authors: "They were the first authors I'd ever met, and I was shocked and surprised at how dishevelled and desperate they all seemed to be; men in shiny, crumpled suits, with shiny, crumpled faces."
Many of these narratives reflect on stores going out of business; however they tend to close up after 45 years or so. To me, that's well-deserved retirement, not failure. I wonder if it's not the issue of books not selling (because they do, believe me!) but that the owners have created something they don't want anyone else to operate. After all, a bookshop is more than just a retail store. It is a creation, a living, breathing thing. Customers linger and come in to talk, to share what they are reading and why they are reading it and how it's affecting them. Rarely does anyone just pop in and buy a book and leave. In my one year here, I've personally spoken to hundreds of people about their lives. (Note: After dusting, the second requirement for owning a bookstore is good facial recognition – everyone knows you, but you can't remember anyone.)
Browse is a bit more successful than Bookshops in that the different voices hold the reader's attention. Both books include personal asides, which don't come often enough in Bookshops. However, both books work well together. They contain a world full of bookstores, all lovingly curated and reflected upon by many different voices.
Sitting here, in my little shop, these books certainly make me feel as if I am doing something right. They make me feel that there are people out there who love bookstores, who appreciate them in just the right way. And, most importantly, they love bookstore owners.
Michelle Berry is the owner of Hunter Street Books. Her new novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, recently arrived in bookstores.