I suppose it was inevitable that I’d read and review Bookshops having worked in one for over a decade and spent a great deal of time in many others, both in my own country and abroad. It’s quite some time since I could call myself a bookseller but I still tidy up those table displays, surreptitiously move misfiled books to where they should be and scan shelves tutting to myself when significant titles are missing. Jorge Carrión isn’t a bookseller, current or ex, but he has spent an inordinate amount of time in bookshops across the world and has a great deal of interest to say about them.
Carrión begins what he describes as an essay by explaining that his inspiration was Stephan Zweig’s short story ‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ about an itinerant bookseller, a Russian Jew, with the gift of a prodigious memory which, as every bookseller knows, is an essential tool of the trade. From there he takes his readers on a journey around the world, dropping in on his favourite bookshops, from his home town of Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Tangier, Paris to Denver, Colorado. It’s stuffed with anecdote, eruditely discursive, full of bookselling history and passionate in its tone. Carrión explores bookshops as reflections of society and engines of social change, as places of resistance, cultural centres, meeting places and havens. San Francisco’s celebrated City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris both crop up frequently but many far more obscure bookshops make an appearance too. Carrión frames his bookshop thumbnails with often fascinating historical context, from Christina Foyle’s trip to Stalinist Russia to negotiate a deal for books slated for burning to a short disquisition on paper making which takes us from China to Turkey.
For those who find themselves drawn into bookshops wherever they are, even in countries where there’s no hope of understanding what’s between the covers, this book is a joy. Carrión manages to steer clear of fetishizing bookshops – just – exploring the idea of them as museums and tourist attractions (City Lights and Shakespeare and Company again) and suggesting that ‘style is more important than content in the global circulation of the image’ bringing to mind all those pictures of beautiful or outlandish bookshops which do the rounds on Buzzfeed and the like. He ends on a pleasingly optimistic note about the future of the bookshop, albeit a very different future from its history. A nice touch would have been to include a separate chapter on the bookshop in literature although there are references and quotations woven throughout. It won’t suit everyone – truth be told I suspect you have to be something of an anorak to enjoy it as much as I did – but it might make the more obsessive and literary booky person in your circle happy this Christmas which I’m sure is what its publishers are hoping you’ll think.