I’ve been to the busy capital of England a few times – it’s probably the city I have visited the most in my 21 years of existence. I have visited it with my parents, with my cousins and with my friends; this time I went on my own. The prospect of travelling alone was quite daunting (I must admit), but also very thrilling, especially because it meant not having to coordinate with others’ demands or constraints and it translated into a great freedom of doing and seeing exactly what I wanted to do and see precisely when and how I desired. I made all the plans and I made all the decisions – I really don’t think anyone I know would gladly accompany me in doing a ‘book tour’ of London, exploring huge mainstream bookshops and charming independent ones. So I took this excellent opportunity and that’s exactly what I did.
I’m a bibliophile, a bookworm, a bibliomaniac, a bookaholic. You get the idea. I love books. Books are great for various reasons. They are boredom busters, they enhance memory and sharpen brain function, they reduce stress levels, etc. And this is not something simply speculative or unfounded, it’s actually supported by scientific research. Books have been a great company for me since I was a child. They have taught me new dazzling and enigmatic words, they have made me think in a more creative manner, they have broaden my horizons, they have introduced me to new geographies and provocative characters. Most importantly, books provided me with an escape from reality and transported me into different universes. Reading has never been an obligation for me; no one ever told me to read or made me pick up a book, it simply happened, in a sort of magical way I like to think. I recall perfectly the year I really started devouring books and amassing them. Besides all of this (the benefits of the whole reading experience), I find books the most beautiful objects. The bewitching stories and inexplicable secrets they hold. The touch of the paper. The divine smell of the thin pages. The drawing of the words and sentences and paragraphs. The way they decorate empty shelves and bring any room to life. What’s not to like about books?
‘Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.’ – Anna Quindlen in How Reading Changed my Life
The History of books is an acient one, dating back thousands of years, beginning with clay and wax tablets, papyrus, and parchment. Books were present before printing was invented with documents being written and copied mostly for religious purposes. Publishing, on the other hand, has only been around for about five hundred years, born out of Gutenberg’s revolution alongside the use of oil-based inks and printing press techniques. Language used in such works gradually became vernacular and, consequently, accessible. Publishing is ‘the mechanical and digital reproduction and distribution of identical copies of written or illustrated work’ (Smith, K.; 2012; p. 19); it is, undoubtedly, a true art of democratisation and an outstanding instrument of information and knowledge diffusion, and an agent of cultural, political and social metamorphosis. This incredible activity contributed to (and made possible) progressive movements and inventions in the most diverse fields after the 15th century. Really, what’s not to like about books?
I managed to visit four book stores in two days, two in the first day and two in the second. I know it may not seem like a lot, but I spent a substantial amount of time in each one, studying every bookshelf and scanning as many book covers and synopses as possible. Plus, I also visited other attractions and places such as Covent Garden and the London Bridge area by the river. I do feel I have to continue my book journey the next time I visit London, because I did not have the opportunity to explore everything I wanted to. I still have to visit Daunt Books and the Notting Hill Bookshop, and second-hand bookshops to discover works that have already had a journey or adventure, passing from one individual to another, accumulating more and more stories and one-of-a-kind tales.
The bookshops I visited were selected in a more or less random way. I did some googling as I always do (plenty of useful recommendations can be found online) and I stayed in a quite short-distance radius around my hotel. The weather was quite wintery (comparing it to my sunny Portugal, of course), but good for long walks. I made the promise to myself that I would only buy one book per store– I actually broke this rule, but I really had a compelling reason and strong arguments to support my decision as you can probably imagine.
‘She is (…) conscious of the role a bookshop can play in the life of an individual. When someone goes into a bookshop, they are staring at a series of gateways into other worlds – each book can pull them into a different universe. Open one and they are spirited to South America; open another and they enter the world of Astrophysics.’ – Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate in The Book of English Magic
The first bookshop I visited was the London Review Bookshop, which opened in 2003 near The British Museum, home to more than 20 000 books. Even though it’s rather small, there’s a coffee and cake shop inside as well. This shop’s ‘aim has always been to represent on [its] shelves the distinctive ethos of the Review – intelligent without being pompous; engaged without being partisan’. I have to say that of all the stores I have visited, this was my least favourite. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend it for it is great and accessible, and presents a wide and intelligent selection of books (and it’s a bookshop – I’d be incredibly surprised if I didn’t like it) it’s just that I found the other ones better. There was a handful of customers inside browsing and it was extremely silent when I walked in (kind of an uncomfortable silence to be honest). The people working there were polite, but not as friendly and enthusiastic as, for instance, in Waterstone’s, where they often make very interesting suggestions and spend some time knowing whether your experience was enjoyable or not. This might actually not be a downside for some people, but I do like to get some sort of personalisation and warmth. The bookshelves were very tall and stately, and I particularly enjoyed looking at the more historical sections. I ended up buying Amazons by John Man, which discusses the origins and stories of the famous horse-riding, sexually liberated ancient female warriors, object of a profusion of works of art and literature and influence for popular culture. There is actually quite more to the Amazons than pure myth according to archaeologists. I was very curious and couldn’t resist purchasing this book after having watched Wonder Woman, the recent blockbuster superheroine movie by Marvel featuring the beautiful Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot.
