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Book Reviews

Bookshop Tours of Britain, by Louise Boland (Fairlight, £16.99)

I have one serious complaint about this book, which is that Louise Boland never took me with her on her journeys around the bookshops of Britain. Not that I have ever met her or knew anything much about the book in advance, but I can still bear a grudge, surely.
This would be the holiday of a lifetime, guaranteed to break the bank as you can’t really visit a new bookshop without buying a book… And the tour covers hundreds of bookshops – and, along the way, country houses, museums and other places of tourist interest.
Her trip north includes The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool which is also a hotel and a pub, while her most southerly stop is The Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance. Both these shops hold regular live events (or did, before COVID) and both these towns manage to support two independents, also covered in the book. Largely the book is about independents, for obvious reasons, but there are features on the biggest Waterstones in Piccadilly, Foyles, Oxford Blackwells and Hatchards. Hatchards, owned by Waterstones, is well-known to be the oldest continually operated bookshop in the UK – but it isn’t! Step forward Whitie’s Books and Crafts in the Scottish Border town of Peebles, trading since 1791 and run by the same family since 1899.
Whitie’s doesn’t have the biggest book stock in the world, but it does also sell wool and has a haberdashery department. Maybe that’s a Scottish Border thing as Main Street Trading – a really excellent bookshop, by the way, also sells tableware and antiques. Other bookshop items around the country include globes and (oh dear, how do you stop the staff getting too enthusiastic for the product) ice-cream.
Many of the shops are in small towns or villages and operate from attractive, sometimes historic premises and this book is full of photos. I’m not sure if Bookshop Tours qualifies as a vade-mecum as it is heavy, printed on art paper to show the photos to their advantage. It’s beautiful. Not every bookshop is visited – I was hoping to see something of the Stromness Bookshop on Orkney, which orders more books published by Five Leaves than just about anywhere. And locally her tour didn’t reach our friends at Kibworth, or indeed Page 45, but she says nice things about us and The Bookcase in Lowdham. She restricts herself to saying nice things – this is a bookshop tour guide, not a critique. Her view is that we are all doing a great job. And it is largely about bookshops selling new books. Maybe another volume for second hand?
Our own little national family of shop friends is well covered, including a lot on Gays the Word, Housmans, Scarthin, Sam Read, Lighthouse, News from Nowhere, Category is Books and Portal (two new LGBT bookshops). There’s a nice photo of October Bookshop’s shop front, which looks like a bank building. It *was*, with October being the first radical bookshop to buy a bank. Capitalism replaced with anti-capitalist books. Nice.
Time to mention animals. It’s well known that indie bookshop owners often have a dog on their staff. Many are pictured, with Quayside Bookshop’s Kaiser being something of a tourist attraction in Teignmouth. However, if I ever get to Devon, the dog Astor of Astor’s Bookshop in Chagford has the most soulful eyes of any dog ever. Astor gets a full page picture. Another shop has a tortoise while Much Ado Books in Alfriston has chickens in their courtyard, though on the day of the author’s visit they had come into the bookshop itself. Maybe we could use our alley… “Would you like some eggs with that?” I can see it now.
Ross Bradshaw
Author signed copies of Bookshop Tours of Britain are available here – http://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/…/bookshop-tours-of…/

 

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham (Particular Books, £16.99)

I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.

