There is a scene in the film Double Life of Veronique where Veronique (Irene Jacob) finds out, from a friend, that her ‘love interest’ is a famous writer of children stories. While driving home through the deserted late night streets of a rainy Paris, she stops her car outside a bookshop to peruse the window display for his books. This innocuous 30 second scene is one of my desert island cinematic moments. The director has captured in magical detail the mystical joy of looking into closed bookshops in the still of the night. The warm faint glow of secondary lighting illuminating the shelves of knowledge and opinion, and the cold reflection of ourselves in the glass looking into this warm world of ideas is weighted in a sense of the mystic. This scene is strangely personal, it takes me back to my youth when I began to realise that reading was not just something you did to gain knowledge, it was a profound devotional act, a reaching to the mystical beyond. As a teenager, gazing into my local bookshop on cold windswept winter evenings became a sacred act. It gave me a rarefied feeling that I was standing on the threshold of revelation.
In my hometown in the west of England in the mid 1970s a quiet process of change took place. The change was demographic. In the early to mid seventies the young middle classes started to flee from the urban areas to settle in the rural parts of the British Isles. The small market town I grew up in is situated about 100 miles west of London and is served by a direct rail connection to the capital. This, combined with the natural beauty of the rolling hills and valleys that surround the town, secured that my hometown was a popular destination for the ‘hippie wayfarers’ from the big cities. These new habitants, in search of the good life, didn’t waste any time in establishing themselves. Art and poetry workshops blossomed , the letters page of the weekly newspaper became radicalised and politicised and less parochial, a strange communal cafe opened in the town centre, and a second hand bookshop appeared almost overnight at the top of the High Street. Some of the locals initially huffed and puffed, over time though, their reservations faded into just a whimper.
Of all these new enterprises that came to our town, it was the bookshop that appealed to my sensitivities. Throughout my youth the shop became a constant source of fascination and discovery. The proprietor was an anomaly. He sported a raging unkempt beard and long hair but spoke with a soft serene Home Counties accent. His feral presence around town brought stares of derision from the locals. However, his books belied his scruffy appearance; all of his paperbacks were pristine, tight and clean and his hardbacks were lovingly protected. The small shop was at bursting point with stock, yet there was clarity. There were no books stacked on the floor. Every book was meticulously categorised, alphabetised and shelved. His adaptation of the limited space was like a miracle to me. He crafted shelving that ascended from the floor all the way to the high ceiling and provided built in steps on rollers for access to the books on the upper shelves (yes these were those halcyon days before the bureaucrats turned common sense into health and safety). His stock selection was almost tyrannical but bore the qualities of self preservation – he stocked what he considered good sellable books, the classics and he specialised in Cinema and Architecture. His knowledge of his stock was legendary and sincere. When you entered the shop you were greeted by the sounds of European jazz playing on the hi-fi underneath his desk. It gave a great ambience for browsing and undercut any tension that might occur if you were the only potential customer in the shop. It felt great to be in his shop surrounded by books. The overwhelming sense I got when I was in his shop was the sweet smell of love’s labour; the books emanated the fruits of affection.
In the mid 1970s, I was an emotionally confused adolescent, who was being brought up by a single Irish father. The only time I saw my father reading was at the breakfast table every morning, studying the form of the horses in the newspaper. I lived in a home of few books. The Bible lay stoically unread in the sideboard, vaguely I remember some tatty editions of Agatha Christie and a very sombre biography of Éamon de Valera ignored in the bedroom cupboard, other than that my home was like something out of Fahrenheit 451. With the arrival of the new bookshop, I was about to embark on a journey that addressed this problem.
Fortunately, my father proved quite successful at ‘reading the form’ and gave me enough money to feed my developing bibliophilic tendencies. Being an independent well funded literary orphan I relied thankfully on my instincts – connecting influences and references from favourite authors, magazine articles, and recommendations from trusted friends all helped to continue my progression on literature’s great road of discovery. The aesthetical sensibilities of the bookshop owner also brought about new directions in my reading habits. Many times in my youth I would find myself dreamily gazing into his bookshop, in possession of a sense of wonder at the treasures that possible lay inside the covers of the books. Many times I was steered to books because a connection was made in one of his ‘themed’ window displays.
I remember an autumnal display where books, with the help of fishing wire, appeared to descend from the sky along with the crisp fresh falling leaves. The theme was books best appreciated in autumn. The book that caught my eye was half hidden amongst the fallen foliage; it caught my eye because of the lack of illustration on the simple minimalist cover. This small volume was J D Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. The glossy silver cover glistened and winked at me like a pearl as it lounged on its murky bed of dead leaves. I have to admit that I knew nothing about Salinger at the time, but my interest in the book was solely motivated by the austerity of the cover design. How can a book that looks so serious fail? I reasoned. The next day, after school, I returned to the shop to buy the book.
Like most young readers, Salinger didn’t fail me, he widened my horizons. After Salinger, Rilke needed to be read, and, for some reason that is beyond me now, so did Boris Pasternak. Rilke gave me an exotic sense of the ‘other’, and Pasternak simply revealed his lineage, preparing my sensibilities, over the decades, in the direction of my lifetime literary obsessions – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. To a young man discovering new horizons, it isn’t about destinations; it is about the journey. The new bookshop that came to my town guided me along the way, and became a standard-bearer that lay foundations for my love of books.x
There is an intimacy in the coming together that stays with us. When I recount how, in those early days, the bookshop was like a vessel that carried me down literature’s great road, I am reminded how the subtlety in the experience of place and interaction can intoxicate the senses and guide us into the unknown. Today a young bookman, starting out on his journey, has that sophisticated search engine of Amazon to navigate him down the long road. Its conception is a masterstroke of our times. However, it is just statistics – Customers who brought this item also brought…… If you click in Franny and Zooey you will be recommended, by fellow customers buying habits, a diverse choice of very good writers from Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac to Haruki Murakami. Alas, surprisingly, no Rilke or Pasternak. The mystical tapestry of discovery has been diminished by the mathematics of commerce. It is a democratic but sterile new world. Seemingly there are few mistakes; it is all neatly mapped out for you by the click of a button. This is perfect for buying concert tickets or purchasing foreign currency. However, its flaws are prevalent when it concerns itself with the mystery of our minds. We have lost something when we expect convenience in all things.
[editor’s note: This is the first post by our new contributor William Hammond and in my opinion it is one of the finest articles we have published to date. I very much look forward to Mr. Hammond’s future contributions and hope that you will take a moment to comment]