On the high streets of small towns, the success stories are Primark, Greggs, Wilko, Poundland and variety shops like Tiger. Card and gift emporiums are ubiquitous. In this unpropitious climate, Waterstones is holding out with almost 300 shops, recovering – according to the figures – from near failure four years ago. The owner, Alexander Mamut, has invested over £50 million. James Daunt was brought in to give the shops more character and relax central control: booksellers can decide which books to promote and tailor their own displays. But it isn’t all about the books.
In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, published in 1978 but set in the late 1950s (and based on her experience in a Southwold bookshop), Florence Green decides to open the only bookshop in Hardborough, a place with no fish and chips, no cinema, no laundrette, an ‘island between sea and river’. Ripping Yarns, the Highgate bookshop which will close on Sunday, is on a sort of island too, between Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.
Atlantis Books is perched high on a clifftop in Oia, a village on the north-western tip of Santorini. Two American students, Craig Walzer and Oliver Wise, came up with the idea for the shop while visiting the island in 2002. ‘We read all of our books and couldn't find anywhere else to buy some,’ Walzer told me. They returned with friends in 2004 and built Atlantis out of found objects from beaches, junkyards, and donations from the neighbours. ‘We took our time actually building the shower, because books were more important that hygiene.'
Am I the last person to have noticed this subcategory in WHSmith bookshops? There must be people who head straight for it to grab the latest Cathy Glass, but it had passed me by, or I'd passed it by, until this weekend. I puzzled for a while over the upside-down face – I think it's Billy Connolly – then went off to see what they had on the shelves under Comic Death Stories.
At the tail end of Istanbul’s İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Street) in Beyoğlu, there’s a shop called Robinson Crusoe 389. It’s one of the last remaining bookshops on Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, a castaway among the big brand retailers, coffee shops and waffle places. Designed by Han Tümertekin, it opened its doors at 389 İstiklâl in 1994, selling an impressive range of Turkish and English books. The street has been renumbered since then – the bookshop’s address is now 195 İstiklâl – but the number 389 still appears above the door and on the shop’s bags.
The Freedom Press bookshop in Whitechapel was firebombed in the early hours of last Friday morning. The ground floor of the premises of the anarchist publisher, founded in 1886 by Charlotte Wilson and Peter Kropotkin, appeared to be in for a long, costly refurbishment. There was an emergency meeting in a nearby pub, and a clean-up scheduled for the next day.
There’s a second-hand bookshop around the corner from where I live called Ripping Yarns – just a hole in the wall, near a relatively busy intersection, but close to Highgate Woods. It’s been there since before the war but I’m not sure how much longer it will last. The lease is up next September, and I worry that the internet and charity bookshops will eventually drive it out of business. Celia Mitchell, the owner, has to dip into her pocket from time to time to cover costs. I buy as much as I can there, especially in the run-up to Christmas, but it doesn’t add up to much. Second-hand books are cheap. The shop is worth more to me than the books.
Imagine you were a Palestinian teenager, born in Jerusalem, when the Israelis took charge of your city in 1967. Imagine you received an ID card, giving you the right to residence in the place of your birth. That permit was in order when you left in the 1970s to study in the US. When you returned 20 years later, having graduated, married and started a family, you presented your document at the airport, only to be told it had been revoked. This is the story of Munther Fahmi,
I've always had trouble with cataloguing books. In Ireland I came across a bookshop that had a wall of fiction divided into two. They were labelled: Novels by Men and Novels by Women. I left weeping. I'm in two minds about Daunt Books' method of geographic cataloguing. Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad all over the shop, though Dostoevsky safely under Russia.
What to make of last week's move by the agent Andrew Wylie to cut out the middle men – not the old middle men, literary agents, but the new middle men, publishers – and publish e-books himself as Odyssey Editions ('wily Odysseus', geddit?), sold exclusively through Amazon?
The Strand Bookstore, which opened on Fourth Avenue in 1927, now takes up 55,000 square feet on Broadway and 12th and has '18 miles of New, Used, Rare and Out of Print Books' in stock. The novelist David Markson, who was born in Albany in 1927 and died in his West Village apartment last month, spent more than a few of his intervening hours at the Strand. (Here's a short clip of him speaking there.) Still, it was a shock to walk into the Strand last week and find the contents of his personal library scattered among the stacks.
A friend who works in my local Blackwell’s told me that Conservative Party members get a discount at the bookshop. This seemed so unlikely that I phoned the Blackwell’s helpline pretending to be a paid-up Tory, and sure enough was told that I would get 20 per cent off. Joining the Conservative Party costs £25 a year: if you spend £125 a year on books at Blackwells you essentially get your party membership for free (a less catchy offer perhaps than ‘3 for 2’). It’s unclear, though, how the Tories’ encouraging people to shop at Blackwell’s fits in with their alleged support for small shops, unless they mean the smaller branches of Blackwell’s.
Recently published (and possibly available from the London Review Bookshop): Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens William Golding: The Man Who Wrote 'Lord of the Flies' We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed My Father Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionised Ocean Science The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius The Making of Miranda: From Gentleman to Gentlewoman in One Lifetime Bad Mother: A Chr
So the centre-right candidate easily won the run-off for mayor. (Is it just me, or is it the case that there's very little that's centrist about the so-called centre right, just as the so-called centre left seems to have very little of the left about it?) The town hasn't had a right-wing mayor since the end of the Second World War. Posters have sprung up everywhere, emblazoned with the logo of Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà, saying a big thank you to voters and announcing that the town is changing, though without specifying how. It's all rather sinister. But then the losing centre-left candidate's runner-up prize is to be the majority leader on the town council, so what we probably have to look forward to, rather than the threatened change, is five years of stalemate.