I’ve had a long and passionate love affair with bookstores since I can remember. Some of my finest hours have been spent perusing shelves to unearth treasures. When travel was constant in my life, one of the first things I would do when planning a trip was to find out if there were any independent bookstores in the town I would be visiting so I could comb the shelves within them.
Bookstores – The Book
When I learned a new book had been published by Prestel titled Bookstores, I knew a review of it would make the perfect post for the blog. Photographed by Horst A. Friedrichs and written by Stuart Husband, the book is an homage to 46 independent bookstores around the globe—from New York City, San Francisco, Cologne and Vienna to London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and Lisbon. The images in this post, which are from the book, brought back the sensory experiences I enjoyed so much when visiting the four bookstores I chose: Heywood Hill in London, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, The Strand in New York City, and the Paris Bouquinistes—the stalls that dot the edge of the River Seine on the right bank from the Pont Marie to the Quai du Louvre, and on the left bank from the Quai de la Tournelle to Quai Voltaire.
The book highlights the owners of the bookstores featured in it, each chapter introduced in their own words except for the Paris Bouquinistes, which is run by a group of independent booksellers who have a collective voice in that particular chapter.
I spent the most hours canvasing the shelves at The Strand because New York City was my home town for decades. Weekends were too crowded so I always arranged business meetings around times I knew I could duck in and look for a number of books I’d scoped out online. Anyone who’s visited the store knows it is impossible to navigate on Saturdays and Sundays.
Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of The Strand, noted, “If our name is synonymous with that of New York City, I think that being in business for almost a century has something to do with it. It’s always been my family’s mission to put good books in the hands of readers.” Wyden’s grandfather founded The Strand in 1927 with $600 and his own book collection. “He slept on a cot in the basement when times got really tough,” Wyden explained. “He bought the eleven-story building we’re in now to safeguard the business.” Wyden shared her earliest memories of visiting the bookstore with her mother and brother. She quotes David Bowie, who was a regular, as having said “You always find the book you didn’t know you wanted at The Strand.” And she told readers her favorite section is the rare book room, adding that memoirs and biographies are her favorite reads.
I was hot on the trail of Nancy Mitford when I trekked to Heywood Hill in London on a literary adventure. She had worked in the bookstore and I’d seen the blue plaque when I Googled her to do my advance research. Owned by Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire, and Nicky Dunne, the small shop has an intimate feel to it that was very appealing. Dunne says of the neighborhood in which it is located, “There’s always been a slightly raffish element to Mayfair, which we’re in the heart of. George Heywood Hill, the shop’s original owner, sold automata and art alongside books, so this place was like a Wunderkammer. And it still is, socially.”
Mitford was the Duke’s aunt, and it was the original owner who gave her a job during the Second World War. “It was the beginning of the family’s connection to the shop,” Dunne explained. The Duke added, “It was reinforced by the fact that my parents bought a house two streets away, and my father would pop in here on the way to his club. Nancy was friends with Evelyn Waugh and his set…” Finishing the thought, Dunne said, “So it became a place where the literary and social worlds intersected. Mitford was gregarious and engaging, and people would come in to chat with her.” Dunne nailed it when he called the shop “a portal from external reality into our own little world.”
Shakespeare and Company
One of the trickiest bookstores to navigate because it is small and jam-packed with books is Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank of Paris. This is not the original bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach, who supported the ex-pat American writers in the years after World War I known as the Lost Generation, but it was founded as an homage to her. Currently owned by Sylvia Whitman, it was founded by her father George, who named her after the original proprietor of the shop. She said of her father he was a similar idealist as Beach: “he’d hitch-hiked and train-hopped across American during the Great Depression on what he called his ‘hobo adventure,’ and was met with the kindness of strangers everywhere.”
She added, “He called Shakespeare and Company ‘a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop.” She described when The Beats arrived in 1957, several of the group’s poets reading from their books. “Since I took over seven years ago, we’re a little more organized,” she added: “the books are now alphabetized, and we have an Instagram feed, a Twitter account, and a café, because coffee and books go so well together…” She admitted she never expected to be running her dad’s bookshop but she couldn’t imagine doing anything else now that she is. “It’s endlessly stimulating,” she added. “I can walk through the shop and take something at random off the shelves, and find myself plunging down a rabbit hole.”
There are 240 stalls that make up this collection of bookstores in miniature. The line of metal stands bolted to the limestone walls that line the river grew out of the tradition of peddlers who sold their pamphlets along the banks and bridges of the Seine during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The bookseller who contributed the commentary for this chapter of the book said, “It’s a great job because we’re really free…It’s a place of surprises and discoveries, and emotions.” The stalls may be grated UNESCO World Heritage status soon, which would help protect the outdoor vendors whose shops are painted “wagon green” for a reason—it’s a rule that they match the old railway stock original to the time the first stalls came to be.
During my first trip to Paris, purchasing a book from one of the booksellers was on my list. I had heard there were plenty of offerings in English and it was true. I bought a battered paperback copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which felt like the perfect homage to those who had come before me, just as eager to plunge into Paris’ literary scene as I was.
Bookstores for Book Lovers
If you’re an avid reader, Bookstores is the perfect coffee table book for your collection. At 256 pages, it’s filled with soulful photography and stories of those who help to keep the independent bookstore industry alive. It was just released last month so you’ll be adding a wonderful first edition to your library. On the Prestel Publishing website, you’ll find links to the places the book can be purchased in the UK. I have added it to my travel category on my Bookshop.org profile, where you can buy it for $41.40. All books purchased from the platform support independent bookstores around the country.
Bookstores © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns. The author received a review copy of this book from the publisher but her comments were in no way swayed by this fact and are authentically true.