On books and booksellers

18 BookshopsA kind friend bought me a wonderful early Christmas present: Anne Scott’s book 18 Bookshops. As the wind howled and the rain beat down, I curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea and immersed myself in a kinder, more congenial world.

Scott’s 18 bookshops are not simply purveyors of literature, but snapshots of history. London and Edinburgh feature strongly, those twin centres of literature from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The long-lost book sellers of old St Paul’s Cathedral have long intrigued me, so I was thrilled with a portrait of The Parrot, St Paul’s Churchyard, 1602. There you might find drama and poetry by Shakespeare and Marlowe, hot off the newly-invented presses, Niccolo Machiavelli’s scandalous political tract The Prince, the first Authorised Version of The King James Bible in 1611. The proprietor William Aspley was the first to sell Shakespeare’s sonnets – imagine the crowds fighting to read, for the very first time, Sonnet 18. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

A hundred year’s earlier, Edinburgh established its own first printing press, at Chepman and Millar’s Canongate workshop. An earlier Scottish king was behind it, at a time when there was urgency in establishing the national form of worship. Mass books and breviaries rolled off the press and into the shop, along with Scottish poetry, the fore-runners of Walter Scott and Burns, forging a national identity in letters.

Skip forward a few centuries, and back down south Thomas Davies was establishing his bookshop in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Davies, a former actor (and a very successful one too) attracted the cream of literary and theatrical London to his shop. It was there that he introduced Samuel Johnson to his devoted follower and biographer, James Boswell, uniting London and Scotland in one act of literary benevolence.

The description of Davies’ shop, with its back room for conversation, seems to me to capture the soul of a successful bookshop. To introduce two congenial minds – the reader and the writer – is a delicate skill. Choosing a book for a friend requires knowledge both of the friend and of the infinite possibilities of books. Helping a stranger choose a book requires quick powers of observation, matched with the deep wisdom that comes from wide reading.

We can’t do without our bookshops. This Christmas alone, Sheila at Dulwich Books helped me find books for Dad, two friends, two young relatives and a three-year-old. Village Books filled a last-minute gap when I realised I’d bought someone the same book a year ago (!) and provided me with some reassuring holiday reading, just in case no-one buys me any of the books on my list. And I’ve just remembered the two vintage books I found at Besley’s Books in Beccles, Suffolk, which have been hiding under piles of jumpers since the summer, waiting for Christmas.

A merry Christmas to everyone, and may all your stockings be bursting with books tomorrow.

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