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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Chance Encounters

You don’t buy books at the old bookstores of London,instead you find The Book and it finds you

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | New Delhi | Published: March 10, 2013 1:35:33 am

You walk into a bookstore. You find the book you’ve always been searching for. Or the Book finds you,the one which will tell you everything. Or amidst the shelves,you meet the redheaded girl. “You will find the Book,you will meet the Girl” these are the promises.


“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime,or even 600,it’s probably because at some level you find ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment” declaims critic Joe Queenan. Perhaps. I eschew the usual tourist traps and set out to explore the bookstores of London. Once the capital of the world,it is riven with a sediment of words.

As the empire extended outward,borne on rail,powered by steam,there was also a vast inflow of information,a river of paper emptying into the seas of the city’s libraries. A body of knowledge,sinewed with reports from far-flung explorers,administrators and soldiers. The British Library with its 150 million items spread over 600 km of shelves is only the most prominent manifestation of this paper imperium. The Library brings to mind the quote by Borges,“Man,the imperfect librarian,may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe,with its elegant endowment of shelves,of enigmatical volumes,of inexhaustible stairways for the traveller,can only be the work of a god.”

However,I’m interested in cheap paperbacks,not colonial reports. The first stop is Ripping Yarns,on Archway road in the north. Beyond are the vast expanses of the Highgate necropolis,now dusted with snow. Inside,the warm glow from naked bulbs envelopes you like a glove.

Pulp sci-fi is crammed together with 19th century moral tracts. A foliage of notices cover the shelves. One explains the “old book” smell so beloved of bibliophiles. The boffins hold that it is “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness”.

The manager espying the feverish look in my eye common to all book hounds hands me a huge fold-out map called the London Bookshop Map. I pore over this cartography of independent and idiosyncratic collections. I recognise some old friends: there is Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross road — much beloved when I was a student,for its one pound paperback section.  

Word on the Water catches my eye. It is a book-barge traversing the canals. Of no fixed address,you have to check its Twitter account for the current location,which is Camden Lock. I walk on the towpath and soon spot the barge. The gangway is slippery with ice and I do a vaudeville routine on it before the genial owner pulls me in. He is Paddy Screech,who shows me around. Schubert wafts across the water. A wood-burning stove spreads its flickering warmth. There is mulled wine that “warms the cockles” as Captain Haddock would say. Paddy explains the mix includes orange juice,cinnamon,nutmeg and “my secret ingredient”.

I sink into a couch and observe the river through the porthole. Books cover every conceivable surface. Two large cats share the couch,warming themselves by the fire. One is asleep. The other cat gravely contemplates The Collected Speeches of Tony Benn as if judging its suitability for a bedside read. Paddy introduces them as Skitty and Queenie. Both have fallen into the water at least a couple of times,a “learning experience” as Screech puts it.

Screech explains the book barge’s lineage,“It was a Dutch coal hauler built sometime in the 1920s”. The barge later travelled from Holland to its present habitat on the Thames. I picture a heroic journey upon untamed seas,the Captain ordering books to be thrown overboard in the wrack of the storm,the crew arguing on what to keep and what to bail. Dousing my musings,he says,“It came by lorry,the hull is only 3 mm thick.”

In the age of Kindle and e-shopping,is it not a Quixotic venture? “We live in strange times,where old things and trusty things are attractive again,” says Screech. Where did he get the idea? “It all began in India” he says with a twinkle in his eye,“I spent nine months on a houseboat on Dal lake”. That experience inspired him to quit his government job.

The map continues to unburden itself of various treasures. Jarndyce,my next destination,comes complete with oak panelling,a fireplace and a ghost. A spectral Scotsman in a kilt reading a book has been spotted in the basement over the centuries. Jarndyce also keeps a list of bizarre book titles. Highlights include How to Abandon Ship,The Romance of Leprosy,Trees to know in Oregon and Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. Then comes Skoob,beneath the concrete ziggurats of The Brunswick shopping complex. Amidst the industrial decor and brightly lit corridors is a frayed notice: “For the witch has the key to the castle/ With the lion skin nailed to the door/And a garden is locked in the winter/Of a heart that beats under the floor”. A poem autographed by the poet Robert Alcock and appropriately dense with literary references.

There is little time to visit Lutyens & Rubinstein,which offers a wide range of bespoke services. I would have liked to meet their tame “Book Elf” who recommends books after a personal interview.

The map shows a dense clustering around Cecil Court,a narrow street in Covent Garden. This relict of the Victorian age has a storied history. Mozart was a tenant,TS Eliot lived here; the street also inspired JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley. The Foyle’s chain of bookstores started here when the Foyle brothers flunked their civil service exams and decided to sell their textbooks.

Later,I carefully inscribe my purchases. Lots of sci-fi and horror paperbacks,a hard-to-find graphic novel by Charles Burns called El Borbah. I write the location and date of purchase on every book’s flyleaf. My shelves are now archaeological strata,a map of journeys both temporal and in the imagination. Each book offers an association,a link in a comforting chain of memory. I can never gloat on a treasured collection of short stories by the obscure Czech writer Josef Nesvadba without remembering the basement of a Charing Cross store where it lay for over 30 years before I found it. Every library is a snapshot of its owners’ mind.

One could easily duplicate my acquisitions with a few minutes on the Net. That is missing the point,as I did not start out looking for them. Adding items to your Shopping Cart,however convenient,has never inspired anyone. Books and bookshops on the other hand have always been a natural purlieus of writers from Italo Calvino to Orhan Pamuk.

In the end,all bibliophiles can only hope for the benediction that was granted to the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. He once wrote,“Books are attracted to me. I have been so fond of them that at last they have begun to reciprocate. In my hands books burst like ripe fruit. Like magic flowers they unfold their petals to show me the vital thought,the suggestive word,the confirming quotation,the decisive illustration.”

Jaideep is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad

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