Foyles was the second book-paradise I went to, and the biggest one, located in central London, in Charing Cross Road. White and clean and with a modern layout/architecture, it covers four floors (eight levels), and I lost a couple of hours there, particularly in the Fantasy and Classics’ zones. I’m a fan of extremely imaginative works, which can typically be found in the first section, and an admirer of those stunning Penguin hardcovers that can be found in the latter. I also spent some time in the Portuguese section for I was curious to see what kind of books they had for selling (mostly bestsellers, including José Saramago). It reminded me of the Waterstones in Piccadilly, Europe’s wonderful largest bookshop (a must visit). I bought The Witchwood Crown by New York Times bestselling author Tad Williams, former singer, radio host and shoe-seller – basically the heaviest book I could find (721 pages, hardcover, very small typeface), perfectly fitting for my tiny cabine-sized suitcase.
Persephone Books, situated in Bloomsbury, was my next stop. What a lovely, welcoming and unique place. I definitely want to visit it again if I get a chance. The shop resurrects neglected fiction and non-fiction literary works, most of them written by women in the interwar period of the twentieth century. In Greek mitology, Persophone refers to the queen of the underworld, vegetation goddess associated with Spring and fertility, daughter of Zeus and harvest goddess, Demeter. The bookshop founder’s (Nicola Beauman in 1998) intention by naming the store after this mythological figure was to symbolise female creativity and new beginnings. How interesting is this?
Besides all the books’ content being so singular, the covers are also quite uncommon. They are basically all grey. Really. There’s no photographs on the covers, no big fancy titles, no bold colours, no intricate designs. The inside of the books, however, has beautiful (mostly) flowery patterns (there are matching bookmarks). I found this oddly fascinating. Apparently, not only the shop’s workers love grey and its simplicity, but they also envision a scenario in which a women gets home tired from work and picks up a book, not caring about the way it looks on the outside, but about the entertaining stories it holds, which will certainly be enriching and enjoyable.
The interior of the store was like one of my pink-princess-fairytale dreams, charmingly well-decorated, overflowing with the most delicious details and tiny ornaments. Female-empowering paintings and posters. Bowls of colourful fruits. Fancy and sweet card boxes. Book descriptions in delicate labels. Take a look:
It was in this well of temptation where I broke my 1 book per bookshop rule and bought two novels: Mariana by Monica Dickens (had to buy it because it’s my sister’s name) and The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple. I’m looking forward to reading them curled up in my bed with a nice cup of apple and cinnamon tea.
My last stop? Waterstone’s, obviously. One cannot go to the UK and not go to Waterstone’s. This time, however, I did not go to the one I always go to; I wanted to go to a different store. I went to the one in Grover Street, near Russel Square. It’s not as grand as the one in Piccadilly, but it’s still exceptional. Waterstone’s is truly a bookstore giant, but I think it manages well to balance ‘commercialness’ with a tailored ‘good feeling’ atmosphere. I bought The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016 and a new voice in the American literature. It’s the book I am currently reading, but I haven’t really formed an opinion about it yet.
There is no doubt that bookshops in England are better than the ones in Portugal in many ways (unfortunately), from organisation to marketing, from personalisation to creativity. Even book design is better there. Whilst the UK is and predictably will remain in the top 25 in the Global Ranking of Publishing Markets (Clark, G.; Phillips, A., 2014), Portugal’s revenues from books have been plummeting in the past few years, and there are no signs of future improvement (Statista, 2008-2020). There are lagging literacy rates and poor economic conditions (Anderson, P., 2016). It’s actually rare to find someone my age that enjoys reading as much as I do or has as much interest in books, and that makes me feel disappointed. I truly hope that, in the future, more people will find the hidden pleasure of such magical objects like I did.
Giles Clark and Angus Phillips, Inside Book Publishing, 5th Edition, Routledge, 2014
Kelvin Smith, The Publishing Business From p-books to e-books, AVA Publishing SA, 2012
Statista, 2014, link: https://www.statista.com/forecasts/395368/portugal-book-publishing-revenue-forecast-nace-j5811
Peter Anderson, Portugal’s Book Market: A Few Words With Patricia Seibel, Publishing Perspectives, 2016, link: https://publishingperspectives.com/2016/03/portugal-book-market-interview-patricia-seibel/