Extract: more than a bookshop

In Venice, I felt that one of the worlds we call a world was coming to an end. It was the beginning of December and high tide was daily transforming the Piazza San Marco into a pond. It was an opportune moment to pay a visit to Acqua Alta, the place
owner Luigi Frizzo has transformed into one of the world’s most photogenic bookshops, with a long gondola stuffed with second-hand volumes in the middle of the central aisle...and a side room that floods several times a year.

Acqua Alta is not just a bookshop. It is a postcard shop; it is a community of cats; it is a store with boats and baths full of magazines and books; it is a place where you can converse with friendly Venetians who come daily to meet tourists; in the end, above all, it is a tourist attraction. A notice on the door welcomes you in English to the “most beautiful bookshop in the world”. When you leave, your memory full of photos, you purchase a bookmark, a calendar, a postcard, at most a history of the city or a collection of travel pieces written by distinguished visitors. That is how you pay for your entrance to the museum.

Many beautiful “traditional” bookshops have not joined the tourist circuit or have managed to ignore its siren song. London’s John Sandoe Books, for example, has everything an amateur photographer could desire: its façade unites three 18th-century buildings in a single picturesque image, with dark wood-framed windows that reflect the cloud, and inside, on three floors, 30,000 volumes are piled on tables or placed on movable shelves.

Stairs up and down connect the poetry or children’s basement with the other rooms, full of ideal corners to be captured by your camera’s megapixels. But this gorgeous body has a soul, as I realised when I was about to leave, having leafed through several books without plumping for any. I asked at the till if they had anything on the shop’s history. Then Johnny de Falbe—who, I later read, has been working there since 1986 and is also a novelist—began to perform magic. He first regaled me with a delightful little book, The Sandoe Bag, a miscellany to celebrate 50 years.

While I was glancing through that, a pamphlet on display behind his back caught my eye: “The Protocols of Used Bookstores” by David Mason, which I bought for £5. We talked about the author, a Canadian bookseller, and suddenly de Falbe disappeared (as any self-respecting magician must at some stage), only to reappear with The Pope’s Bookbinder, Mason’s memoirs, imported from Ontario.

Before becoming one of North America’s great booksellers, Mason lived in the Beat Hotel, with Burroughs typing furiously in the next-room door, and sought refuge more than once in Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Company. On his return to Canada, he could feel his vocation as a bookseller germinating deep down. I willingly bought this book that I didn’t know I wanted for £25. On the other hand, I left Acqua Alta without buying a thing.

The above is an edited extract from Bookshops by Jorge Carrion, translated by Peter Bush and published by MacLehose Press on 6th October, priced £16.99.