The Bookseller’s Tale is more of the weird and definitely wonderful stories attached to bookselling, not least Martin Latham’s own story, though he is slightly coy perhaps about the bulk of career being at Waterstones as such. Of course he mentions it, but not much.  But it is Canterbury Waterstones, and our publishing wing owes him a favour as he used to promote our old New London Editions books, our reprints of forgotten books from the 1960s, which we must return to sometime. His tales of the supernatural within the bookshop make me jealous.
His Tale is, however, not just one of anecdotes. On page 74 the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wanders into the book, as does Walter Benjamin. This in a chapter devoted to the early book peddlers who sold books door to door and from barrows. Here you can discover the origin of the word chapbook, a type of pamphlet loved by poets, which were sold by chapmen – hawkers basically.
From there we move to ancient libraries, the ur-libraries he suggests, not least as perhaps the original library was at Ur. Here we also find the old libraries of the Islamic world where “what’s written in Cairo is published in Beirut, but read in Baghdad.”
The author is not exactly absent from the text and a flavour of his own practice is found with him saying that his favourite question to ask at interview – for a bookseller, mind – was “Who would win a fight in a pub car park between a vampire and a werewolf?” There are of course parts of Nottingham where this happens every Saturday night so some Nottinghamians would have direct experience to offer here.
His chapter on marginalia is fun, giving lots of examples of historic and literary scibblings in the margins of books. Meant for posterity or for personal record? It varies.
As a bookseller I like to think of myself as being in a profession, within a trade that has to be learned. After decades in the business I’m still learning, slower perhaps than I should be so I would have had little chance of being a bookseller in Renaissance Venice where you had to serve a five year apprentice and pass an exam covering nature, philosophy and several languages. No mention of vampires there though, but perhaps Renaissance Venice was short of car parks. It wasn’t easy in bookselling at certain times, with the 1492 “Bonfire of the vanities” in Florence and in Venice itself the Doge was told by the Pope in 1562 that all books had to be checked by the Inquisitor before going on sale. He was opposed by one Friar Paolo Sarpi who found ways round the various bans and burnings. There’s a statue to him in Venice, holding a book.
Moving towards modern times Latham waxes lyrical about Book Row in New York where there were perhaps more books on sale within walking distance than anywhere in the world, ever. Sadly, gentrification brought that to an end. In this chapter the author makes a rare slip, suggesting that one bookseller, the socialist Leon Kramer, “founded the world’s first Yiddish newspaper” from his bookshop. No, Yiddish newspapers started about two hundred years before that and in the year Kramer arrived in America the Yiddish Forverts was selling 120,000 copies daily in the same city.
There are so many bits of this most readable book that I want to quote, but space does not permit. But there’s a nice piece of bookselling nostalgia when he refers to “checking the microfiche (5 x 4 inch celluloid sheets listing books in print which we viewed like holiday slides on a device which most customers called ‘the computer’, although it was just a monitor-shaped box with a light bulb inside).” Booksellers of my vintage thought this was cool and modern.
Ross Bradshaw
The Bookseller’s Tale is available here (and in all good bookshops) fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-booksellers-tale/

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (Profile, £14.99)

Two days off from the cutting edge of contemporary literature that is Five Leaves Bookshop (a description not universally shared, by the way) and I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller. To anyone tempted to say “get a life”, I can only say “this is the life”…

The Diary, recently published to acclaim, covers a year starting 5th February 2014. I might have missed the reason the book covers that strange calendar year, but if feels stranger that the book has only been recently published. Given that the author lives in Wigtown, the cornerstone of the year was the ballot on Scottish independence. It seems a long time ago now.

Wigtown is a “book town” with several bookshops and a large festival. The Bookshop is at the heart of this with the shop also providing a gathering space for visiting authors and a “festival bed” that can be booked in advance. The cover tells us that Bythell is a misanthrope and bibliophile. The former is not completely true, but if any of the Five Leaves’ workers talked so publicly and critically about our customers they’d be out on their ear. I should have seen the traffic light red warning on the cover: “warm, witty and laugh-out loud funny” said the Daily Mail. It was certainly not warm or witty to to write of the last day of one of his workers who, as she was leaving, was given a hug. “She hates physical contact, so it was particularly gratifying to see how uncomfortable it made her”.

Ir’s not all Black Books by any means, though it perhaps sells well in the wake of that programme. Some of the author’s comments did ring true, however. I can’t find the exact quote but if someone does come in and shout something like “Books! I could spend a fortune and all day in here!” it is a guarantee that they will spend nothing and be gone in ten minutes.

Having spent more years than is healthy working in the new books trade, I realise how little I knew about the second-hand world. Where do they get the books from, for example? Death and downsizing mostly, often involving the author in long drives to pore over collections that might or might not hold gems. Many such collections seem to be covered with cat hair. Bythell augments his sales by a subscription-based Random Book Club and bits and pieces picked up at auction. But throughout the book there are gibes followed by rants against Amazon for driving down the price of second-hand books, even charging 41p commission on the, then, £2.80 standard postage charged via to consumers on purchases via their Marketplace.

