Friday, February 27, 2009

A Bookseller's Tour of London

What does a bookseller do in London?

Well, after the obvious, such as trying a steak and mushroom pie at the Guinea Grill (what was I thinking? I prefer vegetarian!), a bookseller goes on the hunt for a great bookstore.

The first day I ventured up Charing Cross Road and found several
bookstores, from Borders to Waterstone's to the independent Foyle's, and although I was fascinated by the different titles on the shelves in England (and different covers!), I was a little underwhelmed. Where was that classic British bookstore that lives and breathes history and culture and literary passion? Where was that UK title I've been unable to get in the States? Luckily, I had dinner that night with an American who lived in London, so I asked her. She grabbed my notepad and wrote down Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street.

Daunt Books is undoubtedly the prettiest bookstore I've ever seen. Not to put down our own little bookstore in Glen Ellyn, but really. I felt like I had conjured this bookstore right out of my imagination and onto the street in front of me. It was welcoming, with its doors wide open in the middle of a London winter -- which admittedly is no match for a Chicago winter, but still! Inside there were shelves and shelves of highly varnished dark oak, and natural light filtered down through ancient skylights. My favorite section: not cooking but "cookery." Say that with a Monty Python accent and try not to giggle.

At first I didn't even notice, but then it sank in. There weren't any flashy marketing posters or Oprah Book Club displays. There weren't even any shelf-talkers or handwritten staff pick notecards. Okay, I did find a title with a sticker from the UK Richard and Judy Book Club (Netherland by Joseph O'Neill -- great choice in case you're wondering), but when I asked at the desk, they didn't even have a list of the Richard and Judy selections. Nobody interrupted my bookstore pleasure with pushy suggestions or one of those looks that says "buy something already!" And sure enough, I was able to find a copy of Chris Cleave's Incendiary, which I couldn't seem to find anywhere else. But it was the searching and the browsing that made it feel like I'd nabbed a trophy.

That's when I realized that given the right environment, books will sell themselves. Make your store inviting, welcoming and warm, and people will come. People love to browse, because there is something about the search for a good book that is part of the pleasure of reading. We might be searching for enlightenment or education or maybe even escape, but we are really just searching for enjoyment. The pleasure is in the quest. Throw in a little conversation about books with the staff, and it's better than an hour at a pub. Definitely better than steak and kidney pie.

I'm more convinced than ever that independent bookstores shouldn't fear the Kindle. A Kindle can't open its door on a cold winter day and warm your heart better than a pint of lager. Cheers!

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