Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops is a global love letter to the bookshop. Freshly translated by Peter Bush and published by MacLehose Press in time for the Booksellers Association’s first ‘Bookshop Day‘, it has garnered wide acclaim in its native Spanish (coming second in the 2013 Premio Anagrama de Ensayo [Anagrama Award for Essays]). Carrión’s book is part travel-memoir and part bibliophilic-dream. Delving behind desks, amongst the ledgers and traces of booksellers past and present, Carrión writes lyrically and critically of their role. He is fascinated by booksellers, customers and the way particular bookshops function. Chapters on the fame, age and location of bookshops sits alongside analysis of an examination of their everyday lives. As a bookseller, reading this has also prompted me to gather together clippings of information on the history of Sam Read’s, which has been bookselling in Grasmere since 1887.
Bookshops is, like a bookshop, filled with authors and writings, from an opening account of Stefan Zweig’s story ‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ through the meandering presence of Lispector, Cortázar, Borges, Joyce, Goethe and Bolaño. If this seems a touch male-centred, one of the standout chapters is a discussion of two famous Paris bookshops and their booksellers, Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company and Adrienne Monnier’s La Maison des Amies des Livres. Drawing attention to both booksellers’ published memoirs Carrión examines their role in creating an ‘anti-institutional site’ through their support for dissident and avant-garde writing. Moving between fiction and fact, there is an appreciation of our mythic tropes of the cosy bookshop as filtered through cinema… think Notting Hill or You’ve Got Mail. The book features a list of films mentioned, which makes for a great notes section and is characteristic of how Carrión’s love of bookshops is always diverting and culturally aware. We are sent off elsewhere to consider Hitchcock’s staging of the bookshop in Vertigo or to the bookshops Paul Bowles frequented in Tangier. We are then invited to look back, to think of the booksellers that lay hidden behind great writers’ own reading or the best of libraries. How do our favourite authors read and how is that directed by the invisible bookseller?
If bookshops are alternatives to official institutions they carry what Carrión sees as the crisis of distribution, of the transitory, ‘between novelty and stocks’. They are then ‘attached to the sinews of the present’. So, with the stories written in Bookshops there are the tensions between memory and immediacy. What can be memorialised or what needs to be forgotten in order to appreciate the present? To foster the desire for books, a bookshop is likely a roster of future reads. Our own timeline of twitter photographs taken of the shop window attests to the tussle of tradition and change. Framed by grey Westmorland stone you might find Carrión’s book in October 2016 alongside Beatrix Potter’s Kitty-in-Boots or James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. However, courtesy of an archive piece entitled ‘Literature of the English Lake District: A Shop Window in Grasmere’ in The Publisher’s Circular and Bookseller’s Record, we can also access a list of ‘a number of books of Lake District literature on display in Miss Redd’s [sic] shop’ in May 1924. A list which tours through names more or less familiar, from Wordsworth himself to Thomas De Quincey on the ‘English Lake Poets,’ Stopford Brooke on Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage and the likes of Professor Wilson, Canon Rawnsley and various guides. The writer of the review, an ‘R.C.’ concludes questioning ‘is there another corner of England with a richer literature than this, or anther window with such a good representation thereof?’ Ninety-two years on, the window still features books on Wordsworth and De Quincey, and within can be found recent editions of Professor Wilson (Christopher North) or second-hand editions of Rawnsley (interest in the later being re-established by the 2012 opening to the public of his and Wordsworth’s former home, Allan Bank).