Other than occasional coups, sold privately, standard income is over the counter or via Amazon or ABE (owned by Amazon…). Day by day the totals are noted. Only on one day, during the book festival, do sales top £1000. Mostly they are in the low hundreds and, during the dog days of winter, tens. The nadir being the last day of the diary. Five online orders but only four paying customers in the shop, till total £18.50.

There is some genuine humour in this book, especially in the relationship between the owner and the incompetent and contrary part-time worker Nicky, whose specialism was bringing in squashed and unidentifiable food found by dumpster diving. But I did not laugh out loud.

As the number of second-hand bookshops declines, so has the literature about them increased. But I tell you what, borrow this book from the library and wander in to Jermy and Westerman on Mansfield Road and spend your £14.99 there. That will help keep our city’s main second-hand bookshop alive. And if you buy second-hand online, check Alibris first as they are not owned by that big river.

Ross Bradshaw

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How To Be a Public Author by Francis Plug (Galley Beggar, £11.00)

Do you remember the Henry Root Letters? In 1980 the pseudonymous Henry Root wrote letters to, typically, pompous and right wing figures saying how much he agreed with them, though suggesting they might go a bit – or a lot – further in their policies, enclosing a pound (with the promise of a lot more where that came from) and suggesting that unless he heard from them in advance he’d be round to their office on such and such a date to discuss ways of further collaboration. The recipient was left with the problem of what to do with the pound and how to deal with Mr Root, not least his impending visit. The letters were just the side of sanity, reflecting the sort of politics represented by the current UKIP. The pleasure was in seeing how the pompous responded, not knowing they were being sent up or that their responses would be published.

I remembered Root, and the charming Mrs Root, when reading How To Be a Public Author, which fails in a similar quest. The pseudonymous, though well-read, Plug, an aspiring writer, turns up at prestigious readings by the cream of world literature – Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguru, Thomas Keneally et al seeking advice on how he, Plug, can also become a famous author. The book is at its best when puncturing the pomposity of the important reading but is spoiled by too many wee (I don’t mean small) jokes and too much about inappropriate behaviour caused by an excess of alcohol topped up by book-reading free wine. Being drunk is rarely a funny subject. Plug (in real life Paul Ewen) can certainly write humour – his account of being stopped by the police when collecting horse manure outside Buck Pal is good, as is the subsequent tale of taking the manure with him to a reading. Plug is, professionally, a gardener so the manure will come in handy in his day job.

Plug – you do geddit, don’t you? – manages to have the writers say silly things in response to his questions. And that’s it, really.

How to Be a Public Author describes itself as a book of fiction. Most clearly is, maybe all. Maybe even the illustrations of title pages sighed to Francis Plug at the start of each title. Eventually, though, I no longer cared.

Ross Bradshaw

An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes (Oxygen Books, £8.99)

An EverywhereHeather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.

This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”

Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.

But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.

Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.

There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.

Ross Bradshaw

The Reader, edited by Philip Davis (The Reader Organisation, quarterly, £6.95)

reader_54_web_coverThe Reader Organisation is a large, dynamic and well-funded organisation which, typically, runs reading projects in prisons, care homes and other areas to improve health and well-being by reading projects. Of course TRO might argue it is small, dynamic and underfunded, but with arts money so tight it is good to see that a fair amount of it does go to such a worthwhile project.

One of its projects is The Reader, a quarterly, devoted not to its social and welfare activity but to discuss books and authors seriously but accessibly, in an attractive format. Naturally editions vary but the issue I’ve just read is from Spring. It includes fiction from May-Lan Tan, who we’ll hear a lot more of in the future, an interview with Erwin Jones about prisons (Jones was a lifer who turned away from crime to write about prisons for the Guardian), regular writer Jane Davis remembering Doris Lessing and the ever entertaining regular Ian McMillan writing about his dawn tweeting and walks to the shop. The reading Recommendations feature this issue is on “rights of passage” novels. That there is a feature on Tolstoy and a really hard books quiz at the back tells you this isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure it is for me every issue, but always worth checking out.

Ross Bradshaw