29 November 2009

The Big Little Bookshop

I must confess. I like the idea of a big climate-controlled bookstore with its tantalising coffees and wafting smell of brownies. But I hate who I turn into when I enter one. Somehow, the big bad bookstore (and now I know I sound like Meg Ryan from 'You've got mail') takes you towards the idea of purchase rather than the idea of reading. Sure they have comfy armchairs where presumably you can sink in and read. But do you actually read? Do you rather flip the pages and hope you look intellectual enough or do you sit there reading a magazine while you wait for a mate to turn up so you can head towards the cafe section? Be honest.

Returning to the idea of the small bookshop, it is telling indeed that they have survived. It's indicative of the way the global economy has gone belly-up, hasn't it? Borders has gone into receivership and please do allow me a sadistic smile here (they sucked at the book business) and Amazon is like a prostitute- you check in, you click, you do the deed and button down and exit immediately- so that leaves us with what? Us refers to real book lovers, real readers and real connoisseurs of the fine but slightly lost art of real reading. I mean, the real smell of old leather bindings, the climactic crackle of a virginal book spine, the soft, sexy rustle of a thumb turning a page, the rhythmic tapping of a nail against a hardcover while pondering the meaning of the title, the real satisfaction of peeling away money in the pursuit of real knowledge. I mean that kind of real. Not the kind that buys the latest Salman Rushdie because one ought to or the latest A.S. Byatt because 'Good lord she's won something and I need to have a glance at it' or worse, the type that trawls through best-seller lists and then decides where to slap down twenty-five quid.

When I read stories of the small bookshop making a reappearance, whether in Bombay, London or Madrid or even Tehran, I feel a warm, molten, chocolatey feeling inside. As I see people hunched in tiny spaces between bookshelves, really reading, smiling a little to themselves, I feel relieved. We are not extinct!! Huzzah!

Lutyens and Rubenstein, a new little gem in Notting Hill. Simply Shakespeare, an almost undiscovered little shop in Calcutta. This is where you find real books, creatively displayed with minimal fuss but maximum impact. Most likely here you will also find an owner or manager who doesn't blink stupidly when you ask if he has the unedited version of Wasteland or C.S. Lewis' non-fiction work. He or she will wisely not only guide you to the correct shelf but will also recommend companion books or ask if you agree with the premise of the work, thereby generating a stimulating discussion and your quota of intellectual exercise for the day.

No, I do not mourn the demise of ugly superstores. I am Meg Ryan with my cause for the little bookshop around the corner except that I won't end up marrying the idiot who owns the big bookstore just because he's cute.

I doff my hat to the people who have the unmitigated courage to open a little bookshop in this troubled climate and do not pander by selling accompanying cartoon stickers of Spiderman as an incentive for children to read. I salute the parent who drags his child into the less glamorous arena of the little bookshop and trusts that the Mad Hatter's Tea Party will be sufficient to intrigue his child. And I definitely salute every writer who chooses to read at a small, real bookshop where the listening audience asks intelligent questions because they've actually read the book they're holding.