Sam Read’s itself has existed since 1887, as adverts in local guidebooks attest. Whilst the building on the corner of College Street and Broadgate post-dated Wordsworth, it would not be fanciful to think of Beatrix Potter browsing en route to one of her recorded visits to the Grasmere Sports. Frances Tobey, an American literary academic visiting from Colorado in 1916, wrote in American poetry magazine Poet Lore of witnessing a ‘stream of pedestrians … rounding Mr. Read’s book-store corner’ on village rushbearing day. But that stream has continued most days of the shop’s life. Generations have then visited the shop, often within the same family, and fulfil a kind of oral history as frequent visitors pass on tales of their former hosts or purchases. Even without a visitors book, the literary guests themselves are still traceable. EM Forster’s love of ‘Romantic yet manageable’ Grasmere is hinted at in Passage to India and is fully revealed in a number of lectures he presented on the BBC in the 1930s. Forster’s letters reveal that he visited in 1907 and wrote to Robert Trevelyan ‘c/o Mrs Read, Grasmere’. This might refer to Sam Read’s wife or indeed his daughter who would run the shop in the first half of the twentieth-century. In 1906, the poet May Wedderburn Cannan visited, and recalled in her memoir Grey Ghosts and Voices that she ‘lodged above the stationers down in Grasmere village – the bookshop that was afterwards to be made famous in the trade by Miss Read’ (as it turns out Cannan’s aunt was also from Grasmere and named ‘the flower of the valley’ by Hartley Coleridge). The early literary neighbours, and likely visitors to the shop, included novelist and biographer Irene Cooper Willis, better known for her role as the literary executor for Vernon Lee. Willis’s then-abode Dockray cottage is visible from Sam Read’s.
After the Read family sold the business, the subsequent owner, H.W. Griffiths, may well have met Malcolm Lowry whilst the novelist was staying in the village in 1957. Griffiths himself is visible in a trace of the shop’s inner workings – an invoice sent out in 1960. Bought back via eBay (ensconced in an envelope with the message ‘Coming Home!’ written on the back), the invoice shows evidence of a book being ordered and posted out to a London address, most likely by the former liberal politician ‘Sir John Dodd’. Adverts from the time suggest the shop was also styled as ‘Read’s Bookshop’. Between 1969 and 2000, the shop was owned and run by Margaret and Dan Hughes (with Margaret coming from the Manchester university bookseller Haigh and Hochland). Recollections of Margaret and Dan’s tenure can be found in the excellent The British Book Trade: An Oral History. One highlight of the book is Margaret’s memory of a small child who stayed in the shop with various family members all day in search of a particular book:
He looked round this room that was jammed full of books and he thought, this is very silly, they must have it. So he wouldn’t go. […] And he found it. I had searched for it and I couldn’t find it. He found it. Then he knew that Sam Read’s shop had every book in the world and I can still hear him running down the street, waving it – he wouldn’t have it in a bag; he held it in his hand – and calling out, ‘Bears in the Night, Bears in the Night.’
The current proprietor of Sam Read Bookseller is Elaine Nelson, who took over from Dan and Margaret in 2000. Under Elaine’s stewardship the shop won the 2006 Times/Independent Alliance Competition for Best UK Independent Bookshop, the children’s section has grown, and space has been made for her daughter Lucia’s successful take-away café next door. The aroma of coffee adds to the experience although a ‘no food, no drink, no ice cream’ policy is in play within the physical realm of the books. Oddly this hasn’t stopped the occasional customer asking if we sell ice cream. Alongside all the new titles, one shelf in the shop is stocked with second-hand books by John Taylor (who previously ran Bridge Books, in Grasmere, a well regarded second-hand bookshop).
This summer, our browsers have included authors such as Karen Joy Fowler and Elizabeth George, and author events with Richard Madeley, Jenn Ashworth and Kerry Darbishire. We have also been visited by booksellers away from their desks: from an English-language bookshop in Madrid, from Copenhagen, from across America and even Tasmania. I managed a week away from the desk at the height of the season and found myself in amongst the delightfully tightly-packed shelves of St. Ives Bookseller on the day the ‘new Harry Potter’ arrived. It was, as Carrión suggests bookshops often are, a brief and familiar refuge. I found a similar greeting in Salters bookshop in Salcombe, mixing local choices with holiday reads.
Bookshops is a book to take refuge with too, and is a valuable gift to the reader and browser at large. For instance, it was a great joy to find John Sandoe books recommending to Carrión a Canadian bookselling memoir, David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder that had made a similar transatlantic journey to Sam Read’s on publication. Having previously visited Mason’s shop in Toronto I now feel the need to stop off at John Sandoe on the next trip to London…and so books beget more visits to bookshops and beget more books…
At present, this appears to be all of Carrión’s writing that has been translated into English. I hope the book’s arrival will mean more of his extensive travel essays and fiction will find their way to us very soon.
— Will Smith
Jorge Carrión, Bookshops (MacLehose Press/Quercus) trans. by Peter Bush is published 6th October 2016.