I first noted Persephone around Christmas when I was with family, having planned a day at the British Museum, they got bored within an hour and wanted to spend half the day in Argos. But the route took us down a pedestrianised street where Persephone books is situated. I wasn’t able to go in then, so it wasn’t until my “holiday” in late February that I was able to get past the front door. It was a door with an old fashioned bell attached to it, making sure that everyone inside knew that you had arrived.
Persephone is a publishing label which mostly operates by mail order; this is, to the best of my knowledge, their only store. As soon as you walk in, you get the impression this isn’t a regular bookshop. There were very few books on the shelf and they were all in the Persephone design, which is a fairly plain (some might say dull) grey cover with a single white box containing the title and the name of the author, with a small black company logo near the bottom of the cover. What is different about each one is the design inside the cover, which are all rather exuberant but charming.
The other main feature of the very small shop area was the boxes containing lots more books that weren’t on display. I couldn’t call it ramshackle, because what was displayed was very well done. It’s just that there was plenty of other things going on at the same time. For example, as I picked the volume that looked perfect for me, the phone rang and I heard one side of all too familiar conversation – that between a cold caller (NPower, if I recall correctly) and someone who couldn’t wait for the conversation to end, but who ran down a couple of dead ends before being able to end it.
I must say that the staff here were amazingly friendly and so it’s worth visiting just for their brief company. I did sketch my reasons for being there, as they handed me a catalogue, though one of the staff, while expressing delight at the prospect of visiting bookshops in your time off, thought there was such a thing as “too many books”. I had to voice my disagreement as I left there, having paid, with one more.
Book purchased: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes
- The London Review Bookshop
It took a little while, but I finally made it to one of the most highly recommended bookshops of the lot. On walking in, I was greeted to a gentle but bustiling noise of a cafe that adjoined the bookshop. I didn’t make it as far as the cafe which I slightly regret. Instead, I headed straight for the shelves which were very well stocked and laid out, with all sorts of fiction upstairs. There were some on tables in displays that reminded me of the more professional bookshops like Waterstones or Foyles. Somehow this idea was reinforced by the particularly posh accent of the shopkeeper.
Heading downstairs where they kept their poetry, plays and non-fiction, I sort of felt I was intruding. The area was not huge, but it was sort of a pit with a table in the middle and a few chairs around it. Only when I was there, there was some kind of planning meeting going on so while I edged around trying to look at books, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the rather entertaining conversation that was going on. It would be wrong to divulge the contents here as I didn’t get consent, but if anyone from the shop recongises this scenario and remember a chap in a black denim jacket trying to move around without getting in the way, then that was me.
The religion section wasn’t well stocked, which was a bit disappointing. If it had been as strong as their philosophy section, then I would have been a bit happier. However, I was drawn to the science and nature section, where these two were merged and no great subject divisions were clear. Having been confined to the city where I live (but am still none too fond of) I must admit that I was aching rather to get outside to the country where there is freedom to roam and one can breathe fresh air. Being in this cauldron of a basement only exacerbated that feeling, so I felt I had to opt for a book that encapsulated the desire to, as Freddie Mercury might put it, break free.
Book purchased: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
- The Bookseller Crow
In an effort to sample the bookshops of London, I couldn’t just stay in the centre. So it was that I headed off to Gipsy Hill, the area of south London that is host to The Bookseller Crow. It’s not easy to get to, particularly from my home in East Dulwich. I had to get a bus down to Crystal Palace (about 20-25 mins) and then walk from there (about another 20-25 mins).
While it’s not a huge effort compared to many journeys, it probably embodied the idea of pilgrimage better than any other journey I made. It is for this reason that I was so disappointed at what a let down the bookshop was. It reminded me somewhat of Dulwich Books (see interlude). The fiction was, as expected, the dominant force at play, with a fair selection of children’s books on offer. Yet the science section was paltry and what passed as “spirituality” consisted of one shelf of Neale Donald Walsh and, for reasons unfathomable, Bradshaw’s Guide.
The main redeeming feature was that it seemed to host some worthwhile events. I noticed that fairly soon they were going to have an evening with Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, which I had bought at Primrose Hill. Having puffed my lungs a bit walking up some small hills, indicative of my current lack of fitness, I thought that it would be good to try to get a book that had some sense of a journey about, particularly one on foot.
Book purchased: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit
- Church House Bookshop
After leaving the Bookseller Crow, I had a couple of disappointments (see the interlude) so I tried to make up for it by going over to Westminster and visiting what will be my new local bookshop once my office moves in a few months’ time. The Church House Bookshop is just a few yards from Westminster Abbey, in what is something of a different world from that which most people in the country live in for most of the time. As I got there, I passed tourists who were trying to get a glimpse of Big Ben and various (presumably) civil servants carrying small folders of paper around and scurrying with a Kafka-esque sense of urgency to get somewhere to do something that no one understands and which seemingly makes little difference to 99% of the population.
To step into the bookshop, then, it is to take a step back from this madness and gather some moments of peace. I had not been here before, though they did do a pop-up shop at Greenbelt [include link] which I greatly enjoyed. I was greeted with a hushed “hello” as I walked in, instantly getting the impression that this had quite a library-like atmosphere (is librarial a word? If not, it should be). With hard floors and no background noise or music, one feels as though one must tiptoe around so as to not make a sound.
It is certainly professionally laid out, with different topics clearly marked and with some nice displays on the tables. For what is ostensibly an Anglican bookshop, I was not surprised at a dirth of nonconformist writings, though I wasn’t expecting quite so much here that was pro catholic and eastern orthodox.
I had a good mosey round the place, finding all sorts of wonderful books thinking “I must read that sometime” at least twice on every shelf I passed. So it was something of a struggle to choose the one book that I thought would epitomise this place. In the end, I made a conscious decision to opt for an element of tokenism, as I’m aware that the vast majority of my books on christianity are by men. I need to try to even things up a bit. Well, that cut down my selection somewhat, but I still need further direction. Much of what I have in my “to read” pile is either testimonial in nature of historical. So it would be good to get something that spoke to the here and now, to the humdrum, to the boring people like me who just try to get on with life, living as a christian in a country whose multifaceted identity can at one moment seem to have a rich christian heritage, but in the next can seem a world apart from many an expression of faith.
Book purchased: Everyday God by Paula Gooder