Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Busman's Holiday. . .

I've just come back from a fabulous holiday in England and Scotland which completely re-energized my tired old cynical book rep's soul.  While in England, I particularly wanted to rekindle my relationship with the printed word and get away from the endless debates about social media and e-books taking over the world. And there's no better place to do so than to browse the independent bookstores of London.  Here are some of my favourites - and yes, I spent money at all of them:

Foyles on Charing Cross Road - one can get deliciously lost in here for hours.

Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road - they publish a book journal devoted to lost classics.  The shop sells a lovely selection of new and used books. Great for browsing.

G. Heywood Hill Ltd on Curzon St - the blue plaque indicates that Nancy Mitford once worked here. Sells new and used books.

Libraire La Page - a lovely French bookstore not too far from Slightly Foxed

The London Review Bookshop - a terrific selection of poetry and interesting non-fiction in particular,  just around the corner from the British Museum. They have a cafe now too.
The British Film Institute on the South Bank has a great selection of books on film (and DVDs too, but they don't work in North America). Just next door is the National Theatre which  also has a great store for theatre books and plays.

 And then my absolute favourite:  Persephone Books, on Lamb's Conduit Street.

I've been collecting their books for almost ten years now and it was a terrific treat to pop in the shop and finally meet Nicola Beauman who started it all.  She is probably the one person who has most influenced my book buying and reading over the last twenty years, ever since I picked up a copy of her book A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-1939 which was first published by Virago and then brought back into print by Persephone itself.  I was amazed and entranced to read about all these amazing women writers I had never heard about, many of whom had long gone out of print. I started scouring used bookshops and collecting Viragos.  Which led to my finally reading Vera Brittain's incredible memoir, A Testament of Youth.  Which led to an obsession with women's WWI writing (Persephone's first publication was Cicely Hamilton's William: An Englishman which follows a naive couple who get stuck in Belgium when the war starts), going back to school to get my MA, and to an ever increasing collection of books on the First World War.  The shop and staff are lovely; not only do they sell Persephones, but also a changing selection of books they wish they had published (Alice Munro prominent among them).  And they have an eye on Canadian classics as well, having published Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson. All the books are silvery gray with cream paper and colourful endpapers that reproduce fabrics from either the time the book was published or set in. You can find many of their titles in Canadian bookstores now. They also publish a lovely newsletter. They are absolutely a terrific model for how personal passion can lead to a successful independent press. E-books will never, ever, be able to compete against the pure aesthetic pleasure of reading a Persephone!

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