Friday, December 28, 2007

The Raconteur in the London Guardian

Jeremy Mercer sounds a call to arms to all real book lovers to rally and keep the independent bookseller alive

Saturday December 8, 2007
The Guardian

Ever since I crossed the threshold of George Whitman's bonkers bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris some eight years ago, I have been happily entwined in the world of independent bookselling. It was this independent bookshop which gave me a place to live and work when my life derailed. It was an independent bookshop, John Calder's in London, which supported my first attempt at magazine publishing. And when I wrote a book about a bookshop, it was independent bookshops, more than 30 of them, that welcomed me on that nerve-racking odyssey that is an author's tour.

As a rule with few exceptions, these establishments nurture local authors and provide a hub for bibliophiles. Although they may not be the place to get the steepest discount on Harry Potter, you are far more likely to find absorbing conversation, obscure reading matter, and even a stray friend or lover while wandering among their shelves. These stores, by some magic alchemy, actually transcend commerce and become communities. As Paul Collins put it in Sixpence House, his ode to the booksellers of Hay-on-Wye, the more time you spend in such places, "the more you suspect that what you are looking at is a sort of personal library, a living room with a cash register."

Even with the onslaught of online and big box booksellers, I once believed that independents would survive if they were financially creative and catered to their local readers. You know, sell shortbread on the side or offer writing workshops, that sort of thing. Sure, there were casualties, such as the closing of Compendium in Camden in 2000, but I was convinced that a core of independents could endure.

Then there was an email recently from author Sparkle Hayter announcing that Black Orchid, one of the finer independents in New York City, had closed its doors. "It mixed sit-around-the-cracker-barrel comfort with twisted big-city sophistication," she wrote. "It always attracted a crowd, just not enough to keep it going."

It was that proverbial straw and I realized that we, the habitu├ęs of these bookshops, must do more to protect the institutions we claim to love. This is not to say we should boycott the large chains, for selling books in any manner is noble work. Rather, we must, if you will, 'procott' the independents and dedicate our book budget to a precious store of our choosing.

It will not be an easy task. It is ridiculously convenient to order that hard-to-find book on Amazon or to nip into the airport boutique and snap up the newest literary sensations at fire sale prices. But convenience be damned. We must mould ourselves after the magnificent Helene Hanff, the New York City book lover who maintained 20 years of correspondence and put up with interminable frustrations just to buy from London bookshop Marks & Co. "You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizzbang like that," she lovingly sniped in one of the letters that make up her fact-based novel 84, Charing Cross Road. "You probably don't realise it, but it's hardly more than two years since I ordered them."

In the spirit of Ms Hanff, I hereby vow to do my part. Lacking a decent English bookshop in my home city of Marseille, I have been guilty of ordering books on the internet. Yet, if I travel 20 minutes by metro and another 20 minutes by intercity bus, I arrive at the Book in Bar, a splendid bookseller in Aix-en-Provence that does, in fact, offer shortbread with its coffee. If Ms Hanff could wait two years for her books, I can certainly wait a 40-minute journey to Aix for mine.

It is incumbent upon us to go to such lengths to help those foolhardy dreamers who still insist on opening bookshops. Just look around: on the Greek island of Santorini where a band of young idealists created Atlantis Books or in the New Jersey town of Metuchen where a bearded maverick opened The Raconteur or in London where Lloyd's of Kew has been lovingly revived complete with tree sculpture bookshelves. If these folks are willing to gamble their meager resources on the absurd adventure of bookselling, the least we, the bookstore faithful, can do is match their bet. It might cost a little more in time and money, but consider it a form of tithe. How else will we preserve our literary sanctuaries?

· Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix, £7.99) is out now in paperback.

1 comment:

sleeping partner said...

Cheers! Awesome news...Keep up the good work, Raconteur.